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Where Most See a Weather System, Some See Divine Retribution

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

Steve Lefemine, an antiabortion activist in Columbia, S.C., was looking at a full-color satellite map of Hurricane Katrina when something in the swirls jumped out at him: the image of an 8-week-old fetus.

"In my belief, God judged New Orleans for the sin of shedding innocent blood through abortion," said Lefemine, who e-mailed the flesh-toned weather map to fellow activists across the country and put a stark message on the answering machine of his organization, Columbia Christians for Life.

"Providence punishes national sins by national calamities," it said. "Greater divine judgment is coming upon America unless we repent of the national sin of abortion."

Lefemine is far from the only person to see the wrath of God in the awesome damage that Katrina has wreaked on the Gulf Coast. As with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and last year's South Asian tsunami, the hurricane has spawned many competing explanations and apocalyptic visions from across the religious and ideological spectrum.

"It is almost certain that this is a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire," a Kuwaiti official, Muhammad Yousef Mlaifi, wrote Wednesday in the Arabic daily Al-Siyassa under the headline "The Terrorist Katrina is One of the Soldiers of Allah . . ."

In Israel, Christian journalist Stan Goodenough was struck by the juxtaposition in recent days of Jewish settlers being removed from their homes in the Gaza Strip and Americans being forced out of their homes in New Orleans.

"Is this some sort of bizarre coincidence? Not for those who believe in the God of the Bible . . .," he wrote in a column for the Web site Jerusalem Newswire. "What America is about to experience is the lifting of God's hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel."

In Philadelphia, Michael Marcavage saw no coincidence, either, in the hurricane's arrival just as gay men and lesbians from across the country were set to participate in a New Orleans street festival called "Southern Decadence."

"We take no joy in the death of innocent people," said Marcavage, who was an intern in the Clinton White House in 1999 and now runs Repent America, an evangelistic organization calling for "a nation in rebellion toward God" to reclaim its senses.

"But we believe that God is in control of the weather," he said in a telephone interview. "The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter was flooded was the day that 125,000 homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the streets. . . . We're calling it an act of God."

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson, who were roundly criticized for suggesting that the Sept. 11 attacks were divine retribution for abortion, homosexuality, feminism and the proliferation of liberal groups, have been silent on the meaning of the hurricane. Most of the major Christian political advocacy groups also have been cautious.

"It's a very risky business ascribing divine intent to natural disasters. Nobody but God really knows why these things occur," said Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America's Culture and Family Institute.

But there has been enough speculation that Focus on the Family, psychologist James Dobson's Colorado-based Christian ministry, has been promoting media appearances by its director of "teen apologetics," the Rev. Alex McFarland.

McFarland said in a telephone interview that theologians had debated for centuries how a good, wise and all-powerful God could allow so much evil and suffering.

"When someone asks 'Why do innocent people suffer?' I will gently remind them that we are not really innocent," he said. "God did create a perfect world. But we humans introduced moral evil, sin, rebellion and disobedience. And after God judged human sin in Noah's flood, the weather patterns that we know today developed."

Rather than blaming the hurricane on any particular sin or sinners, however, McFarland wanted to impart a positive message.

"As a Christian, I would say that God didn't cause this but God did allow it, and we believe that God will bring a greater good out of this," he said. "For God's love, power and wisdom to remain uncompromised, he will have to bring more good than pain from it, ultimately."

Ted Steinberg, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, argues in his 2000 book, "Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America," that Americans have often seen divine will in earthquakes, floods and droughts whose consequences have been worsened by improper planning.

In his opinion "as an atheist," he said, Katrina "was an unnatural disaster if ever there was one." By building levees along the Mississippi and draining marshland, he said, the Army Corps of Engineers and local officials hastened the sinking of New Orleans below sea level and destroyed the barrier islands that protected the Gulf Coast.

"Blaming God," he said, "is moral hand-washing."

That view was echoed this week by environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, which said the Bush administration bore some responsibility because it had "worked tirelessly to derail international agreement on climate change and sought to put narrow U.S. economic interests above global climatic stability."

McFarland of Focus on the Family said "it's sad that people would take the opportunity to spin this into some kind of political sound bite" and blame the government.

"Are we taking the opportunity to make this into a religious sound bite? I suppose so," he said. "But that is only at the prompting of people's questions. Human suffering, and the longing for answers, and the desire to process this spiritually and emotionally -- that's a defensible reality. Whereas George W. Bush creating global warming, and consequently Katrina, is speculative at best."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company