The scale of the devastation from the earthquake in Haiti is yet to be measured, but we know already that the degree of human suffering will be incalculable. In the face of this, one of the most oft-reported responses from an American religious leader was, to many, criminally callous. The RD blog lit up with response, so here, in alphabetical order, our writers reflect on ignorance, Haitian religion, and the scandal of Pat Robertson. —The Eds.
Anthea Butler | Pat Robertson and the Curse of Unyielding Ignorance
When I heard the news about the earthquake in Haiti, I spoke on the phone with another RD writer, Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, and said, “just wait. I know that this ‘Curse Of Vodou’ crap is going to hit the news sooner or later.”
Lo and behold, good old predictable Charismatic lunatic Pat Robertson is leading the pack once again.
If you can’t stand to watch the clip, here’s the quote from Media Matters:
PAT ROBERTSON: And, you know, Kristi, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.” True story. And so, the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.”
And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, et cetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God. And out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come. But right now, we’re helping the suffering people, and the suffering is unimaginable.
KRISTI WATTS (co-host): Absolutely, Pat.
This narrative of a curse hanging over Haiti is because of a legend, which holds that in order to win independence from France in 1791, a vodun priest, Dutty Boukman, entered into a pact with the devil. But no historical evidence has been put forth to substantiate this claim. Boukman prayed, and raised a call to arms against the French, yet the pact with the devil part is absent from the original narratives of the story. For Pat Robertson to infer that this legend is why Haiti is cursed, poor, impoverished, and subject to national disasters is the worst kind of demonically-fixated, Charismatic-lite ignorance.
Using “demons” to explain natural disasters is not anything new. What is new is how the language of the demonic has been used to describe a natural disaster that happens to anyone other than a Christian, and often, a Christian of European extraction. It is on par with the notion of “Slave-holding Christianity” about which Frederick Douglass spoke so eloquently in “What to a slave is the Fourth of July.” What’s more, this narrative of “curse” is used often to remind any person of color that if you go up against the white man, God is most likely to punish you in perpetuity. A recent example of this narrative of demonic activity was used by John Hagee and others to explain away what happened in Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.
This narrative of radicalized supremacy and good old ignorance that permeates certain sectors of Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements is masked in statements like Robertson’s. To the faithful, it sounds like truth: after all, look at all the missionaries there, trying to save the poor black benighted souls of those people. Never mind the fact that Haiti has been a Catholic stronghold, or that missionaries from various groups have been on the island for generations. And yes, people practice Vodun, but so what? In a disaster, help should not be predicated upon what a person’s belief system is. As President Obama said in his remarks on Haiti, “Finally, let me just say that this is a time when we are reminded of the common humanity that we all share.” In disastrous times, doctrinal purity is not at issue. Those in need want help. The evidence: news reports of cries, prayers, and hymns singing throughout the night. But that sounds like devil worshippers to Pat.
Aid agencies on the ground are trying to hold things together until urgent rescue and medical assistance can get there. So while Robertson pontificated from his cozy studios in Virginia Beach, do the people of Haiti a favor and donate money to the cause (here is a list of aid groups seeking donations). I hope to follow this post up with some on-the-ground information from contacts when it becomes available. Until then, perhaps there is a prayer that can be said that will knock the power out from the studios of The 700 Club. That’s a prayer worth saying for sure.
Becky Garrison | Pat Robertson: No Longer a Relevant Player
When I received a press release from the People for the American Way (PFAW) titled, “PFAW Condemns Robertson’s Comments on Haiti Earthquake,” I wondered to myself why any leader who claimed to be a Christian would say that the nation of Haiti has been cursed ever since it “swore a pact to the Devil.”
In my book Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar, I cited how the words of the Greatest Commandment have been repeated ad nauseam to the point where the radical message of Christ has been lost in our “yeah, right” cynical culture. Sometimes this cynicism is warranted.
