Ultimately, it is inexpedient to faith and injurious to religion for one to claim to know the will or plan of God in partisan politics. As it always seems to turn out, it’s not all that good for politics either.
I will confess that I am uneasy when I hear someone talking about an event they participated in or an experience they had and then somewhere in the remarks, they say something like “this is God’s will for my life” or “this is part of God’s plan for me.”
I don’t use that kind of language to describe either my own spirituality or my experience in life, and maybe that’s the reason why I’m uneasy when I hear it from others. It seems somehow pretentious, a bit gnostic, to lay claim to knowing even a fragment of the divine purpose that is not otherwise disclosed to others of like religious faith. It also seems too individualistic for my comfort, and I imagine what others might think or feel when they hear the certitude of one so confident in their role in the divine plan.
This brings us to Sharron Angle, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate from Nevada. During the weekend of July 10-11, she was interviewed by Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and now founder and chairman of Faith and Freedom Coalition.
When asked by Reed how she might explain her sudden political rise on the national stage, she answered, “I believe that God has been in this from the beginning and because of that when he has a plan and a purpose for your life and you fit into that, what he calls you to, he’s always equipped you for.”
Earlier in June, Angle was interviewed by Bill Manders, a radio talk-show host on KOH in Reno, Nev. He pressed Angle, who opposes abortion in any circumstance, to say whether there was any reason for abortion, including the circumstance of rape or incest. Angle replied by saying, “You know, I’m a Christian and I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations and we need to have a little faith in many things.”
Now this is not the place to take up a critical discussion on the strengths and liabilities of the varying theological views of divine predestination, though there seems to be some forms of determinism lurking here. Nor do I want to argue against the idea that there is a place for religious faith and moral conviction in the public sphere and in public debate.
Rather, as persons of faith in the public sphere, we need to remind ourselves that no society, culture, nation, political party or system can legitimately claim to be closer or truer to God than another or more reflective of or imbued with God’s truth. The attempt to mix, separate or identify religious values and cultural-political values is one fraught with peril.
Consider Angle’s statement about God’s role in her candidacy. When a statement like this is put in a particular social and political context, it begs questions like these: If it was God’s plan that Angle win the Republican nomination, does that also mean that it was God’s plan that her competitors lose? If her political rise is God’s plan, does that not also require that the political fall of her rivals be equally included in the divine plan?
The problem with this individualistic talk about God’s plan is that it leaves out the unspoken but nonetheless present implications or effects of this divine will for others.
In themselves, such statements may seem to be innocuous, innocent expressions of personal piety or even inadvertent vocalizations of civil religion. But they are also readings and interpretations of circumstances that extend beyond the immediate and involve the lives of others.
When the sole survivor of a fatal auto crash remarks that it was God’s will that he survive, the implication is that the survival of the deceased was not – or that their death was God’s will. When a young girl is pregnant as a result of incestuous rape, bringing the fetus to term as part of the divine plan also entails that the intercourse itself was part of the same plan. Advocating from such access to God’s purpose and plan, in the final analysis, reveals a rather arbitrary and capricious deity.
What people of faith want to know is that God is sovereign, in control, with a purpose and a plan. Theistic religions of many types seek generally to affirm this, and it does merit full and frank discussion.
But as the politicization of God’s will shows, this is profoundly problematic when such religious sensibility and interpretation are brought into the larger mundane arena of our social and political circumstances. When diverse moral communities encounter or collide with each other in the public sphere, both the civic order and the religious worlds are needlessly impaled on indefensible rhetoric.
Rather than co-opt God into our partisan politics, it would be better that we let Lincoln be our guide, as he remarked in his second inaugural address in 1865: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations” (emphasis mine).
Douglas Sharp is dean of the Academy for the Common Good, an initiative of Protestants for the Common Good, a progressive voice that brings a biblical and theological perspective to critical public issues. Sharp is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches-USA.