At the recent Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker invoked the power of God to bless America. In a bizarre twist, even a lone “Muslim for Trump” took the stage and duped the attendees into unwittingly praying to Allah. “God bless America,” “God bless each and every one of you,” “God bless the military and police,” and even “God bless Donald Trump” was the nightly mantra of the party of Christian conservatives.
My ears perked up, however, when Chris Cox, an executive with the National Rifle Association, took the stage. Like most speakers, he engaged the audience with fearmongering tactics. Imagine for a moment, he requested of the Republican faithful, a vulnerable young woman at home alone with her helpless baby, when suddenly her door is kicked in by a brutal thug. What is the vulnerable woman to do? There are only three options, according to Mr. Cox. She could call 9-1-1, but the police response is sickeningly slow: eleven minutes on average, so that wouldn’t be an option. She could pray, Cox asserted, but he neither envisaged an outcome, nor did he cite the mean response time for God to spring into action. The final choice, naturally, would be for the mom to brandish a handgun and, if necessary, kill the intruder. Cox, and also the audience, based on their cheers, would choose option three: to shoot first and ask questions later.
What impressed me about Cox’s speech is the fact that he was willing, unequivocally, to admit that God is of no use to human beings. Whether it was intentionally or unconsciously inferred is irrelevant. He quickly discounted prayer in favor of a speeding bullet. So why do Americans continue their love affair with God despite his inability to have a positive, physical influence on their lives, particularly when they rely so heavily on his involvement? If it’s simply spiritual, then any nonexistent deity will do. One could devise a god, pray to him or her, and feel just as good as one would if one prayed to the biblical god. Even Bertrand Russell’s classic teapot would suffice as an omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent god. Who would know the difference?
Yet Christians cling to this notion of a god that takes an active role in their day-to-day lives. They pray before they partake in an activity, they pray for the sick and the infirm, they pray for world peace, they pray for themselves and others, and, incomprehensibly, they also pray for those who die or are injured during participation in an activity. They pray for police officers killed in the line of duty, they pray for those deceased on the battlefield, and they pray for those who die of their illnesses. The ineffectiveness of their god stares them directly in the face, but they are undeterred. They are, in fact, so desperate for an answer to their prayers that they resort to mere coincidence to bolster their beliefs.
I recently attended a lecture by Harvey Cox, the retired Harvard Divinity School professor, and I listened intently as he described a touching scene of religious nonsense. He spoke of Pope Francis’s 2013 visit to the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea. To mark the tragic drowning deaths of refugees attempting to flee war-torn countries, the pope, using an overturned boat as the symbolic altar, said mass for the victims. He prayed for the souls of those lost at sea and for the safety of those attempting or about to attempt the dangerous journey. In one month alone, September of 2014, over seven hundred refugees died on similar voyages. Since that Mass, thousands have met their deaths seeking a bit of sanity in their lives. The infallible pope, who has a direct line to God, was met with glaringly unsuccessful results. If his prayers didn’t work, whose would?
In December 2015, a former Miss Arkansas USA, Helen Strickland, asked via Twitter for the prayers of her fellow Americans. Her husband, Craig, a country-western singer, was duck hunting with a friend from a boat on Kaw Lake in Oklahoma when a storm interrupted their stalking of our feathered friends. “Please keep praying,” she asked, after it was confirmed that the boat occupied by Craig and his friend had been found capsized. After finding Craig’s dog and recovering the body of Craig’s friend, Chase Morland, the search ended for the night and was scheduled to continue the following day. “Craig is still missing,” Strickland tweeted. “The search has been called for the night. It will resume again in the morning with a sonar boat. Still need prayers.” Craig’s father tweeted a similar response, but his tweet ended with, “Only God & time can put us back together.” On December 27, 2015, Helen tweeted “Craig was found today. He is safe with his Father in Heaven.” Craig was, tragically, a victim of the storm.
Imagine calling the police for an emergency and the officers never show. Your house is on fire, but the fire department never materializes. Now imagine this as a recurring theme. Would a rational person maintain confidence in these public servants? The answer is obvious, no? Or, would people rationalize their disappointments by saying, “Well, the police probably wanted my house to be burglarized to teach me to lock my doors,” or “The fire department probably had more important things to do than to prevent my house from burning to the ground.” Well, this is exactly how Strickland explained away the insignificance of her prayers. She tweeted, “Thank you Lord for leading us to him today. I will praise you. Amen.” Once again, God is off the hook. Strickland, unwilling to admit defeat, credits God for the work of a very human search party.
My own mother prays vehemently, never discouraged, never surrendering, despite a constant flux of defeat. My sister died of leukemia at the age of sixteen. My mother’s husband, my stepfather, died of lymphoma. Her grandson—my son—died from complications of lissencephaly. She not only prayed for these three important people in her life, she also enlisted the prayers of her fellow churchgoers, and she paid for Masses throughout the world. When dialing up God, my poor mother was always greeted with a busy signal. Much like the distraught Mrs. Strickland, my mother sought comfort in both the failure of prayer with lame excuses and in the results that were in no way attributable to God. I refer to this as the manufactured acts of God, something that shouldn’t be credited to God but is anyway.