For instance, let’s take a look at the pronouncements of televangelist Pat Robertson. In his teaching on the Greatest Commandment, Robertson proclaims that “a person must dedicate the totality of his being to a self-giving love for God. Every aspect of his nature must focus on loving God.” Say what? I mean, is this the same Pat Robertson who in August 2005 issued a Christian fatwa against a democratically-elected world leader? I would challenge anyone to tell me what is “loving” about declaring to a worldwide televised audience that “if [Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez] thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it.” Robertson later apologized, but halfheartedly. He tried to weasel out of it by claiming that he didn’t really say we should assassinate him but that our “special forces should take him out.” Millions of viewers who saw the show or a tape of that segment know exactly what he said—that it would be cheaper to assassinate Chavez than to wage a costly war against him. But no matter how you slice this baloney, God makes it pretty clear that vengeance is his business and not ours. (See Romans 12:19–21). In a few brief moments, Robertson managed to flush over two thousand years of Judeo-Christian teachings down the toilet.
As I witnessed that notorious segment on The 700 Club, my “judge not that you not be judged” button got jammed. I’m trying to fix it, but it keeps short-circuiting on me. Maybe I’m not being Christlike, but I get pretty ticked when a brother in Christ suggests that it’s OK to kill people who cause us political grief. Then again, this is the same dude that made this comment: “If I could just get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom [meaning the State Department], I think that’s the answer.” Clearly, his most recent assassination comment wasn’t the first time he has suggested that murder could represent a viable solution, even if he meant it in jest.
Let’s see how Pat Robertson demonstrates his love for his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. According to Pat, “You say you’re supposed to be nice to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists… Nonsense. I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.” There are those who would disagree with Robertson’s picks for the embodying the spirit of the Antichrist. Fellow televangelist Robert Tilton declared Ole Anthony, founder of Trinity Foundation, to be the Antichrist. Then you have the Sex Pistols, who state that they are an Antichrist, as does “Antichrist Superstar” Marilyn Manson and lots of other wannabe satanist rockers. Also, just about every world leader who opposes the United States tends to get tagged “the Antichrist.” Seems to me that certain religious leaders might be using this term a bit too loosely. I mean, some people who have been called the Antichrist, like Hitler and Saddam Hussein, are truly evil, but we’re talking here about the epitome of evil, the baddest of the bad. When it comes to discerning just who is going to duke it out with Christ when the Second Coming hits, it seems to me it would help if we were all on the same page.
But guys like Pat never seem to let facts get in the way of a good story. For instance, how many people know that Robertson ain’t a reverend? He likes to put on the posture of being a preacher, but he gave up his ordination as a Baptist minister in 1988 when he decided to run for president. I can see where people would still make the honest mistake and call him “Reverend Robertson.” As host of The 700 Club, he prays for healing (provided your faith overrides your sense of reason and you funnel your fortunes into his pocket). And even though he’s a layman, he preaches his interpretation of the Word of God to an average of one million American viewers daily. Some viewers, like me, watch Pat & Co. for comic relief and research purposes, but many people take this man’s ramblings seriously or else he wouldn’t be so filthy rich.
Though Robertson seems to be cuckoo for Christ, even he acknowledges that there are consequences to not following Jesus’ teachings. He states, “A person would break the great commandment if his spirit was partially centered on making money to the exclusion of God.”
Now, let’s just see how well Pat puts this teaching into practice. Although I can never claim to know what’s in someone’s heart, it seems to me, at least on paper, that Robertson really, really likes making money. Lots of money. According to British journalist Greg Palast, Pat has a net worth estimated at between $200 million and $1 billion, a fortunate he amassed through moneymaking ventures including African gold and diamond mines, the Kalo-Vita vitamin pyramid scheme, the Bank of Scotland, the Family Channel, and the Ice Capades, as well as Age-Defying shakes, antioxidants, and protein pancakes. So is Pat guilty of not practicing what he preaches? Anyone who tunes in to more than a minute of The 700 Club can figure out pretty quickly that Pat’s application of the Greatest Commandment does not extend to those godless heathen Democrats, feminists, and other political infidels that dare to thwart what Fortune magazine terms his “quest for eternal life.” Lest you think I am exaggerating here, check out the dude’s 1992 bestselling book The New World Order for a complete description of what the world would be like if Robertson ruled it.
As I’ve just noted, Pat’s a good talker, but it’s no wonder we’re in such a mess—while guys like him are PR geniuses when it comes to talking the talk, they appear to be walking away from Christ’s teachings.
However, since Pat’s 2005 assassination faux-pas, I haven’t seen him as a go-to guy in either the 2006 and 2008 election. Seems to me his unbiblical buzz may have run out of batteries. Hence, giving Pat any more PR simply gives him the illusion that he remains a relevant player. And he’s not. While I may share PFAW’s sentiment about Pat’s unholy Haitian slur, perhaps we should just treat him like the crazy uncle that comes over for Thanksgiving dinner. Simply put him off to the side so he can droll all over himself while keeping away from the kiddies.
