Obama & McCain on Evil

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Pastor Rick Warren asked Barack Obama and John McCain about evil at Saddleback Church on August 16, 2008.

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WARREN: How about the issue of evil? Does evil exist?

OBAMA: Evil exists. 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. It has to be confronted squarely. It is important for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil because a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

MCCAIN: Defeat it. If I’m president of the United States, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama Bin Laden, and bring him to justice. I will do that, and I know how to do it. I will get that guy. Of course evil must be defeated. We are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century—radical Islamic extremism. And we’re going to defeat this evil.

M. Scott Peck, M.D. defined evil as the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion in order to avoid facing their own failures and spiritual growth. Evil is the intentional infliction of harm on people. All of us do bad things–that is part of being imperfect human beings. That does not make us immoral people. Evil people are distinguished not by their sins but by the subtlety, persistence, and consistency of their sins. Wicked people kill the spirit of those they blame for their own deficiencies.

Healthy people see their mistakes, are responsible for the effects of their acts, and try to become as aware as they can of the impact of their behavior on others. Evil people, with an excess of self-esteem, deny their imperfections, run from their guilt, and perpetuate their cruel behavior.

We can see evil all around us, as Obama stated, not just in our enemies (real and imagined) abroad where McCain focused: parents who neglect and abuse their children, men who emotionally, physically, and sexually abuse women, supervisors who routinely mistreat employees, and in racists, sexists, and those who use rank in any form to disrespect others.

A common characteristic of evil people is scapegoating. Because they think so highly of themselves (with little to justify such an opinion), they must attack anyone who criticizes them. Often, in their own righteousness, they project what they don’t like about themselves onto others. Political leaders frequently demonize and scapegoat their opponents and other nations to justify violent and oppressive actions. Scapegoating allows evil to masquerade as good.

Men and women in business suits perpetuate more evil by far than most criminals in our jails—something I learned quickly as a young Secret Service agent in Chicago, Illinois. Our most dastardly people dress well, go to work on time, pay their taxes, coach their kid’s sports teams, and outwardly appear to be above approach. Unable to be good they excel at appearing to be good. And, the scapegoaters they are, they would be shocked and offended deeply to be characterized as inhuman. Evil people like to think of themselves as victims.

As long as people are imperfect, we cannot eradicate evil. We must, however, confront it with courage and humility as Obama said. For when each of us looks the other way in evil’s presence, we collude with it. We need to make wise moral judgments, and we must judge others. But before we do, we must look within our own hearts and see our own capacity for evil.

What do Obama’s and McCain’s words about evil foreshadow about the presidents they would be?


(Heuerman, Ph.D. is an organizational consultant, a former Secret Service agent and Star Tribune executive. He lives in Moorhead, MN)