Theodicy and Real-World Justifications

Two recent articles have raised the question of politicians and divine authority. At the Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan asks why Mitt Romney has never challenged the authority of his church’s institutional racism. Meanwhile, Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches takes the occasion of the latest regressive statement on rape by a Republican candidate to challenge the whole notion of justifying policy only on religious belief. Both of these pieces touch on the danger of privileging revelatory authority, especially in a pluralistic setting, and point to the underlying problem: a failure to deal adequately with the theodicy problem.

Theodicy, the attempt to rationalize the existence of evil or misfortune with the existence of a god who is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent,* is one of the thorniest issues that a religion can face. A common approach is to do a bit of hand-waving, invoke the divine privilege of mystery, and assert that all that happens is part of God’s plan. With the omni-attributes of God, this is the only reasonable conclusion; anything else begins to make God a little less all-knowing, -powerful, or -good. Theologians have painted themselves into a corner with their own brush.

I believe Richard Mourdock when he says that rape is never a good thing, but his theodicy, coupled with his religio-political doctrine regarding “life,” forces him to describe a rape that results in a pregnancy as coherent with God’s plan, if not indeed met with divine approval. If he were to admit that the pregnancy was not a blessing, not only would he be opening the door to other potential exceptions, but he would also be limiting at least one of God’s attributes.

Does Mourdock make this calculation every time he articulates a position like this? Possibly, but I rather suspect that it is more the product of a deeply dogmatic tradition that necessitates acrobatic reasoning to support an unalterable article of faith: no abortion, period. This position has become such an essential characteristic of American evangelicalism that it needs no discussion of its scriptural justification; it is self-evident. When paired with the claim that God’s will is behind all that happens, it creates a vicious circle. As Sarah Sentilles points out in an excellent essay, the end result is necessarily that no matter what happens, be it good or ill, God wanted it to happen. This position not only requires a monstrous and capricious God, but also negates any meaning to human agency.

Likewise, when Romney danced about the realities of belonging to a church that explicitly discriminated against its black members, he was running up against the immovable object of the Mormon revelatory tradition. As the son of a proponent of equal rights for African Americans, Romney likely did feel some pangs of sympathy for black Mormons who were denied access to the priesthoods and temple rites. But as an authoritarian, he could not allow himself to question the rightness of that exclusion. Like Plato’s Euthyphro, he found himself tangled in defining what is right: is it what God wants, or is it what is just? In Mormon doctrine, when is comes to a “Thus saith the Lord” pronouncement, the right is defined by divine fiat, and no argument may be brooked. Thus, although Romney could approve of his father’s participation in the civil rights movement, even when it went against the will of church leaders, he was bound*** to accept the black priesthood ban as right, even though it may have seemed unjust.

For Mormons, agency is the defining characteristic of human existence. Their theodicy is spelled out explicitly in their scriptures when Jesus proposes a system under which humans will be given free will, but will face hardships in life. (Satan offered an opposing plan where everyone lives a sin-free life and automatically goes to heaven.) The downside of this theodicy is the ease with which injustice can be ignored. Romney had no reason to feel that the injustice against black members of his church was wrong; he could only wait for the divine proclamation that what seemed just was now also right.

Both Mourdock and Romney are illustrations of why religious authority has no place in policy-making. Such reasoning forces them to make decisions that are not humane.

*And omniscient, too, because “out of sight, out of mind” is an insufficient strategy for a deity.

**The only exception Mourdock allows is when the mother’s life is in danger, and even that must have been a difficult concession to make—which life ought to be more valuable in the confines of his worldview?

***LDS scripture and tradition place great importance on being bound by covenants. D&C 82:10 says, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” This agreement by the godhead to be limited by a covenant pressures the mortal church member to reciprocate.

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