The Devil in D.C.
All over America, believers cast Satan as literal, potent, and omnipresent, with his dark minions influencing every action in public and private life.
When you close your eyes, what do you imagine lives in the darkness beside you? There are so many things too small to see—microbes and molecules, protons and quarks, and faraway nebulae burning off beyond the horizon. But for millions of Americans—some two-thirds of the country, by one poll—the darkness is populated by bigger and more frightening things: demons and their consorts, feeding on hapless human beings, as one early Pentecostalist minister put it, “like ticks on cattle.” These parasitic forces exist to draw humanity into a long and terrifying war, where prayer has the power of any great weapon; and there are many Americans who believe, every day, that they don the armor of God to wage an endless battle in the spirit realm.
One contingent of would-be spirit warriors gathered at a large anti-vaccine rally in Washington, D.C. this week. Thousands of protestors took to the capital to challenge the purported tyranny of the U.S.’s shambolic, piecemeal Covid-19 response, a refrain echoed across the frozen water of the Reflecting Pool, under the long marble gaze of Abraham Lincoln.
“This is a war on religion, this is a war on the children,” rapped the MAGA-hiphop duo Hi-Rez & Jimmy Levi. “The devil he hides in ego and pride… Fuck your medication, I’ll just keep on praying for your salvation.”
Throughout the day, Christian-nationalist imagery—from crosses to entreaties to get “vaccinated in the blood of Jesus”—was a notable presence among rally-goers. Injunctions to buck worldly authorities in favor of God’s, along with a flood of profit-motivated pseudoscience, lent the event an unmistakably fundamentalist overtone; a quarter-million dollars had been raised for the proceedings on the fanatical fundraising site GiveSendGo. Amanda Moore, a freelance journalist covering far-right movements who attended the rally, described seeing signs depicting Dr. Anthony Fauci as a demon, and others that encouraged all present to “Obey Christ, Reject Tyranny.” The Trump-hatted thousands appeared to believe, like many of their compatriots, that their physical presence at the rally was a corollary to the supernal war being fought, invisibly, all around us, all the time.
“The demonic forces want to lure us into their deceptions of power and supernatural activities,” authors Tonilee Adamson and Bobbye Brooks wrote in a 2019 guide to understanding spiritual warfare. “We have a tendency to act like a two-year-old child who closes her eyes and places a blanket over her head, really believing that no one can see her because she cannot see them. Just because we cannot see the spiritual realm does not mean it is not there.”
All over the country, believers cast Satan as literal, potent, and omnipresent, with his dark minions, incarnate and ethereal, influencing every action in public and private life. Those who beseech God on behalf of the sick describe themselves as “prayer warriors”; memes encourage believers to abandon the fleeting earthly protection of masks and vaccines and “suit up with the whole armor of God,” a reference to Ephesians. The combat may be invisible, but it is no less real to tens of millions of Americans, who view the discarnate clash and its fleshly analogues as a bitter struggle for the soul of a country in peril—and their foes as in league with actual demons, sulfurous, reeking, and mortally dangerous. The American view of Satan is both all-pervading and deeply literal-minded: the enemy warned of from megachurch pulpits has precisely the shrewd and inexhaustible aims written about by John Milton in Paradise Lost in 1667:
“To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil;
Which oft times may succeed, so as perhaps
Shall grieve him, if I fail not, and disturb
His inmost counsels from their destin’d aim.”
In his overview of our nation’s relationship with the devil, Satan in America: The Devil We Know, the historian W. Scott Poole grounds an admixture of pop culture, theology and politics in one founding principle: to those who believe fervently in a spiritual war, “America is the Unfallen Angel, secure in its innocence, but beset by thousands of dark foes.” This faith in a fundamental innocence can be used to paper over the profligate violence of nationalism, and to cast social discord or opposition in the sinister light of the occult. “America has been in love with the dark at almost every stage of its history, eager to view its enemies as satanic,” Poole writes. “Powerful social groups have used this image of evil to explain their enemies to them and to legitimize acts of violence against those they have construed as demonic."
