In a post on Richard Mourdock’s controversial comment that life is always a gift from God—even in the case of rape—Sarah Posner argues that we’ve become “far too tolerant of religious explanations and religious excuses for public policy decisions.”
“Every time a politician invokes a religious justification for a policy position,” Posner writes, “he or she should be compelled to articulate a non-religious one.” Can you imagine how quickly arguments against gay marriage would collapse if people had to appeal to something other than biblical literalism (which is already a flimsy argument) to support their position? What on earth would they say?
But until that day comes, it’s imperative to pay close attention to religious justifications for political positions. Mourdock’s widely-derided comment exposes troubling characteristics of his version of God. Even more, it brings to light dangerous aspects of the version of God preached about and prayed to in many Christian churches. Mourdock’s statements about rape should not be easily dismissed as a grammatical error or as a right-wing politician saying out loud something he would have liked to keep secret—or even as the words of a crazy man. Mourdock’s statements are more than that: they are revelations. They make visible the effect that theological constructions have on the world all the time.
Mourdock’s logic (and I use that word generously) emerges out of a belief, held by 84% of white evangelical protestants, in a God who’s in charge of everything that happens in the universe. The danger of this version of God is that you can use it to sanction anything you’d like to sanction—no matter how violent or destructive or oppressive. If God orchestrates everything that happens at every moment, then God is making decisions about what He wants to happen and what He doesn’t want to happen (and when we speak of Richard Murdouck we most certainly speak of a male God).
Imagine God up there looking down at the world and planning our days: Should the Giants go to the World Series or should it be the Cardinals? Giants. Should that woman make it through the intersection safely or should she wreck? Wreck. Should that child suffering from malaria live or should he die? Live. If God allows certain things to happen and prohibits others—if God intends certain things instead of others—then it follows that God approves of what God chooses. Then it follows that God intended you to get pregnant by being raped. He planned it; He asked for it; He wanted it.
The logic is circular: whatever happens, God meant it to happen. The very occurrence of something, then—snow, a home run, illness, rape—becomes its own kind of justification, a way to prove it’s what God wanted, which means all kinds of oppression can be cast as God’s will. So where does it end? What can’t be justified by appealing to God’s intention in this way? This essay? God intended it (as if that will stop all the hate mail I’m likely to get when this posts). Flood? God intended it. Pregnancy? God intended it. Environmental destruction? God intended it. Mass extinction? Hate crimes? Slavery? Genocide? God wanted it all.
In Mourdock’s attempts to clear up his statement by arguing that it’s the pregnancy that results from the rape and not the rape itself that is a “gift from God” he’s making even less sense than he did the first time. If it’s only the pregnancy that’s the gift, then, as Amy Davidson points out in The New Yorker, Mourdock’s God is “an absent-minded God,” who must be looking in the other direction when the rape is occurring before “rush[ing] in to make the best of it.” Mourdock can’t eat his cake and have it, too. If the pregnancy is a gift from God and God is in control of everything, then the rape is also God’s work—for that’s how the woman got pregnant.
Mourdock’s rape-and-pregnancy theology is clearly absurd, but the trickier part is that many who critiqued Mourdock’s statements also employed a variant of this logic when they insisted (as Mourdock later did) that God is against rape.
If there is a God, I, too, would like to argue for a version of God that doesn’t sanction rape, but I think it’s more important to argue that human beings don’t know exactly what God wants or doesn’t want, what God sanctions or doesn’t sanction. In almost every religious tradition with God at its center, God is mystery. That’s what makes God God: transcendence. God is bigger than anything human beings can say about God. God cannot be contained by any theological image humans might construct. No one can speak for God—not to justify oppressive policies and not to justify justice-oriented ones, either. There must be room for doubt in the theological arguments we make about what we believe is God’s will, and we should never lose sight of the fact that it’s just that: what we believe.
This is exactly why the notion of God as mystery appeals to me. Our words about God will always fall short. Because they’re our words, not God’s. We need, therefore, to be careful when we appeal to belief to justify any political position—because when we invoke God’s name, we don’t entirely know what we’re talking about.
I am not arguing that we can’t talk about God at all or make any assertions about God rooted in religious belief. There is a long tradition of liberation theologians—James Cone, Jon Sobrino, Gustavo Gutierrez, Mary Daly, Katie Cannon, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, to name just a few—who do just that. God, they argue, is on the side of the oppressed. God is interested in liberation, in building a more just and life-giving world for the earth and all living beings. But I am arguing that our words about God must be subjected to ethical evaluation by communities of people who hold one another accountable for the effects of our theology.
I imagine I will be accused of ushering us into a world of relativism—a world in which there is no way to tell good God ideas from bad ones—but I am not bringing us there. I’m simply pointing out that this is already the world we live in. And it’s better to admit this than to pretend otherwise. Relativism is not a declaration of meaninglessness; it’s a recognition of the fact that we are always in the process of constructing meaning, whether we believe meaning comes from God or from some other place. The acknowledgment of relativism is a call to accountability and to community and to working together to make the world better.
