“God Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder,” the satirical magazine The Onion has proclaimed, citing “His confusing propensity to alternately reward and punish His creations with little rhyme or reason.” Given His omnipotence, it’s hardly surprising that God often drives people crazy: His affliction becomes our own. Consider the violent mood swings, between ecstasy and despair, that characterized historic religious revivals. As eighteenth-century evangelist Jonathan Edwards attested, “Those who are saved are successively in two extremely different states–first in a state of condemnation and then in a state of justification and blessedness.” There is method to this madness, Edwards explained. God wanted us to appreciate the “evil from which he delivers us, in order that we may know and feel the importance of salvation.”
More than 200 years later, Americans are still wrestling with evil, quite literally, according to sociologist Michael Cuneo. In American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, he examines popular notions of demonic possession and rituals of deliverance from evil. Exorcism is a “booming business” (if not a highly visible one), Cuneo claims, particularly among charismatic Protestants and Catholics. The Catholic Church has been skeptical of demonic-possession cases, he notes, but “maverick priests” began performing exorcisms during the 1970s and ’80s. Meanwhile, Pentecostalism, an ecstatic form of worship institutionalized in the early 1900s, involving spirit baptism and speaking in tongues, began to influence mainline Protestant churches, contributing to the rise of charismatic “deliverance ministries.”
What inspired a cultural preoccupation with demons? Tracing the apparent rise of demonology in late-twentieth-century America, Cuneo attributes contemporary interest in exorcism partly to popular entertainments (the 1973 film version of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is often cited for inspiring belief in possession). He also sees in the demand for exorcisms a stereotypically American quest for reinvention. Cuneo attended “dozens” of exorcisms and talked to “hundreds” of people (Catholic and Protestant) who believe that demonic possession (or the lesser evil of demonic affliction) are routine occurrences in contemporary America. “Untold numbers” of ordinary middle-class people believe that they have been possessed or afflicted by demons and have undergone exorcisms, he asserts.
It’s difficult to evaluate this claim: You can’t substantiate, much less confirm, a number that’s “untold.” According to Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, there was a surge of interest in exorcism in the 1970s, but ministries that practice exorcisms or deliverance rituals constitute a very small, almost imperceptible subculture of conservative Protestantism today. Cuneo’s evidence of exorcism’s entrenched popularity is mainly anecdotal and circumstantial. In addition to accounts of the exorcisms he’s witnessed and the exorcists he’s interviewed, he relies on cultural indications of a widespread belief in demonism, like hysteria about satanic cults that emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s.