Michelle Maldonado | “Biblical” Disaster: Understanding Religion in Haiti
Yesterday morning as I settled onto my elliptical at the gym, I anxiously turned to the television silently playing captioned CNN. It was before sunrise, and I knew it would be a good thirty minutes before daylight would reveal the devastation the 7.0 earthquake had unleashed on Haiti. The man on the neighboring machine, also watching the television, turned to me and said, “You know they killed all the white people after they gained independence… it is that Vodou… they deserve it.” I pedaled along speechless, not sure what shocked me more, that this man would think these things or that he felt comfortable enough with his hatred that he was fairly confident I would agree. I ignored him and I wish I had not. What I wanted to say is that Vodou is not some sort of sorcery, or the product of some “pact to the devil” (thank you Pat Robertson). I also wanted to correct his erroneous assumption that Haiti is a nation of Vodou practitioners. It is, and continues to be, overwhelmingly Christian.
I confess that I have been fairly glued to CNN in the past twenty-four hours, and two things have struck me as I watched the constant onslaught of images of suffering and destruction. The first is the erroneous fact that CNN keeps claiming on its ticker that Haiti is 80% Roman Catholic. The second is the sheer amount of US missionaries on the island. The two are interrelated. Recent studies estimate that the Protestant population of Haiti is somewhere around thirty percent. In Port-au-Prince that number jumps to almost forty percent. The majority of these churches are Pentecostal. These churches are overwhelmingly independent, indigenous Haitian entities, though some are linked to North American denominational Pentecostal churches. Haiti, along with Jamaica and Puerto Rico, is home to one of the fastest growing Pentecostal populations in the Caribbean.
As I watch the drama unfold in Haiti, and feel it here in Miami, the home of the largest Haitian Diaspora in the United States, I cannot help but think of another earthquake, another country. In 1976 a 7.5 earthquake devastated Guatemala, leaving 23,000 dead and over 50,000 injured. My husband, a child at the time, has told me of the silence, the fear that followed this catastrophe. As a scholar of religion, I have often wondered of the theological impact of this natural disaster.
Thankfully, the scholarship of Virginia Garrard-Burnett provides some answers. She correlates the explosion of Pentecostalism in Guatemala, which like Haiti is an epicenter of Pentecostalism in the Americas, in part as a response to the earthquake. An overwhelmingly high percentage of Guatemalans saw the earthquake as a form of divine punishment and a call for repentance. Arriving in the guise of aid and relief, Protestantism provided an alternative way of being Christian. Yet Pentecostalism primarily emerged in Guatemala, as it did in Haiti, disconnected from North American denominations. Indigenous Pentecostalism, with its apocalyptic theology, also gained momentum among indigenous Guatemalans.
Haiti had barely recovered from the four devastating storms of 2008 prior to this earthquake. The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Port-au-Prince has collapsed, and Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot’s lifeless body was pulled from the ruins of the diocesan offices. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the natural disasters that this nation has endured as “biblical” in nature. “It is biblical, the tragedy that continues to stalk Haiti and the Haitian people.” Clinton does not realize that her comments would strike a chord with many Haitians today. Haitian Pentecostals, with their biblical literalism and their certainty that the second coming of Jesus is imminent, could see this time of tribulation as a challenge where the faithful will be rewarded on judgment day. Religion will surely play a role in the manner in which Haitians make sense of this tragedy, and I suspect we will find growing numbers of Pentecostal converts as Haitians attempt to find meaning in what can only be described as senseless and inexplicable suffering.
Sarah Posner | Judging Pat Robertson’s Influence
Evangelical pastors, writers, and activists have stepped up to condemn Pat Robertson’s remarks about Haiti, saying that he does not represent them, nor do comments represent Christianity. If that’s true, why does anyone care about anything Robertson says at all?
Judging a public figure’s influence is a tricky business. Sure, bestselling books, sell-out crowds and the like tell you something. You could look at The 700 Club’s Nielsen ratings, or do a public opinion survey on someone’s favorability ratings, or ask other other evangelicals to name their most “influential” brethren. Or you could perform the Washington journalist’s task of eliciting gossip (“asshole” is how one conservative operative once described Robertson to me) and figure out whether the person in question has any “juice.”
