When Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock this week spoke provocatively of rape-induced pregnancy as “something that God intended to happen,” liberals and atheists weren’t the only ones outraged.
The furor extends into Evangelical camps, too. Believers have taken Mr. Mourdock to task for bungling the important doctrine of providence, which holds that a benevolent God upholds and cares for an imperfect world.
In awkwardly wading into theological waters, Mourdock apparently aimed to affirm the belief – widely held in Evangelical circles, in particular – that God's sovereignty knows no limits. It is a concept that has strong ties to 16th-century Swiss religious reformer John Calvin, who saw in scripture and day-to-day events evidence of a hands-on God. Mourdock showed, however, how tricky it can be to apply the doctrine in discussing tragic events.
What Mourdock said “is offensive,” says Richard Lints, a theologian of the Reformed tradition, which has Calvinist roots, and dean at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. “The clumsiness is [to] so align God with evil that God becomes a horrific figure. It’s contrary to anything you read in scripture, and it removes the human responsibility.”
Later, Mourdock sought to explain himself, saying, “God creates life, and that was my point.” But the nuances of theology can often be difficult enough to elucidate in a classroom, much less a press conference or a live television debate.
“The Calvinist would say God has permitted [bad] things to happen” because humans have free agency, says Gary Scott Smith, a Presbyterian minister and historian at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa. “But we should not attribute [evil things] to God, even though God can bring good things out of them.”
Providence and theodicy, which asks how a good God could allow bad things to happen, have stirred debate throughout Christian history. Fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo argued, for instance, that birth defects were a just consequence of original sin.
These days, Evangelicals emphasize God’s sovereignty for many reasons.
Some in the pews are comforted to think everything is part of God’s plan and therefore no suffering is meaningless, according to religion scholar Peter Thuesen, author of "Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine."
What’s more, some also worry that “if you start restricting the scope of providence, that’s a slippery slope to atheism,” says Mr. Thuesen, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “It calls into question whether there really is a God who controls all things.”
Mourdock isn’t part of any obscure sect. He reportedly attends Christian Fellowship Church in Evansville, Ind. It’s a “fairly typical Evangelical megachurch,” not a hub of fringe theology, according to Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois. Insofar as Mourdock seeks to emphasize God’s sovereignty in all things, he belongs to a “vocal minority subculture” in the United States, Thuesen says.
He’s also vying for a spot in an American political tradition. Presidents from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy have emphasized how God provides amidst difficult circumstances. Making good come from evil was an oft-heard theme from a range of politicians after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In the meantime, though, Mourdock might have reluctantly become part of another tradition. As Thuesen sums it up: “politicians are terrible theologians.”