Mourdock, God’s Will, and Rape: How Americans Really Think about God and Public Policy

This is a guest post from Robert Jones, the CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute.


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.

14 Responses to Mourdock, God’s Will, and Rape: How Americans Really Think about God and Public Policy

  1. Tzimiskes October 26, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    I’m always a bit surprised by the numbers shown on posts regarding religion because the vast majority of the religious people I know believe that God is rather hands off and respects free will, making it very easy to square the existence of evil with the idea of God. Then again, having moved to a new area I have two co-workers who believe in a very hands on God, so it may be that my experiences up until recently were atypical.

  2. B4 October 26, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    I think you’re inferring too much from the question: “Is God in control of everything?”

    This is a Sunday School question, and is likely be answered in the affirmative by most Christians. You should ask them: “Does God make bad things happen to people for His purposes?” When I’ve talked to Christians, this question is almost unanimously answered “No”. How could a caring, loving, etc. God be doing bad things to good people? Or why would he implement bad things in general? This is where the theological turn comes for most people. Yes, God created the universe so He must be in control of it. Yet, he is pure and good, and thus he couldn’t willing bad things.

    All of this to say that I don’t think that you’re first question can be linked to the question about rape so easily. Ideally you would want to ask a question like: “Does God control everything, including murders, rapes, war, famine, etc.?” Here you give the participant a context of what you’re trying to interpret from the question. That way you can know if that’s what they meant.

  3. OzarkHillbilly October 26, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    I find it curious that if God is omnipotent it is hard to not conclude that he is also pro-abortion. I mean, what else is spontaneous miscarriage other than an abortion by God’s will?

    • Eric October 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

      All abortions are God’s will if God is truly omnipotent.

  4. Scott Monje October 26, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    Do people who follow Mourdock’s line of reasoning get treatment for serious diseases, such as cancer? If they get cancer, isn’t that God’s will as well?

    • Thomas October 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

      The treatment too is part of God’s providential plan.

      • GiT October 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

        Just like the abortion.

  5. Eduardo Corrochio October 26, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    You can’t seriously be looking for “logical conclusions” coming from religious belief. I’m pretty sure one of main appeals of religion is that you get to avoid logic.

  6. Tom Sartwell October 26, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    If God is pro rape because it happens then because abortion happens God is pro abortion. I don’t believe this. I do believe God has given us the ability to chose outside Gods will. If everything that happens is Gods will then no matter what we do it is Gods will. If we kill, rape, blaspheme, whatever, it is Gods will. If everything we do, say, think is Gods will then why hell? We are to be punished for doing Gods will? I believe evil exists so good can exist. If evil wern’t a choice, an especially attractive choice, then doing good (Gods will) would be meaningless, there would be no “narrow road”.

    • John October 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

      “I do believe God has given us the ability to chose outside Gods will.”

      um…do you not see how that works there, against the rest of your statements?
      (and you left out an apostrophe to show possession)

  7. Sheri October 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    I think it is somewhat misleading to say that “most” Americans believe that God is in control of everything when that refers to just 56%, which is really just slightly more than half. To me, “most” connotes a greater percentage.

    • Thomas October 26, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

      The question isn’t particularly well asked. If you asked them if they believed that God is omnipotent, that would more clearly get at the issue. Asking if they believe that God is in control of everything may be interpreted to mean that they do not believe God has given us free will. A lack of familiarity with doctrinal beliefs may lead to poor survey design.

      • GiT October 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

        Asking if they think God is omnipotent isn’t much help, because “omnipotence” can entail a whole variety of different doctrinal positions.

  8. Thomas October 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    This isn’t a bad post, though it isn’t entirely accurate. (There is nothing about the fact that something is within an omnipotent God’s control that requires its acceptance, at least according to traditional Christian and Jewish teachings on the matter.)

    I do wonder whether people are even capable of understanding Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural anymore. It’s concluding passage is the most famous bit, but it includes a forceful discussion of divine providence and the sin of slavery:

    The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”