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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2006 09:16 am

The politics of God-talk

The mighty best not be so sure about the Almighty

You’d think that political scandals, inept disaster relief, a war going badly, and low poll numbers would be enough to humiliate politicians and the religious right out of claiming that God is speaking to them directly. Then along comes Pat Robertson, host of The 700 Club, suggesting last week that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was divine punishment for “dividing God’s land” by giving away Gaza to the Palestinians. Of course, most who didn’t know it already came to realize that Robertson is an idiot in August, when the “Christian leader” suggested that the United States assassinate Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, and followed that with the statement that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for abortion. Unfortunately, rather than leaving it to God to prove the right wrong, Democrats have taken up God-talk, too. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, urged Congress to vote against the Bush budget “as an act of worship” because of the document’s “injustice and immorality.” William Sloane Coffin, the retired Yale chaplain, denounced the Bush tax cuts by saying, “I think he should remember that it was the devil who tempted Jesus with unparalleled wealth and power.” Observing the scene, Joseph Loconte writes in the New York Times: “Christians are right to argue that the Bible is a priceless source of moral and spiritual insight. But they’re wrong to treat it as a substitute for a coherent political philosophy.” Springfield’s favorite son imparted considerable wisdom on this point. When it came to religious faith, Abraham Lincoln kept Christianity at his long arm’s length, which probably served to encourage others to tell him what God wanted him to do. But Lincoln wasn’t ready to concede discernment of the divine to others. To a group of Chicago clergy who brought him advice in September 1862, Lincoln replied: “I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.” Lincoln spent as much time as anybody trying to figure out what the Almighty wanted, but, unlike many, he was wise enough to know that that wasn’t easy. If God was on one side or the other in the Civil War, why did the war drag on so long, at such terrible cost? “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address. What’s up with that? Maybe neither side had it quite right; the prayers of neither side had been answered fully. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” Lincoln concluded. That didn’t mean “do nothing,” however. Lincoln advocated “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” only realizing  we might be wrong. Absolutes and arrogance get in the way of nations trying to do the right thing. Claiming moral superiority is the biggest intelligence failure. It leads to mistakes, miscalculations, deaths. “Americans are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire,” wrote the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr a half-century ago. They need religion, he said, to give them a sense not of infallibility but of humility. Niebuhr brought home the point in The Irony of American History, written in 1952. “If we should perish,” he wrote, “the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”
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