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Patrick KellyJuly 21, 2021

In a conversation late last year about the efforts by Donald Trump and some Republican leaders to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on the lie that the election was stolen, former Secretary of Defense and Republican Senator William Cohen said, “For Trump it’s pathological, but for those who are jumping up to support him, it is diabolical.”

Mr. Cohen is not the first person to refer to the “diabolical”—meaning of or related to the devil—with reference to dynamics in our country in recent times. Mr. Trump’s spiritual advisor, Paula White, referred frequently to the “demonic” when speaking of the agenda of the former president’s critics, as have others. But how are we to understand the relevance of these terms in our context? The teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola can shed some light on this question and may also offer some valuable counsel for political leaders and others at this time.

For Ignatius, when people encounter the enemy in their lives, if they deal with it well, it can be a grace in the long run.

I recognize that not all people reading this article are Christian, and that not even all Christians believe in the personal existence of a “devil,” or good and evil spirits, as St. Ignatius did (and the Catholic Church does today). But even in a symbolic sense, the terms “diabolical” or “demonic” in the Christian tradition are associated with rebellion against God as well as corruption at the highest levels of the life of the spirit. And they are associated with what is most destructive of faith, persons and communities. This is why the phrase the “enemy of our human nature” is used traditionally to refer to the devil. And so it is worth considering what the tradition has to say about such terms, especially since they are still being used by public figures to interpret contemporary events in our country, often with very divergent meanings.

Discerning the truth from the lie

For St. Ignatius, our thoughts, acts of the will or affective experiences come from one of three sources: from ourselves under some control of our free will, from a good spirit (God or an angel) or from an evil spirit. Lucifer is the leader of the evil spirits; Ignatius uses the aforementioned phrase, “enemy of our human nature,” to refer to him.

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius describes how the “enemy” sends his minions “throughout the whole world, without missing any provinces, places, states or individual persons.” In this sense, he is an equal opportunity operator. Catholics, Protestants, bishops, popes, laypeople, saints or persons ensnared in sin, people of other religions and no religion, all races, cultures, men and women of all sexual orientations, Democrats and Republicans: All are potential targets. Ignatius himself experienced the enemy regularly, and in the end this was a blessing, because it was the way he gained insight into his tactics and deceits. The presence of the enemy, then, does not necessarily mean that the person is immoral. Nor would Ignatius refer to specific human beings as demonic or devils.

Just as the Christian doctrine that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and all are sinners makes it theologically impossible to project all sin and evil onto persons of another race, religious tradition or political party, so too does Ignatius’ understanding of the enemy. The kind of projection that sees all the good in my group and all the bad in other groups is Manichean—not Christian. Sadly, this way of thinking is common in the United States and even in the Catholic Church today.

For Ignatius, when people encounter the enemy in their lives, if they deal with it well, it can be a grace in the long run. According to Ignatius, the enemy likes to operate in secrecy. When his machinations come out into the open, he is deeply displeased, because he sees that he can no longer be about his ruinous business. This is one way of understanding the context for Pope Francis’ recent comment, made after he condemned the attack on the U.S. Capitol: “Thanks be to God that this has burst out and there was a chance to see it well, because now you can try and heal it.”

In Scripture, the “devil” Mr. Cohen alludes to is known as a deceiver and the father of lies. As Jesus put it, “When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44; see also 2 Cor 11:3, 13-15 and Rev 12:9). I am not a psychologist, and I cannot evaluate Donald Trump’s psychological condition. Perhaps it is true, as Mr. Cohen says, that his condition is pathological. But one thing is certain: He has a clearly established pattern of lying. In an interview two days before the insurrection at the Capitol, Mr. Cohen said:

The president and his supporters have so saturated the airwaves with lies, misinformation, disinformation, rumors [and] speculation that people are having trouble understanding what is true and what is false. We have been in it now for four years, but now this bodes not well for the United States because we are standing on the abyss of the destruction of our democracy. And so we have to come back to the key principles. We have to have truth in every facet of our lives.

The most consequential lie Mr. Trump has told is that he won the 2020 presidential election in a landslide and the election was stolen from him, making Joseph R. Biden Jr. an illegitimate president. In the wake of many Republican politicians’ support of this lie and the subsequent insurrection at the Capitol, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor of California, was moved to speak personally to Americans about his experience growing up in Austria in the wake of the Second World War:

Now, I grew up in the ruins of a country that suffered the loss of its democracy. I was born in 1947, two years after the Second World War. Growing up, I was surrounded by broken men drinking away their guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history. Not all of them were rabid antisemites or Nazis. Many just went along step-by-step down the road. They were the people next door.

