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.