For half a century, some evangelical participants in the pro-life movement have taken their passion from the idea that they’re fighting a holy war and saving the nation from God’s wrath. Now that they’ve won, will they lay down their arms?
As an evangelical myself, I’ve heard these warnings hundreds of times: America must overturn Roe v. Wade or face God’s judgment. Often, these seers connect their prophecy with tragic news of the day.
Jerry Falwell, the grandfather of conservative evangelical culture wars, famously claimed that abortion doctors were partly to blame for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, has taken up this line of reasoning. Jeffress has connected abortion with the practice of ritual child sacrifice in ancient religions, claimed that such practice was the reason for Israel’s exile in the 6th century B.C., and made Muslim extremists into modern-day Babylonians sent by God.
Following the school shooting in Uvalde in May, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick delivered a similar message, warning that “if we don’t turn back” to God then “these situations will only get worse and happen more often.”
“You’ve heard about gun-free zones being where bad things happen. When there’s a God-free zone, the worst happens to our country,” Patrick preached at the Republican Party of Texas convention last month.
For readers not familiar with these jeremiads, I’d like to explain the logic here, and hopefully expose its rot.
Sowing and reaping
There are two types of biblical warning that lead to this thinking. One deals with the perpetuating nature of injustice, the other with ancient Israel.
A concise summary of the former is found in one of the Apostle Paul’s early letters. “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked,” Paul warned the Christians in Galatia. “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Here is a clear articulation of a principle: Evil begets evil. Violent seeds yield a violent crop. Just as a farmer doesn’t plant wheat and expect to harvest corn, a nation shouldn’t plant violence and expect peace. Or as pop psychology has it: Hurt people hurt people.
When our laws permit violence (abortion), our leisure celebrates violence (every superhero movie ever), and our people are armed with tools of violence (unrestricted gun access), then it shouldn’t surprise us that violence springs up. We’re incubating it.
One doesn’t have to read Galatians to take this view, nor hold any religious belief at all. Sowing and reaping are easily observable phenomena. This is how the world works.
This is Patrick’s point. I spoke to the lieutenant governor over the July 4 weekend to clarify his message. He said he believes America is planting chaos and lawlessness, so we shouldn’t be surprised that we’re reaping it. He said we’re moving toward a society where God is absent from the public square, and that leads to more immoral sowing which will result in more harmful reaping.
There are holes in that logic. For one thing, God seems to be ever-present in our public discourse, from Supreme Court decisions to Broadway musicals. There’s also an assumption that irreligous people can’t be moral. If good seeds can only be planted by Christians, then good national outcomes can only be achieved by “turning back” to the Christian God. It also ignores the track record of very bad seeds planted by lots of Christians.
But those problems aside, Patrick at least has a cogent argument: You reap what you sow. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
But Patrick’s hermeneutic is not exactly the same as Jeffress’.
Jeffress’ message seems to be about God taking action; intervening in history to pour out his wrath. God is angry at us. He’s just about had it up to here and he’s going to throw a tantrum if we don’t watch out. He’s going to activate, or at least permit, violence as a punishment.
Here, it’s important to understand the second type of Biblical literature culture warriors use, something called a conditional covenant. These are scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible, most notably near the end of Deuteronomy. There, God promised the nation of Israel that if they would obey his laws, they would enjoy security, prosperity and national success. But if they disobeyed, they would face famine, plague and war. This kind of literature is a contract: Each side must uphold its end of the bargain.
Conditional covenants have been co-opted by the most myopic branches of American Christianity, who see our nation as a sort of modern-day Israel, chosen by God for a special purpose and enjoying special favor. These are the Christian Nationalists, the insurrectionists.
Promises of blessing or curse in Deuteronomy were part of a unique relationship between God and a certain group of people at a certain time in history. They are not meant to be understood as universal for all people.
More importantly, God has not established a Deuteronomic covenant with America. And since he hasn’t, it’s insulting to con him into such an agreement, to insist he hold up his end of a bargain he never agreed to.
God is not a machine. You can’t feed Republican politicians and PG movies into one end and get safe schools and fewer teen pregnancies out the other. In fact, if you’re looking for someone who is mocking God, treating God this way is a good place to start.
