Shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said liberal advocacy groups deserve part of the blame. They apparently think God permits the entire country to be punished because of people who do not accept their religious views.
On Robertson’s television program in front of a national audience, Falwell identified the groups he had in mind. He criticized the American Civil Liberties Union and federal courts for “throwing God out of the pubic square.” He also blamed gays, lesbians, feminists, pagans, abortionists, People for the American Way, and others “who have tried to secularize America.”
Falwell charged: “I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'” He also said “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.” Robertson agreed.
In saying that God punishes America with “what we deserve” by permitting airliners to be hijacked and crashed into buildings – causing horrible deaths to thousands of innocent people – Falwell and Robertson depict God as extremely violent and heartless.
They also think he employs humans to carry out his brutal and deadly punishments. Their beliefs in this regard are similar to those of the Sept. 11 terrorists, who thought they were doing God’s will.
Falwell and Robertson can cause great harm by promoting these terrorist-like ideas about a cruel, intolerant, and merciless God. Throughout history, millions have been slaughtered based on the notion that God wants people to punish others for refusing to accept a certain religious view.
That mindset led religious believers, usually with the aid of government, to carry out innumerable violent and intolerant acts, including the Inquisition, the Crusades, the burning of witches, religious wars, etc.
Such acts are a reason that the U.S. Constitution prohibits religious groups from using government to impose their beliefs on others.
Disturbingly, Falwell and Robertson are two of the most vocal supporters of restoring governmental powers to religious groups. Fanatical and intolerant religionists would do far more evil by wielding the powers of government than they ever could by hijacking airplanes.
But even without governmental powers at their command, religious leaders can produce serious harm by claiming that God punishes society for the beliefs and acts of those who disagree with them. Some of their followers might decide that they have a God-given duty to attack or kill religious nonconformists in order to placate God’s anger and protect society.
And not only religious minorities but others – such as those in the groups Falwell mentioned – could become targets of the hatred, intolerance, and violence. People could easily conclude that if those groups no longer existed or are punished, God’s anger would not be aroused against society. Then he would not “lift the curtain” but instead protect the U.S. from enemies.
Similar conclusions were reached during the Middle Ages in Europe. In those days, the belief was widespread that God’s wrath could be brought down on an entire society if the views of some of its members displeased him.
To avert such punishment, people inflicted horrible persecutions on Jews, Huguenots, witches, and other minorities in an attempt to rid society of those who were thought to arouse God’s ire.
In addition to the danger of inciting intolerance and violence, Falwell and Robertson’s theological views on terrorism are wrong in another way.
Their ideas are based, at least in part, on Old Testament notions that God protects people when they follow his teachings and punishes them when they don’t. Those outdated views are inconsistent with history, current events, and later biblical teachings.
History and current events show that religious believers are not spared from tragedies more often than nonbelievers. Nature blindly sweeps away all, regardless of their beliefs or morality, by means of floods, earthquakes, fire, diseases, cyclones, lightning, droughts, volcanoes, and other natural disasters.
Likewise, religious believers are no less likely than others to suffer injury or death caused by evil, misguided, or reckless people. For example, probably most of the victims of the 9/11 attacks were religious.
Later writings in the Old Testament also show that being religious does not protect people from evil. The author of Ecclesiastes complains that “one and the same fate befalls every one, just and unjust alike, good and bad. . . . Good man and sinner fare alike. . . . This is what is wrong in all that is done here under the sun: that one and the same fate befalls every man.” (Eccles. 9:2-3)
Even worse, as the author observes: “There is an empty thing found on earth: when the just man gets what is due to the unjust, and the unjust what is due to the just.” (Eccles. 8:14)
Moreover, the Bible says Job was “a man of blameless and upright life” (Job 1:1). But he suffered horrible catastrophes and torments. All the while, evil people remained unscathed and happy.
Job asked: “Why do the wicked enjoy long life, hale in old age, and great and powerful? They live to see their children settled, . . . the rod of God’s justice does not reach them. . . . Their lives close in prosperity, they go down to Sheol in peace. To God they say, ‘Leave us alone; we do not want to know your ways.'” (Job 21:7-9,13-14)
The New Testament contains a similar message. It tells us that Jesus was flogged and crucified; Paul was imprisoned, beaten, and stoned to near death; Stephen was stoned to death; and Silas and all the apostles received beatings.
Additionally, the book of Hebrews relates that other followers of God “had to face jeers and flogging, even fetters and prison bars. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were put to the sword, they went about . . . in poverty, distress and misery.” (Hebrews 11:36-38)
Perhaps Falwell can explain why God continued to “lift the curtain” and allow such things to happen to his most committed and loyal devotees in the Bible. And if God didn’t protect them from evil, why should Falwell think he will protect us?
A lesson from these Bible stories is that being religious is not enough to protect good people from harm, injustice, and violence. Thus, turning to religion is not going to shield society from terrorism or other evil.
Instead of performing religious rituals, sending money to televangelists, and trusting God to solve the world’s problems, people need to work intelligently to eliminate evil. Many consider this struggle to be the real practice of religion.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting. . . . Evil must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice.”
Although the work can be satisfying, King also explained it’s not easy: “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” Not God, but individuals.
Televangelists and other religionists could not be more wrong in saying we should turn to religion and trust God to protect us from terrorism. To defeat terrorism and end other evil in the world, we need to do it with human intelligence, courage, commitment, and teamwork.
An essential element for teamwork is a willingness to tolerate, respect, and cooperate with persons having different religious or political views. That is certainly not what Falwell and Robertson were promoting after the 9/11 attacks.