Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, I found an article on evolution blog responding to Dennis Prager's claims that only theistic morality can be absolute. I have, of course, debunked such claims in earlier posts, but this is a good article to check out.
One thing struck me in the article, though, which was when Prager said:
That is why The New York Times, the voice of secular moral relativism, was
so repulsed by President Ronald Reagan's declaration that the Soviet Union was
an “evil empire.” The secular world -- especially its left -- fears and rejects
the language of good and evil because it smacks of religious values and violates
their moral relativism.
What is interesting about this to me is that I never thought the use of the word "evil" outside of explicity religious contexts "...smack[ed] of religious values..." I just think that 'good' and 'evil' are simplistic concepts that are difficult to apply in real life. They speak of a certain naivete which I do not necessarily connect with religion. I think nontheists are just as prone to black and white, good vs. evil thinking as theists, in fact.
Moreover, as Jason from evolution blog points out, Prager is missing the point of criticisms of use of confrontational language like "evil empire" or "axis of evil." Labeling the Soviet Union, Iran, North Korea, or Iraq as evil or having evil governments, no matter how appropriate that label, is not the job of the United States government, its leaders, or its foreign policy specialists. The job of the US government is to develop a foreign policy that helps protect America and American interests. Critics of phrases like "evil empire" and "axis of evil" are not claiming that the labeled nations are good. They're not claiming they're evil, either. They're simply criticizing the utility of such language in creating good outcomes for the United States. They are questioning whether or not calling one's opponents "evil" will help lead to a more secure, prosperous America, or a less secure, less prosperous America.
No one thinks of themselves as evil. As writers say, everyone is the hero of his or her own story. Once you paint an opponent as evil, you have lessened the chances of compromise and diplomatic success, both because it creates enmity with those labeled "evil" and because there can be no compromise with evil: It must be utterly destroyed. Calling other nations "evil" simply closes foreign policy options. If we choose to see the world in simplistic good vs. evil terms, then any accomodation or compromise with evildoers makes us evil as well. If the job of the United States government were to fight evil all over the globe, then perhaps this paradigm would make sense, as it would lead us to invade every corrupt regime in the world in order to set things right.
But that's not what the government of the United States is tasked to do. Invading every country that America perceives as evil will have disastrous consequences for the United States, as seen now in the invasion of Iraq. The United States is simply not powerful enough to correct all evils in the world with force. It would exhaust the US economy, cost the lives of countless members of the armed forces, weaken the ability of the US to defend itself, and cause widespread unrest among Americans. Only through diplomacy can the US protect its own interests and also hope to counter evil in the world, and critics of labeling other nations as "evil" believe it is a hindrance to succesful diplomacy.
Ironically, I personally disagree with these critics in part, as I believe that labeling nations as "evil" can actually aid diplomacy at times, but in a way that Prager does not consider. Reagan, whether he truly believed the Soviet Union was "evil" or not, was trying to force the Soviets to get into an arms race with United States that Reagan believed the Soviets could not afford and would thus topple the USSR. As it did. But the Soviets had to believe the US was truly a threat or they would not have taken the bait. It didn't matter whether the Soviet Union was actually "evil," nor whether Reagan actually believed they were. It was a foreign policy gambit of the first order, meant to accomplish the goal of removing the principle threat to American security at the time.
But calling other nations "evil" just to make your value judgment of them known, not as part of a greater foreign policy strategy, does nothing to advance the security of the US nor its interests. It's kind of like telling your asshole coworkers what you think about them. It may be satisfying at the time, and they may really be assholes, but is it really the best thing to do in the long run? Probably not.
So, while Prager sees everything in religious terms, thus mistakenly assuming that critics of using the word "evil" in foreign policy are squeamish due to religious concerns, the truth is that, in the real world, determining who is and isn't evil and labeling them as such is not the most important thing. More important is choosing language and diplomatic tactics that will accomplish the goal of making America safer and protecting American interests, and as satisfying as it is to go around judging others, even the Bible knows that it isn't such a hot idea: "Judge not, lest ye be judged."