My Take: God not in whirlwinds of Sandy, presidential race
A NASA image of Hurricane Sandy.
October 29th, 2012
01:33 PM ET

My Take: God not in whirlwinds of Sandy, presidential race

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I am riding out Sandy on Cape Cod and wondering whether this, too, is God’s will.

As this storm has carved its path through the Caribbean and up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, it has taken 67 lives and (so far) spared the rest of us. Was it the will of the Almighty that so many should perish?

Is God angry with Cuba, where 11 died last week? More angry with Haiti, where 51 perished? Relatively unperturbed with Jamaica, where the death toll was only two? If a tree falls on my house today, will that be an Act of God, too?

There has been a lot of talk lately about what is and what isn’t willed by Providence, thanks to Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Republican and U.S. Senate candidate who said last week, “I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

Whether “it” in this sentence refers to rape or to conception, it assumes that God is both busy and capricious. Why does God offer the gift of life to some rape victims and not to others? Why does God allow some elections to be close and not others?

One answer, of course, is that God does nothing of the sort. Perhaps there is no God. Or perhaps God is more like the watchmaker divinity of Deism fame who winds up the universe, sets it in motion and then leaves it to its own devices.

In the thought worlds of Indian religions, things operate not by the will of God but in keeping with the laws of karma. So to put it in crudest terms, those who are injured in Sandy somehow have it coming to them, as do victims of rape who find themselves pregnant.

The western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have argued that God has a hand not only in setting our story in motion but also in seeing it through to the end. So Jews, Christians, and Muslims have had to reckon with the classical problem of “theodicy”: In a world in which God is all powerful and all good, why do bad things happen to good people?

As I wrestle with these questions, I cannot help thinking about how differently my New England forebears interpreted these natural disasters. While we speak of the eye of the hurricane, New England's colonists were ever mindful of the eye of a God who was forever watching over them, and sending storms their way as punishment for their collective sins.

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When the Great Colonial Hurricane raced up the east coast and lashed New England in August 1635, its 130 mph winds and 21-foot storm surge were almost universally viewed in supernatural rather than natural terms — as a judgment of God on the unfaithful.

We still have Puritans among us today, of course.

Televangelist Pat Robertson is notorious for turning natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina into supernatural communications — God’s curse on Haiti or New Orleans for bad religion or widespread abortions. And with this “Stormpocalpyse” arriving on the eve of the election, I suspect some will suggest that the rain and the wind are God’s judgment on the leadership of President Obama.

Still, American society as a whole no longer interprets natural disasters as signs of a coming apocalypse or evidence of past misdeeds. When it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes, we tune in to the Weather Channel, not the Christian Broadcasting Network. And we interpret these events not through the rumblings of biblical prophets but through the scientific truths of air pressure and tectonic plates.

As a result of this sort of secular turn, we are much better at predicting the course of hurricanes. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 arrived as a surprise and took many lives with it, including, according to the report of the Massachusetts governor, John Winthrop, those of eight Native Americans taken by the storm surge while “flying from their wigwams.” Sandy is a surprise to no one, thanks to science.

Still, we Americans cannot give up on talk of God’s will. At least according to Newt Gingrich, Mourdock’s foray into rape and theology reflects the position of “virtually every Catholic” in the United States. And if we are to believe the full-page ads taken out  by Billy Graham, God wills the victory of Mitt Romney over Barack Obama.

As for me, I am less sure about what God wills for our storms (political or otherwise). In my view, any God worth worshiping isn’t going to be so predictable, or so capricious.

I don’t think Graham, Mourdock, or Gingrich is speaking on behalf of God. They are speaking on behalf of themselves, on the basis of their own fears and experiences. And they are reading the Bible through their politics, not the other way around.

When it comes to storms like Sandy, I just don't believe in a God who drowns black babies in Haiti yet refuses to drown out the voices of cranky white men who claim so irreverently to speak in His name.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Belief • Billy Graham • Christianity • Church and state • Newt Gingrich • Politics • Science • United States

soundoff (2,188 Responses)
  1. Mike

    I'm a bleeding-heart liberal and observant Jew who is almost always (including today) in agreement with Mr. Prothero.

    October 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Yeah

      Well that was really important.

