Daniel W. Drezner

Balancing or bandwagoning with deities?

Balancing or bandwagoning with deities?

In the wake of Hurricane Irene, the St. Petersburg Times records an interesting interpretation of recent events from GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. This is a direct quote of Bachmann:

I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.

An interesting hypothesis!! So, there are three possibilities here. The first is that Bachmann was joking — in which case, wow, that’s a really tasteless joke given the loss of life and probably warrants a pretty big apology.

The second is that Bachmann is simply nuts wrong. Doug Mataconis points out,

I’m not sure how this computes given the fact that the storm largely spared Washington, D.C. and New York, while hammering a red states like North Carolina and a heavily Republican area like Virginia’s Tidewater region.

Well, socialist-supporting Vermont got hit pretty hard too, but still, this is a fair point, and "Bachmann being wrong" seems like another safe bet.

The third possibility is the one I want to explore, however — what if Bachmann is right? What if God really is using wrath to coerce humanity into implementing a particular set of policy preferences?

A God-fearing person would naturally decide to obey. However, this kind of coercive demand strikes me as a pretty massive intrusion into human sovereignty. The point of a democracy is for majorities of citizens and their elected representatives to decide matters of policy. Recent history suggests that neither sovereign governments nor their populations take kindly to coercive threats from other men. If we acquiesce to Divine demands now, don’t we just let God win?

Bachmann’s response suggests an obvious bandwagoning approach to the awesome power of deities: When God says jump, you should say, how high? And, indeed, if the Almighty really is omnipotent, this strategy has much to recommend it. Bandwagoning is generally recommended when the targeted actor is comparatively weak, has few natural allies, and believes that the targeting actor can be appeased with concessions. This seems to fit the Old Testament, monotheistic God to a tee.

On the other hand, however, might a balancing approach yield better long-term results? After all, God has a disturbing track record of making demands like this. We know from Genesis the Old Testament that the Almighty has a tendency to, well, you know, smite humans on a semi-regular basis. There’s the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, an awful lot of Egyptians, etc. This doesn’t even include the number of times God demanded death (the sacrifice of Isaac, Ninevah) only to relent at the last minute. Sure, God has some good reasons in some of these instances, but from a threat assessment perspective, it’s veeeeery disturbing.

Maybe the bandwagoning criteria don’t apply. If one operates along the monotheistic assumption*, humans should ask if there is a possible ally out there to help resist God’s will [Don’t go there –ed.], an entity who is God’s enduring rival [You’re really going there, aren’t you?! –ed.] , one who might have the necessary power to make God think twice about all that smiting?

It’s time to wonder … would a temporary alliance with Satan really be that bad? [Yes it world!! –ed.] Winston Churchill once said, "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." Now I’m not sure I would even go that far … the whole selling souls thing sounds like a pretty big demand too. That said, a sober, realpolitik perspective would demand that making a deal with the devil has to be a policy option that stays on the table.

[How about a nice buck-passing strategy instead?–ed. Hey, I’d love to just force other creatures like, say, apes to go toe-to-toe with God, but I just don’t see it happening.]

Readers are warmly encouraged to puzzle this out for themselves — or, instead, to buy the very entertaining Biblical Games by Steven Brams.

*The monotheism assumption is important when thinking about how to cope with a venegeful god. If the universe turns out to be polytheistic, then the question becomes whether us mortals can sow dissension among the gods before someone releases a Kraken.