I reached out to Jeffress to see if he could clarify his comments. He insisted that he is not a Christian Nationalist; that he doesn’t believe America has any special agreement with God. But he did affirm both forms of warning about judgment.
“I think the general point here is that when we talk about God’s judgment, some of it is baked in, like the law of sowing and reaping, but that doesn’t negate the fact that God does specifically intervene in the affairs of men and nations,” he said. “To try to link any specific calamity with God’s judgment is foolish.” And yet Jeffress seems to be doing something very close to that when he labels terrorist attacks or mass murders as God’s judgement.
My purpose here isn’t to single out any preacher or politician. There are hundreds of Christians who think this way, and more than a few powerful public figures who will tell them what they want to hear. Wherever you combine right-wing politics, evangelicalism and privilege, you’re bound to encounter this.
Is judgment coming?
But these prophets find themselves backed into a corner today: Roe has fallen, so what of God’s wrath?
Other rallying cries for this crowd include prayer in schools and religious freedom. But they have won on those issues, too. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially returned prayer to public schools, ruling in favor of teacher-led prayer in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. And several cases in recent years, from Hobby Lobby to Masterpiece Cakeshop, have enforced protections for religious freedom, even to the point of granting religious people the right to discriminate, opponents would say.
So are we to believe that after so many culture war victories, America has seen its last mass murder? (Sadly, before this column could even make it to print, that thesis was proven wrong in Highland Park, Ill.) Or that the next time there’s a terrorist attack, Jeffress will not declare it a sign of God’s judgment?
I doubt it. If you’ve built your entire brand (and income stream) on the trope of battling against “godless culture,” you’re not going to abandon it so easily. Jeffress will find another corner of the culture, declare it godless and blame it for our troubles.
He’s already started.
“God hates the murder of the unborn, but that’s not the only thing God hates,” he told me.
(A bit of advice: Be very careful of any teacher who centers his message on the words, “God hates.” God certainly cares about children, and there are things, like injustice, that he hates. But it’s far too easy for preachers to go wrong here. As author Anne Lamott warned, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”)
The real problem here is not the activism or even the poor hermeneutics. It’s not wrong to uphold a religious moral ethic. In fact, it’s admirable. If you believe that abortion is murder, then you should work to end it. The troubling thing is the irreverent way these pundits set themselves up as God’s spokesmen.
The Old Testament didn’t have a lot of time for people who took it upon themselves to speak for God. They were called false prophets, and their actions were punishable by death.
I called George Mason, recently retired senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, to see if he ever has similar qualms about culture war pronouncements of doom. He reminded me of a critical difference between our modern megachurch prophets and those of the Old Testament.
“It strikes me that part of a genuine prophetic witness is that you suffer the word. You bear it,” Mason said. “It doesn’t feel to me, at times, that those who are proclaiming the word of God have any interest in bearing it. Instead, there is an assumption of power and of blessing. I find that lacking in appropriate humility of the role.”
Biblical prophets were mistreated, misunderstood and outcast. Despite the culture war penchant for pretending to be persecuted, American Christians aren’t.
When a politician points out the law of sowing and reaping, he is only preaching what every farmer and the Bible itself affirms. But when a preacher starts calling God’s shots for him, and then passing the offering plate, there’s a good chance something is amiss.
In the end, it may not matter. The families of the victims of 9/11 or the Uvalde massacre don’t care whether God was active or absent when they lost loved ones — or somehow neither.
The Bible’s really hard lesson here — much harder to accept than “be good and God will reward you” — is that we don’t control God, and he doesn’t owe us anything, including a reward for overturning Roe. That’s what sovereignty means. God will do as he likes. We don’t get a say. He’s God, not a genie. Those of us who are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus should want to obey him for what we might be able to offer to him, not for what we might get from him.
I hope Jeffress and Patrick and their tribe are right about avoiding God’s wrath. Now that Roe is gone, I hope America sees an immediate and miraculous deliverance from violence.
But if not, we’ll know if they were ever really speaking for God.
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