Faith and Public Policy, the Good and the Ugly

It seems the question of religious belief and politics never goes away for long. I guess this makes sense considering the huge importance faith plays in the lives of millions of people. It inevitably influences — and should influence — their politics, one way or another. These days we tend to think of faith-based initiatives being the purview of the Right alone, but historically speaking the Left has been galvanized by religious — in our context, Christian — belief probably more than the Right.

This all makes sense and is a good thing. However, there is a certain kind of religious engagement with politics that I do find troubling. We saw a great example of it this week with the now infamous statement by Richard Mourdock about conception from rape being God’s will. (This is actually a generous reading of his statement; the ambiguity in his clumsy words makes a more heinous reading, that God intended the rape itself as the means of conception, also possible.) These statements sent the mainstream media and secular folk into a tizzy, while making thoughtful people of faith do a facepalm. As the GetReligion blog has been pointing out for years, the mainstream press is woefully ill-equipped to understand faith and the role it has in the lives of many of the people on whom and for whom they report. So its reaction is not surprising. But, seeing as Mourdock’s reference to the story of Joseph in Genesis is in no way controversial for Christians, the faith community’s awkward response is more interesting to me.

In story of Joseph, he is sold into slavery by his brothers, only to be able to save his family years later after he rises to a position of power in Egypt. He famously says that what his brothers meant for evil, God intended for good. This has been a major text in how Western religions have understood Theodicy and the will of God in the midst of trauma. It is not surprising it should come to mind when conservative, pro-life Christians ponder the very difficult ethical issues that rape pregnancy presents. However, it makes me — and I know I’m not alone in this — very uncomfortable to see it used in this discussion politically.

I think the problem is that this response to personal trauma — that what others intended for evil God can turn into good — is a very deep, personal response. It takes great faith, courage, and strength of character to be able to come out of a trauma — especially one as personal, violent, violating, and invasive as rape — with this attitude. It is a powerful and empowering statement of faith for someone who has come through trauma and seen the other side. It is the cherished possession of the victim. It is not an absolute statement of fact to be used in political debate.

There are many beautiful Christian truths that are similar in this way. Take the Beatitudes for example. As a personal set of beliefs they are powerfully counter-cultural and empowering. But in the hands of authorities they can be used as a weapon to promote an unjust status quo.

I guess all I’m saying is that, while for people of faith, the idea that God can turn horrific situations into blessings is not at all controversial, it only works in public discourse in the first person. It is one thing to say “This awful thing happened to me and I accept the consequences as involving God’s Providence.” But to say “This awful thing happened to YOU and YOU will accept the consequences as involving God’s Providence” is quite another.

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