Friday, September 12, 2008

God Told Me: The Extreme Danger of Rule by Divine Will

Soon after the vice-presidential candidacy of Sarah Palin was announced, the McCain campaign team informed the American people that she would not be doing many interviews, until the media learned to show her “respect and deference” (see, e.g., “In Search of Gov. Palin,”

After her interview with Charles Gibson of ABC News, I think we now know why Sarah Palin is in purdah and will probably remain there for the duration of the campaign. She is clearly not ready to lead. She hasn’t a clue about foreign policy. As we are struggling to extricate ourselves from the bottomless pit of an undeclared war in the Middle East (one pursued on the basis of misinformation and lies), this paragon of pro-life politics is willing to rattle the saber at yet another nation: Russia. She does not even know how to define the foreign policy of the president she has loyally supported, George W. Bush.

In what follows, I want to sketch the mental and moral context that gives rise to such foolhardy, dangerous ignorance of even the most rudimentary aspects of American foreign policy and of our relationship to the rest of the world. I do so as a citizen who has a right to know what someone who may one day sit in the White House thinks, believes, and will do in a moment of crisis. I do so as well as a person of faith who needs to evaluate the policies of a potential president from the standpoint of my faith commitments and values.

The root of Sarah Palin’s ignorance is something she denied in her interview with Charles Gibson, but something we know from many speeches she has given that she does believe: Sarah Palin believes in governing in accordance with the will of God. And, more importantly, she is confident that she and those within her religious worldview know the will of God. In very specific ways. The will of God for the rest of us. For our nation and our world.

This is a dangerous worldview. It is part and parcel of the theocratic platform of the religious right that is embracing Sarah Palin so warm-heartedly. Sarah Palin is a rising star of the religious right because her advocates know full well that she does believe, absolutely and uncritically, that she and her political-religious allies have direct access to the mind of God when it comes to making political and moral decisions that affect all of us. She has explicitly stated this on numerous occasions. One faint denial that she believes this, in the context of an interview in which she was clearly being vetted by the American public, is not going to make the belief vanish.

She would act on that belief if elected. This is why the religious right wants her elected. It is why anyone who does not buy into the ideology of the religious right should be mightily concerned about the possibility that Sarah Palin may one day be president.

Mind you, as a nation, we have never been far from political God-talk. But the kind of God-talk that has infused our national political discourse from the start of our nation has been far from theocratic: in fact, it has been in very specific ways anti-theocratic. The writers of our nation’s foundational documents were terrified at the possibility that our new experiment in democracy would succumb to the battling religio-political ideologies (based in conflicting theocratic visions themselves based in the belief that each side directly represented God’s will) that led to warfare, mass murder, abolition of entire towns, and widespread hunger in Europe the century before the U.S. was founded.

As a result, we have a long tradition of speaking as if God somehow guides us as a nation, and as if the civil values that bind us together derive loosely from religious worldviews, without ever claiming that God directly imparts God’s will to our rulers, in specific ways, on an everyday basis. And that is precisely the claim that Sarah Palin and her religious-political allies want to make.

Why is that claim so dangerous? Let me recount some stories from my personal experience to make my point. These experiences occurred in academic life, which closely parallels political life, in that it has a pyramid structure in which a few folks at the top try to “rule” the rest of a college or university. Like political life, those at the top are subject to public scrutiny and are accountable to their various constituencies—that is, when a college or university is healthy.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of unhealthy colleges and universities out there. I have had the misfortune to end up at several of them. Perhaps not coincidentally, in each case, these have been colleges/universities owned by churches. And perhaps also not coincidentally, they have all been in the American Southeast, where theocratic dreams most persistently invade political discourse of late.

One college at which I worked a few years—this happens to be a small Catholic college in North Carolina—is owned by a community of monks. The Benedictine tradition of the monks who own this college is centered on the idea that the abbot’s word is final: the abbot stands in the place of Christ within the monastic community. Monks take a vow to obey the abbot.

At its best, the relationship between an abbot and a monastic community is collegial—as college life itself is at best, when it works right. That is, the abbot consults with the monastic leadership council and the community at large. The rule of St. Benedict has the radical notion, in fact, that the insights of the youngest monk, the “least” in the community, ought to be particularly valued. At its best, in monastic life, discernment occurs in a communal, collegial context, and the abbot’s decision reflects the community’s discernment of what the Spirit is saying to the community.

At its worst, abbatial rule is tyrannical. This is the kind of abbatial rule I happened to encounter with one of the abbots at the college at which I worked. And it affected the college and my own career, in that the abbot began to claim a direct control over the college—rooted in his own unique direct access to God’s will—that had not been part of the college’s polity following Vatican II.

In my period of association with this college, the monks voted to renovate a beautiful but shaky old building made of bricks hand-crafted by the brothers of the first monastic community to arrive at the location. One day, to their surprise, they awoke to see wrecking crews demolishing the old building. In the night, the abbot told them, God had spoken to him and had told him to have the building torn down. The monks were vowed to obedience. And monks obey.

This was an abbot who, the day he was elected, pulled from his habit a thank-you speech congratulating the monks on electing him unanimously. Only problem was, he was not elected by a unanimous vote. But never mind: he was the abbot; monks obey.

This abbot’s novice master taught obedience to novices by having them dig a hole in the ground half a day, and then fill it the second half of the day. Monks obey. Under the rule of the last two abbots, the college has been returned to a pre-Vatican II situation of direct abbatial control. That is to say, it is now under the direct control of any abbot who happens to believe that God speaks directly and specifically to him—and my experience with the college and monastery showed me that this is a distinct possibility, and that it can have very deleterious effects on the life of the college. And will be unchallenged by the monastery itself. Monks obey.

