Sunday, January 10, 2016

"God Told Me So": The Dangerous Delusions of the Religious Republican

by Nomad

It's strange that the typical conservative voter would reject in a courtroom the very thing they openly support in their presidential candidates.

Last week, as reported by local media,  the courts in Cobbs County, Georgia  heard defense of an 18-year-old woman Olivia Nicole Smith. She is accused of the horrific stabbing murder her step-cousin, 17-year-old high school Abbey Hebert. 

According to her testimony, Smith claimed to neighbors, right after the murder, that God had made her do it after she and her cousin smoked marijuana together. She explained that she had "an overwhelming feeling of God coming to her: and that God had disapproved of her behavior.
In response to this imagined judgment, the young woman had an argument with her relative. That argument somehow ended in a butcher knife of murder in the victim's front yard. Prior to this, both victim and accused murderer had been close friends.
The public was justifiably outraged by the sensational crime.   

Of course, it wouldn't be the first time that God (or Satan) has been the alleged accomplice/mastermind of some otherwise inexplicable crime. In fact, it's a pretty common thing.

Astoundingly, in the very same county in Georgia, back in 2008, then 36-year-old Donna Marie Redding told the police that her husband, Gary Dean Parnell, taken the Lord’s name in vain once too many times. 
(For those of you keeping score, that's Commandment Number 3 - taking God's name in vain- while the prohibition on murder is Commandment Number 6.)
Redding's religious sensibilities were utterly offended by all this loose talk, she claimed, and for this reason, Jesus commanded her to shoot her man with a 12-gauge shotgun in the stomach.

The judge was apparently unswayed by Redding's explanation. She was sentenced to 18 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for dropping a charge of murder. 
Again, the public must have felt justice had been delivered. We can't have people blowing holes in one another simply because one of them forgets to say "Gosh, darn it."

The Word of God and the Insanity Defense

Citing a command from God is not, as more cynical readers might believe, merely some kind of courtroom maneuver. Religious delusional behavior is, in fact, a rather common symptom of mental illness, specifically of paranoid schizophrenia. That's the most common type of schizophrenia and in a study of 193 inpatients with schizophrenia, 24% had religious delusions.
Delusions with religious content (DRC) are associated with poorer clinical outcomes and dangerousness. So, it's not something to take lightly.

In 2005, in Seattle, Isaiah Kalebu broke into the home of a lesbian couple and tortured, raped and stabbed them. It was a horrendous crime too.
Sadly it might well have been avoided. Kalebu had had a history of psychiatric problems, and the staff at one facility where he had been observed noted Kalebu's pressured speech, intense mood, tangential thoughts, intrusiveness toward other patients.
Doctors also noted that Kalebu "seemed disconnected from the realities of the moment" often described as "emotional incontinence."  

When the case came to trial, Kalebu was clearly unrepentant, and told anybody who would listen that he had been told to attack his enemies by "my God,  the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob." He was so disruptive in the courtroom that authorities were forced to physically restrain him in his chair.
Eventually, Kalebu- who was obviously insane- was found guilty of aggravated murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. While it is clear that Kalebu has serious mental issues, the verdict, at least, will remove this very dangerous person  from the general population.

The insanity defense is rarely invoked and seldom successful even when the evidence of mental incapacity is clear. It's usually the last shot as far as a defense.
Outside of the possibility that they are simply faking their madness, there's also another good reason why juries reject this defense. Think of the message we send to the rest of the world if we accept this defense.
There are after all a lot of unbalanced people in the world. Do we really want to tell them they don't need not resist powerful urges or they must act on the voices in their heads?    

It's understandable that the public should feel a sense of relief that such people are locked away from the rest of society. We as a civilized society- (well, sort of) cannot allow lunatics like that to run amok and act upon what they claim to be the Word of God.

The Danger of Delusions

That's why it is all the more bewildering that in 2016, six of the 16 Republican presidential candidates claimed or implied that they were commanded by God to run for the office.

That trend in Republican politics didn't begin this year. We saw peeks of it in Reagan's presidency. President George W. Bush also made similar statements before and during his tenure in office. During a meeting with Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, in 1999. Bush said
“I believe God wants me to be president”
A kind of a divine appointment.
Immediately after 9/11, Michael Duffy of Time Magazine quoted Bush as saying 
[I was] “chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment”
And in October 2005, BBC reported that President Bush told a Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath that God had told him to strike at al-Queda and had also instructed him "to strike at Saddam Hussein." (Perhaps it was only a sly reference to Dick Cheney?)

All of these remarks were more or less private- which might be more worrying in a way. 
In a 2003 article entitled "Dangerous Religion," Jim Wallis in Sojourners Magazine writes
Many of the president's critics make the mistake of charging that his faith is insincere at best, a hypocrisy at worst, and mostly a political cover for his right-wing agenda.  
Wallis, however, is willing to suspend his disbelief.
The real question is the content and meaning of that faith and how it impacts his administration's domestic and foreign policies.
That was written in 2003. With the benefit of greater hindsight, we now see that Bush's divinely-inspired crusade in Iraq came at a tremendous cost, in financial, in mortal and in moral terms. 

And that opens up the the even darker side to all this God-baiting. Supposing that a leader's conviction that he has been appointed by God is actually based on sincere and deeply held faith, we still must ask the most frightening question of all: what won't a president do if he thinks God had ordered him to do so? 
Think of all that power- indeed the power to destroy all life on the planet- in the hands of a man who genuinely believes he hears the voice of God in his head? 

Candidates or Con Artists?

