The Question of Evil: Politicians Weigh In

During the recent Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, Pastor Rick Warren asked candidates Barack Obama and John McCain what they believe about evil. The responses are below:

WARREN: Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

OBAMA: Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely, and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, now, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God’s task, but we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil’s been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

[WARREN: In the name of good.]

In the name of good, and I think, you know, one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good. Now here’s John McCain’s response to Warren’s question:

MCCAIN: Defeat it. A couple of points. One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. (APPLAUSE). No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of American — innocent American lives.

Of course, evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century — radical Islamic extremism.

Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled, and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn’t evil, you have to tell me what is. And we’re going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden is the battle, is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq and we are winning and succeeding and our troops will come home with honor and with victory and not in defeat. And that’s what’s happening.

And we have — and we face this threat throughout the world. It’s not just in Iraq. It’s not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America. My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge. And we must totally defeat it, and we’re in a long struggle. But when I’m around, the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt, none.

As I reflected on the two politicians’ response to Warren’s question, I became more aware of what’s wrong with American Christianity. McCain’s two word opening sentence at the beginning of his answer drew a great amount of applause. It would indeed be a very admirable task to defeat evil. However, McCain’s answer is one that, although applauded by evangelicals, is grounded in classical liberalism and demonstrates his overestimation of the goodness and power of humanity in general and Americans in particular.

It’s not surprising that McCain and his audience, comprised of persons who could afford to buy $500 tickets, would frame a discussion about evil in terms of America versus Islam. McCain’s response contains several problematic assumptions. The first assumption is that America is good. Perhaps my experience as a professor at an HBCU, historically black college or university, has forced me to understand how atrocities against humanity have occurred in a so-called Christian nation. Obama’s humble approach seems a bit more enlightened and a lot less arrogant than McCain’s inability to associate “us” with evil. Also, Obama acknowledged evil in many areas of life. Notice that McCain used the discussion of evil to advance his political agenda and defined evil only in one form—violence against America. That’s a particularly convenient view of evil.

Another assumption in McCain’s response is that we have the ability to eradicate evil. Notice the contrast between the two candidates. For Obama, we are soldiers that must realize that only God can eradicate evil and we must go about the task humbly to ensure that we don’t engage in evil while working to confront evil. His approach demonstrates a reliance upon and trust in God. The focus of McCain’s statement is not so much to eradicate evil, but to protect Americans. Additionally, there’s no attempt to ground the response in dependence on God or to be self-reflective. Not only is this approach idolatrous — because McCain seems to trust in our own ability to defeat evil — it is also reckless. If we fail as a country to be self-reflective in our attempt to defeat evil, we might engage in evil acts, such as torture, and justify evil such acts. Seems we’ve already done that. It’s no surprise that McCain’s answer would draw applause. Even Rick Warren would admit that one of the problems with evangelical Christianity is that it is so self-serving.

Finally, McCain assumes the answer to the problem of evil is to overcome it with power and force. In a word: violence.

How can one seriously hold that view after reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? What about loving our enemies as Jesus commanded?

Although this time McCain didn’t break into a creepy smile after pledging to chase him to the gates of hell, I didn’t notice any love for bin Laden in his demeanor when he pledged to “bring him to justice.” Responding to evil with humility, meekness, and self-control is not easy—as has been demonstrated by leaders like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. However, the Prince of Peace demands that we trust in God’s power and not our own and seek to overcome evil with good.

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