Missing the Point – The God Excuse

Whatever you believe, or don’t believe, with respect to any particular God or religion, the one thing about which we can all agree is that stuff happens.

By “stuff,” I mean good and not-so-good things for which we are personally responsible.  It’s complicated, no question about it, but we just can’t go around in life selectively denying personal responsibility for what we do.  As adults, we need to take credit for the many right and sometimes wrong decisions we make, whatever their outcome.

Before going any further, because this piece is about a sensitive topic, I need to make a disclaimer.  In no way whatsoever, am I being critical of any God or religion.  This country was founded, in part, to assure freedom of religion for its citizens – a correct and righteous principle of government if ever there was one.

Nor is this op/ed about my personal religious beliefs, whatever they may be, or yours specifically.  My only purpose is to encourage a more or less academic discussion of how some of our elected officials choose to take responsibility for their actions and how they perceive the course of history.

Believe or don’t believe what you want – the only caveat being — and it’s an entirely reasonable one — that you don’t act on those beliefs in a way that infringes the fundamental rights of others to enjoy life, liberty, and their pursuit of happiness.

What I’m going to be talking about is the tendency of politicians – one of them in particular – to justify their decisions and policies, not by referencing any set of core beliefs, religious or otherwise, but by deferring to the specific God in which they believe.

Mike Johnson, Congressman from Louisiana, has been elected Speaker of the House.  I’m going to take Mr. Johnson at his word and state, unequivocally, that he is a true believer.  He is a religious man.  He believes in God.  Fine.  His problem – and it’s our problem now that the House Republican Conference has made him one of the most politically powerful people in the country – is that he thinks he can lie to us by pointing to God instead of respecting the facts of any particular situation.  Is his persistent deference to his God and scriptures when it comes to his stand on every issue…  Is it real or just a political gimmick?  Hard to tell.  At the very least, it’s hypocritical.

Intellectually, deferring to God is a safe place for him to operate for two reasons.  One is that it protects him from the scowl of people who are reluctant to criticize someone’s religious beliefs, however politically convenient those beliefs might be.  The other reason is that assuming he sincerely believes that he’s doing God’s will, Mike avoids any problem of personal conscience.  He can, for example, lie with impunity.  …I know.  That’s a rather dramatic assertion I’m making, but it’s a nonetheless valid observation.

In the acceptance speech that he made in front of the full House after being elected Speaker, Mike Johnson said the following…

I want to tell all my colleagues here what I told the Republicans in that room last night. I don’t believe there are any coincidences in a manner like this. I believe that scripture, the Bible is very clear that God is the one that raises up those in authority. He raised up each of you, all of us, and I believe that God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment in this time. This is my belief.

The bolding and red ink were added by me for emphasis.  Use this link to see the video of the speech.

Really?  It was God who determined that he would be Speaker of the House?  Not the Republican right led by Matt Gaetz?  Or is Gaetz also a messenger of Mike Johnson’s God?

Speaking of others in authority, did that same God, the God of Mike Johnson, raise up Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin, Khaled Mashal who is the leader of Hamas – and let’s not forget Donald Trump who is legitimately accused of instigating an attempt to overthrow our government?  …I don’t think so.

Does Mike Johnson’s religious doctrine condone lying to his constituents and the American public about who won the last Presidential election?  …Of course not.  That’s a Mike Johnson thing.  His religion and his God have nothing to do with it.  No righteous God is an excuse for bad behavior.

Would Mike Johnson’s God want Republicans to oppose the banning of personal access to military-style weapons?  Or is that the NRA and other major campaign contributors talking?  Maybe we should ask the Pope what he thinks.  I suspect the Pope, a bona fide religious leader and spokesperson, is hard against the availability of AR-15 rifles to ordinary people.

Is this power of God that Mike Johnson is talking about – based, as he asserts, on his personal interpretation of the specific scripture to which he subscribes – his excuse for supporting the “Big Lie” about who won the last election for President?  And that somehow makes the lie okay?  When he asked God who won, did his God tell him it was Trump?  Where, exactly, in the Bible do the scriptures Mike Johnson reads comment on the 2020 election counts in swing states?

To be clear, I’m not making fun of religion.  Not religion in general or Mike Johnson’s religion in particular.  Quite to the contrary.  I respect people’s heartfelt religious beliefs and take the subject of God very seriously.  I’m just wondering out loud whether Mike Johnson is the real deal, someone we can trust, and a good choice for the august position he now holds.  Or is he just one more flubby-doodle politician, faking it as he goes at our expense?

On a personal level, Mike Johnson can believe whatever he wants.  As Speaker, however, he needs to be non-denominational.  The power of the United States government is most decidedly not derived from Mike Johnson’s God, or anyone else’s for that matter.  It is derived from the people who have elected our leaders – and to be fair, whose judgments are no doubt influenced by their individual religious and other beliefs.  That’s an important distinction that I’m making.

Not incidentally, not all Members of the House and certainly not all of the constituents that he represents share Mr. Johnson’s religious beliefs.

At least for the purposes of governing, the appropriate model for religion is “determinism.”  You can believe that your God created the context in which we are all exercising free will.  What you can’t do, because it is inefficient at best and dangerous at worst, is believe or argue that your God and religion are in charge.  You cannot ignore the facts and lie about an election just because you claim or sincerely believe it to be God’s will.

“Oh, what the heck” you might be thinking, “they’re only excited words on a podium.  Com’on.  He was having a really big day.  Cut the guy some slack.  Under the circumstances, what could possibly be so troublesome about the language of an acceptance speech?”  Albeit an acceptance speech for Speaker of the House of Representatives, second in line to President.

Well, okay, let’s think about it.  Logically, by Mike Johnson’s believing that he’s doing God’s will, he’s effectively attributing the omniscience and omnipotence of God to himself, to Mike Johnson.  I’m not a theologian, obviously, but I’m pretty sure Mike’s religion only recognizes one true messenger of God, and it’s not him.  Everyone else in his faith is doing his or her best to follow the teachings of that singular disciple – while handling a myriad of problems, making countless decisions for which they, personally, are responsible.

As Speaker of the House, can Mike Johnson not ever be wrong, because to error per God’s will would suggest a God that is fallible?  Remember, Mike Johnson believes that his God put him in the Speaker’s chair, and ordained him to run the United States House of Representatives, arguably the most powerful governing body in the world.

I think Mike Johnson knows better.  He is, after all, a confirmed liar as so many fervent supporters of Trump are.  I think he fully understands that his ascent to leadership of the House is neither a matter of destiny nor is it, quite possibly, more than an incidental result of the hot mess that is the Republican condition in the House.  I think he may be playing to his audience, to what end precisely I have no idea, but I’m sure politics has something to do with it.

In any case, we are a democracy, not a theocracy.  To believe otherwise is missing the point.  Ironically, relative to this op/ed at least, Mike Johnson reminds us in his acceptance speech that. chiseled in the marble above the Speaker’s chair, is the phrase “In God We Trust.”  He believes it makes his point.  It doesn’t, although it’s certainly true that Americans are generally a god-fearing people.

More to my point, “In God We Trust” is not a statement to the effect that any particular God is in charge, giving us specific advice, making history happen.  What it means is that we’re optimists.  That if Congress does its job – which it hasn’t been doing lately – and the people who elected Congress…  That would be you and me.  …work hard and smart and believe in our country’s core principles, we’ll be okay.  It may take a while.  We may stumble along the way, but eventually, it’ll all work out for the best.