Old Santa-god Shows Up Again

One of my seminary pastoral care professors was Dr. Tibor Chikes. He was a Hungarian refugee who, along with his wife, survived the siege of Budapest in 1945, during which some 38,000 civilians were killed (including by Hungarian troops). I remember two sentences from his classes—which is pretty good, actually. The first: “If you can’t stand anger, get out of the ministry.” That alert has served me well for the four subsequent decades.

If I remember the context correctly, the second sentence was spoken during a critique of American Christian values. Remember his war experience, during which tens of thousands were starved and murdered, when you listen: “Americans believe God is sitting on a cloud, peering down, and is most concerned about what people do with their genitals.”

Right, as if the sole subject of morality is sex.

Krampus, depicted on an Austrian postcard, 1910. Cci/Shutterstock.com

But the other belief Dr. Chikes implicated is that God is watching, meaning ever-ready to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. Chikes rejected the belief in a God understood ultimately as Santa Claus of old, with a nice and naughty list, a bag of goodies, and an evil elf to dish out coal and switches.

I am not saying God is indifferent to human behavior, but a Santa Claus god is not.

Belief in that Old Santa god showed up recently again in public life in Oklahoma. One of our elected leaders invoked him. I’m not going to name the legislator but his identity is easy enough to discover. He was speaking about Oklahoma’s new ultra-restrictive abortion laws. Catch his moral and theological claim:.

“As funny as it sounds, we’ve experienced a big drought in Oklahoma. The week after — the week after — we passed this law to be able to protect the lives of children, we had the most overwhelming rainstorm that came across the state, and it was such an interesting conversation among people in the church, like, ‘Did that just happen? Did that just occur?’”

The reporter concluded his story noting the state was in a state of deep drought and the rain was insufficient to lift anywhere out of drought (note: weeds in my backyard are wilting for lack of water. Weeds.)

It is possible the story was told as a laugh line to warm up the audience that was receptive to the theological point of view. Maybe.

I have never believed in a god who causes rain to fall or withholds rain because of a good or bad action. I don’t think 9/11 was caused by God’s judgment on queer, feminist, and liberal persons (Jerry Falwell, Sr.). No one can pray away a hurricane (Pat Robertson).

But, for a moment, let’s go with the belief that God does punish bad deeds and reward good deeds, including legislation and government actions.

Why is it that, in the perspective reflected in the legislator’s comments, abortion was an urgent moral issue while the world’s accelerating slide toward climate apocalypse is not?

In a nation where we’ve outdone many others in claiming God on our side, why were we not severely punished for the institution of slavery? Of course, President Lincoln thought we were; read his Second Inaugural address that certainly would have branded him a “woke, CRT-loving socialist” today.

Why is a state divinely rewarded for legislation designed both to save developing life and to force women to give birth but not punished for swindles, murders, and unjust laws that took lands promised in perpetuity to native peoples? Well, one could see the Dust Bowl as a consequence of ignorant and reckless removal of prairie grasses to grow more and more wheat. But I suppose one might see it as divine retribution for the evils associated with how Oklahoma became a state. And I’m sure there were untold numbers of people who neither contributed to despoiling the land nor to land theft who suffered from the Dust Bowl. Where’s the judgment, and on whom?

Trying to discern the hand of God in the “signs of the times” is always a fraught enterprise. To this day, America doesn’t have a single national story either about the intent of the Founders of the U.S. or what were the causes, who were the heroes, and what were the outcomes of the Civil War. Old Santa god shows up all over those narratives, rewarding and punishing the same practices and deeds.

For all the philosophers who believe god is a human construction peoples conjure in order to justify our moral claims, our public discourse still gives them bushels of good material.

Maybe God is sitting on that cloud, not watching what we do with our genitals, but crying.

And laughing.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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