Recently while surfing the Net, I found an odd little item on the website DiscussAnything.com. It was a story about a pastor in Waco, Texas, who was electrocuted in front of his congregation when he seized a microphone while standing waist-deep in the waters of the baptismal font. “I’m terribly ashamed,” wrote one blogger, “but I must admit I chuckled reading that.” Someone angrily countered that it was not funny, that the man had left behind a wife and three children. Someone else wondered why God was angry enough to render unto him such just deserts. Bloggers fought about whether any nincompoop should know not to take a mike into water; whether you could laugh at the irony or whether you should cringe at the tragedy; whether you were blasphemous in trying to imagine why God called anyone to his side; whether in killing the father it was also God’s will that the family would fall into poverty; whether the church’s congregation would take care of the widow’s earthly needs all the way through three college tuitions, or whether she should be praying for government assistance starting immediately with daycare.
It’s the kind of story that’s perfect for projection–only the sketchiest of actual details, yet occurring to a man of God! In the baptistry, no less! It’s hard to resist the literary challenge, the ideological contest of it all. I’m brooding as I’m blogging; every disaster seems laden with such inventive surmising, becomes a fable about divine punishment. The fabulous nature overtakes any sense of cause and effect. Five years ago I laughed whenever Pat Robertson opened his mouth. Now I listen closely to everything he says like it’s the Ides of March and he’s Julius Caesar’s seer. So when he says that Dover, Pennsylvania, has drawn down the wrath of God by voting the creationists off its school board, I worry that if he does not exactly verbalize God’s commandments, he does express the driving beliefs of those who share a certain mean superstitiousness that informs our very real political life, driving us away from that Puritan vision of the City on the Hill and sending us hellbent toward Armageddon. “If there’s a disaster in your area,” he threatened, “don’t turn to God for help…. God is tolerant and loving, but we can’t keep sticking our finger in his eyes forever.” In the name of that loving God, Mr. Robertson has rationalized the destruction of New Orleans as the wages of sin, called for the assassination of Hugo Chávez and mused about bombing the State Department.
It used to be only the very far fringes who projected their prejudices in a rain of damnation–small groups like members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who spent the past six months traveling the country haunting the funerals of soldiers who’d died in Iraq, shouting that their deaths were God’s punishment for the state’s having allowed gay marriages. But then Rick Santorum, third-ranking Republican in the Senate, opined that Boston’s political liberalism was why priests there felt free to molest children. And Bill O’Reilly has chided the Bay Area for being too liberal by inviting Al Qaeda to “go ahead” and blow up Coit Tower. Holy war feels so near at hand, so palpable. Poor God feels like an excuse for human zealotry, a cipher for random attributions of cause and effect. I’m intrigued by this projected sense of anger, this supremely unquestioning confidence about what God thinks. This certainty is frightening, and one can hear it everywhere.
Pat Robertson and the pastoral advice-meisters propping up the White House adhere to a theology that leaves no room for doubt. The unfolding of the universe is planned and has clear cause and effect that you never have to ponder or research beyond the revelation in your own heart. Although they claim that intelligent design is about a mysterious force, an invisible hand, there is a raging resistance to knowledge itself; there is a faith in faith itself. It is an intolerance of the kind of uncertainty that science depends upon, that leads to testing, probing, making connections wherever they may lead. Rather, the emphasis is on taking at face value, accepting as gospel, trusting authority. It is blasphemy to look behind, to test, to challenge, to go outside the text.
I heard a very similar kind of imputation of blasphemy when I listened to George W. Bush’s recent speeches chiding, among others, Democrats and dissenters for aiding and abetting the enemy. On the one hand he speaks of good news across the globe, of the winds of democracy and the sweet breath of liberty. Yet he also speaks against a backdrop of loud protests in every port of call he visits, from Europe to Latin America. He urges us to support the continued presence of our troops in Iraq when every news outlet on earth is reporting that our troops have used white phosphorous incendiary devices to illegally torch insurgents and possibly civilians. Every news outlet on earth is reporting the discovery of emaciated prisoners in the basement of Iraq’s Interior Ministry. The BBC reports that Shiite death squads have been gathering Sunni men from their homes at night, allegedly under the watchful eyes of American forces, and spiriting them off to be tortured and killed using electric drills, guns, knives, electrical shocks. European papers are filled with outrage about the CIA allegedly having used their airports or hidden prisoners in secret locations within their boundaries, for the sole purpose of torture. Saddam Hussein was allegedly beaten by court clerks for cursing the Shiites while his American guards laughed. Meanwhile, the so-called Graham Amendment would cut off judicial review of prisoners indefinitely detained without charge at Guantánamo Bay and other secret locations.
Whether it was a good or a bad thing to have “pre-emptively” invaded Iraq, it is high time we stopped worrying about whether Democrats are the seditious ones and just admit what a mistake it was. The conduct of this war has embarrassed us, lowered us, endangered us and betrayed our best ideals. We can continue to blame San Francisco or Massachusetts liberals or priests or a vengeful God. But as surely as water carries current, so the debasement of our troops and the lawlessness of our leaders carry risks that need no causal adornment: It is shocking, merciless and infinitely destabilizing.