Some, I’m sure, will point to revelation to dispute my argument about the fallibility of human words about God. We do know what God thinks/wants/intends/sanctions, they will argue, because the Bible tells us exactly that. They might also appeal to direct experiences with God. Maybe God speaks to them or comes to them in dreams and visions… And how wonderful that is. Seriously. But what if you’re wrong? What if you misunderstood?
Either God is transcendent or God’s not God. Appeals to direct revelation from God reverse Mourdock’s God-as-puppeteer argument. Because if you know God’s mind, if you can speak for God, then God isn’t the puppeteer, you are—and you’ve turned God into your puppet.
The news is full of declarations from deplorable, backward, sexist, religious fanatics who don’t allow girls to go to school. Such appeals to God to justify the mistreatment of women and girls are routinely decried as absurd. But the Republican Platform is also sexist, and although it clearly doesn’t rise to the level of Salafists its religious justifications are similar: it would ban gay marriage because homosexuality is a “sin”; it would ban abortion, even in the case of rape, because, as Mourdock claims to know, life is a gift from God.
Predictably, some commentators are recycling the tired talking point that “the left doesn’t get religion” to discredit those outraged by Mourdock’s comments. On the right, New York Times columnnist Ross Douthat argues that the media only sees these comments as shocking and extreme because it’s more secular and liberal than the rest of the country. He laments the “near-complete failure to acknowledge that [Mourdock’s] religious point, about God having the power to bring good even from the worst of human crimes, is much more commonplace than controversial—since the alternative would be to claim that children with rapists for fathers are somehow uniquely disfavored by an otherwise all-loving Almighty.”
Assuming this even is Mourdock’s argument, the problem remains: If Mourdock’s (and Douthat’s) is an “all-loving Almighty” God then the rape was also under His control.
On the liberal side Amy Sullivan argues:
I don’t think that politicians like Mourdock oppose rape exceptions because they hate women or want to control women. I think they’re totally oblivious and insensitive and can’t for a moment place themselves in the shoes of a woman who becomes pregnant from a rape. I think most don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body. But if Mourdock believes that God creates all life and that to end a life created by God is murder, then all abortion is murder, regardless of the circumstances in which a pregnancy came about.
But in her attempt to accuse liberal critics of misreading Mourdock, Sullivan misreads Mourdock herself—and she misreads theology. None of us, including Sullivan, knows what lies in the heart of another, so it’s entirely possible that Mourdock does oppose rape exceptions because he hates women and wants to control them. Dangerous, oblivious, insensitive disregard for how your policies impact others sounds like a perfectly plausible definition of hate, and those who “don’t particularly care that their policy decisions can impact what control a woman does or doesn’t have over her own body” sure sound like people who seek to control women. Sullivan writes that for people like Mourdock God is “in control,” and that “everything works out as it’s meant to,” but that Mourdock “is not arguing [that] rape is the something that God intended to happen.” Such contortions are required to believe that Mourdock’s God is omnipotent only when it suits him. It wasn’t that those offended by the remarks don’t get theology, it’s that they do.
Mourdock’s appeal to God’s intention is used to shield him and his policies from critique. Hey, it’s not my fault I won’t let a rape victim get an abortion, I imagine him saying, choking back the tears. It’s God’s will! But whose God is Mourdock talking about? And why? And who benefits from his version of God? And who loses? I certainly haven’t heard Mourdock championing anti-poverty programs much, and God certainly says a lot more about poverty in the Bible than about abortion.
Ultimately, Mourdock’s statements reveal less about his beliefs than about his views of women. Would Mourdock call erectile dysfunction part of God’s plan? If a man can’t get it up is that God’s way of telling him not to reproduce? Not to have sex? And if it is, shouldn’t we make Viagra illegal?
Perhaps Mourdock would argue that God enabled the invention of Viagra. But then couldn’t you also argue that God helped invent abortions? That their existence is proof of God’s favor? Just how, exactly, are we to determine which medical interventions God intends and which ones God doesn’t?
Mourdock and his Republican, anti-women, anti-choice teammates invoke God so God might bless their dirty work—which all too frequently comes down to controlling women. In a recent interview, Gloria Steinem said, “The deep anthropological, political reason for controlling women is to control reproduction,” adding that, “reproductive freedom, the right to decide for yourself when and whether to have children, is the single greatest determinant of whether you are healthy or not, whether you are poor or not, how long you live, whether you are educated, [and whether you are] able to be active outside the home.” Even our legal system, she pointed out, “penalizes the invasion of private property more than the invasion of bodies,” because the legal world “was built on a law that saw women as possessions, as objects.”
It’s convenient to appeal to God to justify power structures that benefit you. But it’s not really God Mourdock is worshipping. It’s misogyny.