Few things are less surprising than Pat Robertson making ignorant and offensive comments about the earthquake in Haiti. As I will explain, I am not sure that attacking him is the best use of anyone’s time. Nevertheless he has provoked me to rank my top five things to remember about him—less as a direct response to his comments than as a way to cut though the media frenzy caused by the comments and to address wider issues raised by his career.
Most people know that Robertson interpreted the quake in the context of Haitians who supposedly “swore a pact to the devil” during Haiti’s war for independence from the French. According to Robertson, they told Satan “we will serve you if you will get us free.” Satan then responded, “OK, it’s a deal” and “ever since, they have been cursed.”
Is this worth acknowledging? Comments by Robertson that are racist, sexist, arrogant, complacent, misleading, and/or embarrassing are like a bus: if you miss one today, there will be another tomorrow. Those who stir the pot by writing “can you believe he said that!” do not always seem to grasp that Robertson makes such comments continually. The question is when and why a larger public tunes in and makes an issue of it—and who benefits if they do.
Often it is Robertson who benefits, and a ritual of liberals mocking him actually strengthens his subculture. Susan Harding’s Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton U. Press, 2001) shows how leaders of the New Christian Right (NCR) purposefully hone a rhetoric that creates “gaps” of credibility for listeners. Such gaps continually challenge people who are tempted by NCR rhetoric to reaffirm loyalty to their leaders—and by extension to burn bridges that could change them from believers to skeptical outsiders. The more outrageous the gaps, the more that reaffirming loyalty in the face of them allows conservatives to maintain their self-image as misunderstood and persecuted. Thus they can discount Robertson’s flaws within frames like “the sincere leader with feet of clay” (who, like King David, models repentance and rehabilitation) or the “truth-teller quoted out of context” (who, like Christ, will triumph in the end.)
Meanwhile, beyond an NCR subculture, sensational images of Robertson as a fringe figure—an extreme loose cannon—underplay continuities between him and mainstream conservatives, making allies with roughly similar ideas seem like lesser evils.
So I wondered whether to acknowledge Robertson’s latest provocation. It bores me, and I feel cheapened even to think about it as I worry about one of my students who has not yet returned from a mission trip to Haiti. When I needed a religion-oriented news tidbit to pique student interests, I did not seriously consider Robertson above Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger Woods should convert to Christianity, since Buddhism does not “offer the kind of forgiveness and redemption” he needs.
Still I could not resist clicking on a list of Robertson’s top ten greatest gaffes that I found in the blogosphere. It was amusing to ponder the rankings. Does Robertson’s feat of leg-pressing 2000 pounds (thanks to the diet shakes he was selling) deserve first place? Does his blaming 9/11 on LGBTs merit only fourth place? How can we forget Robertson praying for the deaths of liberal Supreme Court Justices? Pondering such matters led me to a comment thread about Robertson on Salon. Amid the predictable responses (much hateful mocking, a few claims that he was quoted out of context, and conflations of his Christianity with “religion” at large) there was a challenge to non-Robertsonite Christians: Given that ordinary Muslims are incessantly challenged to repudiate Osama bin Laden, why aren’t liberal Christians under similar pressure to repudiate Robertson?
I’ll take that bait. An ongoing aspect of my life—one of its taken-for-granted background assumptions—is repudiating people like Robertson. (I suppose most Muslims would say analogous things.) I have written many articles attacking the NCR or pressing liberals to be less wishy-washy in distancing themselves from him, and I wrote a book with a section on the NCR that ends with this reaction to a conservative leader from a radical Nicaraguan priest: “I do not see how we have the same faith; we do not believe in the same Christ.”
Still, I do worry about attacking Robertson in ways that help rather than hurt him.
So here is my own “top ten” list—except that it stops at five, and it spins the morals of its story differently from a standard “let’s mock Pat for being clueless” approach. Feel free to suggest five more in comments.
5) Robertson plays his part in the Iran-Contra scandal.
During the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, Robertson helped fund “cities of refuge” in Guatemala (what were called “strategic hamlets” in Vietnam), and camps for Nicaraguan Contras. Though trivial in scale compared to the policies of Bush and Cheney, allies of Reagan, funded illegally through the Iran-Contra connection and related schemes, were carrying out sadistic massacres in parts of countries they considered to be too leftist. Congressional Democrats were trying to stop the violence; which is what led Reagan, Oliver North, and others to develop illegal channels. Robertson cheerfully presented his piece of this puzzle as an opportunity for Christian mission. He even appeared on camera, with no apparent shame, to pray with Contra troops.
The moral: Since we already knew how Robertson is willing to stretch the law when he feels he has a divine mandate, we merely note this in passing—but we pause to recall the depths of criminality among Reagan’s operatives, and to reflect on how many from this cohort could have been prosecuted for activities related to the Iran-Contra scandal.
4) Robertson fuses with News Corp.
Robertson built what was once the nation’s fourth-largest television network—partly through claiming tax breaks as a religious ministry. Then he cashed in when Rupert Murdoch acquired what was then known as The Family Channel.
This story has two morals: The first is that Fox News and Robertson’s “news” deserve about the same degree of respect from journalists. Second, critics have raised questions about the legality of financial transactions related to Robertson’s business empire. Although at this point there’s no way to determine how well these accusations would hold up in court, we can easily imagine more diligent investigations.
3) Robertson becomes a leading presidential candidate.
