Once I tried explaining to a friend who was raised abroad why calling someone Hitler was probably a worse insult in American culture than calling him the Devil. It was attached to this whole discussion of the importance of WW2 in America’s mythos/self-image. Nazis are the archetypal bad guy, world-conquest and genocide the archetypal crimes, and fascism (or at least authoritarianism?) is the archetypal political heresy.
But it occurs to me that while all that might be true, the simpler explanation might be that while most of us believe in Hitler, we don’t really believe in the devil.
That feels like a point C.S. Lewis could make a lot out of, were he around. But Lewis was pushing back against naturalism, and I don’t think that’s really the philosophy du jour. We’re not a nation of Dawkinses, or Hitchenses, or whoever. The vast majority of people, perhaps especially the “nones” of religion censuses, believe in the supernatural, and perhaps even in more or less malevolent entities out to get us.
What we don’t believe is that it all makes sense. The idea of “the Devil” comes from a God vs. the Devil binary, where there is some sort of moral system that applies across the whole universe. That, in turn, implies that the universe itself has some sort of coherent structure, and follows some sort of narrative where God and the Devil battle it out until the end, or perhaps continue in some eternal cycle of mini-conflicts, neither emerging ultimately victorious.
That picture is a step down from genuine Christianity, but it also has some faint traces of the beauty of the world Dante or Aquinas believed in. And America as a community doesn’t believe even that anymore. We believe everyone gets their own mythos, everyone gets their own system of ethics, everyone gets to call one thing sacred and another profane, and so what if they all conflict?
It’s not that everybody is a principled pluralist, so much as that’s the world we all live in. Practically speaking, we treat all these different accounts of the universe and the supernatural and good and evil as if they were more or less equally valid. They become just so much lore we can draw on for kitchen-sink type games and TV shows about the spooky. (I’ve been watching Supernatural lately, which is probably part of what generated this thought.)
If everyone has a different account of both good and evil, and of the supernatural, “the Devil” as a figure doesn’t really have much of a place. He’s provincial. In the big scheme, he’s a rube from some religious backwater, and who knows what other religious entities from the big city might teach him a lesson?
But Hitler… well, Hitler’s undeniable. He killed people. A lot of them. And you were dead whether you were a Jew or Polish Catholic. Our fight against him put us on the world stage in a big way, just when all the other powers were losing their grip. We have thousands of hours of History Channel documentaries on him, a million conspiracy theories, and endless pop culture references. Whatever you think about the details, you can’t deny that he existed, and he was the enemy.
So, in that context, for this couple of decades in the history of the United States of America, we believe in Hitler a whole lot more than we believe in the Devil. And that’s weird.