I've noticed that some high-profile fundamentalist Christians have reacted to tragedies by blaming either the victims or a despised group for inciting God's fury. No introduction is needed for the Westboro Baptist Church, whose members cite everything from military casualties to private horrors as evidence of God's disgust with America's alleged immorality. However, other high-profile fundamentalists have blamed victims or despised groups for tragedies, earning them endless controversy.
For example, shortly after the September 11th attacks, Jerry Falwell appeared on The 700 Club and insisted that the ACLU, feminists, pagans, abortion providers, and gays helped the tragedy happen. 700 Club host Pat Robertson concurred. Falwell later backtracked on this statement.
Pat Robertson himself has made controversial statements about disaster victims as well. Following the 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, Robertson attributed Haiti's misfortune to a supposed "pact to the devil" that their ancestors made.
"They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another."White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called Robertson's comments "stupid."
John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, stirred controversy with his comments about gays in New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged large sections of the U.S. Gulf Coast, Hagee told NPR that Katrina was God's retribution for a planned gay pride parade in New Orleans.
Religious Right victim-blaming is not limited to modern-day tragedies, nor is it limited to natural disasters. Earlier this year, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association blamed the poverty and alcoholism afflicting some Native American communities on their refusal to embrace Christianity. In another column, Fischer wrote that the bloody conquest of the Native Americans could have been avoided if they'd simply converted to Christianity and assimilated into Euro-American culture. In this cruel and bizarre twist of logic, it was not the Euro-American perpetrators of racial oppression and genocide, but their Native American victims, who were to blame for the conquest of the Americas.
Having observed this blaming pattern among several right-wing Christians, I suspect that one of three factors might be at work. First, those who blame disaster victims or despised groups for catastrophes may be trying to psychologically dissociate themselves from the victims. By believing that the victims (or gays, or feminists, or non-Christians) brought about a catastrophe by provoking God's anger, commentators can then conclude that they can avoid catastrophe themselves by pleasing God. While this approach may soothe commentators' fear of disaster, it also dampens their empathy for those who are suffering.
Second, those who blame victims or despised groups may be wrestling with theodicy. If God controls all things, and if God is just, why would God inflict catastrophes on innocent people? The idea that disasters can befall anyone, anywhere -- that it rains on the just and the unjust alike -- may be too much for them to fathom. To preserve the idea that God is just, an observer may assume that disaster victims (or a disliked group) must therefore have done something deserving of divine punishment.
Finally, such commentators might be cynically trying to frighten their audience into accepting fundamentalist Christianity. By attributing catastrophes to allegedly "sinful" groups, commentators may be trying to frighten believers into ideological compliance. The fact that devout believers, non-believers, and everyone in between fall victim to catastrophes is not considered.
In this time of so many tragedies worldwide, blame and scapegoating will bring no comfort to victims. Compassion and concrete aid have always been what victims need most, not blame.