      October 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  2. god is imaginary dot com

    belief in what isn't there is a mental disorder

    the product of a dysfuntional mind produced by a mind fearful of death

    it is both infantile and dangerous

    the by-product of being a small helpless child and wanting a father figure to reward and punish and show the way

    gods are santa claus for unenlightened adults...

    October 29, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  3. MagicPanties

    My invisible pink unicorn says god wants Mourdock to stop messing with young boys.
    Hey, I'm just letting ya know what god wants.
    Thought you'd want to know.
    Don't know why Billy Graham didn't say anything about this.

    October 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  4. Qman

    "They are speaking on behalf of themselves, on the basis of their own fears and experiences. And they are reading the Bible through their politics, not the other way around." (quoted from the artical)

    Ya' don't say....?

    October 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  5. tony

    Sandy is lumped in with the last coupla mass slaughtering tsunamis. God only intervenes in this stuff if he wants to get a bunch of bronze age Israelites safely across the Red Sea, or wipe out Sodom, etc. The less important, un-chosen Christians just have to learn to fend for themselves. Must be "tough love".

    October 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
  6. Phillip Neff

    Yet another conflict atheist have with God, that He would tell them how to live! Well, I've lived 44 years obeying the Bible and am blessed beyond measure, better then most people I counsel who spend their lives obeying the lust of their own flesh and trying to live their lives by what thus saith CNN and secularism.

    October 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      No, Phillip, you live by PARTS of the bible-–the parts you agree with--and you'd likely have done that anyway even without a bible.

      October 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • tony

      I hope you studied astronomy and watch the heavens for signs every night. Genesis 1:14

      October 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Hindu

      Well said!

      October 29, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  7. god is imaginary dot com

    poseidon did it, or was it king tut, or loch ness???

    October 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Viking

      King Tut actually existed.

      October 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  8. erik

    Okay, you've effectively knocked some people you apparently don't like because they attempted to answer the difficult question of why God does this and not that. But, you failed to present anything close to a logically consitent argument of why God does what He does. What do you believe in? Come on, please make a stand,

    October 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Viking

      You won't get anywhere with that. Christians play Three Card Monty with their beliefs: when one becomes problematic or absurd, they say it is some else's belief, someone who is Not A True Scots . . . Christian.

      October 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  9. god is imaginary dot com

    god is imaginary dot com

    October 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  10. Coflyboy

    According to my conservative Republican neighbor, Obama is to blame for this storm. God had nothing to do with this.

    October 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  11. Orwell seen it before

    Call Pat Robertson, he is God's agent for hurricanes on the east coast and earth quakes in Haiti.

    He will know or can ask.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  12. Eis

    I believe I am at least as as much in touch with our Lord as Gingrich, Robertson and Co.

    If I say that this storm is to deter people who have not voted from voting.. is anyone going to believe me – I mean those people who believe Robertson & Co.?

    Keep in mind, early voters have voted at a far far higher percentage for President Obama

    Now, see, I think that is a downright funny twist!

    October 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  13. Bob Pickle

    Casinos are a national security risk, especially if they are built near critical infrastructure.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  14. Prophet777

    Hurricane Sandy is God's punishment for what the bankers have done to this country. The bankers must repent and be punish or God will continue to inflict this punishment upon mankind.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • Profit $$$

      I thought it was God's rage because of the price of Fruity Pebbles cereal.

      October 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Eis

      And you came up with this nonsense how?

      October 29, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  15. Joker

    When the world ends in December please voice/print a retraction the next day.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Gonna party like it's 1999...oh wait...

      October 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
  16. God

    I didn't have a thing to do with the storm because I don't exist.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • GodTwo

      100% Correct God. We are made up just like Ronald McDonald was. For money!

      October 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  17. Sane Person

    Christians don't worship god, they worship a book.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      No, hinduism, fabrication called Jesus.

      October 29, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  18. Austin

    Sooooooo Scarrrrrry

    October 29, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  19. Coflyboy

    He does. I saw him at the airport.

    October 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  20. cairbrush

    What a refreshing article! Finally, someone whose opinion I can respect!

    October 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Reasonably

      You can respect a man who agrees with Newt Gingrich?

      October 29, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.