Liberal America’s Great Sin

This piece appeared as an op/ed in my very red congressional district (VA-06). Early June, 2017.


On the phone the other day, my brother said to me, “Well, Liberal America can finally see evil, they can see it in Trump.” My brother knows how I’ve spent the past twelve years – without great success — trying to get American liberals to recognize the nature of the destructive force that has taken over the right in our times, and to respond accordingly.

My brother’s comment therefore pointed to the great “sin” of Liberal America.

The famous American Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, defined “sin” as being about “separation” — from oneself and from the Ground of Being. Or, as I would put it in this instance, separation from the deep reality in which one is living: in our times, that’s the reality of a force of brokenness rising before our eyes in the American power system.

It is easier to see that brokenness when it is embodied in a single person—a lying bully who picks fights and takes pleasure In trampling on the norms and rules governing his society. And when that person is as flamboyant in such tendencies as Donald Trump, it’s hard for anyone not in the thrall of the false world created by right-wing propagandists to see it for what it is.

But the deep reality of “evil” is that it transcends that concrete individual level, operating as a coherent force spreading a pattern of brokenness to the people and organizations it touches.

In this era, however, Liberal America lacks the habit of putting the pieces together to see things whole. So something diffused into the body politic — in the hypocrisies of the once-respectable Republican Party, in the deceptive messaging of the right-wing media, in the degradation of the consciousness of the Republican electorate – can escape notice.

But now, as my brother said, liberals at last see it in Trump. And at last are mobilized by what they see.

Better for America that this recognition had come sooner. For Trump is but a culminating expression of what has been gaining power in America for a generation.

The Republican electorate of, say, the Reagan years, would never have gone for the likes of Trump. Only after the decades of systematic work – by the likes of Limbaugh and Gingrich, Fox News and Karl Rove – to train people to follow lying bullies (who choose conflict over cooperation, and who pander to people’s prejudices and inflame their resentments) could millions of basically decent people look at someone like Trump and imagine it would be right to entrust him with the powers of the presidency.

The fact that Trump could jump in and hijack that toxic set of thoughts and feelings and ride it into the Oval Office reveals how deep is the kinship between Trump and the rest of that right-wing force.

No one in political life has lied as wantonly as Trump. But the Republican messaging has been fundamentally dishonest since Gingrich employed well-known propaganda techniques more than a quarter century ago, since Fox began indoctrinating its viewers with falsehoods, since W lied us into a war in Iraq, and since the Republicans tried to delegitimize a Democratic president with the racist birther lie.

No one in political life has bullied and belittled opponents as Trump has. But Karl Rove had W bully the Democrats for being “soft on terror,” and later the Republicans in Congress demeaned Obama with a scorn with which no American president had ever been assaulted.

No president has so blatantly acted from personal greed as Trump. But for years the Republican Party has been a channel for limitless greed. At a time when the gulf between the richest 1/10,000th of Americans and the lower 90% is wider than we’ve ever seen, the one constant in Republican policy remains the drive to transfer more money to the richest – even if it leaves 23 million Americans without health-care coverage, and even if it means cutting programs to help raise up downtrodden communities in rural areas.

No president has violated American political norms as wantonly as Trump. But the Republicans before him have left a long trail of norm-busting and damaging practices  – from instituting torture from the very top, to making it their top priority to prevent the American people’s choice to serve as president from accomplishing anything, to ultimately stonewalling the confirmation process in order to steal a Supreme Court seat.

The pattern of brokenness has been there for years, transmitted from Party to citizens to the Oval Office. But Liberal America, failing to see the threatening darkness, failed to rise to protect the nation.

In 1940, the survival of Great Britain was gravely threatened. For years, the British Conservative Party had totally misjudged the threat rising in Germany. Now, the real nature of that threat had been made blatant, with German forces overrunning Europe to the east and to the west.

