The Devil and Daniel Webster and Rick Santorum

In Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Devil at one point says:

“When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on? […] I am merely an honest American like yourself — and of the best descent — for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.”

It’s a very interesting story, for it is very patriotic–jingoistic, even–but it doesn’t deny the unpleasant parts of American history, either.

I was reminded of this on hearing the recent controversy over Rick Santorum’s comment that Satan “has his sights on… a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age. [sic] There is no one else to go after other than the United States“.

First of all, as I said before, I’m not a religious person. And also, I have no intention of voting for Rick Santorum. I do not plan to vote for any Republican candidate, and even if I did, Santorum would be my third choice out of the current field of four. So, I am not defending him here.

However, it doesn’t quite make sense to me why this is such a big deal. I mean, it is a (in my opinion, regrettable) fact that this country is not going to elect a President who does not publicly profess to be a Christian anytime soon. We have had Presidents who were not very religious in the past, of course, but nobody knew it then, because they kept it to themselves. Personally, I think this is a sub-optimal state of affairs, but there’s no point in denying it.

So, given that, and given that the Bible talks about this “Satan” figure rather a lot, why should anybody be surprised to hear Santorum talking about him? I mean, if you believe in the Bible, as Christians are supposed to do, it seems like you’ll probably end up believing in Satan, too. Now, I know some Christians regard him as an actual guy with horns who is out there somewhere, and some think of him more as a symbolic character representing “Evil”. It seems to me that Santorum’s comments could be read either way, as well. Why is everyone so surprised? Did people actually not realize what Santorum believes before now?

So, with that said, I personally don’t care for what he says in this speech at all, and it has very little to do with the Satan bit, and almost everything to do with deeper, philosophical issues. Again, it’s interesting to contrast the ideas in The Devil and Daniel Webster with Santorum’s remarks. Here’s part of Daniel Webster’s big speech from Benét’s  story:

[Webster] talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days… He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.

Santorum:

[Satan] didn’t have much success in the early days. Our foundation was very strong, in fact, is very strong. But over time, that great, acidic quality of time corrodes even the strongest foundations. And Satan has done so by attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has [sic] so deeply rooted in the American tradition.

Like I said, both the story and Santorum’s speech are basically advancing nationalistic viewpoints, and yet Benét’s story has a much more optimistic–dare I say it, “progressive”–theme to it, whereas Santorum’s is a dark vision of decadence. I just think that’s kind of interesting. Of course, Benét wrote that in 1937–maybe he would be firmly in the Santorum camp if he were around today. Who knows?

Nationalist conservatives nowadays are very reluctant to entertain the notion of wrongdoing in the early days of the country. It’s curious–I think their narrative requires that everything be wonderful until the damned liberals showed up.

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