Wednesday, December 19, 2012

God-Talk and the American Public Square: Responses to Sandy Hook Massacre

One of the noteworthy aftershock effects of the unthinkable massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, has been to cast a spotlight on a national conversation that never quite vanishes from the American public square, but which becomes subliminal in non-crisis moments. What kind of God does the nation with the soul of a church worship? Who is He? Or should it be, Who is She?

This God that Americans spend so much time talking about, far in excess of almost any other country in the world, the God on whom Americans lavish so much public attention, who haunts our legal tender and whose presence is persistently commanded by political powerbrokers at prayer breakfasts and political rallies and at each Christmas season, when we're told there's a war against the divine: precisely who is this God?

Who are Americans, since the values of a people who profess lavish lip-service to "their" God are deeply shaped by the kind of deity imagined by those people? In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings, we've seen on full display a gamut of responses to these questions. 

Here's a selection of some of the noteworthy commentary now developing at American blog and news sites:

As Steve Benen reports at The Maddow Blog: the God machine has been in hyperdrive in the wake of the latest horrific school shootings, spewing out "deeply unfortunate" responses. Benen zeroes in on the claims of two ordained evangelical pastors who are leading spokespersons of the religious right, Bryan Fischer and Mike Huckabee. After the Sandy Hook massacre, both maintained that God was absent from and disempowered by the school in which the massacre occurred, since Americans have banished God from the public square and from public schools.

Benen's response to this theological proposition:

There are a few problems with such a perspective. 
Theologically, many Christians believe God is omnipresent, and can't be "systematically removed" from anything. For that matter, there's very little in the Christian tradition that suggests God punishes children when constitutional law hurts His feelings. 
Politically, Huckabee's comments -- seeking to exploit a violent tragedy to push a bogus culture war agenda -- are a reminder that the former Arkansas governor and failed presidential candidate occasionally just isn't a nice guy.

At his Hackman's Musings blog site, Andrew Hackman counters the kind of theological analysis offered by Revs. Fischer and Huckabee:

Within hours of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, talking heads were on TV and the faithful were on Facebook declaring that we should expect nothing else - because we have kicked God out of our schools. 
It seems god is impotent.  Like a vampire, he cannot enter a residence unless he has been invited.

If there was any moment where God must have been present, it would have been in a classroom of young children, some just five years old, who were probably praying and crying for their parents as a disturbed young man took aim at them with a gun. 
The time has come to confront, without reservation and unceasingly, the type of theological evil that emerges from figures like Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer—who after yesterday seem little different from the Westboro hatemongers.  

For Rob Boston at Talk to Action, the "God" proclaimed by religious right leaders such as Revs. Fischer and Huckabee is the opposite of good, praiseworthy, and worshipful:

The God of the Religious Right is mean, petty, vindictive and not very ethical. The God of the Religious Right is all hate and retribution, with no love and acceptance. The God of the Religious Right, in my opinion, is not worthy of our worship.

Theirs is indeed a curious deity: a god who would have prevented the slaughter of innocent children, but for the fact that he was not being prayed to from within the confines of their school building.

At Common Dreams, Pierre Tristam suggests that the petty, vindictive God projected as an authority figure by Revs. Fischer and Huckabee ought not even to exist, given His (it's clear that the God of the religious right is male, isn't it?) tendency to cruel petulance and His willingness to hold children hostage as He demands adulation: 

Perhaps the victims of Hiroshima, Rwanda, 9/11 and Auschwitz should have prayed a little harder, too? If that’s the case—and if anyone can still say that after learning of the manner in which Adam Lanza executed the 6- and 7-year-old children at Sandy Hook Elementary, shooting some of them up to 11 times at point-blank range in his little holocaust—then for god’s own sake, I hope he doesn’t exist, because if it takes praying to such a god to avert these tragedies, it is god himself who deserves the first bullet.

And at Huffington Post, Edward J. Blum, whose eight-month-old son died in his arms about a year ago, counters the argument of those who see God as pulling all the strings when tragedies like Sandy Hook strike: 

"God has a plan for this," a woman explained to me as she prattled on just before the memorial service for my son Elijah. She meant the words to be comforting, but I swallowed them as if lumps of clay. They have sat in my stomach ever since, and try as I may I have been unable to vomit them out spiritually. Providential interpretations of everyday life sometimes feel satisfying - like when bad traffic slows me or down or when a friend has a cold. The deaths of children are quite another.

This is an important conversation at many levels, not the least of which is the level of raw power, since the religious-right theology represented by Revs. Fischer and Huckabee, with their God-as-conservative-white-man-writ-large, exerts undue influence on the political life of the nation. All of us Americans must persistently pay lip-service to the deity adored by these gentlemen, or pay a very high political price for ignoring Him.

It's an important conversation, as well, because, as I note above, the values of the American people flow from the way in which God is imagined and talked about in this nation with the soul of a church, whose public square is saturated with God-talk--and, simultaneously (and isn't this curious?), with guns and violence. Revs. Fischer and Huckabee and the Westboro Baptist church crowd, along with the religious right as a whole, inform us repeatedly that they intend to hold the nation hostage to their God, until we give Him the homage due Him. Until we let Him back into our public square and our schools, from which He's been banished--hence His recurrent piqued fury.

To put the point simply and perhaps crudely: the nation's future depends on whether we permit Revs. Fischer and Huckabee, Westboro Baptist church, and the religious right to control that future. The nation's future depends on God talk. It depends on resolving this question of who God is for Americans. 

It depends, in fact, on getting beyond the recurrent self-defeating conversation itself, as Arianna Huffington maintains, and doing something about the issues underlying all the jawing about God. From where I stand, the future of the United States depends entirely on the willingness of the American people, including people of faith represented so richly in the cultural and political life of the nation, to say, finally and decisively, that enough is enough:

And that we do not intend, as a nation, to bow down before the god of Revs. Fischer and Huckabee and Westboro Baptist church, the god of the religious right and the tea party. Because, while the gentlemen who run those organizations and dominate those movements have every right in the world to worship their god (and to make him in their image), we American people benefit not in the least from that worship.

In fact, we have already lost much in the years in which we've been compelled to worship at the bloody altars of this cruel deity, and we stand to lose much more if we permit ourselves to continue to be so compelled.

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