Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
(CNN)–Friday both President Obama and Mitt Romney used the word “evil” to describe the killings that took place early Friday morning at a showing of the new Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado.
In perhaps his most theological speech to date, Romney referred to these Batman killings as “a few moments of evil."
“Such violence, such evil is senseless,” Obama said.
On September 13, 2001, on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush used similar language to denounce the “evildoers” who killed thousands of Americans with airplanes and jet fuel. And he continued to use that term throughout his presidency.
My Boston University students are for the most part allergic to the language of “evil,” and I don’t think they are alone.
National polls tell us that roughly 7 out of every 10 Americans continue to believe in the devil and hell. But if you ask them if they themselves will go to hell, only 1 in 200 say yes.
Sin, it seems, is for other people.
In his 1995 book, “The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil,” literary scholar Andrew Delbanco mourned the loss in American culture of old-fashioned words such as “sin,” “Satan,” and “evil.”
Delbanco was criticizing liberals for trading in sturdy theology for flimsy moral relativism—for explaining acts such as today’s murders in terms of social depredations rather than sin and Satan.
But he was also seeking to reclaim the word “evil” from Christian conservatives who all too often (to paraphrase Matthew 7:3) see the sliver in others’ eyes but not the beam in their own.
To put it another way, Delbanco was mourning the demise of the longstanding Christian conviction—evident in thinkers from Augustine to Jonathan Edwards to Reinhold Niebuhr—that evil lurks not only in “them” but also in “us.”
Or, as historian Richard Wightman Fox puts it, “the fault lies in us, not in our stars, and certainly not in the witches, Southerners, immigrants, Jews, blacks, Communists, or other outsiders targeted for scorn—and identified with Satan—over the course of American history.”
I think Reinhold Niebuhr was right when he said that the doctrine of original sin is one of the only empirically verifiable Christian dogmas, so I am happy to hear both Romney and Obama respond to this tragedy with a rhetoric of evil.
I would be happier, however, if either of them were able to look into their own lives, and more importantly into our common life as Americans, and see—and name—evil there too.
"The Dark Knight" isn't all good, and neither are we, or our social or governmental institutions.
Surely there was evil in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, this week. But every day hundreds die because of our actions or inaction at home and abroad.
There is "evil" in that too, and in each of us who allows it to happen.