A historian reflects on how the devastating storm paved the way for the evangelical scapegoating of marginalized people today.
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“Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleans, and miss her each night and day?”
There was a day at the end of July when Sodom and Gomorrah was trending on Twitter. I never figured out why, presumably part of the unending vitriol leveled against the LGBTQIA+ community in this country. As with every time the idea that a city deserves destruction for its sins gets brought up, my mind drifted not to the Bible but to college, to my life, to New Orleans.
Seventeen years ago I was curled up on my couch, an upright fetal ball, blanket wrapped around me in the downstairs of my parents’ house, eyes glued to the TV. Days before, a friend from New York had driven to northeast Missouri to pick me up to head down to Louisiana for our junior year at Tulane, two people’s belongings shoved into his old Corsair. We’d blown a spark plug somewhere on the rural roads, and in that witching hour on Friday night, I was holding up the unloaded car in an AutoZone parking lot in West Memphis, Arkansas, while he crawled underneath and tried to replace it. He failed, and our road trip was delayed. But because of that we woke up to frenzied messages from people telling us to evacuate West Memphis, not New Orleans. We went back to my parents’ house and watched the hurricane inch ever closer on the map, quiet, still, whispering prayers.
Seventeen years ago, Katrina hit New Orleans. Then the levees broke. We watched in a silence as thick as a roux, despair instead of flour, floodwater pouring in, thickening the air until the city crumbled under the weight. The levees broke, the city drowned, and my world ended. For the rest of my life, when I picture the Apocalypse, the end of days, I picture the waters pouring around shotgun houses.
I got through some of the stages of grief. Bargaining and denial, certainly. Depression? I crawled into the bottom of a bottle for a semester at the university in my hometown, drowning myself under alcohol almost as rapaciously as my adopted city drowned under water, neglect, and despair. I still don’t know if I’ve reached acceptance. But I did find anger. Anger at the state of the levees beforehand. Anger that more wasn’t done to evacuate the 9th ward. Anger at the federal response to the disaster. Anger at the universe. An anger that cut through the despair; a clarifying anger I have never let go.
That anger crystallized and focused on one group in particular, and as a result, for the last 17 years, I have kept a list. It is a list of pastors and preachers and spokespeople for religious organizations who blamed Hurricane Katrina on the “sin” in New Orleans. Those that said the city deserved it. Purveyors of the notion that the hurricane was God’s judgment on the city, that the dead had it coming, that America had it coming, that, especially, the LGBTQIA+ community was and is such a moral abomination that God smote the city to punish it for supporting them. That Southern Decadence, one of the largest celebrations of the gay community in the Crescent City, that opened my eyes to how much bigger and brighter and more beautiful the world could be outside of my small Missouri hometown, was why the city had to be destroyed. The idea that my gay, bisexual, and transgender friends, all of whom were scattered and hurting in the aftermath, were why New Orleans was drowned by their God.
Pat Robertson. Franklin Graham. John Hagee. Rick Joyner. Bill Shanks. Jennifer Giroux. Gerhard Wagner. John McTernan. Hal Lindsey. Charles Colson. Michael Marcavage. Rick Scarborough. Fred Phelps. A droplet of names out of a sea of hate. Anti-LGBTQIA+ violence has always been a bedrock of Christian nationalists, and that the renewed fervor of it, combined with the ignoring of natural disasters and pandemics—or blaming them on LGBTQIA+ communities, as is happening with monkeypox—is not new, it is what the Christian right in this country does. And as much as we like to think things have changed, that list? Those people? They are still at it.
Fourteen days after the levees broke, Pat Robertson got on The 700 Club and blamed both terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina on abortion, while discussing Supreme Court nominee John Roberts:
We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America. I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he used the term that those who do this, “the land will vomit you out.” That—you look at your—you look at the book of Leviticus and see what it says there. And this author of this said, “well ‘vomit out’ means you are not able to defend yourself.” But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?
This is, of course, the same man who said that Haiti made a deal with the devil and that’s why the 2010 earthquake happened, and the tornadoes in the Midwest in 2012 were because people didn’t pray enough, and that the Nazis were Satanists and homosexuals and those things go together. The same man who said after the Pulse shooting that, “the best thing to do is to sit on the sidelines and let [LGBTQ rights advocates and Muslims] kill themselves.” Who referenced Sodom after New York legalized same sex marriage. Who blamed Covid-19 on marriage equality and abortion. And who said Putin was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine as part of the Apocalypse.