Several years ago, when a colonoscopy revealed bubbles—not polyps—in my intestine, my mother feared the worst, despite the assurance of the doctor that there was nothing wrong. Because he had never seen this condition in his thirty years as a physician, my doctor referred me to the University of Massachusetts Medical Center for a repeat performance (much to my dismay!). My mother prayed and prayed. I told her it was senseless, because the doctor was convinced the bubbles were simply an anomaly. After Dr. Schwartz investigated, popping a few of the bubbles along the way, it was determined that my mystifying condition was rare, but my sudsy growths were benign. To this day, my mother credits her prayers for my clean bill of health. I have to constantly remind her that I told her over and over again that the doctors found nothing wrong, and I continue to have nothing wrong. Where did God fit into such a cheery picture?
Herbert and Catherine Schaible of Pennsylvania also had a sick child. In fact, they had two sick children, although their illnesses didn’t coincide. Fundamentalist Christians both, the Schaibles were adamant believers in faith healing, relying on the power of prayer and God’s willingness to answer. This belief turned fatal. In January 2009, the Schaibles were convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of their two-year-old son, Kent. Kent had suffered symptoms that would have been concerning to most parents, and most parents would have sought the help of the medical profession. Not the Schaibles. They chose prayer, and Kent died of bacterial pneumonia. Four short years later, the Schaibles were again in court. This time their eight-month-old son, Brandon, who suffered from diarrhea and respiratory problems, had also died. Once again, the family turned to prayer, shunning modern medicine for faith in a mythical character in the sky. Not to fear, however, because the Schaibles lived biblically. They had a reserve of seven other children whom they could abuse with their notorious belief in fairy tales.
The unaccountability of God knows no bounds. Presidential candidates often refer to their conversations with God, their answered prayers, and surreptitious messages from God directed unswervingly at them or their spouses. In recent elections, candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz have affirmed directives from God to run for the esteemed office of the president of the United States. Like most Americans, God refused to talk directly to Rick Perry, so instead he told the missus that Rick should throw his cowboy hat into the ring. They all lost.
Huckabee ran in two out of three election cycles. The middle election of 2012 was troublesome because God told him to run, but he chose not to. Of course, the fact that a former resident of an Arkansas correctional facility, Maurice Clemmons, to whom Huckabee granted clemency in the year 2000, murdered four Lakewood, Washington, police officers in 2009 might have had just a little bit to do with Huck’s decision. It seemed Huckabee had a penchant for releasing prisoners who converted to Christ while behind bars, playing directly on Huckabee’s Christian heartstrings. “I have never done anything good for God,” wrote Clemmons on his parole application, “but I’ve prayed for him to grant me in his compassion the grace to make a start. Now I’m humbly appealing to you for a brand new start.” That was all it took, and this wasn’t a solitary incident. God failed Huckabee on several counts, and he certainly failed those four unsuspecting police officers. What was that? “God bless the police!” I can still hear the hollow plea echoing from the Quicken Loan Center in Cleveland.
Ben Carson, a retired doctor, avowed Christian, and a recent failed candidate for the presidency, had also found himself in the clutches of cancer. He made specious claims that it was prayer and a pyramid scheme that cured him. Although Carson never mentioned his reliance on nutritional supplements as a means of eradicating his cancer until after he became a mountebank for the company, it was commercially produced heavenly manna and prayer that he alleged were responsible for his retaining his prostate. But even Carson couldn’t bring himself to rely solely on God to banish the cancerous cells from his body. Carson went ahead and had surgery. Like many Christians, however, he couldn’t resist making excuses for God’s inability to do . . . well, anything. Never doubting God’s capacity, Carson stated that he went ahead with the operation to be a role model for others who suffered from prostate cancer. Apparently Ben was performing a public service for those who are not favored by his deity and those, as he relayed to the Dallas Weekly, who might not be as “religious about taking the supplements as I had been.”
In politics, a promise is taken as a man’s word. President Barack Obama was repeatedly ridiculed for not following through on his promise of hope, change, and closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. George H. W. Bush lost a second term because he never realized his dream of “no new taxes.” But God, who fails always, is never held accountable. His inaction is historical. He did nothing to save Holocaust victims, to divert the path of the planes on their deadly course to the World Trade Center, to jam the rifle used to kill Dallas police officers. The list goes on and on. Sadly, the Bible guarantees a positive outcome to one’s prayers. In Matthew 7:7–8, it plainly states, “Ask, and it shall be given to you” and “For everyone that asketh receiveth.” The Shaibles, the Kirklands, my mother, many a presidential candidate, and even the pope have asketh and have not receiveth. It’s quite apparent: Either God has little affinity for his creation or he simply does not exist. I vote the latter.