But all of that, even, makes it difficult to prove just how “influential” or “powerful” someone is. Surely there are 700 Club viewers who hang on Robertson’s every word, and others who would fast-forward through them if they could. The collapse (and feeble reinvention) of the Christian Coalition surely played a role in Robertson’s diminished standing. For politicians, Rudy Giuliani was the only Republican presidential candidate in 2008 who sought—and received—Robertson’s endorsement. (Speaking of curses…)
Peter Wehner, a former Bush speechwriter and fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted at the National Review:
I fully realize that Robertson long ago ceased being a serious figure in the eyes of many people. Still, he remains a person of some influence, an individual who ran for president, whose words still garner attention, and whose views reflect a strand of thought within Christendom.
Of course, conservatives see the PR disaster in not distancing themselves from Robertson—that’s why many of them have. Yet there isn’t, and probably couldn’t be, a push to drive Robertson off the airwaves. Robertson’s empire will soldier on in spite of him.
Robertson presides over an enormous (and tax-exempt) conglomerate comprised of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Regent University (of which the governor-elect of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, is a graduate), the American Center for Law and Justice (whose president, Jay Sekulow, is considered “the leading Supreme Court advocate of the Christian right”), and Robertson’s “humanitarian” arm, Operation Blessing (which has been involved in highly questionable—but lucrative—relationships with brutal dictators like former Liberian president Charles Taylor, speaking of pacts with the devil). These are far-reaching, well-funded organizations with collective hundreds of million in assets and donations, which interact with the world’s powerful, educate the next class of policymakers and lawyers, and project a conservative evangelical interpretation of politics and world affairs around the globe.
Is Pat Robertson influential? Maybe just a little bit.
In the wake of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, moderate Christians have been thoroughly embarrassed again by Pat Robertson. In like manner as after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Robertson implied that the Haitian disaster is a consequence of an age-old pact with the devil—God has called in his debts. His response has prompted a flurry of commentary on blogs and Web sites, so much so that the Christian Broadcasting Network issued a response clarifying that Robertson did not specifically call the earthquake ‘God’s wrath’, but simply joined in with “countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.” CBN further explained that their organization was sending “millions” in medical aid to the country.
Shocked Christians respond with incredulity that Robertson could be audacious enough to ‘explain’ such a tragic situation. Yet in his judgment, Robertson shows a consistency of belief that the offended lack. American Christians are, explicitly or implicitly, inculcated with the belief that God functions as judge. People who believe the right things about Jesus benefit as a result, and people who experience misfortune must be in some way deserving of it. This reading of scripture provides a surprisingly effective way of coping with uncertainty. However, try to explain it to an individual who has just suffered the loss of a loved one—or a country that has just lost thousands. The lie of controlled divine uniformity is exposed by indiscriminate tragedy. The selfishness of an egotistical God is revealed.
What exactly is exposed? The fragility of our worldviews. The tenuous grasp we have on God and our doubts as to whether s/he exists. The fact that the majority of us will not respond in any tangible way to a tragedy in a far-away country. Embarrassment that we ask ourselves whether we ought to respond in the first place. And just then appears Pat Robertson—Robertson who, unfazed by tragic events, goes right on spouting the same platitudes that others spout on days when it does not matter. Today it matters, though, and Robertson seems oblivious to the fact that today the rules have changed.
Pat is undoubtedly bad public relations. But does Jesus need a PR firm? Shouldn’t He be able to take care of himself? Offended Christians should hold their existential crisis in check and act as they claim Jesus would. Suffering Haitian people don’t need a theological defense, be it one of judgment or love. They need food, shelter, medicine, money, and people to help them through this crisis.
Philosopher Paul Ricoeur suggests that in the face of the worst historical tragedies any explanation, no matter how viable, threatens to commit additional violence. Yet we are surprised in the midst of tragedy in part because we ignore the innumerable daily acts of systematic violence that have rendered Haiti impoverished for decades. Natural disaster places an unbearable toll on an already weakened infrastructure. Christians have noted this, but have placed the blame on economic or political sources rather than allowing a place for the impetus that Christianity gives to ideas of manifest destiny and global capitalism. Instead of putting a bandage over Pat Robertson’s social faux pas, though, we should allow the wound to remain exposed a while, reminding us just how little we know, and how fragile we are.