He focused his remarks on these ordinary people who went along with Hitler. He told the story of his own father coming home drunk once or twice a week and how he would “scream and hit us and scare my mother. I did not hold him totally responsible because our neighbor was doing the same thing to his family, and so was the next neighbor over. I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes. They were in physical pain from the shrapnel in their bodies and in emotional pain from what they saw or did.”

What is it that could have led such men—the people next door—to participation in the Nazi regime? Mr. Schwarzenegger is unequivocal: “It all started with lies and lies and lies, and intolerance.” In his appeal to Americans, he warned about the danger of going along with and even promoting lies today: “President Trump sought to overturn the results of an election and of a fair election. He sought a coup by misleading people with lies. My father and our neighbors were misled also with lies, and I know where such lies lead.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger: “My father and our neighbors were misled also with lies, and I know where such lies lead.”

“Agere contra” by telling the truth

St. Ignatius would agree with Mr. Cohen and Mr. Schwarzenegger about the importance of pushing back against lies in our social and political life. In his own context and writings on discernment he warns against dialoguing with, or going along with, the devil. And if the devil is telling lies, what is required is boldness and courage in acting against (agere contra) what he is proposing, by countering with the truth. As Ignatius put it, “The enemy characteristically weakens, loses courage and flees with his temptations when the person engaged in spiritual endeavors stands bold and unyielding against the enemy’s temptations and goes diametrically against them.”

Mitt Romney illustrated this well in his speech after the insurrection at the Capitol, when he pointed out that no audit of the election (some members of Congress were proposing one) would ever make a difference to voters who believe the lie that the election was stolen from Mr. Trump, as long as the former president continues to tell them that it was. Rather, Mr. Romney said, “The best way we can show respect for voters who are upset is by telling them the truth” (emphasis his).

For Ignatius, if one dialogues with the enemy and his lies, then like a bully, the enemy is strengthened. Ignatius saves some of his most dramatic language for such a situation. When a person is acting out of fear or loses courage, he writes, “there is no beast on the face of the earth as fierce as the enemy of human nature.” When the enemy notices cowardice, he will try to take you for all you are worth, wreaking havoc in whatever ways he can.

Mr. Cohen saw a similar dynamic when Republican members of Congress, out of fear or lack of courage, went along with and supported the then-president’s lies:

You have to remember that the current occupant of the White House is a ringmaster, and what he expects to do is snap his whip and [watch] all the elephants jump on their chairs. Those who are so eager to support this effort to overturn the vote of the American people, what they have to understand is that he’s going to continue to snap the whip whether he’s in office or out of office. And every time they’re going to have to jump up and sit on that stool in order to satisfy him and his supporters.

Furthermore, he noted, there would be no end to the whip:

You are never going to satisfy President Trump. He is always going to up the ante. He cannot be satisfied…. And so they’re going to be extorted or bribed in order to avoid a primary in 2022 or 2024?

How do we tell if a good or holy thought, or even an experience of spiritual consolation, is coming from God or is a temptation? 

When good and holy thoughts go wrong

According to St. Ignatius, the enemy is clever and subtle when he needs to be. When he knows that a person of faith cannot be tempted by obvious sin any longer, he “takes on the appearance of an angel of light, to enter by going along the same way as the devout soul and then to exit by his own way with success for himself.” His way of proceeding is to propose “good and holy thoughts attractive to such an upright soul and then strive little by little to get his own way, by enticing the soul over to his hidden deceits and evil intentions.”

This is why even as we advance in the Christian life, it is important to discern the thoughts or feelings we have that are holy or spiritual in nature. How do we tell if a good or holy thought, or even an experience of spiritual consolation, is coming from God or is a temptation? For Ignatius, it is important to pay attention to the whole train of our thoughts. As he puts it, “If the beginning, middle and end are all good and tend toward what is wholly good,” this is an indication it is coming from God. “But if the train of the thoughts which a spirit causes ends up in something evil or diverting, or in something less good than what the soul was originally proposing to do; or further, if it weakens, disquiets or disturbs the soul, robbing it of the peace, tranquility and quiet it enjoyed earlier, all this is a clear sign that this is coming from the evil spirit, the enemy of our progress and eternal salvation.”

