Even if you’re a godless liberal who has lived for decades in the Sodom and Gomorrah that is Hollywood, you do know there is that other Southern California – you’ve spent time there. This is also Jesus Land after all. That’s somewhere just south of Disneyland – Orange County down through San Diego. That’s the land of the feel-good Christian megachurchs like Rick Warren’s Saddleback thing – but there are many other similar but not quite as wildly successful and lucrative megachurchs. And to keep peace with family or friends you can find yourself at one of those on a Sunday morning, for the Contemporary Christian service with the white-bread Christian Soft-Rock tunes and much waving of hands in the air. And it’s pleasant enough, although the theology can be a bit vague, what with all that talk about personal responsibility and Tough Love – forcing people to fend for themselves for their own good (no loaves and fishes for you today, buddy) – and all the talk of the Muscular Jesus who takes no crap from anyone. But at least there’s not much talk of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation. This is feel-good Christianity, where the blessed and successful feel good about being blessed and successful, and seem to spend a great deal of time listing for each other what’s wrong with those who are not. Yep, Rick Warren made his fortune writing self-help books, so there are things you need to avoid. And in this context that means that those who are not blessed and successful – unlike the good people smiling at each other on Sunday morning – are lazy, or depraved (gay or whatever), or whiners who think they deserve to confiscate the hard-earned goodies of the blessed and successful so they can sit back all fat and happy and do nothing useful – you know, registered Democrats. Somehow this all turns out to be oddly political. But it’s a free country – people can believe what they’d like, as long as they’re not atheists or Muslims, or Mormons, depending on who you ask.
But there are always complications. And that came up when Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann campaigned in Florida on the day Hurricane Irene, such as it was, crossed Manhattan and Long Island and rumbled north to do its damage in New England. Bachmann attended services at a Baptist megachurch near Tampa, and after the usual feel-really-good-about-your-successfulness service, she offered her own theological perspective on what had just happened up north:
She hailed the Tea Party as being common-sense Americans who understand government shouldn’t spend more than it takes in, know they’re taxed enough already and want government to abide by the Constitution.
“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.”
And Steve Benen offers the reaction many must have had to this:
I realize there are conservatives in evangelical circles with whom this message will resonate, but under sensible political norms, this should probably be a career-killer for a national political figure.
Consider exactly what she’s saying here. A major storm swept through the East coast over the weekend, causing at least twenty deaths across eight states. Michele Bachmann, a member of Congress and a leading presidential candidate, believes the hurricane was a message from God? And that the deadly storm has something to do with Bachmann’s opposition to federal spending? And that God is somehow aligned with Tea Partiers’ agenda?
Benen says this is just madness, and refers to an encounter on Fox News in June where Chris Wallace asks Bachmann if she isn’t really just a flake. And there is the video clip here where Bachmann says she finds the question “insulting” – and that is because she is “a serious person.” Wallace quickly backs down – he himself is not calling her a flake, but this is what others might be saying about her, maybe – not that anyone on Fox News would say that, presumably. And Bachmann then makes her case for why she’s not crazy or any such thing – she’s married, she has lots of children, she’s a lawyer, and she’s been a lawmaker – so there! Wallace offers this – “Do you recognize that now that you’re in the spotlight, in a way that you weren’t before, that you have to be careful and not say what some regard as flaky things?” And then she says that she gets it – “Well, of course, a person has to be careful what statements that they make. I think that’s true. And I think now, there will be an opportunity to be able to speak fully on the issues. I look forward to that.”
But maybe she didn’t get it. She did just say that the federal budget prompted God to send a hurricane that killed twenty Americans. The theology of that is a tad flakey.
Benen adds this:
If Bachmann is very lucky, her remarks will go largely unnoticed by the national media because the focus remains on the hurricane and its aftermath. But if reporters pick up on this, Bachmann’s reported remarks should effectively ruin her political ambitions.
Maybe – maybe not – as at Talking Points Memo, Evan McMorris-Santoro contacts the Bachmann campaign folks, who do damage control – Bachmann spoke “in jest” when she said that – so, as her spokesperson, but not her, cleverly enough, says, Just Kidding, folks.