Puritan colonists saw the devil in Salem’s matrons; Thomas Jefferson’s political opponents depicted him as obeying Satan’s desires to sow atheism; landowners in the antebellum south cast enslaved people’s rebellions as foul witchcraft. In the twentieth century, Christian fundamentalist saw mephistophelian influence in the works of labor unions, Jews, social democrats, Catholics and, later, heavy metal music and Dungeons & Dragons. Supposed candidates for the title of Antichrist, meanwhile, have ranged from FDR and Barack Obama to George Soros and Anthony Fauci.
That this centuries-old tendency has resurfaced during the pandemic—a time of social, political, economic, racial and domestic upheaval—is unsurprising; it is still less surprising that equally shopworn beliefs, such as antisemitism, are rising stratospherically, suffused in the anti-vaccine movement, and the parallel crusade to control and restrict teaching about racial justice in schools. In its time of crisis, with nearly a million dead, America is playing its greatest hits in ragged crescendo: a renewed Red Scare sweeping through school boards, encouraging parents to report subversive materials; a pathological rummaging through the cupboard of Western fixations, seeking objects of blame; and a Great Awakening of the most odious sort, with millions inculcated into an ideology that portrays American life as a dance with a consort of devils. If everything is falling apart, then the end times must be approaching; then vaccination cards must be the Mark of the Beast, or its precursor; then the apocalypse, long awaited with ecstasy and fear, is drawing closer, and the war is being fought with souls and with marching feet.
Reactionary ideology and fervent belief in demons have long gone hand in hand in American culture—a landmark social survey from the early 1970s found that literal belief in the Devil and demons strongly correlated with opposition to the civil rights and feminist movements. One response to the protest movements of the 1960s was an explosive rise in fundamentalism that took the devil literally, spurring an exorcism mania and catapulting Pigs in the Parlor, an elaborate taxonomy of the hundreds of demons that can infest a single human spirit, onto 1970s bestseller lists. Spiritual, moral and social anxiety are more easily processed through a veil of demonology, which both externalizes the threat and ups the stakes of any given conflict.
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In a crowded contemporary information landscape, nowhere is this better evinced than by the theodicy of QAnon, a movement obsessed with Satan and his children—and one which, far from collapsing after the Trump presidency’s end, has gone on to metastasize, fed by a resevoir of anti-vaccine sentiment and covid-era paranoia.
“I think for secular Americans, it is very very hard to get your head around the idea that many conservative Christians believe in a literal Satan—they think the Satanic Panic was a panic, they got over it, they don’t really believe it now,” said Al Jones, the pseudonymous founder of the Q Origins Project, which examines the digital trail of the movement’s genesis, in an interview. This is not the case for many fundamentalists. “They believed it then and they believe it now. And the idea of a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who sacrifice and eat children makes perfect sense to them: Satan is a force of ultimate evil, existing to ensnare and enslave human beings. Obviously the acts are real, precisely because they’re what Satan would want.”
Q believers, Jones added, consider themselves part of a battle between absolute good, in the form of Donald Trump and the assorted figureheads of the conspiracy theory’s universe, such as Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn, versus absolute evil: Satan, Democrats, and the Cabal. Prayer—particularly prayer for explicit political outcomes—is one way to influence the battle, and much of it flows towards a hope for Trump’s final victory. The battle between God and Satan is, as ever, mirrored in the human world, spilling out onto the National Mall, carried out in legions of voting booths.
Outside the perfervid world of demonology and its believers, it’s a challenge to determine, precisely, how to contend with a political landscape in which a large proportion of one side believes that their opponents are quite literally in league with the devil. In the face of such conviction, it’s difficult not to shrink away, or to try to combat it on its own terms—I’m not in league with the Devil, or there’s no such thing as the Devil, or what do you mean, I’m surrounded by devils feeding on my blood like ticks? I don’t have devils or ticks—but this is more or less a futile exercise. Better to wave away the sulfurous fumes, get a firm foothold on the brimstone, and heave ourselves out of hell—and refuse to do battle except under the clear, real sky. Cold midwinter light has a habit of dispelling illusions; faced with the accusation that demons cling to us in their thousands, it’s better to ignore than deny the allegation, to do battle in the real world, not the spirit one—or, as Milton put it, seek for “What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, if not what resolution from despair.”