Mitchell's Musings 11-27-2017: Maybe not so mysterious

25 Nov 2017 1:39 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

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Mitchell's Musings 11-27-2017: Maybe not so mysterious

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

I have no idea how the Alabama U.S. Senate race will come out. The post-primary GOP candidate – Roy Moore – has been credibly accused of pursuing teenage girls in shopping malls when he was in his 30s. This is the same Roy Moore whose support especially comes from Evangelicals and is noted for insisting on having the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. The accusations come at a time where various Hollywood and political figures have been found to be, or have been accused of being, sexual harassers and – in some cases – assaulters, and have suffered severe career setbacks as a result. Moore has been urged to drop out of the contest by the Republican leaders of both the House and Senate, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, but he plans to stay in the race and he denies the accusations.

As a result of the Moore case, the LA Times ran an article with the headline "Roy Moore's Senate campaign is a train wreck. So why does he still have a decent shot at winning?"[1] Oddly, the article mainly says that Alabama is a red state and really doesn’t go much beyond that obvious fact. It quotes the state’s governor – Kay Ivey - as saying that she believes the allegations (despite Moore rejection of them), but will vote for Moore anyway because he would be a GOP vote in the Senate. (President Trump has said more or less the same thing.) You might see that rationale as a calculation in which the morality issue is weighed against the political outcome and found to be less important in the balance.

Another article in The Atlantic tries to tackle the religious contradiction issue more directly: "Christian Support for Roy Moore ‘Looks Like Hypocrisy to the Outside World’."[2] It resolves the contradiction mainly by suggesting selective beliefs of voters. In this case, Moore’s denial is accepted as truthful and thus there is no moral issue weighing in the balance. People just believe what they want about the allegations in that interpretation. The New York Times ran a rather learned op ed dealing with the theology of the issue of political conservatism’s link to religion. It notes that some conservative religious scholars are now proposing a retreat back to separation of church and state.[3] But apparently such a retreat is not happening in Alabama.

I am no expert in the theology involved, but it seems to me that such discussions are unlikely to produce the political outcome which the authors of such pieces implicitly or explicitly desire. If you start from a fundamentalist premise that God, who is all-powerful, is greatly concerned with the day-to-day events of this world, you are immediately faced with the problem of evil in the world. There are apparently unjust outcomes happening on a daily basis: children dying of disease, natural disasters that equally affect good and bad people, etc. (Note that natural disasters are often termed “Acts of God.”) The ultimate solution to the riddle of why bad things happen despite the existence of a caring God is that “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” as the Christian hymn goes.[4] Strange and unfathomable things may be taking place, but there is a Plan behind it – albeit one which is not immediately apparent.

After all, not all Biblical figures act correctly. King David impregnates the wife of a soldier and then arranges for the soldier to be killed in battle. Jacob deceives his blind father Isaac by pretending to be Esau and through this deception receives a death-bed blessing. Moses – a stutterer – was not an obvious candidate for persuasive leadership, but is nonetheless chosen by God to lead the Israelites.

It’s only a small step from the view that God moves in mysterious ways – but always has an unseen reason - to believe that even if President Trump did what he said on the “Access Hollywood” tape released on the eve of the election, he should nevertheless be voted into office. Even if there is no evidence that Trump had a deep religious belief before running for president, his election could nonetheless part of The Plan. So even if Roy Moore did misbehave in shopping malls, his election could also be part of The Plan.

Those of a more secular persuasion will at best see this approach to personal political decision-making as a variant of “the end justifies the means,” more akin to the pragmatic support for Moore voiced by Governor Ivey and President Trump. But the idea that God can move in unfathomable ways really comes down to saying that God’s means are always ultimately justified no matter how strange or contradictory they may seem; you just have to figure out what those divine means are and then get behind them.

Of course, the key challenge in the God-moves-in-mysterious-ways approach is that YOU, if you are a believer, have to determine what God’s means are, and then act accordingly to produce God’s ends. If you want to persuade someone who follows such reasoning to rethink the political ramifications of that approach, calling him or her a hypocrite is unlikely to do the trick. It isn’t even an accurate accusation, given the underlying premise of God moving in mysterious ways through the American political system. I suspect a better approach for dialog lies in the idea that even if one presumes the perfection of The Plan, it is still possible that imperfect people can misinterpret what that Plan actually is. And bad actors have every incentive to encourage such misinterpretation.

Is anyone considering that approach as the Alabama election approaches?






[4] God Moves in a Mysterious Way (hymn), by William Cowper, 1773 or 1774

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs

And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

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