The key principle here for discernment is that we can tell whether these kinds of thoughts or spiritual experiences are of God or not based on their fruits and where they lead. Jesus used this principle when he warned his disciples of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves,” and counseled that “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7: 15-16a).

How does it work in practice that people can start out inspired by “good and holy thoughts” but end up in a situation that is less good than what they were proposing or immoral, or that leaves them in turmoil and disturbed in their spirit? Consider the following examples.

How does it work in practice that people can start out inspired by “good and holy thoughts” but end up in a situation that is immoral?

First, Republican lawmakers who are religious and are attracted to Donald Trump because of his pro-life stance may initially have viewed defending the former president against all critics as important because they regarded it as leading to the protection of innocent life. These “good and holy thoughts” motivated them. They might have said at the time that they were willing to overlook concerns about Mr. Trump’s character because of what was at stake on the policy front.

But as time went on, they may also have stayed silent about the president’s pattern of lying, and even defended his lies, including the lie that he won the election in a landslide and that it had been stolen from him. At that point, being “all in” with Mr. Trump’s deceitful plans, these lawmakers may have voted against certifying the Electoral College votes giving Mr. Biden a definitive victory in the presidential election, contributing to a situation in which tens of millions of Americans believe that Mr. Biden is an illegitimate president and undermining our democracy.

A second example might be found in the case of some Catholic priests. Because they follow church teaching on the sanctity of all human life, they might have found themselves attracted to Mr. Trump because of his position on abortion. From there, however, they might have arrived at the conclusion as the election drew near that anyone who voted for Mr. Biden would be committing a mortal sin—that you cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat. They might have told that to their parishioners in a homily, or made videos with this message. They might have said that the “fires of hell” await anyone who planned to vote in a way different from how they insisted a real Catholic had to vote.

Such an approach could have led some Catholics to vote for Mr. Trump over Mr. Biden. But as James Martin, S.J., has rightly pointed out, it could “also lead to anger at pastors, division in parishes, alienation from the church, hatred of candidates and elected officials, contempt for people who belong to one party, rage over election results, despair in the future of the country and, ultimately, to violence. For if the ‘party of death’ gains power, then one must resist, by any means necessary.”

According to Ignatius, once we realize that the beginning, middle and end of our good or holy thoughts or spiritual experiences has led to something less good than we were originally proposing, to something evil, or to disturbance and turmoil in our spirit, it is important to examine the whole train of our thoughts—“that is, how they began, and then how little by little the evil spirit endeavored to bring the soul down from the sweetness and spiritual joy in which it had been, and finally brought it to his own evil intention. The purpose is that through this experience, now recognized and noted, the soul may guard itself in the future against these characteristic snares.”

In our engagement in political life, it is important to pay attention to the “beginning, middle and end” of how our discernment process plays out.

Avoiding the snare

To sum up some of the key elements of St. Ignatius’ teaching on this kind of discernment:

  • The devil is understood by Jesus and in scripture as a deceiver and the father of lies. It is important not to entertain his lies or dialogue with the devil, but rather to act against (agere contra) what the enemy is proposing by countering with the truth.
  • In the case of experienced Christians, the devil may enter through their door by proposing good and holy thoughts, but over time he intends to bend things to his own ends. When we are caught up in a dynamic like this, we find over time that we are diverted from the greater good or are even participating in what is immoral and destructive. We find ourselves in turmoil and disturbance at a profound level.
  • When we realize that this has happened, it is important to revisit how this process began, and how the good or holy thoughts were introduced and then how, step by step, we arrived at a place that is in conflict with our core values and our deepest desires for our communities, churches and country.

When we are living in a social and political reality where lying and misinformation are widespread and used in a manipulative way to hold onto power, it is important for political and religious leaders to act against (agere contra) such lies, and begin to acknowledge the truth and speak the truth to the American people. In our engagement in political life, in addition to knowing church teaching and how this is related to our policy commitments, it is important to be discerning with regard to the concrete ways we pursue these policies, and to pay attention to the “beginning, middle and end” of how the process plays out.

When we see that we have ended up in a place in our social or political life that is less good than we were originally proposing or morally corrupt, or that we are disturbed and in turmoil in our spirit, it is important to review the process by which we were led from “good and holy thoughts” to the current undesirable situation. This will help us to guard ourselves against such characteristic snares in the future.

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