In the 1988 presidential primaries, Robertson was the early Republican front-runner—a classic case dramatizing his centrality to the NCR and the NCR’s centrality to the Republican Party.
The moral of this story is not to retell embarrassing campaign anecdotes, but to bear in mind that NCR leaders have worked with considerable success to take over the Republican Party. In With God on Their Side (New Press, 2004), Esther Kaplan estimated that in 2002 the NCR dominated the Republican organizations of eighteen states and controlled at least a quarter of Republican committees in forty-four states. True, this does not eliminate a tug-of-war among the NCR, neoconservatives, and old-time Wall Street Republicans. However, the image of Robertson as president is a good way to focus our attention on how non-Robertsonite Republicans are in bed with the NCR. Here again we can catch this “bus” whenever we wish to ride it.
2) Robertson publishes an anti-Semitic screed and neo-conservative allies yawn.
Robertson’s 1991 book, The New World Order, recycled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and stated that George Bush Sr. was part of a conspiracy to institute “an occult-inspired world socialist dictatorship” (through his work with the United Nations in the first Gulf War). This caused few of Robertson’s neoconservative allies to break with him in any decisive way—although one former neocon, Michael Lind, denounced him in a major exposé in the New York Review of Books.
Moral of the story: I rank this second because it overlaps with the third, but the non-Robertsonite conservatives in the second at least have a fig leaf of an alibi. They beat back Robertson’s 1988 charge and have engaged in related scrimmages ever since. However, I see no such alibi for looking the other way as Robertson made anti-Semitic smears (plus similar attacks on New Agers, feminists, Muslims, and others) and absurd claims about global politics. More than the 1988 campaign (or the subsequent partnership of his lieutenant in this campaign, Ralph Reed, in the criminal schemes of Jack Abramoff) this case dramatizes the moral bankruptcy of alliances between the NCR and neoconservative power brokers.
1) The top of my list revealed:
What could top such a list? Since we’re on the subject of disasters, we might note how, amid the response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA hyped Robertson’s philanthropic arm, Operation Blessing. This organization is small and unorthodox at best, and has been accused of various irregularities. Yet early in the crisis it appeared on a FEMA list of just three places to donate, alongside the Red Cross. If we compare these groups’ track records, this is like addressing a food crisis by listing Joe’s Diner alongside a giant supermarket chain—if Joe’s Diner were under suspicion of money laundering. In effect, these high-profile appeals were a case of FEMA using the Katrina disaster, deliberately or through incompetence, as a pretext to give Robertson a windfall of cash. This is a clear contender for the top ten list, though it doesn’t make today’s because it’s just possible that Robertson did some good in New Orleans, just as it’s possible that he is doing some good in Haiti now.
My actual top pick is Robertson’s casual contempt for, and celebration of outright rebellion against, US government leaders—including imaginative scenarios for armed munity. It is well known that end-times scenarios (such Robertson’s attack on the UN in The New World Order) often teach unilateralism. However, they only reinforce commitments to democracy insofar as US leaders are seen as biblically sound. If leaders are seen as capitulating to the Antichrist, it becomes the believer’s duty to deceive and disobey them by any means necessary, including armed resistance. In Robertson’s End of the Age (a book that restates his argument from The New World Order in the form of a novel), a heroic Christian general lies to the president and secedes from the United States with several nuclear bases.
The moral: Robertson may never again be a major politician, and when he sold out to Rupert Murdoch he gave up some of his power to shape the news. But he still helps form the imaginations of the students at his university and the viewers of his show, and in this role he often channels their hopes and fears into imagining holy wars—scenarios in which believers escalate their commitments into armed struggles against liberals and sectors of the US government. This is the level at which Robertson’s influence remains most disturbing.
Let’s be clear that merely conducting thought experiments—imagining how the United States could disintegrate into a war between the righteous and unrighteous—is not necessarily a problem. Many kinds of legitimate dissent and hopes for the future can be channeled through prophetic images. Some of these are harmless or even constructive. Still, the more that these thoughts point toward the sorts of actions that Robertson seems to consider appropriate, the more disturbing they are; bordering on what ordinary people might perceive as treason.
On most days I suspect that Robertson is engaged in a split consciousness at this point. Just as he may say that he doubts evolution (in one compartment of his brain) while accepting the science of vaccinations against evolving bacteria (in another compartment), likewise he probably brackets certain ideas about Satan’s activities in Haiti or the Antichrist’s role at the UN from “reality-based” evidence. This is one check against us becoming excessively alarmed. Another is to recall that there are also liberal versions of imagining warfare—such as people who fantasize about being Na’vi warriors as they surf the internet in the suburbs. It is no more inevitable that Left Behind fans will move to survivalist compounds and begin paramilitary training to battle the UN than that Avatar fans will give up their iPods and clothes and move to a rain forest.
Still, even if we discount Robertson’s extreme expressions of disloyalty (imagining the president as Satan, praying for the death of Supreme Court Justices) as harmless free speech, are these not remarkable simply at the level of imagination and hate speech? What if secular leftists or radical Muslims were to advocate similar scenarios of armed struggle or to use similar hate speech? What if they controlled television networks and were leading presidential candidates? Would federal prosecutors and mainstream news networks tolerate such behavior? Is it not remarkable that we take such things for granted from Robertson? As a wise media critic once said, “it’s a joke, but it’s not that funny.”