I write about politics again not because I have any hopes (nor fears) about what the results of the 2016 election will bring; I write only because the language the Clinton Consensus is using has theological significance.
The hell-language of the consensus tells an important story of changes in modernity that every believer should understand. They also conceal some very interesting things about the same.
Followers of Clinton are using scare tactics (finger on nuke button, negotiating with Iran, foreign policy disaster–whole world going to hell scenarios) that would’ve made Father Arnal from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who said the following, jealous:
The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.
The imagery is shocking, yet it should be recognizable to those who’ve been exposed to the demonic-Trump-trope used by Hillary and her followers. You might not have noticed it because you here such scare tactics in politics all the time, especially among supposedly secular Democrats–some of whom have admitted to helping create the Trump-monster by consistently vilifying moderate Republicans over the years. these sorts of use of it is all the more shocking because, in a typically Irish Jansenist way (cry not for the collapse of the Irish church!), it goes against the Church’s tacit agreement with the modern world. The agreement goes something like this…
The Church overused hellfire language during the medieval period. Delumeau’s Sin and Fear: The Emergence of the Western Guilt Culture 13th to 18th Century documents this overuse in its full gory. In our late modern period the pendulum has swung the other way. In many ways, this is a necessary corrective. You’d be hard-pressed to hear a hellfire sermon in a Catholic church on any given Sunday. Hell has gone into remission for theology.
However, as William T. Cavanaugh argues persuasively in his Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, this does not mean that hellfire has disappeared from the face of the earth. It has migrated to another sphere: secular politics. Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, a recent bestseller, is an important account of how the threat of “religious violence” has been used by the modern nation-state in order to scare its citizens to accept the nation-state’s monopoly on violence. Lilla, as a secular intellectual with an interest in politics, actually believes in the story that there is no salvation outside the state. As you can see, hellfire hasn’t disappeared, instead the threat of hellfire is reserved only for the state, which is capable of real salvation (from the Original Sin of religious violence). This tactic of harnessing only the negativity of the doctrine of Original Sin shall fail as it did for the Church. It’s only a matter of time….