The Devil You Know and the Moral Buffet

I’ve been religious at some times in my life, and not religious in others. I’ve believed in God, not believed in God, and occupied several intermediate spots in between those two poles. So I feel that I can understand beliefs that motivate statements like that of Richard Mourdock, who called a hypothetical pregnancy resulting from rape “a gift from god.” I also feel I can denounce them regardless.

Mourdock’s statement touched a nerve in a campaign season that’s seen many candidates (all of them men) chomping at the bit to address the subject of rape for some reason. It also points to a big divide in our country when it comes to people’s notions about The Man Upstairs.

Very few Americans are full-fledged atheists; that’s a leap not many of us are comfortable making. But most of us aren’t super-religious, either. Most of us believe in God in a “sure, why not?” way that makes few demands of our time, because passive faith is a lot easier than active agnosticism. However, we also don’t enjoy the concept of a micromanaging God that directs and influences every single event in our daily lives. We like the idea of a God that made everything and has a cool crash pad ready for us when this life is over, but he’s not gonna give us a big plastic hassle about what we do day to day, man.

But, there are a significant number of people in this country who do believe in a hands-on God, one that takes an active role in our existence. This brings up the thorny issue of why such a God allows bad things to happen, over and over and over again.

I spent a good chunk of my youth as a Jehovah’s Witness. That church’s explanation about why rotten things happened was to say that we are in the End Times. What that means is, Satan has been given free reign over the Earth, trying to take as many people with him as he can before the jig is up and Jesus begins his millennial reign. This theory is based largely on prophecies in the Book of Revelations about what will happen prior to the Apocalypse, plus a whole lot of Biblical numerology and math that would be way more trouble than its worth to spell out (and which I can’t quite remember, either). Suffice to say, Witnesses think the world in the toilet because the devil put it there. It seems almost insane to write this, and to remember that I believed it, truly and sincerely. But here we are.

There are a few holes in this theory, if you’re looking for them. For one, it doesn’t explain why horrible things happened for centuries prior to the End Times. And though it asserts that God has to allow Satan to take over the Earth to fulfill prophecy, or something, it doesn’t really explain why a loving God would do that to his creation. It more or less imagines God and Satan engaging in a celestial battle of COME AT ME, BRO. However, this belief does manage to sidestep the “why does God let bad things happen?” question, saying that the answer is Because he’s stepped out for a moment.

Many evangelical Christians also believe that the End Times are here and Satan’s trying to snatch up as many souls as he can while he still has the time. However, many of these same people also believe that God is still directing traffic down here on Earth. So they must reconcile that belief with the fact that horrible things continue to happen under God’s watch.

The answer, more often than not, is that we mere mortals do not understand God’s ways, that even something monstrous could ultimately make good in the world. This is the belief behind candidates who insist that a fetus conceived by a rape should be looked on as “a gift from god.” When Mourdock made his statement, he used the word “struggled” to describe his intellectual process. That says to me he truly agonized over how to fit together his idea of God with a world in which women are raped. (As long as you take anything a politician says at face value.)

All of this is to say I understand how a person could believe something like this, and say some of the insane things we’ve heard on the subject of rape in the last few months. While understanding this attitude, however, I still believe it must be denounced, particularly when voiced by a candidate for higher office. If Mourdock did “struggle” with this concept, he should have struggled a bit more. Had he done so, he might have realized it is hypocritical, sophistic, and ultimately monstrous.

It is a hypocritical view because it’s selectively enforced. Someone who truly believes God has his hand in everything should apply this attitude toward every facet of life. But if this campaign season is any indication, this belief is only applied to cases of rape. I have yet to hear a candidate say that a triple homicide or a bank robbery is all part of God’s plan we should all just accept. Among all the heinous crimes perpetrated by the hand of man, rape is the only one being given the “Let Go and Let God” treatment.

That’s because this isn’t a true belief at all, but a palliative for an electorate that finds rape, when compared to abortion, the lesser of two evils. Insisting a rape is part of God’s plan is just a backdoor way of preventing a rape victim from getting an abortion, and one that doesn’t hold any water. Extend the idea further: If a rape victim were permitted to get an abortion, wouldn’t that abortion also have to be an act of God? Under such a belief system, didn’t God ultimately decide Roe v. Wade?

I’m fascinated by this dichotomy: A belief in an omniscient, omnipotent God should be reassuring, instilling the believer with the trust that God will handle everything in His due time and everything works out for the best. And yet, the loudest, angriest, most frightened people in our political landscape are people who hold this belief. They profess to believe in a God that directs all things, and yet they still feel the right to pick and choose what to be outraged by and what they leave behind to fate. Their notion of God’s will is extremely fluid, and stretches to encompass certain horrors (rape) but not others (everything else).

All this being said, if an ordinary, everyday person chooses to live their life under such beliefs, I have no right to tell them to do otherwise. But if that person wants to go to Washington and make laws for me, laws that might still be on the books when my daughter becomes an adult, that’s when I have to call bullshit on the Moral Buffet approach to theology.

I was once very religious, but even when I was, I was never comfortable with the idea of a God that directs everything. By definition, such a belief excuses all sorts of awful behavior, like rape, or people who tacitly defend rapists. But the idea most people have of God–Cool Weekend Dad God–doesn’t do anything for me either.

I think often of the God I once believed in, the one that stepped aside for a moment and left Satan in charge to satisfy some kind of celestial bet. It’s an almost nihilistic view of the universe, which was surely not the Witnesses’ intent when they crafted it, but in a bizarre way it’s less monstrous than some of the alternatives. It presents a world where followers must choose between the devil they know and the god that they can’t.