“Invocation” is not necessarily a religious word, but most people encounter it in religious settings. The first definition in most dictionaries is “to call upon the deity,” or some variation thereof. The word is most typically used to mark the beginning of a church service of some sort and marks the time in which the deity being worshiped is asked to pay heed to the meeting being held. To invoke God is generally pretty serious stuff.
The controversies that surround the place of religion in our body politic make the invocation of God in political discussion extraordinarily serious stuff. It is not something to be done lightly. Yet, on “60 Minutes” last night, California Governor Jerry Brown forged right ahead:
California Gov. Jerry Brown said Sunday President Trump’s apparent lack of fear “of the wrath of God” explains his denial of climate change.
“I don’t think — President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility,” Brown told CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Gov. Brown has Jesuit training, something not always apparent, and he certainly understands correctly that fear of the Lord leads to humility. However, theological rectitude notwithstanding, this particular invocation is deeply troubling. Gov. Brown’s assertion here, given its particularity, is more than a statement of theology – it is an expression of direct revelation. This is more than Gov. Brown understanding the lessons of scripture about humility. This is Gov. Brown asserting that he knows for fact (meaning it has been revealed to him) not only President Trump’s spiritual standing, but also that God expects us to understand climate change exactly as Gov. Brown understands it, and to respond to that understanding in precisely the fashion that Gov. Brown has responded to it.
Such expressions of direct revelation are actually fairly common in Christian circles. They are generally mocked by most people, but they are quite frightening to my mind. Most of us have watched someone on one of the wilder religious stations on TV or radio claim that God has told them X or Y (usually that we are supposed to donate vast sums of cash) and just chuckled to ourselves and told the story at a party sometime. But it cannot be forgotten that David Koresh thought he had received direct revelation as well. Direct revelation is a dangerous claim for it gives the claimant the appearance of divine authority. The deep irony of an indirect claim of divine authority in an accusation of a lack of humility should not be overlooked in this story.
There is a vast difference between invoking God’s blessing and attention and invoking the Almighty in order to lay claim to godly authority.
There was a time in this nation when it was commonplace to invoke God’s blessing and attention. God’s assistance was requested as far back as the Constitutional Convention. I know the time I was most moved by such an invocation was the prayer of thanksgiving called for by President Nixon, and delivered by the Chaplain of the USS Hornet as the president greeted the returning astronauts of Apollo 11. Note that such invocations do not attempt to define, control or claim God’s authority or power; rather they seek to place us under God, in reliance on His mercy, strength and wisdom.
What Gov. Brown did was something quite different. Gov. Brown’s invocation acts as if the governor knows with precision the mind of God. This is a very different thing. Such invocations are hardly new in religious circles, but they are new to our politics and they scare me. If you hang around churches as much as I do you are going to hear a lot of such invocations. I have heard them used utterly trivially – like the Pentecostal pastor I encountered on an airplane that excused himself from the window seat saying “I am getting a word that I need to go to the bathroom.” Such demeans God’s creation, and by extension God Himself, as if the senses God gave us are insufficient to the task of telling us we need to pee. But I have also heard such invocations used as a means of coercing sex. I have heard such invocations used to prevent dying people from seeking medical attention and in one instance preventing a mother having trouble with delivery from having a Cesarean section resulting a a severely handicapped baby because the child spent days having its head beaten against its mother’s hips. In other words I have far too much personal experience with invocations like Gov. Brown’s being used to justify evil. Such invocations make me reflexively and justifiably suspicious.
Invocations like Gov. Brown’s when combined with political power are horrifying in their potential misuse. The things I have seen when such invocations are coupled with ecclesiastical power are bad enough, but with political power the consequences become almost unthinkable. It is a dangerous thing to think we know the mind of God. We should always endeavor to know the mind of God, but to assume we do know it is a path that leads almost invariably to destruction of some sort. It is too easy to confuse our own mind with God’s.
I would that we could return to a time when we, as a nation, routinely invoked God’s blessing and attention. But I fear a nation in which invocations like Gov. Brown’s become common. I pray my fears are never realized.