The Kentucky Elections: What Does It Mean to Say “God’s in Control?”


U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin (R-Ky), speaks to a gathering at FreePAC Kentucky, Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin (R-Ky), speaks to a gathering at FreePAC Kentucky, Saturday, April 5, 2014, at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

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By Derek Penwell

So, last week we had this train wreck of an election in Kentucky. Oh, you’ve heard about it? Well, let me summarize what happened and what are bound to be some of the implications that come from it.

In short, Kentucky elected Matt Bevin, a Republican for governor. This is only the second time in a couple of generations that Kentucky has elected a Republican governor—a fact worth mentioning, if only for historical context. Of more importance than his partisan identity, however, is what our next governor campaigned on. Despite Kentucky’s shining example in markedly cutting the rate of uninsured in the state through its implementation of the Affordable Care Act, for instance, Matt Bevin announced his intention during the campaign to roll back those advances, putting the healthcare of 400,000 people in jeopardy by some estimates. Our newly elected governor has also publicly voiced support for the Rowan County clerk, Kim Davis, in her crusade to refuse marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. He supports “traditional family values,” which apparently means dehumanizing and disadvantaging people because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. [Sorry. I know that last sentence is editorializing and not just summarizing, but what did you expect?]

The reaction among progressives (and even some conservatives I’ve spoken with) has been outrage. How could we let this happen? What is going to happen to all those people who need insurance? Are we returning to that benighted age where the rights of LGTBQ people will once again be under constant attack from fundamentalist enthusiasts? Should progressive Louisville secede and form its own democratic socialist Valhalla? The rhetoric has been dire.

Some progressive Christians, in an attempt to offer a calming word have been quick to reassure everyone that things aren’t entirely bleak. They do this by reminding their liberal Christian brothers and sisters that, as bad as things look right now, we shouldn’t despair.

Why not?

Their answer is what bothers me. And it’s not because I disagree necessarily, but because it sounds a little too practiced, a little too trite—something that progressive Christians regularly criticize their conservative counterparts for being. What’s more, I’m not entirely sure what people mean when they say it in a situation like this.

Just remember, God’s in control.

Theologically, of course, this seems fairly straightforward. God, being God and all, it’s not particularly controversial to claim that God’s got a handle on everything, that God—like a good scout—is always prepared for any eventuality. In theory, this sounds like an unassailable truism with which, as I say, I don’t necessarily disagree.

Practically speaking, though, what exactly does it mean to say, “God’s in control?” In the case of progressive Kentuckian hand-wringing at the prospect of what we take to be the morally regressive policy proposals of our next governor, what exactly does it mean to say, “Don’t worry, God’s got this” (as some more popular versions of Christianity put it)?

What is being said here? What could this short phrase actually mean as it relates to 400,000 Kentuckians and their potential loss of insurance or a return to a state of affairs in which LGBTQ people once again don’t feel fully welcome in the place they call home?

  • Does it mean that somehow Matt Bevin’s election was all a part of “God’s plan,” which is to say, was this election somehow “God’s will?”
  • Does it mean that even though things look pretty crappy right now, God will help us to feel better about as time goes on? (Admittedly easier if it’s not your healthcare or your life in the crosshairs.)
  • Does it mean that 400,000 people shouldn’t fret about losing their health insurance because God will keep them healthy enough not to need it?
  • Does it mean that LGBTQ people will be shielded from the raw barbs of hatred that historically they’ve had to learn to endure?

I’m just not sure I understand from a practical standpoint what is actually being asserted here.

I did a funeral this week, an important occasion for ministry. I remember in seminary, while taking Pastoral Care class, one of the things I remember most had to do with pastoral responses to death: Don’t think you have to have “the right thing to say” to those who are grieving. There is no “right thing to say,” which—if you say it with the appropriate amount of sincerity and at just the right time—people will somehow be able to understand and, thereby, overcome their grief. Such a saying doesn’t exist. Consequently, what you might wind up saying could be something like, “Don’t worry, this is all part of God’s plan”—a line of pastoral care progressive seminarians are assiduously encouraged to avoid.

Now, if a grieving person says this to themselves, we call it a coping mechanism—something that helps us get through the often long, dry nights of grief. And though it may not meet strict theological scrutiny, we know it’s not meant to be a reworking of the Ecumenical Creeds. It’s a defense against despair.

But we can’t pick people’s coping mechanisms for them.

I suspect that “Just remember, God’s in control” means something like “Don’t worry, it’s all going to be all right.” Again, theoretically, I think that’s ultimately right. But practically, I think it over promises and under delivers.

Am I offering a better response to the widespread anxiety occasioned by the prospect of our state once again marginalizing people too often powerless to stop it?

Not in so many words. I suspect we all have to use whatever coping mechanisms help us to hang on when things feel like they’re falling apart. But whatever those words are, they shouldn’t shield us from the hard reality that we’ve got work to do, which if I read the Gospels correctly about the unfolding reign of God, is God’s plan.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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