Monday, January 07, 2008

Devil of a Time, full text

Perhaps the best sign that Satan is hard at work is that over the holidays most of the British tabloids carried the story that the Vatican was setting up exorcism squads in each see to counter a global upsurge in Satanism. Clearly it was diabolical journalism since none of them checked with the actual Vatican press office, which, if not infallible, is presumably reliable and discounted the claims of the 82-year-old exorcist in chief which all the newspapers reported, seemingly based on faith alone.

But even if the Pope is not setting up anti-Satan squads just yet, he has declared his belief in the existence of the evil entity, and since the holy father is infallible, we must assume that Tony Blair's recent declaration of allegiance to Roman Catholicism means that he also thinks that Lucifer stalks the globe - and probably also that he was spotted recently in Baghdad, sporting a big moustache not far from the original Garden of Eden. Last we heard though, neither the church's catechism nor the Anglicans' 39 articles had WMDs in Iraq as an article of faith.

Christian theology borrowed the concept of the evil one from the Persians, who at least thought it was a fair fight between light and dark but the church fathers had to reconcile this inheritance with an omnipotent deity - and used Satan to square the circle of why a good God would allow suffering on such a scale.

But Satan's role has always been confusing. For example, no one has ever satisfactorily explained why Satan should fall in with God's vindictive plans on the eternal hellfire-for-sinners front. Why should he cooperate with a vindictive scheme to frighten humanity into doing his rival's bidding? If he is a real rebel, and he is supposed to be diabolically cunning, Satan should surely let the good times roll for those who followed his bidding, and leave po-faced eternity to the pious.

When writing Paradise Lost, for example, John Milton was clearly rather taken with the rebellious Satan, and did a rather better job of explaining his insurgent manifesto than he did of "explaining the works of God to man".

But if we see Satan as the trickster, armed with a wicked sense of humour, the 21st century almost makes sense. Who else could persuade so many of the leading American presidential candidates to get their fingers on the nuclear button to believe so many impossible things before the primaries?

Evangelical Mike Huckabee thinks the world began 6,000 years ago, while Mormon Mitt Romney believes that tribes of Israelites were battling it out with Indians in North America and that the record of this event was discovered in upstate New York by someone who could translate it with the aid of a seer stone but sadly forgot where he filed the original.

It makes Ron Paul's eccentric views on taxation, slavery and the role of government seem quite sane by comparison. But while commentators feel free to criticise Paul's off-the-wall ideas, and in so far as they notice, Dennis Kucinich's brush with aliens, it is somehow forbidden to question a candidate's theological faith.

Yet while mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani professed a belligerently tribal Catholicism even as he blithely divorced his wife at a press conference with neither the act nor the venue being close to what the Cardinal ordered.

This omerta about personal "faith", unless it is one eccentric cultist calling hellfire on another, is puzzling, since all the leading candidates profess some religious affiliation, so we can conclude either that they all believe some variant of the official Christian dogma, or that they are in fact closet agnostics whose religious adherence is a politically expedient membership in some sort of do-gooding deist equivalent of a Rotary club.

Satan has to be laughing in his eternally hedonistic hell if the competition for the power to launch the apocalypse is between the bonkers and the banal. If the candidates' faith means anything at all, then of course it will influence their political actions. And conversely, if they are hedging, then their hypocrisy will reflect on their behaviour in office. Maybe we should write in the Vicar of Bray as the most honestly shameless candidate.

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