But the damage was done. See Will Bunch – Yet again, Wall Street is spared while Main Street is destroyed…
Yes, one way to see this as the minimal damage in lower Manhattan might as easily be God showing that He loves investment bankers, hedge fund managers, Jim Cramer and Larry Kudlow. The Chosen People were spared His wrath. Hey, theology can be fun.
But Henry Blodget at Business Insider decides to get specific about this – since this woman might be President of the United States one day. He wants some additional clarification on what she does and doesn’t believe, and specifically this:
Does Michele Bachmann believe that God caused the hurricane? (As in, deliberately caused it, now and here – not as in “created a world in which hurricanes exist.” We’re going to assume she believes the latter.)
Does Michele Bachmann believe that God sent the hurricane to deliver a message of some sort (whether or not the message was directed at Washington)? Was the hurricane “punishment” of some sort? If so, for what?
Does Michele Bachmann believe that the fact that the hurricane was aimed at generally Democratic New England was no accident – or did God not mess around with the hurricane’s trajectory once he created it?
Does Michele Bachmann believe that God initially made the hurricane look a lot more terrifying than it turned out to be (except in Vermont and upstate New York) as a way of saying “You have been warned – there’s more where that came from?” If so, what does God want from us, exactly?
Does Michele Bachmann believe that if she is President and the country gets back on the right track, God will not send so many hurricanes?
Blodget concedes that these questions may sound ridiculous, but insists that they are not ridiculous at all:
As voters, we want to know – and we think we are entitled to know – how much of what happens in this world our Presidents will attribute to God versus how much they will attribute to, well, “shit happens.”
And if they attribute everything to God, how much of a micro-manager and micro-communicator do they think God is? Do they attribute train wrecks and market crashes to God, too – or just weather? Do they view negative events such as these as “messages” that should be interpreted? What about events that could be construed as positive messages? Do they believe that God helps good people and punishes bad ones?
And there is more:
Do they believe that God supports all their decisions? Or if God is displeased with some of their decisions will He send a message and make His displeasure known?
And he suggests we get really specific:
Does God favor evangelical Lutherans when He intervenes in the world – or is He an equal-opportunity divinity? Is Michele Bachmann’s God the same god that Muslims pray to, or is that a different god? Does Michele Bachmann think Muslims are praying to the wrong god – or, worse (from the perspective of the Muslims), a god who doesn’t exist?
And this is no joke:
The next President of the United States is going to have to make a boatload of critical decisions, many of which will directly affect us. If Michele Bachmann was indeed joking about Hurricane Irene being a message to Washington from God, we’d be grateful if she could take this opportunity to share some of her other specific theories and feelings about God.
Because it’s obvious that the God Michele Bachmann thinks of when she thinks of God is very important in her life and in the lives of many of her supporters. And we just want to figure out what that means for everyone He isn’t so important to…
And how did it come to be that we’re even talking about this? When did God become a political player?
Well, this was a long time coming. Some years ago Andrew Sullivan wrote The Conservative Soul – arguing “that an accelerating shift was taking place in American conservatism that was transforming the small government secular temperament into a fundamentalist religious mindset that sought its refuge not in doubting humankind’s capacity for good, but in believing in God’s ability to heal all things, including politics.” And David Brooks, in his review of Sullivan’s book, was not impressed at all – as everyone knows that evangelical Protestants are “an infinitely diverse and contradictory group” who don’t think highly of the hyper-partisan nut-cases that pop up from time to time. But Sullivan, now that Michele Bachmann has been doing well with her base, and Rick Perry, the Jesus Texan, has entered the race, wants us all to see The Christianist Takeover:
One launched his campaign in a revival meeting calling for God to solve our economic problems (having previously led mass prayers for the end of the Texas drought); the other emerges entirely out of Dominionist theology and built her entire career in the Christianist world of home schooling, and anti-gay demonization.
And it is this fundamentalist mindset – in which nothing doctrinal can be questioned, and the real world must be bent to the shape of a rigid theo-ideology – that defines these two candidates.
