That was the message Governor Kathleen Blanco gave Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina first hit. The storm had changed from a Category 5 to a Category 4, was moving very quickly north, and had shifted eastward before landing, creating horrendous damage in Mississippi. Until the levees were breached, Louisiana’s citizens thought they had been spared a major tragedy yet again.
But if Louisiana was “blessed,” the only logical conclusion we can draw is that Mississippi was cursed. It made me cringe every time I heard someone use this language, and it angered me to hear the governor use it. Only yesterday, a radio reporter told the people of Jefferson Parish: “You ought to be thanking God that the levees were breached on the Orleans Parish side.”
The language of religion is a powerful one, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, where Southern Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and conservative non-denominational Christian churches are plentiful. In south Louisiana, there is also a very big Catholic population, which includes Governor Blanco.
A few days ago, Blanco, while touring a section of storm-ravaged south Louisiana, told residents that they would never be able to get through the hurricane crisis “without faith.” The faith to which she was referring wasn’t faith in the government or faith in the strength of community, but religious faith. Though they may fly under the radar, many churchless and non-religious people live in Louisiana, and they were essentially being told by their leader that they had no hope for recovery.
Certainly, in a time of crisis, religious people are going to talk about religion, and I, for one, have no objection to their doing so. I have no objection to the governor’s doing so, either, as long as her comments do not cause division among constituents or imply that people in other states somehow wound up on the wrong side of God’s favor.(Such thinking isn’t even rational within the religious paradigm–why would God spare what is probably the most corrupt state in the nation?)
The problem goes beyond careless statements made by public officials. One of the New Orleans television stations had a psychotherapist on to talk about stress reactions to the hurricane. After she said all of the standard things about dealing with a disaster, she launched into a speech about there “being a reason” for the devastation caused by Katrina. She was careful to be inclusive, and said she was addressing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists–everyone. It was important, she said, to remember that these things happen “for a reason.”
As a licensed psychotherapist, I was stunned by her remarks. I am as metaphysically ignorant as the next human, and do not wish to speculate about the possibility of mystical processes affecting natural phenomena. That is not the issue for me. My concern is that–in a culture in which people are constantly told that they are being punished for their sins–the last thing they need to hear is that there is a Big Reason for their having lost their homes, their jobs, and their loved ones. And bad theology aside, it is a remarkably stupid thing to say to people who have just suffered significant loss and disruption.
It is bad enough that the religious nuts want to blame some of our citizens for causing the hurricane to destroy New Orleans (though that theory does offer some other possibilities). Public officials and members of the clergy and other helping professions would be wise to stop and examine their religious rhetoric before broadcasting it to already victimized people.