Obligatory post on Bachmann's natural disaster comments

When Representative Michelle Bachmann labels the earthquake and the hurricane a shot across the bow from God, that's just begging for comment, right? For the record, this is what she told a crowd in Florida last week:

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.

Now, there's at least two things wrong with this kind of statement. For one, when people identify some calamity as a warning from God, it seems like it's always somebody else who's getting warned. I'd be more inclined to accept anyone's reading of the signs of the times when they discern that it's their own ox that's being gored.

Second, and closely related to the first, Augustine said somewhere that the only nation's history that's utterly transparent to God's providence is Israel in its biblical theocratic phase. But for every other nation things are just a lot more murky.

We are told, in clear and unambiguous language, that God favored the House of David over the House of Saul. Also no locust plague in the Bible is ever just a locust plague. But we have no such clear instructions about partisan politics, public policy or the meaning of crop failures elsewhere, be they delivered by prophetic voice or act of God.

That doesn't mean that God's providence is invisible, but there is margin for error in one's discernment of the signs of the times. In very extreme cases it becomes abundantly clear which side God is on, but most of the time, as Abraham Lincoln told a group of clergy visiting the White House, we ought to be asking whether we're on the Lord's side, not glibly assuming that God is on our side.

That said, Bachmann is only articulating what a lot of average religious Americans think. They're reading the same Bible she is, and reading it as naively as she is, and are likely to conclude (contra Augustine) that the newspaper is as transparent to God's providence as Holy Writ. So the takeaway lesson here is for religious teachers to educate their people on how to read the scriptures in a pious but more sophisticated way.

Finally, Bachmann has departed from the script in such matters. What politicians are supposed to say in times like these is, "First responders are awesome; we're working with X, Y and Z to address the situation; we've seen the inherent bravery and generosity of the American people at work here, and with God's help we will persevere." 

Either Bachmann doesn't know this script, or she's consciously departing from it. Either way, she's showing her political naivete here, not just her hermeneutical naivete. Voters don't want politicians to be their preachers. They want them to be believers (I think I've seen an opinion poll somewhere showing that atheists have a harder time getting elected than Muslims in our society), but not outwardly pious and mainly pragmatic.

Bachmann (and Republicans in general) are channeling Jimmy Carter here, our last Scold-In-Chief. Carter diagnosed the problem of his day as malaise--the existential emptiness of consumerism. Republicans have diagnosed our problems as the evils of debt, incurred by deadbeat homeowners or the government on behalf of selfish, lazy citizens. Both approaches tell people, You're only getting what you deserve.

I imagine we are to blame for the mess we're in, not just the banks or the politicians or our neighbor who got foreclosed upon. But most people don't want their Presidents saying such things, either because they doubt his/her competence in that arena or they'd rather not be held accountable. And that's why Bachmann isn't a viable general election candidate, even if Obama can't or won't do anything to revive the economy by next year.

Originally posted at Avdat.

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