So what is the issue? What was this all about?
I have been watching to see how many journalists would get this right, how many would connect the wild news that came out of New Orleans with all of that wild news that keeps coming out of Virginia Beach.
Nagin's remarks did create a bit of a firestorm, but most of it focused on race. That's bad enough, but the combination of religion and race created an even hotter brew. I am, frankly, amazed that this story didn't draw more coverage and commentary.
As you would expect in this day of niche media, it was a conservative commentator who connected the dots most bluntly. Thus, Linda Chavez dared to imagine Salt Lake City being wrecked by an earthquake:
Much of the city's population fled, many never to return. Then imagine the mayor began wistfully extolling the virtues of his town in barely veiled racial euphemisms. "Salt Lake City has always been a plain vanilla town," he says, at first only before audiences he thinks will warm to the message.
Then, as the city starts to rebuild, the mayor hints he's not thrilled many of the jobs to rebuild the city are going to Latinos and blacks, many of whom did not live in Salt Lake before disaster struck. Before long, the mayor gets bolder in his appeals. "It's time for us to rebuild Salt Lake City -- the one that should be a vanilla Salt Lake," he says. "I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are, this city will be vanilla at the end of the day. This city will be a majority white city. It's the way God wants it to be. You can't have Salt Lake City any other way. It wouldn't be Salt Lake City."
Now would that be a hot news story? Yes. But what we are interested in, with the link to the ongoing Robertson coverage, is that last part of the equation, the part that says "It's the way God wants it."
In traditional Christian theology, it is much safer for a person to stand up and say "God is judging me" or even "God is judging my house" than it is to say "Those folks over there are really nasty sinners and that's why God dropped a hurricane on them."
This is part of what made Nagin's speech interesting. He did attempt to speak to the black community that is his base about its own problems, as well as speak -- knowing the mind of God -- about the sins of others (including people in the White House). Does this make a difference? Imagine that Robertson went on the 700 Club and said that he believed he could see God's judgment on his own ministry for some specific reason or another.
Would that be news? I imagine so. However, would that statement of judgment be as off the wall, theologically, as Robertson saying that God has decided to take down an Israeli prime minister? No, it would not. Christian tradition stresses that it is better to judge yourself, rather than another person. Rare is the prophet who has a divine calling to put a spotlight -- exclusively -- on the sins of others. And even these warnings are best expressed face to face, rather than in headlines or on cable television.
Brace yourselves, but an editorial this week in the Boston Globe got this right:
Nagin was speaking at an event commemorating the accomplishments of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ''I just want to do God's will," King said on the night before he was murdered. King tried to live out his belief in God without claiming to have a direct line to the deity. Those who think they know the divine might better show it by their actions to help others, not by invoking his name as a punishment or excuse.
This is half the equation, of course. King did preach many a sermon in which he boldly pointed out clashes between biblical faith and the cultural realities on the street. The media tend to get mad at conservative people -- be they popes or TV preachers -- who "go to meddlin'" and issue the same kinds of warnings about the sins that they see around them in the culture and even in their own flocks.
However, a Catholic bishop has a right (some would still say a duty) to defend Catholic teachings about the sacraments, even if one of the Catholics whose ox gets gored happens to be running for president (or mayor of New York City). This is not the same thing as what Robertson and Nagin said.
Let's take one more shot at this. It would be one thing for a religious broadcaster to say that abortion is wrong and Americans must -- for the following reasons of science, justice and nonviolence -- consider banning it. There are centuries of social and doctrinal reasons to say that and engage in that debate (and people on the other side can make their case as well, naturally).
It is something else to say this: God made that hurricane strike that city, killing a wide variety of people, because these civic leaders failed to pass the following law against abortion which, by the way, I happen to be advocating at the moment.
Rare is the prophet who is called by God to connect those dots. History tells us that they tend to be humble people who judge themselves first and announce God's judgment on others with tears and sorrow. Even these prophets say "repent" more than "I told you so."
Thus ends the sermon.
That is, until Robertson or somebody else gets fired up and we face the same media storm again. You know, you just know, that it's coming. Right?