Our Devilish Natures

Few contemporary scholars are offering up work that is as interdisciplinary, informative, and entertaining as that of W. Scott Poole. His work brilliantly blends American religious, pop culture, and political histories and is, ultimately, indispensable for an accurate study of any of these fields. I am a huge fan of his latest book, Monsters in America and, upon completing it, quickly sought out his earlier work, Satan in America: The Devil We Know. Once again, he reveals that we have nothing to fear but, well, ourselves.

While Poole claims that Satan in America isn’t an exhaustive study of the role of Satan in American history, it’s damn close. Poole writes, “To paraphrase the old formulation, one must suspend both belief and disbelief in order to describe and analyze. […] The refusal to ask hard questions about the nature of evil has been evident at every phase of the American experience” (215). Throughout his book, Poole does a fantastic job of both suspending belief and disbelief and asking the tough questions about the role of Satan and evil in American history. As I mentioned above, Poole mines American religion, political history, and popular culture and their intersections with one another to find the ways in which Satan has influenced all three and how they, in turn, have shaped public perceptions of the dark lord. The results are fascinating…and deeply troubling.

Make no mistake about it, Satan, according to Poole, exists. However, it is not the supernatural, sentient, horned being that tempts us perched on one of our shoulders opposite an angel. Rather, Satan is a myth that might have had its origin in religion but has been so warped by popular culture and American political history that it has morphed from decade to decade to fit the cultural anxieties of the powerful. Poole writes, “The devil has been as much a powerful metaphor for cultural hatreds and anxieties as an expression of belief in the supernatural” (59). Satan’s victims have often been people on the margins of society (women and minorities) and America’s foreign enemies. Poole argues that this view of the devil blinds us to the reality of our own evil behavior. The irony is that by demonizing the other, we often enact demonic responses in order to deal with (exorcise/defeat) those demons. In the end, Poole brilliantly reveals the hold that Satan has on us, a hold that we freely give “him” that prevents us from making cultural, religious/theological, and political progress. Poole’s books is a must-read for anyone interested in film history, American politics, or the history of American religion. Read on for a brief summary and a few highlights.

Poole breaks his book down into several time periods and themes from American history: colonial and revolutionary eras, American revivalism, the time leading up to WWI, developments in 20th century American theology, 20th century American popular culture, the culture wars in the latter half of the 20th century, American imperial efforts of the 20th century. He concludes with an epilogue that reflects on the problems of employing Satan throughout these times and places as well as a bibliographic essay that provides information on the sources he consulted as well as pointed suggestions for further reading.

A common trope throughout each period is the desire of Americans to preserve a sense of innocence while disregarding the extremely evil and corrupt practices in which it engaged itself to preserve this innocence. Throughout history, Poole shows that there have been theological and “popular” religious voices that attempted to provide alternative views of Satan and evil, but they were often silenced by more destructive perspectives. His brief examination of Mark Twain’s writings on Satan and American economic history sheds (for me at least) new light on the author’s work and the economic and political context in which he wrote. Poole adds, “Twain found a fertile metaphor in Satan. He was an ironic voice critiquing American religion; the temptation for an America increasingly turning toward inhumane values; and, in some sense, America itself, expressed as pure power driving the technological advance of the industrial age” (83).

Views of Satan well over 100 years old are still with us. In his discussion of the devil and American revivalism, Poole quotes a piece of dialogue from Caleb Jarvis Taylor’s religious tract, News from the Infernal Regions, first published in 1803. In it, the narrator finds himself in the devil’s headquarters on Earth. He overhears a conversation between Satan and his minions in which the dark prince tells them, “‘They have taken away many of my subjects and still continue to depopulate my kingdom, but I am determined to dispute the ground inch by inch with them'” (44). This view of spiritual warfare still animates the theological worldview of many Christians, especially conservative evangelicals. For example, in behind-the-scenes featurettes of Sherwood Pictures‘ films, Alex Kendrick often talks about taking ground back from the Evil One and his secular advances in American culture. Spiritual and cultural warfare blend into one. Poole also points out a scene from the 2006 documentary, Jesus Camp, in which Christians see the devil at work in the most minor technical mishaps. Poole adds, “This Dark Lord who can both corrupt an entire culture and take time out to interfere with a PowerPoint presentation can be defeated by Christians at prayer and the proclamation of the gospel” (45). On a more disturbing level, today, as over 100 years ago, many Christians’ concern with the salvation of the individual soul privileges this over moral reform, leading to a problematic relationship with social injustice. Poole writes, “Evangelicalism had learned to accommodate social injustice in the United States; Satan’s influence was primarily felt in the soul struggling with conversion rather than with the realities of oppression” (48).

Poole’s audience cannot accuse him of piling up on the conservatives as he also highlights the problems inherent in liberal approaches to Satan that have often been reductionist. He writes, “[The profoundly optimistic] idea that the human mind had somehow exorcised belief in the devil and his works, had no basis in the social and religious reality of the times. Moreover, the tendency on the part of Protestant liberals to see in the devil a metaphor of human psychological maladjustments showed, in some cases, a refusal to confront the realities of structural evil in human society, the potential for violence inherent in the state or embodied in the corporation” (99). On the other hand, more progressive theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, Rudolph Bultmann, and Paul Tillich offered more complex views of evil but were shouted down by conservatives.

Poole’s analysis of the influential relationship between film and religion is of utmost importance. Poole recognizes that what we see on the screen shapes how we listen to sermons from the pulpit. He writes:

The young Southern Baptist, for example, might slip away into town on a Saturday afternoon and watch guiltily in the dark Tod Browning‘s Mephistophelean images of Dracula as seducer of innocence, a force both beautiful and brutal. This imagery would remain in his mind on Sunday morning when his minister preached a sermon on Satan’s wiles, the glamour of evil, and the need for the believer to engage in spiritual combat with the Enemy. (127-128)

Of Rosemary’s Baby, Poole writes, “[It] proved an enormous commercial success perhaps because of its ability to render cultural anxieties in the context of a demon-haunted modern America” (162). Later, he adds, “[Roman] Polanski‘s vision of the meaning of Satan worship in modern America ironically borrowed much of the imagery from the American right, especially its fears of conspiracy, and used them to subvert conservative values. The film asserts the reality of a broad cultural conspiracy but portrays it as a conspiracy by traditional elites seeking to control sexuality and the female body” (165). Finally, Poole shows how perhaps one of the most famous horror films of all time, The Exorcist, both influenced and drew from popular notions of evil and the devil (165).

Perhaps the most dangerous use of Satan, devil, and evil imagery involves recent American foreign policy, particularly former President Bush’s understanding of the American presence in the Middle East. Shaped by the writing of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and others, popular ideas about premillennialism, the Rapture, and the Apocalypse have colored many evangelical Christians’ views of world events. Unfortunately, so has ignorance. Poole writes, “A profound biblical illiteracy made Lindsey’s use of scripture in tandem with current events seem all the more compelling. Folk beliefs about the devil, nourished at all levels of popular culture, furthered the acceptance of Lindsey’s conception of Armageddon” (190). The go-to book for these Christians, of course, is Revelation. However, Poole provides a stinging critique of many Christians’ understanding of it that is worth quoting at length. Poole writes:

Recent writing by biblical scholars has noted the profound irony that the New Testament language of ‘the Beast’ first emerged as a symbol of the godless imperial society, the Roman Empire that persecuted the minority Christian faith. […] Transposing contemporary evangelical assumptions about the apocalypse to the first century would have created a very different reading of politics and society. Indeed, if the politics of the Christian Right had been operative in 90 CE, John the Revelator would not have been challenging the presumptions of godless empire but instead writing symbolically about the need for Emperor Nero to extend his geopolitical influence, crush the heathen barbarians, and call all Roman citizens to a renewed commitment to imperial power in a war without mercy and a war without end. (209)

After reading Poole’s book and observing contemporary public discourse on everything from foreign policy to gay marriage, it is clear that we have not learned our lessons. We continue to demonize and exorcise. For those wandering how we got here, especially in order to find a way out of this demonic malaise, Poole’s book is the perfect place to start.