Britain at last turned to Winston Churchill, who had seen the threat clearly from the beginning, but had been consigned to the political wilderness. As Churchill took the helm, he confided to someone who congratulated him, “I hope that it is not too late. I am very much afraid that it is.”

Now, as my brother said, Liberal America sees the evil. I hope that it is not too late.

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  1. Margee Fabyanske attempted to post the following comment:

    I have had a continuing problem with your choice of the word evil as a label or adjective to describe someone or some mysterious, destructive outside force. It just sounds to me to be divisive, provocative, “holier than thou”, or even self-righteous. In seeking diplomacy, one move is to allow the adversary to “save face” in order to get to a mutually agreeable outcome. How can you do that by calling someone evil? I think all the madness and anger in the world is really more about suffering, ignorance, poverty, and hardship. In your book, “What we’re Up Against”, you challenge the reader to “see evil wherever it is and call it out”. But isn’t this how wars are fueled? Each side calls the other evil and we trap ourselves into an ever-escalating power struggle.

    You say that humanity has been put into an impossible situation with social systems encroaching upon one another forcing violent confrontations that are inevitable and, because we did not cause this terrible mess we’re in, we are therefore innocent and should feel no guilt because it’s the destructive force of evil that is to blame. I do not believe our “Source” has put us in a trap. I see it as a divine plan or life-long Demonstration Plot in which we have been given an assortment of potential talents and abilities we need to foster to figure this out. Some have gotten close to getting it right and inspiring the rest of civilization to greater heights: Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, etc. It was Winston Churchill who once said, “We can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else!” There is power in positive thinking!

    I think we need to be more positive. Democrats are feeling so demoralized in our country, right now. We have poured so much money and energy into fighting for favorable outcomes and it seems we have been losing ground, while Trump is drawing adoring crowds across the land. Comedy Central loves him. He gives them great material daily! We all need comic relief! I think the media should back off and stop giving terrorists reason to advance their destructive plots and strategies. Terrorists love the notoriety. Trump loves to be center stage. We need to change the systems that fuel violence!

    In your book, Parable of the Tribes”, on p. 330 you say: “Mankind, then, faces a life-or-death choice. More of the same means death, so the preservation of life means transformation.” And at the end of the paragraph you quote Norman Cousins: “Any problem human beings have the power to make for themselves they also have the power to solve.” Now there’s an optimistic spirit!

  2. Let me start by saying — regarding your saying that “we need to be more positive” — that the solution to the world’s brokenness will involve many different people making different kinds of constructive contributions.

    So I’m all for your seeing what you can accomplish by being “positive” in the ways that you find me insufficiently so.

    But that being said, I also want to make sure that when you take issue with what I’m saying, you’ve understood me correctly.

    For example, you take issue with my “calling someone evil.”

    I never do that, and have never done that in the most than 12 years I’ve been talking about “evil.”

    Invariably, I discuss evil as a (coherent) force, not something that should be understood as residing in people. Frequently, as you’ll see if you re-read WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, I explcitly declare that I do not speak of evil people.

    Someone like Trump — and others like Limbaugh and Rove etc. — may be channels through which the destructive force is working. But my big contribution here is to take the word “evil” out of the lexicon of personal condemnation and put it into the field of an analytic understanding how the dense interconnected nexus of cause and effects works in the human world.

    You object to the word “evil.” I also, as you may recall, offer — to those who do not like the word — alternative names for it: I’m talking about “a destructive force,” or “a force that spreads a pattern of brokenness on everything it touches.”

    The important thing is that one SEES the force, and responds to it appropriately.

    Now, if I understand you correctly, you don’t like the word “evil” because you think it will lead us to respond inappropriately. “Isn’t this how war is fueled?” you ask, in your challenge to my use of the word.

    Yes, it certainly can be. But it is an undesirable limitation for one to have a one-response fits all-situations kind of a tool-box.

    Sometimes, the problem is not that people are driven to an unnecessary war by the over-application of the concept of evil, but rather that THEY FAIL TO WAGE A NECESSARY WAR BECAUSE OF A FAILURE TO SEE EVIL.

