Pat Robertson embraces modern morality

I know “Pat Robertson says something shocking” hasn’t been a man-bites-dog story in decades. But occasionally his comments are interesting enough to warrant media attention. Or, as Religion News Service put it yesterday:

Televangelist Pat Robertson can always be counted on for some nutty-but-quotable (alas) comment on a natural disaster and God’s wrath and gays, or some combo thereof.

But his remarks on Tuesday’s edition of “The 700 Club” are really eye-popping.

I first read the remarks in question at Christianity Today, when they reported the news that the media mogul had advised a viewer that Alzheimer’s is grounds for divorce (click here for the video). Here’s how they put it:

Pat Robertson advised a viewer of yesterday’s 700 Club to avoid putting a “guilt trip” on those who want to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s. During the show’s advice segment, a viewer asked Robertson how she should address a friend who was dating another woman “because his wife as he knows her is gone.” Robertson said he would not fault anyone for doing this. He then went further by saying it would be understandable to divorce a spouse with the disease.

“That is a terribly hard thing,” Robertson said. “I hate Alzheimer’s. It is one of the most awful things because here is a loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years. And suddenly that person is gone. They’re gone. They are gone. So, what he says basically is correct. But I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again. But to make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.”

Yes. Such comments might not be shocking from advice givers who embrace relativism but even for the ever-quotable Robertson, they were bizarre.

Christianity Today concluded its report with a mention of Robertson McQuilkin, who ended his 22-year tenure as president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary to care full-time for his wife Muriel who suffered with Alzheimer’s for 25 years, the last decade of which she could not recognize her husband. He wrote an article where he explained that his decision to care for her was easy:

This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however. It was only fair. She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt,” McQuilkin wrote.

In an interview in 2004, McQuilkin said he made the right decision. “Some people sort of resent the imposition, but those thoughts never came to me,” McQuilkin said. “I thought it was a privilege to care for her. She had always cared for me. So it was not a burden. In fact, if it had been a burden, maybe there wouldn’t be so much grief now, that sense of loss.”

I generally share RNS’ resignation about whether to quote Robertson. But it’s good to see that this story wasn’t relegated to the Christian press. The Associated Press also covered it, with a brief report on the matter. I almost missed it the first time I read it, but it includes a brief explanation of why Christians tend to frown on divorce:

Most Christian denominations at least discourage divorce, citing Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark that equate divorce and remarriage with adultery.

It might be helpful to revisit some of the themes from our discussion we had last week on the Tennessean article on Christian marriage and the role of sacrifice in the same. Of course, volumes could be written and have been written about Christian views on divorce but, like I said, it’s a brief piece.

The article also gets some context from Beth Kallmyer, director of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association, which provides resources to sufferers and their families. She explains, in so many words, that most families of Alzheimer’s sufferers are not as callous as Mr. Robertson.

Christianity Today‘s mention of how a Christian man cared for his wife and the Associated Press mention of Scripture and practical family matters provide context without being snarky or rude (a feat I obviously have trouble with).

Perhaps this will just be added to the lengthy list of interesting or inflammatory things that Robertson has said over the years. It might also be a piece of a larger puzzle about Robertson’s views on morality or his own health. But the media seemed to do a fine job handling this one. What do you think?

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  • Martha

    Look, this same argument was being held back in 1896 about permitting the spouse of an insane person to divorce (remember, back then, the only grounds for divorce were adultery) and for the same reasons: the person as you knew them was gone, they couldn’t keep the vows they had made, it was unfair and cruel to tie someone to a marriage that was no longer a marriage, and deny them a chance at love and family.

    If society has swallowed that camel, why strain at this gnat? I imagine the reasoning behind what Mr. Robertson says is “Better divorce and remarriage than adultery” in a Christian context, and if a Christian denomination has accepted that there are valid grounds where marriages can be dissolved, then the ice has already become thin under their feet.

  • Ray Ingles

    “Pat Robertson embraces modern morality”

    Oh, there’s only one?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I think there’s a big difference between saying, “The Christian moral ideal means no divorce, ever, for any reason, but we realize that not everyone is strong enough to live up to that ideal”, and saying, “The Christian ideal allows you to get a divorce for Alzheimer’s disease, guilt-free!”

    It would be interesting to know exactly which of those lines of argument Pat Robertson is pushing, and I don’t think the article made it clear. The former is something I can understand and even agree with, the latter not so much.