In this election cycle, the Republicans have had no hesitation in publicly claiming God's support for their campaigns.  
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the ever coy candidate, shied away from attributing any direct command from God and managed to outsource his divinity-approved credentials. His wife compared him to Moses, for example, and talked about seeing a "burning bush." He told an interviewer that God sent him messages "through a lot of ways and through a lot of messengers." (Similarly, Charles Manson believed that God passed him messages through the Beatles and was instructing him to start a race war.)

After a lackluster showing in the polls, Perry had some doubts about his heavenly orders. On 11 September 2015 , Perry was no longer talking about God's command, burning bushes, or messengers.
He was talking instead  about the green green grass of home, about retiring with his visionary wife and his dogs to the farm. As he walked away from his campaign, Perry told reporters that he had no regrets and that he was "a blessed man."
At least as long as he can stay out of federal prison

Of course, not everybody was as philosophical about giving up on high hopes. Texas billionaire Darwin Deason, who had donated some $5 million to Perry's campaign, wasn't ready to believe that God had changed his mind so easily. Divinity or no divinity, Deason wanted his money back.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker went so far as to say that "every major decision" in his life had been driven by his relationship with God. Running for president, he admitted, was actually "God’s calling" and not an exercise of his personal ambition. In his first official appeal for donations, Walker said that his candidacy was "God’s plan."

In September, God must have had second thoughts about Walker. Walker suspended his campaign,  climbing up to.. zero in the national polls. According to one source, Walker had raised $7.4 million for his short-lived presidential bid but spent his cash as quickly as it came in. Not very impressive in a party that claims that austerity is the surest road to success. In the end, Walker walked and, after all the bills came in,  left a debt of $1 million.

Another one of God's losers was Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. After "thinking and praying" a lot last spring, God gave Jindal a big thumbs up for a presidential campaign and in Bobby jumped right in. Before he was an official candidate, Jindal had learned how to be a religious crowd-pleaser.

Back in 2014, at Liberty University (Jerry Falwell's ghost lumbers about the campus grounds still) Jindal explained the audience:
"I used to think that I had found God, but I believe it is more accurate to say that He found me."
By the beginning of this month, God obviously reversed himself and left Bobby where he found him. Like the sound of a bedroom slipper falling onto a carpeted floor, the ending of Jindal's political barely made any noise at all.  

Dr, Ben Carson, a Seventh Day Adventist, was another candidate who claimed God's hand was on his shoulder. All during his campaign, he was alluding to how God had personally helped him in the past. There was the oft-told story of how God came to the aid of a "ghetto kid" and he didn't study for an exam, He helped him score 97%. 
Carson also told his audience that God was the explanation why he was doing so well in the polls. All of the experst and all of those "smart" pollsters couldn't explain it, he said to his cheering audience.     

Carson cleverly avoided saying directly that he personally had God in his pocket but he inferred it clearly enough. He had, he claimed, never wanted to run for office. It wasn't something he particularly wanted to do. So he consulted God and told Him,
"if you really want me to do this, then you will have to open the doors. I’m not going to push them open. And the doors have flung open."
These days, the doors  are creaking shut everso slowly. God has obviously pranked yet another candidate.

The Miracle that Never Happened

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has never been shy about using either his family nor his supposed divine connections in his campaign. His wife, Karen, told reporters back in 2011, that her husband's candidacy was "God's will" and they both believed "with all their hearts" that Santorum becoming president was something that God wanted.
Bad news for Karen. The polls do not reflect God's will, with 99% of Republican voters preferring anybody but Santorum. To put it biblically, a camel will pass through the eye of a needle before Santorum gets the Republican nomination. 

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee- a frustrated zealot if ever there was one- has never been a demur about citing God's blessing.  He said the decision to run was not a political or financial one but a spiritual decision and that whoever finally ended up in the White House would need help from the Lord. 
“You know, the only thing worse than not being elected president would be to be elected president without God’s blessing."
As a candidate, this surely implies he believes that he has that approval. Without God's hand upon him, he said, he would rather not get near the place.
And what a tragedy that would be.

Like Carson, Huckabee attributed his (momentarily) rise in the polls to divine intervention. When asked how such a thing could happen Huckabee said that there was "only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one."
It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people. That’s the only way that our campaign can be doing what it’s doing. And I’m not being facetious nor am I trying to be trite. There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has. And it defies all explanation, it has confounded the pundits.
In other words, it's an honest-to-goodness miracle!!

Today with Republican polls all showing Huckabee at less than 3% of the vote. (on a good day) that miracle has faded into flukedom.

The Paradox of the Republican Voter

In each case, the candidates claimed directly or indirectly that God was on their side. And their supporters were ready to support that delusion.
For the most part, these candidates didn't claim their their policies were more cost effective, or better for the majority of Americans. Actually their policies are often vague and contradictory or constitutionally impossible. They haven't promised a chicken in everybody's pot or a new car in everybody's garage.
They have instead merely claimed that God had spoken to them and they were heeding his command.

Had these Republican voters instead been jurors in a court case in which the accused claimed he had heard the voice of God, these very same people would have  rejected that argument without any hesitation.

When it comes to murdering teens, well-armed common-law wives, and homicidal madmen, the majority of Americans wholeheartedly reject the idea that commands from God are an excuse for committing crimes. The claim that the voice of God instructed them to do something simply doesn't have any legitimacy in a court of law.
Most jurors would agree that such claims are is more likely a ploy to escape justice or a sign of a deep and possibly dangerous mental disturbance.

And yet.... when it comes to Republican voters, they don't have any problem supporting candidates with exactly the same notions.