    The world would have been spared an enormous nightmare had the Western world perceived the “evil” — or whatever you want to call it — that had arisen in Nazi Germany, and had blocked its aggressions at the time of the Rhineland, or the Sudenland, in the mid-1930s.

    Churchill called out that evil, but the leaders of Britain failed to perceive it. (Chamberlain: “I bring you peace in our time.”) Eventually, under must less advantageous circumstances, the war came.

    Likewise in Liberal America. The problem in America has not been that Liberal America has been inflamed inappropriately to do political combat against a force inappropriately seen as “evil.” Just the opposite. America is in a terrible situation now because Liberal America failed to see WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, and failed to rally to defend the nation against it.

    So I will continue to talk about evil, because as I say repeatedly, although this “Coherent force” does not have ALL the attributes of what has traditionally been understood as “evil” in the Western religious tradition, it has most of the essential ones. And that word may not please everyone, but I think it might well help to mobilize people for a necessary political battle.

    • Margee Fabyanske

      Andy, I understand that you have tried very hard not to call anyone evil. But the thing is, in my mind, the very WORD evil sparks a vision of hell. It is hateful and mean-spirited. Most people in the western world understand what is traditionally meant by it. I can only say, be careful what you wish for. You want to “help mobilize people for a necessary political battle”, but all it takes is one spark, one shot, one seething provocation, one assassination to start a world war. Instead, how about finding words that help pave the way to peace? Calling out evil is a show-stopper. It makes my blood run cold. Calling out evil can make some feel like you are insinuating that, by their choices or behavior, or even their associations, that they are contributing to evil, when they may simply have a difference of opinion. And your idea that evil is actually a self-propelled, destructive force outside of ourselves sounds delusional—like trying to get people to believe in a satanic underworld of sorts. I say, leave evil to the evil-doers like ISIS or Boco Haram, that slaughter innocents. They would love for you to call them out, give them free press, make them center-stage. I am all for bringing evil-doers to justice. But provocative confrontation like you are suggesting is, I feel, just plain dangerous.

      I’m looking forward to hearing more about the sacred space of lovers!


      • I do understand, Margee, after our recurrent exchanges on this very theme, how much my use of the term “evil” bothers you. If how it effects you — making your blood run cold, giving you visions of hell, and especially feeling convinced that its use can only increase the troubles of the world — I would surely avoid using the word. (As I said, what I am pointing toward — and will be describing and explaining in coming installments in this Series — can also be called “a destructive force” or “a force of brokenness.”)

        But your response is not, in my experience, the typical one in the audience that I hope to reach. That is an audience of intelligent, primarily secular, basically liberal people. (I very rarely use the word “evil” when addressing the people on the other side of our political battles.) I have reason to believe that my use of the word has useful educational effects, and so long as that seems in general to be true, I will continue to use it. And as I do, I hope that you will be content to substitute one of the other proffered phrases, and accept that I’m seeking to elicit a different reaction and understanding by the use of that word than what happens for you.

        There is one more thing to say about evil, which has to do with more than the word. You say, “your idea that evil is actually a self-propelled, destructive force outside of ourselves sounds delusional…” If that sounds delusional to you, what that means to me is that you do not yet see what it is that I tried to show, in some detail, in WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, and will again try to show here in this Series. If “the parable of the tribes” is one big idea in the construction of this “integrative vision,” the reality of forces that work through the dense nexus of cause and effect to spread a pattern of brokenness (or wholeness) in cultural systems through time is the other big idea I hope to convey.

        BTW, as I believe I wrote in a response to another comment recently, to say that this force is “outside of ourselves” is not quite right. The impetus comes from outside of human beings, starting with the parable of the tribes, this force works through us human beings and our systems. What is “broken” within us is a part of that larger picture of the operation and the movement of that force.

        I realize that some of these things are not easy to wrap one’s mind around. But I believe — I hope — it is worth the effort.

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