  • Appalachian Prof

    I would have enjoyed it if they had interviewed some representative of a church that held a sacramental view of marriage, so that his deviation from historical orthodox Christianity could be shown in even starker relief.

  • PatrickH

    Does this mean that Pat Robertson has become a physicalist / reductionist about the soul? Alzheimer’s attacks the brain. To say that because of Alzheimer’s a person is “gone” is to imply that the brain is the person in some fundamental way. So it seems that Pat R is not only endorsing modern morality, he’s on board with modern metaphysics and modern theory of mind. He believes the brain is the person. The brain is the soul. Pat Robertson is a physicalist!

  • Ev ritchie

    For better or for worse? What is wrong with this man? Does this mean if your spouse picks up a few pounds you can divorce them as long as you set them up with a all you can eat buffet? The man i married had a full head of hair good muscle tone etc. now some 30 to 40 years latter he has hardly any hair is as weak as a kitten; this is not the same man I married! Do I have grounds Pat(self appointed Know it all)???

  • Hector

    Re: I would have enjoyed it if they had interviewed some representative of a church that held a sacramental view of marriage

    Well, that’s rather the point- Protestants, with the exception of some Anglicans, don’t tend to believe that marriage is a sacrament, so it makes more sense in a Protestant context to debate about the rights and wrongs of remarriage, and the extent towards which marriage is a sin. If you do believe that marriage is a sacrament (and thefore indissoluble in the same way that baptism is irreversible) then the exceptionless norm against divorce & remarriage makes a lot of sense. German Lutherans, for example, accepted divorce in some circumstances starting in the 16th century.

    For the record, Jesus’ prohibition against divorce is found not only in Mark but also in Luke, Matthew and in 1 Corinthians (where Paul makes clear that he’s quoting Jesus, not speaking on his own).

  • Bennett

    Is it silly of me, as a young person, to wonder why there would be such an urge to get divorced and remarried at the late stage of life where one’s spouse is totally lost to Alzheimer’s? I realize that seniors fall in love, too, and don’t want to be alone, but at this point I would imagine that this man and his wife have been partners for life. They’ve already ‘been fruitful and multiplied’, and unless this guy is Strom Thurmond, those days are probably behind him.

    So why the need to remarry? Let’s not forget the purpose of marriage. I don’t see why the man needs to sever ties to his spouse. Nothing about having an invalid spouse prevents him from having close friends, or family, or others to support him. What’s the urge that he needs to satisfy, that his wife is keeping him from? It seems as if the most likely explanations, without knowing more, are that he’s still interested in sex (shocking, but I realize oldsters get it on, too), or that he finds caring for her to be a burden. Maybe both, maybe neither, but neither one seems like a sufficient reason to blow off “in sickness AND in health, for better AND for worse.” How would he justify himself to the Lord, or to her for that matter, when they meet again in the afterlife? Did she provide a living will, something to the effect of “If I die or become incapacitated, remarry and move on?”

    Heck, why not just call her ‘legally dead’ and him a widower, if we’re going to equivocate over the point of death? Why don’t we just smother the clincially depressed with their pillows? Why not send the joyless to gas chambers? At what point do we say someone is ‘lifeless’ and write them off?

    Robertson’s equivocation opens up a whole ethical and moral conundrum, and it’s my belief that the reason God issued moral edicts is that only someone who knows and understands all things and all circumstances is capable of correctly formulating a moral absolute. If Christ’s morality isn’t sufficient for Pat, then he may be quite disappointed to find out how his morality stacks up for Christ when he’s availed the opportunity to compare notes and receive his grade.

    For a man who presumes to know the will of God in the face of natural disaster and political upheaval, things far larger and more mysterious than this, he certainly displays a worming lack of conviction in the unshadowed word of God now.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    For once an article that put the “blame” for a teaching of the Christian churches where it belongs–not on the pope or the local clergy, but on Jesus Christ, the Son of God and His words. Wow! actually using Jesus’ words as recorded in the Gospel of Mark for background. No implying that the Christian distaste for divorce (and re-marriage after a sacramental marriage)is somehow a monkish or papal or clerical fantasy. Kudos to AP for a change.
    Some churches,of course, follow His Words more faithfully than others—and the story shows how some clergy, like Pat Roberston, can rationalize and water down His Words if they become difficult to live up to.

