There's at least one reason to give thanks in the
wake of Hurricane Katrina: We haven't heard televangelist Pat
Robertson attribute the disaster to God's judgment of the paganism
of New Orleans -- at least not yet.
There's something deeply troubling when a very visible Christian
leader can be counted on to mouth an offensive or bizarre political
opinion, as he did with his recent riff about assassinating the
Venezuelan president. Media pundits, in a miasma of indignation,
predictably bludgeoned evangelicals and their political allies with
the latest absurdity. Rather than losing faith, many of Robertson's
supporters undoubtedly signed bigger checks for his ministry.
The problem is not that this script is getting old. The real
problem is that we've entered a 9/11 era of religious fanaticism,
making the role of religion in public life deeply suspect. At
exactly the moment when the need for effective Christian leadership
could not be greater, it remains difficult to find.
Nearly all of the major Christian traditions in the United States,
in fact, are on the defensive as never before. The Catholic Church
still struggles to overcome its crisis of sexually abusive priests.
Liberal Protestant churches, mimicking the secular cant of
political activists, have bled themselves dry in membership and
prestige. Though growing in numbers and political influence,
evangelicals are among the most feared demographic group in the
country, according to a recent Pew Forum poll.
Here's one reason: An evangelical figure with Robertson's clout
talks like a hit man from the Sopranos -- and what do his
religious brethren do about it? Not much.
True, a number of Christian leaders immediately criticized
Robertson for his "extreme, fanatical" remarks. But just as many
evaded the issue. Most kept quiet. Some claimed he wasn't speaking
as a Christian leader (which would be news to his 700 Club
audience). Others complained that his comments endangered the work
of missionaries in Venezuela.
This misses the point. Robertson has a 20-year record of reckless
statements and duplicitous behavior, all under the sanctified
umbrella of Christian ministry. He once predicted divine judgment
for Orlando, in the form of a hurricane, if Disney World allowed
gay-pride events on its premises. While trying to negotiate a deal
to get his CBN network into China, he downplayed the communist
state's one-child policy (accomplished by forced sterilizations and
abortions). Mindful of his financial investments in Africa, he
defended Liberian thug Charles Taylor as a man of God -- up until
the moment Taylor was indicted for war crimes and forced into
In the age of Islamic terror, an American minister who pontificates
about international politics has a civic -- and moral -- obligation
to think before he opens his mouth. Robertson called for a
political assassination, news that rippled into the Muslim world.
Then, with classic Bill Clinton panache, he lied about it -- and
then apologized. The question with Pat Robertson is not
whether his fatuousness will reassert itself, but
Before it does, evangelical leaders would be wise to marginalize
Robertson and his media empire -- publicly and decisively. They
should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his
television program, and deny him advertising space in their
magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps
down from his public platform. Religious leaders rightly worry
about airing their dirty laundry. But Robertson has made himself a
public figure -- and a massive public relations problem for the
church. Until more evangelicals make a visible break with him,
they'll be vulnerable to the crass caricatures that dominate media
coverage of conservative religion in America.
In an intensely partisan era, with so much at stake politically,
it's tempting to simply ignore the failings of one's allies in the
culture wars. Yet without integrity, cultural influence is
impossible. As the apostle Peter once warned, not so delicately,
judgment begins with the family of God.
Mr. Loconte is a
research fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation and
editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront
Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield). He served as
a member of the Congressional Task Force on the United
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire
There's at least one reason to give thanks in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: We haven't heard televangelist Pat Robertson attribute the disaster to God's judgment of the paganism of New Orleans -- at least not yet.
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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