Providence and Politics

By Diana Butler Bass 12-12-2007

Last week, a Liberty University student asked Gov. Mike Huckabee to account for his recent surge in the polls. "There's only one explanation for it, and it is not a human one," Huckabee claimed, "It is the same power that helped a little boy with two fishes and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people. And that's the only way our campaign could be doing what it is doing." In other words, God apparently wants Mike Huckabee to be president-or, at the very least, win the Iowa caucuses. And, evidently, Mike Huckabee wants evangelical Christians to think that God has uniquely chosen him for office, as many believed God chose George W. Bush.

There is good reason for Christians to take theological offense at these claims-and that would be upon the basis the doctrine of providence. Very generally, providence is the idea that God orders human events that enacts God's will for the universe. In popular American religion, as Gov. Huckabee articulated, providence often becomes God's direct intervention in specific historical acts. I once heard George Marsden, the eminent evangelical historian with whom I studied in graduate school, refer to this version of providence as "the finger of God" directing human events.

But finger-of-God explanations are dangerous in relation to politics. If God is the power behind a candidate, then, if that candidate wins, he or she is both beyond reproach and immune to criticism-because, of course, that person is seen as divinely appointed or anointed. The politician's actions are synonymous with God's will. This opens the door for political silliness (God desires tax cuts) or hubris (God favors our political party)-as well as making God responsible for a host of reprehensible or potentially evil acts in the forms of injustice, oppression, or war.

Of course, western Christians once believed in finger-of-God politics-during the Middle Ages in the doctrinal form of the divine right of kings. This doctrine was eventually challenged from within Christian theology itself, when the Puritans argued that divine right had to be balanced with reason and responsibility within the body politic. Although the Puritans did not always practice what they preached, their tradition-as articulated by John Locke-undermined supernatural pretensions to rule. Locke's rejection of the divine right of kings was one pillar of the revolutionary republican politics upon which the U.S. was founded.

But rejecting "finger of God" theories of providence does not necessarily make one a secularist. It is possible to recognize providence in politics, while leaving room for nuance, humility, and mystery. Instead of seeing God as causing specific actions, it seems preferable to understand providence as the unfolding of God's story through time-a tale of sin, reconciliation, justice, and peace from creation to the end of history, of which God shares with us the narrative trajectories, not the specific twists of plot.

In this story, God does not control human actions as a divine puppet master. Rather, as human beings encounter the story, we change and our actions begin to conform to God's narrative of shalom. In this way, God's intentions unfold as we practice faith in humble gratitude that God has invited us into the story. Providence is not divine Mapquest or supernatural tom-tom. Rather, providence is a pilgrimage of God's people in time as they seek to live in mercy, kindness, and grace-and that is where God's will is made known. Not God's finger, providence is the breath of God, the spirit enlivening human beings to do justice.

Any number of the current candidates, Republican and Democrat, offer visions of how they understand their lives in relationship to an unfolding story of God's justice. But no one candidate should or can claim God's anointing on his or her campaign. If nothing else, American Christians might look at the last eight years as an example of the folly of finger-of-God politics.

Diana Butler Bass holds a Ph.D. in American religious history from Duke University. As an independent scholar, she is the author of six books including Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (Harper One, 2006).

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