Hendrik Hertzberg on God and the Presidential Election

The senior editor of The New Yorker reflects on the way God was used by both parties during their conventions.

God had been all over the place in Tampa, where Romney’s introducer, Senator Marco Rubio, declared that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of them all.” (America’s founders weren’t so sure. As they put it, “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”) The deity was not entirely absent in Charlotte, though. One of His deputies there was Sister Simone Campbell, the leader of the recent Nuns on the Bus tour, which highlighted the gap between the Romney-endorsed Paul Ryan budget and Roman Catholic social teaching; her speech praised the Affordable Care Act. Another was New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who had capped his anti-Obamacare politicking by maneuvering himself into delivering the closing benediction at the Republican Convention. Having him do the same for the Democrats was good strategy for prelate and Party alike, turning down the heat on both.

It must be said, however, that Dolan’s prayers were a trifle tougher on the Dems than on the Reps when it came to his (if not His) big priorities, abortion and gay marriage. Regarding the former, in Tampa Dolan merely called upon God to confer blessings on “those yet to be born and on those who are about to see you at the end of this life” and referred in passing to “the sacred and inalienable gift of life.” In Charlotte, he was more pointed: 

Thus do we praise you for the gift of life. Grant us the courage to defend it, life, without which no other rights are secure. We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected. 

He gave marriage equality a miss in Tampa. In Charlotte, though: 

Show us anew that happiness is found only in respecting the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Empower us with your grace so that we might resist the temptation to replace the moral law with idols of our own making, or to remake those institutions you have given us for the nurturing of life and community. 

It was not hard to guess what idol, and what institution, the Cardinal had in mind. On the other hand, his reference to “nature and nature’s God” was not so clear. The phrase was there to echo the Declaration of Independence. But Dolan must know that it is pure Deism—Jeffersonian code words for a non-supernatural God, a God who creates the universe and its laws and leaves the rest up to us. Could it be that we were witnessing an unheard-of political phenomenon, a dog whistle to voters who, whether or not they believe in a rights-endowing Creator, have their doubts about the sort of deity who begets sons, writes books, performs miracles, and determines the outcome of football games? Probably not. That God won’t hunt.

Hertzberg is not entirely correct in his remark about Jefferson’s reference to “nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence.  Hertzberg claims it is “pure Deism.”  I would probably say the same thing if it were not for the reference to “the protection of divine Providence” in the last paragraph of the Declaration. 

While eighteenth-century Deism could be a big tent that included believers in “providence” (and believers in a “Supreme Judge”–a reference to God that also appears in the last paragraph), it could also include many who were unable to reconcile a watch-maker God with a God who intervenes (“providence”) in humane events  such as the political revolution occurring in 1776.