Politicians Should Not Call Their Enemies "Evil"

A member of Iraqi security forces holds a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) as he stands guard during an operation to clear al-S
A member of Iraqi security forces holds a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) as he stands guard during an operation to clear al-Sajarya district on the eastern outskirts of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, on January 17, 2016, a few weeks after they declared victory against the Islamic State (IS) group. / AFP / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

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In the midst of political campaigns people say silly things. Recently Bill Maher said that Senator Ted Cruz, running for the Republican nomination, is evil: "It's one thing to have evil people who aren't that bright!" But, he added, Cruz is smart.

Joining him, Heather Digby Parton wrote in Salon about "Ted Cruz, evil genius: How he's wreaking havoc on Washington and positioning himself as the GOP dark horse."

We hereby forgive journalist and pundits who accuse people of being evil. They face deadlines and they need to be slightly outrageous. (Senator Cruz has not, yet, accused journalists of being evil.) We do not forgive politicians quite so easily. When they speak about evil their comments have far-reaching consequences. Beginning in the 1980s with President Reagan, American politicians of both major parties lapse into phrases like "The Evil Empire" (Reagan talking about the USSR), "Evil is on the march" (Rep. Stephen J. Solarz talking about Saddam Hussein), and "the axis of evil" (President George W. Bush talking about Iran, Iraq, and North Korea).

This language echoes traditional religious beliefs about good and evil. Reagan spoke about the USSR as the Evil Empire when he addressed American evangelicals in March 8, 1983. The basis of the United States, he claimed was the "deeper realization that freedom prospers only where the blessings of God are avidly sought and humbly accepted." Without affirming that alleged truth we would lack the ability to confront the "aggressive impulses of an evil empire."

Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D., New York) used the same language eight years later on January 12, 1991 when supported the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution." Solarz argued that Saddam Hussein presented a catastrophic danger to the United States analogous to that presented by Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan in 1941: "This, I contended, was the great lesson of our time: evil exists and when evil is on the march, it must be confronted."

Eleven years later President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union Address to joint session of the 107th Congress on January 29, 2002. Referring to the attacks of September 11, 2001, he said: "We've come to know truths that we will never question: Evil is real, and it must be opposed." He concluded, "And many have discovered again that even in tragedy--especially in tragedy--God is near."

Accustomed to hearing religious phrases like these from American politicians we may be surprised to learn that they do not match the language of former Presidents and British Prime Ministers. Among them is Winston Churchill who faced challenges far greater than those posed by Islamic terrorism. Supreme perhaps among all who anticipated the rise of Nazi Germany, Churchill did not say that "evil is real and it is on the march." He recognized that the Nazi war machine carried out evil actions; he did not ascribe their crimes to an imaginary Evil that somehow possessed them. Evil was not on the march; the German armies were. The Second World War was not between Good and Evil; it was between Germany, Italy, and Japan on the one side, and the Allies on the other.

Churchill, while a great orator, was a supreme realist. Though raised a Christian, he realized that the War would not be won by divine intervention. If God is among us God is invisible and passive. We do not doubt that every day a million prayers rose up all over Europe, seeking help against vicious enemies. Churchill's great speeches, memorized for generations, did not invoke God and they did not claim special status for England. In his broadcast to the United States and to London on October 16, 1938 he said:

It is this very conflict of spiritual and moral ideas which gives the free countries a great part of their strength. You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. On all sides they are guarded by masses of armed men, cannons, aeroplanes, fortifications, and the like -- they boast and vaunt themselves before the world, yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear.

Churchill did not demonize Hitler. He did not place him and his followers along an axis of evil. That would make them undefeatable, immortal, uncanny beings who live forever. On the contrary, Churchill said, Nazis were frightened human beings, terrified of free speech and free action.

Churchill's listeners in the United States and Britain recognized themselves in this portrait. They did not need to imagine a future, perfected state; they lived it as free people in free nations. We also live in a free nation. That is enough to deliver us from evil.