Ethics & Public Policy Center

Sympathy for the Devil

Published in First Things on August 31, 2020


The opening moments of the 2010 film Devil feature an aerial camera shot gliding in toward the skyline of Philadelphia. It’s an ordinary urban scene, with one exception: The skyline is upside down. The film, produced by M. Night Shyamalan and based on one of his story ideas, has a simple plot. A detective, embittered by the hit-and-run loss of his family, is called to the body of a person who jumped from a high-rise office building. In the process of investigating the suicide, he becomes involved in a very different problem: trying to rescue five people stuck in the building’s elevator.

The rescue efforts don’t seem to work. As time drags on, the five trapped people grow increasingly frantic and self-revealing. Each hides a secret sin, and it gradually becomes clear that one of the five is the devil himself, come to collect the souls of the other four. Though Hindu by birth, Shyamalan attended Catholic and Episcopal schools as a youth and learned the vocabulary of Christian belief. The film’s unexpected ending is classically redemptive. Most memorable is its concluding aerial shot. It’s an exact copy of the film’s opening, but this time the camera glides away from the city’s skyline—which is now turned right side up.

The implied lesson in the opening and closing shots is useful. The Adversary, as Scripture calls him, is not simply hostile to the good; he can’t abide it. The good and the true—honesty, justice, repentance, mercy, forgiveness—anchor and sustain reality. Evil, by its nature, necessarily seeks to invert and parody the good, to turn it upside down, to replace reality with its own manufactured unreality. It cannot bear, and therefore hates, the counter-witness of truth. This is why, from the graveyard of 1968 and its turmoil, the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil” has such a freakishly current resonance:

Just as every cop is a criminal,
And all the sinners saints,
As heads is tails,
Just call me Lucifer,
’Cause I’m in need of some restraint.

Human reality—our beliefs, loves, identity, personality, how we interact with others, and our school for understanding the world—begins in the family. The family shapes who we are, for better or worse. No family is perfect. All have problems. Broken families can and do succeed when ruled by sacrificial love. But at their best, families are rooted in the permanent, covenantal union of one man and one woman, and nothing can fully take the place of that mother and father.  Such families ground the child in a transgenerational story sealed by kinship. This provides a network of support and meaning, a coherent purpose to life.  

Strong families form strong individuals: persons confident in who they are, aware of their obligations as well as their rights, and resistant to manipulation. Thus, healthy families anchor healthy societies and are, in their essence, anti-totalitarianIn like manner, attacks on a healthy society at the macro level—the congealing of economic and political power in a minority elite, for example—inevitably cripple the family on a micro level and result in a poisoned civic life. Which is where we are now.

This shouldn’t surprise. Modern social science has some valuable strengths, but its “imperial immodesty”—as Christopher Lasch once described it—is not one of them. The social sciences have had a massive effect on American life since World War II. In the name of helping families with knowledge-class expertise, social science has actually worked against the family, sometimes quite consciously. 

Christian Smith has explored the cultural and political biases embedded in American sociology.  In The Sacred Project of American Sociology, he tells of the professional rage directed at one social researcher’s book for its suggestion that “traditional marriage . . . is a generally good institution beneficial to most spouses.” Lasch observed that much of the past century’s family-related social science views the traditional family’s work of child-bearing and parenthood as “authoritarian,” “repressive,” “untutored and untrained . . . the last stand of the amateur,” and therefore in need of expert oversight. In effect, he said, it functions as a new kind of religion with a new kind of clergy. And Yuval Levin has likewise noted that social science in general has severe limits: “Science works in the physical world,” he wrote, “not because its method is perfect, but because the rules it is founded on actually exist in reality.  For the same reason, it cannot work in the social world, because these sorts of rules do not exist.” 

Yet some continue to use scientific-sounding projects as weapons in America’s culture wars—especially when it comes to standing something as foundational as the family on its head. This drives the work of Family Story Project, a think tank affiliated with Purpose PBC, a left-leaning New York creative agency and “social movement incubator.”  The mission of The Family Story Project is a wholesale “family reboot” to “address and dismantle family privilege in America” by exposing “the ‘traditional family’ machine and its harms.”  A sample report: “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism.”

For Family Story, many of our inherited ideas about the nature of the family are “rife with sexist, homophobic and racist assumptions.” These ideas often have their roots “in well-funded right-wing Christian ministries, [but are] also advanced by moderate and conservative think tanks and pseudo-academic research institutes who erroneously present them as fact-based.” And so the argument goes, with the usual appeals to diversity and inclusion—good goals in themselves, but in the wrong hands, tools for building a uniquely toxic, upside-down unreality. The good and true are cast as bad and false. The normal and normative are framed as diseased and oppressive.

Jesus called Satan the Father of Lies, but he never accused him of stupidity. The stupidity is ours when we treat those lies with sympathy.

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate in Constitutional studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Photo by Chad Kainz via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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