Is Anne Graham Lotz right to say God allowed 9/11 'to show us we need him'?

Mourners gather around a makeshift memorial in honour of victims following the attack in San Bernardino, California.Reuters

Anne Graham Lotz is one of Billy Graham's daughters and she has a wide-ranging career as a speaker and author. In person she's delightful. On a platform she's mesmerising; her father said she was the best preacher in the family. She is thoughtful and spiritual.

She also believes that God has punished America for turning away from him by sending storms, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. Or, as PinkNews put it: "Pastor Anne Graham: God let 9/11 happen because of transgender people in bathrooms".

The comments that led to that headline were made in an interview with talk radio host Steve Deace about her book The Daniel Prayer. She said: "There is silliness, there is craziness, there's the most illogical rulings. The one in North Carolina on HB2, which is to protect our children in bathrooms and locker rooms, has become something where the justice department is suing us for something that's just common sense." America, she said, "seems to be shaking its fist in God's face and telling him to get out of our politics, get out of our schools, get out of our businesses, get out of our marketplace, get off the streets" and is "basically abandoning God as a culture and as a nation".

She continues: "[If we repent] I think he would begin to reveal the plots of terrorists before they are carried out, eventhe weather patterns he can control and protect us from violent storms."

Lotz adds: "I think that's why God allows bad things to happen. I think that'd why he would allow 9/11 to happen, or the dreadful attack in San Bernardino. To show us we need him."

Hence the PinkNews headline. They are not her exact words, but in their wince-inducing bluntness they are an accurate statement of what she means.

Lotz is not alone in reading the hand of God into tragedies. It's a common theme in her conservative evangelical tradition. But she's absolutely wrong, and here's why.

1. This view of divine judgment reduces people to counters on a board rather than the precious souls, fearfully and wonderfully made, that they really are. It panders to a conception of God as a brutal tyrant who will sacrifice the lives of his people for a perceived greater good, without a thought for their suffering and pain. The idea that God would deliberately cause or allow the deaths of 3,000 people in the World Trade Centre on 9/11 "to show us we need him" is monstrous. They are people, not object lessons. It would also be a miscalculation; as far as I know, there's no evidence churchgoing has risen since then.

2. It's based on a misreading of Scripture. On her website she has an article entitled It's time to get serious. She's rather more circumspect about judgment there, saying God's judgment is "not necessarily in the form of a nuclear dirty bomb, or another ISIS attack, or an economic collapse" but is a "Romans 1 judgment as God backs out of our national life and turns us over to ourselves". However, she goes on: "If God would judge His own beloved nation of Judah, why would we think America could escape?"

The trouble is that the comparison doesn't hold good. There's plenty in the Bible about God judging the nations. Generally speaking, though, the Old Testament is pretty Israel-centric. Israel is judged, yes, but other nations aren't judged by the same standards. They're judged not by how they treat their own people or by how good their laws are, but by how they treat Israel. America is Israel's staunchest ally, continuing to support her in spite of her morally problematic treatment of the Palestinians. On that basis, America is the last country in the world to be facing God's judgment.

3. It misunderstands America. There's a pervasive narrative in right-wing conservative political and religious analysis that says the US is worse now than it was in the past. On any serious consideration, though, that's simply not true. Take the single question of race: it's not yet 50 years since Martin Luther King was assassinated for daring to argue that black and white people were equal in the sight of God, and ought to be equal in law and society. That struggle is not over yet, but America has a black president. If God were to smite America for anything, surely it would have been for its ingrained and violence racism. America is better now, morally, than it was – and if conservatives really regard the widespread acceptance of homosexuality as a worse sin than the widespread acceptance of racism, they need to do some serious thinking.

4. It asks the wrong question. Implicit in Lotz's approach to incidents like 9/11 or the San Bernardino massacre or earthquakes or storms is, "Why did God do this?" Behind that there's the idea that God either deliberately chose to act, or deliberately chose not to act to stop whatever tragedy was unfolding.

But in fact, God usually chooses not to act. He choose to let the world unfold as it will. We can believe in an interventionist God without believing he always intervenes. We can believe in a sovereign God without believing he always exercises his sovereignty.

If we ask, "Why did God do this?" there's always a risk that we will start talking about judgment, usually on something we don't approve of. A better question is, "What can we learn from this?" We'd realise that God does not will death and destruction on anyone. He doesn't desire the death even of a sinner. Everyone is equally loved by him, and he walks with us on our journey of healing, understanding and redemption. No one is sacrificed to point a moral or adorn a tale. 

I don't think Lotz would ever come right out and say, in the crude terms PinkNews put it, that 9/11 happened because transgender people were allowed in the "wrong" lavatories. But that's the logic of her position, and it doesn't stack up.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods