Michelle Bachman recently suggested that the summer’s catastrophic weather reflects God’s displeasure with the course of American politics:
“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians . . . We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said: ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’”
Predictably, she has now retracted her theological claims and says she was just joking.
If the earthquake and hurricane did not represent God’s will, what did they represent in a world governed by an omnipotent, omniscient God? Screw-ups? Things that just slipped by his attention? Any believer who dares articulate the unavoidable implications of religious practice these days, however, will be forced into just such a recantation as Bachmann’s, for religious faith conflicts with what, for contemporary society, is the far more important secular ethic of tolerance and inclusion.
This spring, Texas Governor Rick Perry issued a proclamation declaring April 22 to April 24 as “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” Now what is logically entailed by such a proclamation? The same implications regarding divine will as were behind Bachmann’s unacceptable gloss:
1. That God has omnipotent power over earthly events.
2. That such power exists whether the power-holder decides to change or to maintain a status quo: both action and inaction represent deliberate Godly intentions towards reality.
3. That if God wants to end the Texan drought, he can.
4. That God is aware of our prayers.
5. That God has the capacity to act upon our prayers.
Specifically to Perry’s proclamation (and to every other such “group day of prayer”):
6. That God employs democratic pollsters who tabulate public opinion: the more people praying to him to take a particular course of action, the more likely it is he will rouse himself to that action (this corollary of all such calls to collective prayer conflicts of course with the equally prevalent meme that all it takes is one voice crying out for help to move God to action).
Since Perry and his fellow Texan prayer-senders believe that God should be moved by their collective appeal, they assume that he will clearly understand their worth and their need for relief and that such worth and need for relief constitute a persuasive ground for action. Therefore, and necessarily, they must feel that they are more worthy in God’s eyes than the victims of the Japanese tsunami, of the Joplin, Mo., tornado, and of every other victim of the daily slaughter of the innocents whom God has allowed to perish in natural disasters which he had the power to cancel. After witnessing such mass devastation in Japan and in the U.S., why else would Perry and his fellow Christians now come to God with their request for some rain? Clearly, they must present more persuasive cases for aid than did the thousands of tsunami victims. Otherwise, God would have spared these latter their sorry fates, which none of them or their relatives and friends would have wished upon them and which every victim would have prayed to avoid if, like Perry, they believed in the power of prayer.
To suddenly invoke the obscurantism defense—“Oh, God’s grand, majestic will is inscrutable to us, how dare you, you measly, ignorant worm, draw any implications about God’s attitudes towards his victims from the daily massacre of the innocents“—simply will not do, given the confidence with which believers attribute “miracles”—such as the survival of a single child in a village devastated by an earthquake—to God’s love.
There is no middle ground between a view that every thing that happens is the consequences of God’s action or deliberate non-action, and a view of the universe as proceeding randomly without divine guidance. The latter view is far easier to square with the daily massacre of the innocents; only the human need for, as Michael Novak puts it, a special “Friend” in the sky that can be called on to get us out of fixes leads humans to posit a loving God, whose existence requires the utter torture of logic and reason to reconcile with the randomness of human tragedy.
Bachmann’s attribution of divine pique to Hurricane Irene and other natural disasters is perfectly consistent with Christian faith. It is the retraction of that claim that is inconsistent.