And it’s not just hurricanes:
Hence Bachmann’s belief that the entire deficit can be ended in short shrift solely by massive cuts in spending. This “spending alone” principle cannot be compromised, since taxation in and of itself is a way in which the liberal elites control people’s lives. It doesn’t matter what economists say about the consequence of willful default or of austerity too sharply imposed. It only matters what God says. And God is bound up with a radical American theology in which slavery was more benign than the Great Society, and that the Founders were abolitionists. That American theology creates the justification for the use of American military power across the globe, especially in protecting and advancing Greater Israel, Bachmann’s and Perry’s fundamentalist cause of causes.
So Bachmann and Perry were inevitable:
This is what this party now is: a religious movement clothed in anti-government radicalism. It has nothing to do with the conservative temperament, conservative political thought or conservative ideas. It is hostile to most existing institutions, especially government, contemptuous of the courts, and seized of an ideology as rigid as any far-left liberalism, as utopian as any wide-eyed socialist, as fanatical as anything the left spawned in the 1960s.
And it has hijacked an entire political party; and recently held to ransom an entire country.
Sullivan’s notion is that we do need to know who and what we’re dealing with. And we need to know they are not kidding – not at all.
But now Ross Douthat is back to what David Brooks was saying years ago – everyone is overreacting to politicians and their religious affiliations. George Bush’s ties to a number of religious extremists didn’t amount to much at all, and so any theocratic worries about Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, and their association with fringe-religious radicals and odd ideas is no big deal. Douthat says no one should worry about Republican candidates or try to link them to “scary-sounding political theologies like ‘Dominionism’ and ‘Christian Reconstructionism.'”
Basically this is no big deal:
First, conservative Christianity is a large and complicated world, and like other such worlds – the realm of the secular intelligentsia very much included – it has various centers and various fringes, which overlap in complicated ways. Sometimes teasing out these connections tells us something meaningful and interesting. But it’s easy to succumb to a paranoid six-degrees-of-separation game, in which the most radical figure in a particular community is always the most important one, or the most extreme passage in a particular writer’s work always defines his real-world influence.
Second, journalists should avoid double standards. If you roll your eyes when conservatives trumpet Barack Obama’s links to Chicago socialists and academic radicals, you probably shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that Bachmann’s more outré law school influences prove she’s a budding Torquemada. If you didn’t spend the Jeremiah Wright controversy searching works of black liberation theology for inflammatory evidence of what Obama “really” believed, you probably shouldn’t obsess over the supposed links between Rick Perry and R. J. Rushdoony, the Christian Reconstructionist guru.
Maybe David Brooks wrote that for him. It’s the same argument Brooks made years before. But here too Steve Benen has qualms:
First, “Dominionism” and “Christian Reconstructionism” aren’t just “scary-sounding political theologies”; they’re genuinely scary political theologies. Without delving into these worldviews in too much detail – at least not in this post – these are off-the-charts radical ideologies that would effectively establish Christian theocracies, in the United States, based on the right’s interpretation of Scripture.
Second, I’m very much inclined to agree with Douthat about the futility of playing a “six-degrees-of-separation game,” but what about when there’s one degree of separation? When it comes to Perry’s associations, for example, there are some really far-out-there religious extremists he not only knows, but who the governor directly associates himself with. Is it unreasonable for those who take the First Amendment seriously to question the propriety of these close relationships? Given the direct ties, is it unfair to ask Perry to address these relationships in some detail? Of course not.
But this is what Benen dislikes most about the Douthat argument:
As he sees it, if Obama’s connection to Jeremiah Wright were unimportant, so, too, are Perry’s and Bachmann’s more controversial associates. The problem here is that Douthat himself said Obama’s ties to Wright were very important, making it a convenient time for him to dismiss the guilt-by-association game. The columnist’s argument starts to look like, “It would be wrong for the left to do what I did three years ago.”