Reverend Franklin Graham, at the Thomas Road Baptist Church’s Super Conference on October 2, 2005, at Liberty University in Virginia, said that:
This is one wicked city, OK? It’s known for Mardi Gras, for Satan worship. It’s known for sex perversion. It’s known for every type of drugs and alcohol and the orgies and all of these things that go on down there in New Orleans. There’s been a black spiritual cloud over New Orleans for years. They believe God is going to use that storm to bring revival.
He doubled down on those ideas in an Associated Press interview and on CNN, saying that Mardi Gras and voodoo are associated with the city and antithetical to Christianity, and that “It is a city that has strong ties to the gay and lesbian movement, and these types of things.” Franklin Graham has been a big supporter of Vladimir Putin’s draconian anti-LGBTQIA+ laws, and met with and praised Putin for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda.” He claimed celebrating Pride Month is like celebrating “lying, adultery, or murder” in 2019. This spring he spent time on Facebook attacking the Transgender Day of Visibility, and calling the HHS guidance on “Gender-Affirming Care and Young People,” “one of the most wicked initiatives that we’ve seen come out of Washington” and reposting Lt. Governor Mark Robinson of North Carolina’s 2021 video calling the transgender movement “demonic” and “full of the spirit of Antichrist.” In his statement about Dobbs v Jackson, Graham was outspoken on his Christian nationalism, saying, “We must know the heart of the abortion issue isn’t political or legal—it’s spiritual. It’s a rejection of God’s law and principles as revealed in Scripture, and a rebellion against His authority over all of life.”
Then there’s John Hagee, the Christian Zionist evangelical pastor, founder of Christians United for Israel and Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, said this in a 2006 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:
All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that.
The newspaper carried the story in our local area, that was not carried nationally, that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it would was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other gay pride parades.
So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing.
That’s the same interview where Hagee, a noted Islamaphobe whose political fortunes rose on that basis under Donald Trump, said that, “Islam in general—those who live by the Koran have a scriptural mandate to kill Christians and Jews,” which is, of course, utter nonsense. Hagee said that the Ebola crisis in 2014 was God’s judgment on America for Obama’s lack of support of Israel. And he delivered a benediction at the ceremony marking the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 noted for its praise of Trump. Hagee’s endorsement of Trump for the 2020 election included overtly Christian nationalist tones, including, “Take America back from the god of socialism that now threatens the very survival of this nation.” He claimed that Jesus was the “true vaccine” against Covid. And despite his son’s apologies, the “ReAwaken America” tour held a rally at Cornerstone in November 2021, that included chants of “Let’s go, Brandon!,” Michael Flynn’s infamous proclamation of the US adopting “one religion,” and, of course, Hagee’s son welcoming them.
These are just three of them. Their following has only grown over the last seventeen years, because the appetite for that hate has grown. There is an audience for it, one that wants it to be ever more overt and ever more violent. This language, this belief that the LGBTQIA+ community is an abomination that must be destroyed, is everywhere right now. That rhetoric is part of an ideology of hate, of theocracy, a Christian nationalist vision of America that involves the destruction of groups who do not live like them, worship like them, vote like them, look like them, exist in the world exactly as they do. They want to undo people, to extinguish those lights from this world. I know for whom I write. I know why I keep writing. But the response to Katrina, the Christian nationalists who blamed the city for it, who said God deserved it? That is blinding rage in the heart of my writing. This is the why.
I never went back to Tulane, for all the complicated reasons people change schools. But I never forget my time there. Every time I see moss on an oak tree, or hear a trumpet play, or see a pastor yelling about the sins of this country, or watch the waters rise. Every morning for a moment, just a moment when I wake up, and forget all of the paths life has taken me down, when I think for a second that I’m waking up in my dorm room in the Leadership village for the start of my junior year. I remember New Orleans, and I remember who I was, and I remember all of the people who made the city magical.
“Do you know what it means, To miss New Orleans, When that’s where you left your heart? And there’s something more, I miss the one I care for, More than I miss New Orleans.”
I miss you. Seventeen years later I miss you. I miss all of you. And I remember what it means to miss New Orleans.
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