John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Palin, Quinn and Free Choice of Will

Posted on November 19, 2009
I was watching television the other day, and I saw Bill O’Reilly interview Sally Quinn about Sarah Palin’s religious beliefs.  It was interesting because neither Quinn nor O’Reilly really understood where Palin is coming from when it comes to her religious beliefs.  They are both Roman Catholic (I assume Quinn is Catholic with a last name like Quinn), while Palin is much closer to Pentecostal.

I then read Quinn’s column about the former Vice Presidential nominee and now best-selling author, and it was quite clear that she couldn’t get her arms around the idea that Palin believes in a modern version of Predestination.  As she put it in her column, “Palin said that one summer at Bible Camp she "put my life in my creator's hands and trust Him as I sought my life's path." For Palin, this grand divine plan was "a natural progression." She writes. And later, "I don't believe in coincidences."

But then Quinn goes on that if this were all in God’s plan, “Why would she not simply write a book describing her life as full of blessings as they are, forgiving those who caused her pain or discomfort and show God the gratitude she owes him for everything he has bestowed upon her.  But maybe that wasn't God's plan for her. Maybe he decided that he would have her stray from the basic tenets of her religions beliefs. The dictionary defines "rogue' as "an individual varying markedly from the standard."

Newsweek quotes Palin's former pastor, Tim McGraw, about Palin’s faith: "Our basic belief is that God is God and he knows where history is going and he has a purposeful plan and within the middle of that plan we live in an environment in our world where certain events would take place," says McGraw. "Sarah wasn't taught to look for one particular sign -- a cataclysmic sign. She knew as every Christian does ... that God is sovereign and he is in control."

This interchange highlights the central challenge of the Christian religion:  The concept of free choice of will.

Do we ultimately have free choice of will?  If we are following God’s path, then why can’t we just do whatever we want to do? After all, it must be God’s will.

But if we have free will, does God ultimately judge what we do or don’t do?   Then we certainly have a vested interest in doing good works.

This is a big difference between Calvinists and Catholics.  Calvinists by and large believe that God has already decided who is saved and who isn’t.  How you act may help reveal your status, but if you are saved, you are saved, baby.

Catholics believe in grace but also in the value of good works. And if they sin, they have to confess their sins and get reconciled with the church if they want God’s grace.

St. Augustine, perhaps the most influential of Catholic theologians, attempted to tackle the concept of free will in a universe where God knows everything.   As one website put it, “On free will, Augustine argues free will most certainly exists and argues that people can choose to be good, or good will as he puts it, or chose evil. He also argues that those who are saved have been predetermined to be saved by God prior to birth. This is the very ambiguity that has created such debate on what Augustine means by free choice of will. Augustine's doctrine about the liberum arbitrium or free will and its inability to respond to the will of God without divine grace is mistakenly interpreted in terms of Predestination: grace is irresistible, results in conversion, and leads to perseverance. Calvinist's view of Augustine's teachings rests on the assertion that God has foreordained, from eternity, those who will be saved. The number of the elect is fixed. God has chosen the elect certainly and gratuitously, without any previous merit (ante merita) on their part.  The Catholic Church considers Augustine's teaching to be consistent with free will. He often said that any can be saved if they wish. While God knows who will be saved and who will not, with no possibility that one destined to be lost will be saved, this knowledge represents God's perfect knowledge of how humans will freely choose their destinies.”

Why is any of this important, now, in this day in age?  What relevance does it have in our society?

Well, frankly, a lot.

It has an impact on the concept of social and criminal justice.  If you believe that someone always has free choice of will, you will look at criminals differently than if you think they are predestined for hell.

It can have an impact on how you view your own struggles with things like addiction, weight control and work ethic.  You either make choices or God made you fat.

If you believe that whatever you do, you are doing God’s grace, that attitude can lead to some major problems with personal behavior. (I am thinking of a certain house on the Hill).

If you believe that America is predestined for either greatness or a great fall, then the American people have little control over its destiny.  If, on the other hand, we live in a world where each of us has an important choice to make about how we compete with the rest of the world, that is a far different attitude.

If you believe that prosperity equals salvation, you will look at the idea of wealth in one way.  Or if instead, you take seriously Jesus’s admonition that it is easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into Heaven, you will look differently at the conspicuous consumers.

One thing that Palin’s Church and Quinn’s Church both agree on is that abortion is murder.  On that issue, Augustine was pretty straightforward.  I wonder where Quinn is on that issue.  I know where Palin is.

Quinn didn’t really get into St. Augustine or John Calvin or any of the early Christian heresies, including Manicheanism, in her discussion.  The irony is that we increasingly live an a Manichean world, the concept that there is a battle between good and evil, and that man is the battleground where the forces of good and evil fight it out.

Politically, both parties look at the other, all too often, as the essence of evil, possessed either by the devil or by some strange Christian cult.  Manichean politics makes it awfully hard to cut legislative deals.

It is unlikely that Palin or her most ardent supporters will change their worldview anytime soon.  Of course, neither will Quinn or her friends in the media elite.  It is also unlikely that either Palin or Quinn spend too much time pouring over Augustine’s City of God or Confessions.



But the free choice of will is as important politically as it is theologically.  And one thing we know for sure.  Voters have free choice of will each election, and next November, they will be the judges on the future of the country.