My other experiences have occurred at colleges in the Southeast representing another church tradition, one different from my own Catholic tradition. They have also been in a cross-cultural setting in which I often witnessed claims of direct divine guidance by the president that I found baffling, but which I struggled to see in a frame new to me, since these colleges were also rooted in an ethnic culture different from my own, and I wanted to respect and understand that culture.

About these experiences, I am not yet prepared to write specifically, though I may do so at some point. They included “manifestations” that seem utterly bizarre to me, now that I am removed from the context in which they occurred, and from the frame through which I struggled as a respectful outsider to try to understand these experiences. Experiences like nighttime exorcisms of college offices, which sometimes included (I was told by a participant whose word is impeccable) casting out the demon of lesbianism from said offices; claims by authority figures that they have reincarnated and are channeling famous predecessors; statements that gay and lesbian people got “caught” in their own reincarnation process and ended up half one gender and half the other; and so on.

Start with God—start with the assumption that a leader (of a state, a corporation, a university: you name it)—has direct access to God, is led by God, represents God to the rest of us, and where do you end up? Here is what I have seen in academic institutions in which I have worked, where that claim has been made:

▪Gross abuse of authority, with claims by top leaders to have absolute authority in institutions whose ethos (and standards of accountability) demand collegial and not authoritarian behavior.

▪Irrational and destructive behavior, including public fits of rage that target perceived critics, justified by the claim that the leader engaging in this behavior has a direct pipeline to God.

▪The claim that the leader is off-limits, not to be approached or questioned, even by those reporting to her/him, and even when her/his choice to slam the door in the face of a member of the leadership team impairs the functioning of the university.

▪The deliberate choice of the leader to surround herself/himself with mediocre and ethically-challenged councilors,

▪Because those councilors are more easily controlled (spelled s-y-c-o-p-h-a-n-t-s),

▪And because those councilors will not detract from the public image of the leader as the only real light in her/his administration, the one pulling all strings, the one with the direct pipeline to God.

▪The extremely ugly and unethical practice of seeking to obtain dirt on one’s mediocre and ethically-challenged councilors, in order to assert one’s control over them.

▪The use of money (e.g., huge pay raises not given to other hard-working councilors) to buy off and silence some key mediocre and ethically-challenged councilors.

▪The use of powerful political and financial connections to lean on the local media to force it to suppress negative investigative coverage, spin-control image-management attempts to manipulate the media obtrusively, and the dissemination of disinformation to the media.

▪Direct commands from on high, which purport to have religious validation (God is on my side), forbidding anyone to question, contradict, show disrespect to, or fail to be deferential to the president of the university.

▪Claims by the top leader that she/he is more skilled at doing the job of each member of the leadership team than they themselves are, even when she/he has no expertise in the areas in which she/he claims absolute authority.

▪The deliberate development from the top of a culture of secrecy and non-disclosure in which spying on others and collecting dirt is actively encouraged and pursued, even to the extent of breaking laws prohibiting such spying.

▪The maintenance of a team of corrupt lawyers to defend the one engaging in behavior (in the name of God, of course) which skirts the boundaries of law and moral norms.

The ultimate outcome of such behavior—behavior justified by outrageously illicit appeals to the leader's direct pipeline to God? A culture of mediocrity, corruption, and lies pervading the entire institution, from the top down. This is the kind of culture we are now seeing unmasked in recent reports from the Department of the Interior (see, e.g., “Anything Goes, Apparently,” As numerous news reports are indicating, the gross behavior now being exposed in that department is a manifestation of deliberate decisions on the part of our federal leaders to place in key leadership positions people who take kick-backs, who engage in you-scratch-my-back behavior, who are unsuited to do their jobs either by professional background or by strength of character.

And I believe this is the kind of governmental culture we can expect if we allow the theocratic minority to have its way in the current election. As news reports are now noting about the Department of Interior story, and as I have noted in several academic institutions, the establishment of a culture of ethical failure (one masked in religious rhetoric that gives unquestioned authority to leaders who claim to know God’s will) inevitably leads to dysfunction.

There is another parallel to be drawn between that Department of the Interior story and my academic experiences. As long as the books balance, people charged with overseeing an institution and its leaders will tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the person who claims God has put her/him in charge. Some of the key players in the scandal now breaking in the Department of the Interior were allowed to continue behaviors that damaged the Department and its reputation for far too long, because they were bringing in big bucks.

When university boards of trustees, for instance, narrow their ethical focus to money alone—when all they look at is books, whether they balance, whether there seem to be any shoddy financial practices going on—they betray their trust to the institutions they serve. The values leaders must embody to be good leaders go far beyond book balancing: they include transparency, accountability, honesty, collegiality, respect for those whose opinions differ from that of the leader, respect for diversity, etc.

Just as I have not seen those virtues in some university leaders I have encountered, who claim God leads them directly, I do not see them in Sarah Palin. And as a result, I predict not merely the extension of the culture of mediocrity, lies, and corruption we already see in D.C., if she and her running mate are elected. I see a significant deepening of that culture. In the name of God.

As Jane Smiley notes (“Palin in Purdah,”, in a democratic society, it is outrageous for any leader to use a divine shield to dodge accountability to those she governs:

So, the McCain campaign has decided to make Sarah Palin off limits. Can't talk to her. Can't talk about her. Can't let any audience infer anything about her. You must uphold her honor at all times, or the McCain campaign will rush to her defense and attack and punish you. What does this sound like? It sounds like Islam! It also sounds like something much closer to home called "bullshit". . . .

People in the public eye get reviewed . . . .

But more important, it's contempt for the voters, contempt for the citizens, and a prelude to ever more tyranny.

As anyone who has read Jane Smiley’s magnificent Pulitzer prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres knows, girlfriend knows whereof she speaks, when she writes about human nature and the propensity of authority figures to corruption—in the name of God.