  • Ferdinand

    Robertson will probably back-track and make an on-air apology. Then, with tears in his eyes, he will publicly ask God for forgiveness. Club 700 donations will be soaring…

  • LA Brother

    As a Christian, I find Robertson’s comments offensive and unbiblical. He does not speak for followers of Jesus Christ, nor does he represent bible believing Christians in America or around the world.

  • Jay

    I knew two men married 40+ years who faced this: an Episcopalian who visited his wife every day in the nursing home, and a Catholic who didn’t divorce his wife but brought his girlfriend (now his 2nd wife) for assignations while his wife was there.

    I’m glad CT interviewed someone representing the former perspective. I also think the RNS snark about Pat condemning Michael Schiavo is fair game. But clearly the 81-year-old host does not have his full facilities. As RNS points out, the 700 Club has one host (Terry Meeuwsen) who doesn’t have Alzheimer’s.

    Interestingly, the NYT seems much more sympathetic:

  • Debra

    To revoke support of an ailing spouse is creepy coming from Pat Robertson. When someone uses their soapbox to suggests what Pat Robertson said, thousands will follow and shirk their responsibilities. Divorce is only one issue Pat Robertson brought up.

    More significant is that Robertson redefined death for us, suggesting a patient with Alzheimer’s is dead. Dead to their spouses so the vows of marriage no longer apply. I think it was a shameless thing to say. Coming from someone who professes to be pro-life, this statement would suggest that everything about Terri Schiavo case was complete grandstanding. Alzheimer’s patients are very much alive. you can abandon them but you can’t pull the plug on them. Alzheimer’s patients are living in the moment even if they have withdrawn from active memories.

    What happened to responsibility? Yes, Alzheimer’s patients are a burden like children are and they are family. We don’t see anything unusual that children don’t remember anything about their first few years. Life comes full circle as old people often regress and should be treated no less of a responsibility.

    Those of us who have experienced Alzheimer’s first hand take offense at Robertson’s remarks. You be more honest to say “Pat Robertson embraces modern immorality“. Divorce is a modern choice, sure but suggesting abandonment of the ill is immoral at best. Robertson must too caught up with his celebrity religion gig to lose sight of real faith and compassion.

  • northcoast

    Bennett (#8), being old and alone is not the greatest way to live. My wife of 40+ years died 4 years ago, and in addition to missing her, I miss the companionship and support that she provided. I can understand the weakness of someone who is alone but whose spouse is still alive.

  • Hector

    Re: I can understand the weakness of someone who is alone but whose spouse is still alive.

    No one is saying that we shouldn’t understand, or be sympathetic towards human weakness. As they say, we are all sinners, and there is no man righteous, not one (and I’m all for being merciful at a pastoral level). That isn’t what Pat Robertson said, however. He said (if my understanding the story is correct) that abandoning your wife with Alzheimer’s disease and ‘marrying’ someone else is not a sin at all, and there’s no reason to be shown mercy, because there’s no reason to feel guilt. Abandoning the moral norm (which is, as has been said in the past, one of the strongest and best attested moral norms in the New Testament) in this case is a serious business indeed.

  • Ross Fees

    Call me Arfies, the name I use when I comment on Veith’s website.
    It’s hard to know where Robertson’s thoughts really originate, but I keep coming back to the vows we made, to be faithful till death do us part. Perhaps no one can keep that promise perfectly, for which we ask forgiveness. But my wife, for example, is developing a case of Parkinson’s disease, which makes her quite different from the woman I married. To divorce her for that reason, however, just wouldn’t be right. I also have problems that developed after–long after–we were married. She still stays with me.

    As for the media coverage, I think it was covered in the most minimalistic way possible, demonstrating that journalists are usually not deeply interested in faith issue and not well qualified to discuss them.

  • sari

    It’s useful to read through the entire transcript. Robertson didn’t exactly condone divorce; my understanding was that he implied that divorce and remarriage were preferable to committing adultery -and- that the first wife should be cared for regardless. Partway through, Robertson says what he should have said in the beginning, that he’s not really equipped to answer the question.

    My father is in the end stage of Parkinson’s. This once vibrant, highly intelligent man, a calculator savant who was quite a wit, now spends his day in a wheelchair, unable to converse, walk, tend to his needs, or even to smile. My mother cares for him with love and devotion. He is not the same man–the mind is no longer there, declined before he went aphasiac and then lost speech altogether, but she’d rather this than his absence. Neither would have walked away in the face of traumatic brain injury or any other situation which effected a radical change of personality; her memories of the love and life they shared when he was healthy sustain her.