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Fierce debate after Newtown school shootings: Where was God?

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Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, was accused of saying God had abandoned the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School. But his comments were more nuanced than that.

What is to blame for the Connecticut school attack?

In the wake of catastrophe, people want explanations, and as news spread of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, some religious conservatives were ready with an answer: the exclusion of God from public schools and the embrace of liberal social policies.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is ordained as a minister in the Southern Baptist Church, said Friday on Fox News that "we've systematically removed God from our schools."

"Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?" he asked.

Huckabee's comments drew criticism from progressive religious leaders, who accused him of suggesting that God wasn't there with the 26 victims at Sandy Hook.

Martin E. Marty, the prominent religious scholar, wrote Monday for the Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago (which is named for him) that Huckabee "wins, hands down, the prize for his absurdist judgment that 'Newtown' should have been no surprise."

Full coverage: Tragedy at Sandy Hook

Steve McSwain, a former Baptist minister who is now a nationally known interfaith activist, addressed Huckabee directly, writing: 

"With such remarks, you not only show little regard for those broken by this tragedy, but you make God into some kind a cosmic psychopath — vengeful, sickeningly repulsive, one who takes out his madness on innocent little children.

"Your reasoning is repulsive: Because we have removed your god from our schools, this is how your god gets even?" he wrote.

The intensity of the rhetoric underscores how quickly discussions of the religious underpinnings of tragedy can turn heated. Little noticed among Huckabee's critics is that he didn't say God turned his back on Newtown; he expressly said God was there in the good works people were doing.

"God wasn't armed. He didn't go to the school," Huckabee continued. "But God will be there in the form of a lot of people with hugs and therapy and a whole lot of ways in which he will be involved in the aftermath."

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Other social conservatives echoed Huckabee's thoughts on the root cause of Friday's attack.

James Dobson, the evangelical founder of the powerful organization Focus on the Family, said on his radio show, "Family Talk," that because "we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty, I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that's what's going on."

Dobson blamed two issues in particular: abortion and gay marriage.

"I mean, millions of people have decided that God doesn't exist or he's irrelevant to me, and we have killed 54 million babies, and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too."

Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative news site WND (formerly World Net Daily), wrote Sunday that the U.S. should expect "more Sandy Hooks, not fewer," because of America's "secularism" and restrictions on guns.

Grounding his opposition to gun control in religious terms, Farah likened arguments for gun control to philosophies underpinning "Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union (and) Mao's China," declaring:

"We are reaping the seeds of the whirlwind we ourselves planted. ... It's not that there are too many guns in our hands. It's that there is not enough repentance in our hearts."

For teachers, classroom security concerns come to the fore

The temptation to leap to such judgments is understandable, the Rev. Jenny Warner of First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Ore., said in her sermon Sunday. But she argued that that's the coward's way out.

David Friedman / NBC News

A nation mourns after the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history at Sandy Hook Elementary, which left 20 children and six staff members dead.

"How many people are saying, 'Oh, we need more gun control'? How many people are saying, 'If only God was more in our schools'? How many people are blaming it on this politician or that politician?" Warner asked her congregation.

"Another article I read was about how Mike Huckabee was blaming this on our politics, and so from both sides you've got the questions and the blame game happening."

Those are "all ways that make it easier ... to stay a little bit more removed from it, to not have to enter it in such a profound and intimate way," she said. But that's what makes it all the more important for religious people to confront tragedy, not seek to explain it.

Sure, "we need doctors," she said. "We need symposiums on world poverty. We need people to go in and address issues and to help provide a response. ...

"But we need healing, and healing comes with relationships. Healing comes by reaching out to someone and listening. Healing comes by calling and following up.

Healing comes when those four friends grab their friend and say, 'We're in this with you,'" she said, an allusion to Mark 2:1-12, in which four men lower their paralyzed friend through the roof of a crowded building where Jesus is preaching so he can be healed.

Real healing, Warner said, "steps into the pain and is with someone in it."

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