A Democratic Alternative to the Devil’s Theology

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Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in his study.(Credit: The Merton Center)

Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, social critic, and political activist—was alert to how people tend to exaggerate differences between themselves and others in order to separate right from wrong and good from evil.  He called such exaggeration a trait of “the devil’s moral theology,” in which “the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong,” which “does not exactly make for peace and unity among men” because to be absolutely right, we must “punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”[i]

Who among us has never succumbed to moralism?  It is habit forming, contagious, and toxic.  It is today’s norm.  Hyperbole is the trope of choice.  Moderation in language, respect for the complexities of life, and deliberation of differences are rarely manifest in public discourse. 

Americans do not abide one another, let alone stomach foreigners.   Diplomacy is a dirty word.  True to the devil’s theology, America’s adversaries are plainly wrong and surely evil.  An uninhibited President Trump, speaking before the General Assembly of the United Nations, sizes up complicated conflicts as a simple matter of the “righteous many” confronting the “wicked few” to prevent the triumph of “evil.”

War is a moral imperative from this narrow standpoint.  To discern the ways of peacemaking, a formidable challenge when alienation runs rampant, requires a broader perspective.  Broadening of perspective requires inspiration based on beliefs and values embedded in the political culture, so that good reasons for positive peacemaking make common sense and, beyond that, invoke the best inclinations of the national narrative.

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U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 15 February 2007. (Credit: United States Congress)

A case in point is Senator Bernie Sanders’ vision of American foreign policy, as expressed in a speech delivered this year on September 21st at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where Winston Churchill delivered his “Sinews of Peace” (aka “Iron Curtain”) speech in 1946.

Democracy is central to Sanders’ vision.

Foreign policy, he says, is about championing the values of freedom, democracy, and justice, which means “we need to practice those values here at home.  That means continuing the struggle to end racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia here in the United States.”  And in matters of economics, practicing democratic values means addressing “the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country.”[ii]  Peace is undermined by oligarchy when “a small number of extraordinarily powerful special interests exert enormous influence over the economic and political life of the world.”  Thus, the top concern is to “revitalize American democracy” at a time when we are experiencing “a rise in authoritarianism and right wing extremism” that exploits resentments, stokes intolerance, and fans ethnic and racial hatreds.

The US should not withdraw from the globe but, instead, should work toward the resolution of conflicts peacefully, through dialogue and debate among diplomats and foreign ministers and also “between people throughout the world at the grassroots level” because “hatred and wars are often based on fear and ignorance.”  The US “goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance.”

Military intervention too often has backfired, as in Iran, Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere.  The “Global War on Terror has been a disaster,” making the problem worse rather than better.  Military force, while sometimes necessary, must always be “the last resort.”

The welfare and safety of Americans depend on the welfare and safety of others around the world.  We must build on the “common humanity” we share with every person on the planet.

Revitalizing American democracy entails a renewed commitment to fairness, equity, tolerance, partnership, dialogue, and debate by the people and their leaders to build on a common humanity at home and abroad.  It resists the mounting attitude of alienation, intolerance, and domination that exaggerates differences, promotes discrimination, and enforces inequality by means of oligarchy, authoritarianism, and militarism.  These two clusters of opposing terms structure a culturally credible rendering of the story of America.  What Sanders calls “A Renewal of American Purpose” offers a guiding image for reframing the national narrative.  It provides a democratic basis for a progressive foreign policy.

Sanders’ vision is a viable starting point, one that shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly as mere “idealism” simply because the details have yet to be worked out.  They must be worked out, but not rushed.

Predictably, Sanders is tagged the “darling of liberal arts students,” an intended slight from a critic who insists “America remains the world’s last bulwark against evil.”  Liberal arts students, we should note, are taught to think critically, to develop perspective, and to address problems constructively, not to subscribe to the devil’s theology.

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[i] “The Moral Theology of the Devil,” in Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961; Boston:  Shambhala, 2003), 98.

[ii] Sanders apparently succumbed to a bit of devilish moralism of his own when he pressed hard on his essentially valid point about excessive income disparity by claiming dramatically that the six richest individuals own as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people in the bottom half of the world’s population.  Fact checker Nicole Lewis argues that this claim lacks sufficient nuance given the complexities of calculating and comparing wealth inequalities in the global economy.

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