As an atheist, I don’t believe in the devil, but I believe in devil’s bargains. Let me explain.
I am not certain how the phrase “the devil’s bargain” originated. I suspect it dates to the period when witch-hunters came up with the notion that suspected witches were not merely malicious women (most of the accused were indeed female), but they were in league with the devil and had signed an actual pact—usually in their own blood—with that baleful entity. This is why witchcraft was prosecuted as a heresy, all apart from the supposed criminality of the witch’s actions (cursing a cow, for example, so that it fell ill and died).
In our secular age, a devil’s bargain has come to mean an association between two parties for short-term gain but with long-term hazards that endanger one or both of the parties in question. Under this definition, there is a plethora of devil’s bargains whose consequences have not been wholly beneficial to the very people or entities who have entered into them.
Throughout the world, we are witnessing what seems to me an unprecedented alliance between (mostly right-wing) political parties and (mostly conservative) religious movements. And yet, the apparent success—if an electoral victory or two is to be counted as a success—of such alliances has already resulted in some unexpected effects that have proved disconcerting to their own participants.
Take the case of abortion rights. There was quite a bit of crowing by anti-abortionists when Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, but the immediate (and entirely predictable) result was to energize the other side. Therefore, the Republican “red wave” in the midterm elections never materialized, and Democrats retained control of the Senate and have a strong chance to retain the presidency and regain the House in next year’s elections. All this happened because (a) it is very difficult to take rights away from people without suffering the consequences; (b) support for abortion rights has always commanded a modest majority in this country and is by all accounts increasing; and (c) the Supreme Court decision that threw abortion rights back to the states was so blatantly political—and religiously based—that the Court itself has suffered grievously in a very different court: that of public opinion.
We now witness the amusing spectacle of Republicans doing everything they can not to talk about abortion in the (futile) hope that people will somehow pay no attention and instead focus on the evils of transgenderism, critical race theory, and Bud Light. But it certainly looks to me that the devil’s bargain that the religious Right entered into with Donald Trump has been bad for both sides. It is, indeed, a delicate question which of these sides is the devil in this formulation; both seem pretty devilish to me. But as the evangelicals (a moribund force that has lost nearly half its membership from forty years ago and are now mostly old, White, male, and angry) come to regard Trump quite literally as some sort of messiah, both he and they are heading toward inexorable electoral defeat—assuming (and it is a big assumption) that Trump can stay out of jail.
Elsewhere the situation is not much better. Vladimir Putin seems to fancy himself a defender of “traditional rights”—whatever that may mean in a country that leaped from a peasant society to the enforced atheism (just as bad as enforced religiosity) of the Soviet Union and then to a flamboyant kleptocracy that has enriched a few, including Putin himself, at the expense of the many—against a decadent West. But he is discovering that it is not so easy to marshal the forces of the Russian Orthodox Church against his perceived foe, especially when his Potemkin army can’t win battles except with the aid of ruthless mercenaries.
And what are we to make of Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, whose devil’s bargain with the fanatical Orthodox Jews—with the sole motivation of avoiding prison—is lighting a torch to the country he purports to defend? Narendra Modi in India has ridden the wave of “Hindu fundamentalism” (a grotesque oxymoron in a religion that was founded on the principle of non-exclusivity) for the purpose of remaining in power.
What these politicians fail to grasp is that the separation of church and state is designed to protect the independence of both the church and the state. The founders of the United States established the first such separation in modern history—an achievement that cannot be understated. We became thereby the first major country not to have an established church from the very outset. The Supreme Court can nibble away at this separation all it wants, but there is no chance that it can accomplish anything but minimal and short-term gains. If the religious Right seeks to interfere with the political process it is welcome to do so, but it may not be so happy when politics interferes with its own practices and beliefs.
The problem with linking yourself with fanatics—be they religious or political—is that what you give them is never enough. They always demand more and more and more. In this country, fanatics want to establish a “Christian nation,” abolish abortion in toto, legislate the LGBTQ community out of existence, dictate to us what we read, and demand that they be allowed to discriminate against anyone they disapprove of in the name of “religious liberty.” They will fail in many of these efforts—and fail spectacularly; a fair number of pernicious laws on these subjects have already been stymied by the courts, and their proponents face more such humiliations in the future. In the long term, therefore, we can indulge in a bit of schadenfreude and chortle when they are ground into the dust.
But until then, they will be a devil of a nuisance.
As an atheist, I don’t believe in the devil, but I believe in devil’s bargains. Let me explain. I am not certain how the phrase “the devil’s bargain” originated. I suspect it dates to the period when witch-hunters came up with the notion that suspected witches were not merely malicious women (most of the accused …