One of the recurring themes in public discussions about major disasters resulting in large-scale losses of life, both natural and human-caused, is the notion that they reflect God’s judgment on a “sinful” populace.
In 2005, some evangelical Christian leaders blamed the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina on that city’s supposed tolerance of “orgies” and homosexuality, for example. The Reverend Franklin Graham (son of the late Reverend Billy Graham) described New Orleans as “one wicked city” with a “black spiritual cloud” hanging over it. “They believe God is going to use that storm to bring revival,” he said at the time.
Similar sentiments have been attributed to Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, with regard to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people. During a 2016 radio interview, Lotz said God allows “bad things” like 9/11 to happen because the United States is “basically abandoning God as a culture and as a nation.”
Some of the contemporaneous press coverage of Lotz’s remarks employed headlines that misrepresented the tone and tenor of what she actually said, however. For example, an article on the website DeadState was headlined “Billy Graham’s Daughter: ‘9/11 Was God’s Punishment for Trans People, Evolution, and Secularism,'” while the article itself reported that:
Anne Graham Lotz, the daughter of famed evangelist Billy Graham, appeared on right wing pundit Steve Deace’s radio show to remind listeners that God has forsaken the U.S. because of transgenders, the teaching of evolution, the gays, etc.
Lotz said she hopes that “some of this craziness would settle down” in the U.S., which, according to her, “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…”
She warned that when people abandon God, “God abandons us and he backs away and takes his hand of favor, blessing, his hand of protection away from us and he abandons us.”
Similarly, the Huffington Post ran a story with a headline declaring that (according to Lotz) “God Sends Terror Attacks Because of Bathroom Rights and Evolution,” but the body of the article couched her comments in somewhat different terms:
Terror attacks such as 9/11 and the mass shooting in San Bernardino were allowed by God because of the gay rights movement and the acceptance of evolution, evangelist Anne Graham Lotz said.
“Our nation 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,” Lotz told conservative radio host Steve Deace, according to audio posted online by Right Wing Watch. “It’s just stunning to me the way we are basically abandoning God as a culture and as a nation.”
When that happens, “God abandons us and he backs away and takes his hand of favor, blessings, His hand of protection away from us and he abandons us,” she said.
Although both articles accurately quoted Lotz’s statements, their headlines were misleading. At no point did Lotz claim that God “sends” terror attacks, nor did she claim that 9/11 was “God’s punishment” for America’s acceptance of transgender people, evolution, or secularism.
She did, on the other hand, assert a direct connection between those social phenomena (which she characterized as proof of America “abandoning God”) and God withdrawing his “protection” from America, hence allowing catastrophic events to happen.
Here are transcripts of the relevant portions of the interview (based on audio files hosted by the website Right Wing Watch):
On 9/11: “We’re struggling with our own pride or self-sufficiency. I think that’s why God allows bad things to happen. I think that’s why He would allow 9/11 to happen, or the dreadful attack in San Bernardino, or some of these other places, to show us that we need Him. We’re desperate without Him.”
On Transgender People:: “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.”
On Evolution: “Romans I describes a person or a nation that refuses to acknowledge God as God, refuses to thank God, exchanges Him, or worship of Him, for four-footed creatures or animals, which is basically evolution, so that we’re saying there is no God, we’re not accountable to God, we’re not going anywhere, we came from nothing. And then you begin this downward spiral away from God.”
On Secularism and America’s “Abandonment” of God:
Our nation 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 out of our streets. It’s just stunning to me, the way we are just abandoning God as a culture and as a nation, because when we do that, the Bible says God abandons us, and He backs away and takes His hand of favor, blessing, His hand of protection away from us, and He abandons us. So that the hope is that when we cry out to Him in deep repentance and humility and say, “God, we’re sorry, and we’re asking you to come back, and would you return to us, would you once again bless us,” then I think there would be peace on our streets, and there would be, in our leadership, a caring about what’s best for the nation instead of their own agendas. I think He would begin to reveal the plots of our enemies and terrorists before they’re carried out. He can even control the weather patterns and protect us from these violent storms that are taking human life.
Some critics will still object to Lotz’s theological interpretation of these events, but such disputes are more legitimately founded on what was actually said than on contentious misrepresentations of what was said.
Full Disclosure: The author of the DeadState article referenced above is the brother of a Snopes staff member.