In the Bible, the Devil doesn’t show up until relatively late. Most people assume he’s the snake in the Garden, but actually the Devil’s first appearance is around Chronicles, the two books that sum up the rest of the Old Testament. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the Devil is an invention of Christianity, it would be fair to suggest that he doesn’t have the kind of mythic resonance for Jews that he has for Christians or, for that matter, Muslims, perhaps because in Judaism no single figure embodies God in the way that Christ and Muhammad do in the religions founded in their names. Over the millennia, as Christians have revised Jesus himself from the at-once historical and obscure figure in Mark (the gospel actually written before Matthew, whose more fantastical and spectacular take on Jesus and particularly the resurrection upstaged Mark and thus became definitive) to the judgmental, fire-and-brimstone Jesus of John, the Devil has become more charismatic as well.
The Devil in some ways has been more subject to interpretation than Jesus. Sometimes he’s an abstraction who’s more chaos than evil, sometimes he’s a seducer and con man, sometimes he’s a fallen angel pitted against a God to whom he’s equal, or close to it. In a 20th century of holocaust and annihilation, the Devil of mass popular culture has taken on frightening dimensions as the incarnation of the damned and irredeemable—the face we’ve given to whatever absolute we can still name at the other end of the moral spectrum from good. The paradox is that the more absolute something is, the more subjective, which is to say that the Devil remains in the eye of the beholder or, as the case may be, the producer of a miniseries on the History Channel. Pressed to confer a satanic title on a figure in American history, I might go with, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate war criminal who traded slaves and started the Ku Klux Klan, while you might opt for the president of the United States who crossed the tarmac from Air Force One a couple of days ago to shake the hand of the Israeli prime minister.
The hooded figure slogging through the Moroccan sands in television’s recent saga of The Bible looks rather more like President Obama than like Lieutenant General Forrest. Other than my own lying eyes, I have few hard reasons to doubt The Bible’s producers (one of whom was the star of Touched By An Angel a decade ago) when they insist the resemblance between Barack Obama and Mehdi Ouazanni, the actor playing Satan, is entirely coincidental; out of all the actors in all the gin joints in all the world who might have played the part, apparently Ouazanni was chosen because it’s a role with which he’s familiar, having played it in the past, though this seems a peculiar sort of type casting. On the other hand, Obama also has been cast before in this part by sectors of the American public when they’re not depicting him as Hitler, a foreign-born Other, or the leading figure in an End Days scenarios. The resemblance between Obama and Ouazanni was first noted most prominently not by paranoid leftists but TV’s Glenn Beck, who makes a point of not voicing the president’s name in the manner of Hogswarts wizards who won’t speak Voldemort’s. Other professional blabbermouths of the right have said that while the producers didn’t mean to make Satan look like Obama, God guided the hand of the series’ makeup artist and blinded everyone else on the set while they were shooting. As it happens, this distraction has coincided not only with Obama’s first trip as president to the Holy Land but the ten-year anniversary of a war that not only is the single worst thing done by an American government in our lifetimes but also made Obama president—either the Devil’s work or angels’, depending on your disposition politically if not theologically.
Christians have a love-hate relationship with Satan. They would be nowhere without him, and the more God-fearing that one is, the more useful the Devil becomes, until a point is reached when the Devil becomes more useful than God. That is the point where part of the American body politic has been for the past four years, as demonstrated by the disarray at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend and, on more than a few occasions, in Congress where association with Obama is so all-encompassingly dreadful that some will reverse positions they’ve held for years, even opposing bills with their own names on them, to avoid the sulfuric whiff of presidential support. The Republican Party is no longer a congregation held together by principles, even the wrong ones, but a cult of personality, albeit the other party’s personality that they abhor. It took Christianity 2,000 years to come up with a Devil that it could not just believe in but give its heart to; and as some would have it, the face of that Devil is now also the face of America, or the America anyway that has spent 200 years transcending its most profound sins having to do with slavery and race. When a church’s devil comes to mean more than its god (whether that church is political or spiritual), its animating spirit metastasizes and dies, the quest no longer about transcendence but only deliverance.