And Jonathan Chait points out what really matters:
The real problem with the right-wing obsession with Obama’s “real” roots is that they do not reflect in any way upon Obama’s public record. Obama is a mainstream Democrat, surrounded by Clinton-era veterans, and pursuing roughly the same policies that Bill Clinton would be pursuing if he were president under current circumstances.
Bachmann and (to a slightly lesser extent) Perry are at the forefront of a movement to redefine their party’s ideology in far more radical hues. Their ideological and theological roots offer useful clues to figuring out this new direction. It’s clearly not completely separate from their policies. Bachmann is running around saying that natural disasters are God’s message to cut spending. It’s not a reach to tie her program to her theology. She does it herself constantly.
And then there is Christopher Hitchens on Rick Perry’s God – which opens with a discussion of the Texas drought and Rick Perry using the authority vested in him to call for prayers for rain – which was an official act, and didn’t work. But the politics may have worked:
Not even the true believers really expect that prayers for precipitation will be answered, or believe that a failed rainmaker is a false prophet. And, had Perry’s entreaties actually been followed by a moistening of the clouds and the coming of the healing showers, it is unlikely that anybody would really have claimed a connection between post hoc and propter hoc. No, religion in politics is more like an insurance policy than a true act of faith. Professing allegiance to it seldom does you any harm, at least in Republican primary season, and can do you some good. It’s a question of prudence.
And there, for Perry, it gets tricky, and one does need wiggle-room:
In 2006 he said that he believed the Bible to be inerrant. He also said that those who did not accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior would be going to hell. Pressed a little on the sheer wickedness and stupidity of that last claim, the governor did allow that he himself wasn’t omniscient enough to be sure on such doctrinal matters. He tells us that he is a “firm believer” in the “intelligent design” formulation that is creationism’s latest rhetorical disguise, adding that the “design” could be biblical or could have involved something more complex, but is attributable to the same divine author in any event. Whether he chooses to avail himself of the wiggles or not, Perry can be reasonably sure that the voting base of the theocratic right has picked up his intended message.
And that leaves the other guy out in the cold:
Mitt Romney is in no position, and shows no inclination, to campaign on matters spiritual. His own bizarre religion is regarded as just that by much of the mainstream and as heretical at best by the evangelical Christian rank and file. Advantage Perry – at least among Republican voters. Rep. Michele Bachmann, if she is still seriously considered as being in the race, can also only lose from the comparison: Her religious positions are so weird, and so weirdly held, that they have already made her look like a crackpot. (Or revealed her as such: the distinction is a negligible one.)
And Perry, no matter what his other faults, does not look like a fringe or crackpot character. He has enough chops as a vote-getter and – whatever you think of the Texas “economic miracle” – as a “job-creator,” that even his decision to outbid all comers on questions of the sacred and the profane can be made to seem like the action of a rational calculator.
And Hitchens does see calculation:
Do they, themselves, in their heart of hearts, truly believe it? Is there any evidence, if it comes to that, that Perry has ever studied the theory of evolution for long enough to be able to state roughly what it says? And how much textual and hermeneutic work did he do before deciding on the “inerrancy” of Jewish and Christian scripture? It should, of course, be the sincere believers and devout faithful who ask him, and themselves, these questions. But somehow, it never is. The risks of hypocrisy seem forever invisible to the politicized Christians, for whom sufficient proof of faith consists of loud and unambiguous declarations. I am always surprised that more is not heard from sincere religious believers, who have the most to lose if faith becomes a matter of poll-time dogma and lung power.
So what we get is what Hitchens calls largely boilerplate, and mainly for the rubes. And some of it may be sincerely held deep beliefs. And either way this is nothing but trouble.
But Michele Bachmann, who said the recent surprise earthquake followed by that oddly massive hurricane were God’s way of telling us to better manage how we finance the current national debt and that we do need to rid ourselves of the EPA and school lunch programs or whatever it is this week, did say she was just kidding.
On the other hand, you can always tell about someone by the kind of jokes they tell, and by each and every specific joke they offer up. Humor is a weapon after all. It always has been. In the end, what make things funny is that the one telling the joke actually isn’t kidding at all. Think about it.