For her many supporters, former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann is still the Queen of the Tea Party. Stridently anti-Obama, pro-Israel, anti-same sex marriage, she believes that global warming is 'all voodoo, hokum, a hoax'. She has a history of public utterances that can seem a little weird, leading to a question by Chris Wallace of Fox News, "Are you a flake?"
Though she's no longer in Congress, Bachmann has never gone away. Last weekend she made waves in a radio interview with Jan Markell in which she warned that "our nation and the people of our nation will reap a whirlwind, and we could see economic disasters, natural disasters", because of what she said was President Obama's Israel policy: "If we actually turn our back on Israel, as we are seeing Barack Obama do today, if that happens, then I think we will see a scale and a level of pushback in the United States, and negative consequences. I don't know what they are, but I believe that the Bible is true."
It's fair to say that she was widely ridiculed for her comments, though this is unlikely to trouble her in the slightest: Bachmann is as tough as they come.
But just how odd is the view that God deliberately sends natural disasters on the world as a punishment for sin? If we're judging it by frequency, the answer has to be, not odd enough. It's a belief often associated with right-wing American evangelicals. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for instance, which destroyed large parts of New Orleans, was linked by the fundamentalist preacher John Hagee to a gay pride event, Southern Decadence Day, which was planned for the town's French Quarter a few days after the hurricane hit. "I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were — recipients of the judgment of God for that," he said the following year.
Evangelist Pat Robertson has also made connections between disasters and human sin. In the January 5, 2006 edition of his show The 700 Club, he said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke and Sharon's predecessor Yitzhak Rabin's assassination were God's judgment on them for making concessions to the Palestinians. "I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America. God said, 'This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.'"
In the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Robertson also blamed the country's problems on its alleged 'pact with the devil' in its war of liberation from France.
It's not just US evangelicals, however. After devastating floods in the UK in 2007, the then Bishop of Carlisle, Rt Rev Graham Dow, related the catastrophe to the Government's introduction of greater rights for gay people, which he said were "part of a general scene of permissiveness": "We are in a situation where we are liable for God's judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance." Last year UKIP councillor David Sylvester was suspended from the party after he also blamed floods on gay marriage. And even today, there are still Christian pastors like Rick Scarborough who believe that HIV/Aids is "God's judgment for an immoral act" (a 2013 survey found that 14 per cent of Americans agreed with him).
Now, these view are challenging, to say the least. Most people would dismiss them out of hand, and for good reason. For one thing, we know perfectly well why floods happen: cash-strapped councils cut back on dredging rivers and greedy housebuilders put new towns on flood plains. 'Judgment' for that sort of sin and folly we can understand – though as it's the people who live in the houses rather than the people who made money out of them who suffer, that sort of judgment is a pretty blunt instrument.
Secondly, we find it difficult, if not actually impossible, to believe in a God who is that indiscriminating. Floods and earthquakes kill good people as well as bad. No one who watched the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in which – as ever – the poorest suffered the most and churches as well as brothels were destroyed could seriously argue that they all deserved it. And Michele Bachmann's belief that the policies of the US towards Israel could bring natural disasters on the country illustrates one of the theory's fatal flaws: it's all too easy to baptize our own prejudices and co-opt the Almighty into our own political party. It doesn't work like that.
But given that most readers will be Christians who believe in an interventionist God, what's the biblical grounding for assertions like these?
There are plenty of biblical texts which speak of God's control over the natural world. In Genesis 7 there's the story of the Flood. In Jonah, God sends a storm. The prophets are full of warnings about what God will do to Israel's enemies through floods, fires, earthquakes and hostile armies. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah announces a famine.
The trouble is, accepting that inspired biblical writers were able to draw particular lessons from the events of their own times is very different from saying that, say, John Hagee or Michele Bachmann can. The truth is that even aside from the moral and philosophical objections to the theory (why does God only send earthquakes to places in earthquake zones, for instance? He's God, after all – why not Luton?) charting a graph of natural disasters against instances of human wickedness reveals no pattern at all. It's very hard to believe that God smote New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina because of homosexuality, but failed to take out Pol Pot or Hitler with a well-aimed bolt of lightning.
The trouble with so many who read their Bibles and seek to make a straight-line connection with the world of 2,000 years later is that all too often they haven't read anything else. These questions aren't new, even in modern times. In the Enlightenment culture of 18th century Europe, it was widely believed that God had made an ordered world, in which rewards and punishments were on the whole fairly distributed. Then came a tragedy which shook these smug certainties to the core. On November 1, 1755, a tsunami and earthquake struck the Portugese capital of Lisbon, almost totally destroying it. No one knows exactly how many died, but it may have been as many as 100,000 people. After the floods, fires broke out and many people burned to death.
The tragedy led to scholars and preachers reassessing how they thought about natural disasters. Were they punishments from God? Lisbon was no worse than any other capital city, morally speaking – and ironically, the brothel quarter suffered less than the rest of the city. So maybe, sometimes, things just happened, because the world was the way the world was, and the best reaction to it was to build back better (Lisbon was one of the first cities to design earthquake-proof buildings) and to care for the survivors.
But does God have nothing to say in these events? Yes, surely. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus tells his followers about two tragedies, one a massacre of Galileans by Pilate, another the collapse of a tower which killed 18 people. His point is that they weren't singled out because they were worse than anyone else: they died because they were mortal. And, he says, "Unless you repent, you too will all perish": everyone is under judgment and everyone is vulnerable, so everyone should turn to God in repentance and faith.
Do I believe Aids is God's punishment for sin? No, no more than I believe that Haiti's earthquake was a punishment for a pact with the devil 200 years ago, or that America is facing disaster because President Obama is, to a degree that is barely detectable in terms of its actual effect on policy, less pro-Israel than his predecessor. To me, all these seem equally bizarre, if not actually offensive.
Do I believe we're all under judgment, living fragile lives on a vulnerable planet which is a speck of habitable ground in a universe too vast to comprehend? Absolutely. And we need to be very wary about looking into a convex theological mirror, seeing the worst of ourselves reflected and calling it God. He's bigger and better than that.