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The Politics of Evil in the US Elections

I could only shake my head in bewilderment, as I listened to the interviews Rick Warren, a Baptist pastor, conducted with Barack Obama and John McCain, the US presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.

Most absurd during the two-hour special were the exchanges about “evil”.

When asked how they would deal with evil if they were elected president – would they ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it – Obama said he would “confront it” while McCain said unflinchingly that he would “defeat it”.

After this “civil forum” was broadcast on CNN, the network’s so-called “best team on television” commented on the candidates’ performance.

This only managed to add insult to injury.

One pundit commended McCain’s steadfastness and courage in wanting to defeat, not merely confront, evil if elected president.

For the Republican contender evil is embodied in communism, Islamic fundamentalism and notably Osama Bin Laden, who he promised to hunt down.

Obama was also praised for acknowledging the existence of evil. He thought it present in Darfur but also on the streets of the US as well as in homes where parents abuse their children, and so on.

Evil is the enemy

The last time I checked, there was no legal or strategic interpretation of evil. An open-ended war on evil leads to Armageddon.

It makes absolutely no sense for a future leader of a superpower to speak of dealing with “evil” as commander-in-chief unless this term is used as populist propaganda during election season.

The threat of evil necessitates some sort of definition, otherwise, how can any president evaluate evil and apply the necessary measures to “confront it” or “defeat it”?

Sectarian and tribal wars in Africa and Asia, like religious fundamentalism, are modern phenomena that need to be rationalised first and foremost within our modern world.

In order to be defused or prevented altogether, such conflicts must not be defined or determined by the universal fight between good and evil.

The same applies to street gangs and abusive parents; they require rational explanation and social analyses in order to deter them or best prevent them form carrying out their actions.

In all such cases of violence, there is an urgent need for education, justice, fairness and the rule of law as well as a moral compass, not some religious crusade, to guide us.

But the US media was more than happy to report how the Democratic and Republican candidates were speaking of confronting and defeating evil.

In doing this, US media has pandered to the religious majority in the country.

Religiosity in the US

According to a Pew June 2008 study, 92 per cent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, and nearly 80 per cent think miracles occur.

Most Americans believe that angels and demons are active in the world, and one in five Christians speaks or prays in tongues – ecstatic worship or prayer using unintelligible speech.

But while the US has traditionally been religious, it has also been traditionally tolerant.

Since the 1960s, evangelical churches have become politically proactive as faith-based organisations went on to exercise increasing influence over politics in the US and especially within the Republican party.

In recent years, the less strident and more mainstream Christian and evangelical churches like Warren’s Saddleback where the two candidates were interviewed, became more active then the southern right-wing churches represented by the likes of Pat Robertson.

The fact that McCain and Obama’s first joint appearance (not debate) was coordinated and hosted by an influential religious preacher speaks volumes about the influence of organised religion on politics in the US.

Politics in a bubble

Such theological/political journalism is unthinkable anywhere in Europe or in so-called democracies around the world. Calling one’s enemy or their ideology or religion evil is the language normally used by such groups as al-Qaeda, not constitutional democracies.

If religious interviews were done with such fanfare and influence in a Muslim country, democratic or otherwise, western and especially US media would have made mockery of such an imposition of religious fundamentalism on political process.

For most outsiders, the US is in denial over its own “evil doing” around the world. Obama and McCain could see evil in Darfur but would not admit that the invasion and occupation of Iraq on false premises or for oil is no less an evil act.

To his credit, Obama broke out of the delusional discourse of the US as the-city-on-a-hill to underline the need for humility when confronting evil so that the US does not perpetrate its own evils.

But for some people around the world, it may be a bit late for that.

Alas.

MARWAN BISHARA is Al Jazeera’s Senior Political Analyst.

 

 

 

 

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