This column was originally posted at The Monkey Cage.
Earlier this week, Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite who ousted veteran Senator Dick Lugar in the primary last spring, spurred yet another firestorm of debate when he declared that pregnancies conceived in rape are “something that God intended to happen.” Although some conservative commentators, like CBN’s David Brody, argue that Mourdock’s sentiment, while clumsily worded, is essentially correct – that God’s sovereignty can transform “horrible situations like that and use it for good”– others have spoken out vehemently against the candidate. His opponent, Joe Donnelly used the moment to go on the offensive, declaring, “The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in does not intend for rape to happen — ever.”
The question, of course, is what Americans really think about the relationship between unwanted pregnancy, abortion, and God’s will. And how do religious Americans—especially the white evangelical Protestants who anchor Mourdock’s base and comprise nearly 4-in-10 of Romney’s supporters—reconcile their theological convictions with public policy?
If we start with Mourdock’s basic affirmation that all events, even terrible ones, are part of God’s will, Mourdock has considerable company, both historically and among white evangelical Protestants. This conundrum has vexed Christian theologians enough that the debate has a name: “theodicy” describes various strategies for reconciling the belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God with the undeniable existence of evil in the world. And today, most Americans affirm the basic premise of an omnipotent God. According to a survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute last year, most Americans (56%) agree that “God is in control of everything in the world,” while 34% disagree and 8% say they do not believe in God. Among white evangelical Protestants, this number rises to 84%, with only 15% in disagreement.
Mourdock also has considerable company on the question of the morality of abortion. A slim majority (51%) of Americans and nearly 7-in-10 (69%) white evangelical Protestants say that having an abortion is morally wrong.
However, the data also shows that the lived experience of evil and suffering in the world cuts against certainty at the level of religious belief, and has a visible impact on what policies Americans are willing to enshrine in the law. Theologically, nearly 1-in-5 (19%) Americans – and 12% of white evangelical Protestants – say that seeing innocent people suffer sometimes causes them to have doubts about God.
More importantly, the thorniness of the theodicy problem translates into an unwillingness, even among white evangelical Protestants, to draw a straight line from their theological convictions about Providence to public policy, particularly with regard to difficult cases such as the question of abortion in cases of pregnancies that are the result of rape.
For example, despite the theological beliefs and moral convictions outlined above, according to PRRI’s 2012 American Values Survey, fewer than 1-in-5 (15%) of Americans, and only about one-quarter (24%) of white evangelical Protestants, agree that abortion should be illegal in all cases. When asked specifically about abortion in cases of rape, less than 1-in-5 (17%) Americans and only 3-in-10 (30%) white evangelical Protestants say that a woman should not be able to obtain a legal abortion. In other words, despite the religious conviction that God is in control of all things and abortion is morally wrong, strong majorities of Americans (79%) and white evangelical Protestants (66%) believe that women should be able to obtain a legal abortion in cases of rape.
What these numbers show is that many Americans, and an overwhelming majority of white evangelical Protestants, do affirm a theological principle, which, if followed to its logical conclusion, would conclude that pregnancy, even in the case of rape, is something within God’s control and therefore to be accepted. For at least some, however, the suffering caused by difficult cases like these cause them to have deep theological doubts about the very existence of God. And for most white evangelical Protestants, and even more Americans, ambivalence about very difficult cases, and compassion for human suffering, creates a distinct reticence to harden their ideal theological convictions into concrete public policy.