'The last thing I'd do is condemn you'

Last month I was surfing a bit at The Blacklisted Journalist — an awkwardly designed website hosting the writings of Al Aronowitz. I was looking for his August Blues, which is a lovely thing:

August is the month when wars start. It’s when the water dries up and the spirit begins to wither. Insomniacs pull down their shades and lock themselves in their rooms in August. Lifelong friends have fist fights. People feel like they’re going to burst. Sometimes they do.

… I suppose it has to do with the sun and the heat and the planets and the stars. Brian Epstein died in August. So did Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, although their August stretched through an Indian summer. It’s no accident the Jewish New Year begins then. August sometimes lasts until the sound of the ram’s horn. People move in September. School starts. Somehow the pulse revives. People begin to think about lighting fires for winter. Finally, August lets go like the leaves from the trees. And the weirdness ends.

While browsing there I tripped across the trippy account of Aronowitz’s long friendship with Scott Ross, a talk-show host on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Ross had also been a creature of the 1960s counterculture — a rock-and-roll radio DJ married to a former member of the Ronettes. Aronowitz and Ross remained friends after Ross became a born-again, Pentecostal Christian and went to work for Robertson. (For the Dylan-obsessed Aronowitz, I suppose, everyone was entitled to their “born-again” phase.)

What struck me most in the profile was Ross’ gratitude and admiration toward his boss, including this anecdote recounted by Ross:

Back in the ’60s, I brought in a bunch of rock and rollers, vagrants who’d been in jail the night before. They were a rock and roll band. I brought them into the studio and said, “Let’s listen to a song that represents who they are.” I think they did a Dylan song. The people at the Christian Broadcasting Network were so angry, they walked out the studio. I had brought in ‘these dirty heathen’ off the street. One of the CBN women pointed out a girl in the group and said, “She doesn’t have any underwear on! She’s sitting on that brand, new couch and God’s money built this place!” I don’t know how the woman knew the girl didn’t have any underwear on, but there you are!

I came out of the studio because my TV crew had walked out on me. I’m standing out in the middle of the hallway of this brand, new building, which had been dedicated just a few weeks before. All these people are yelling and screaming and walking up and down the halls and waving their arms. and Pat comes down the stairs and says, “What’s going on here?” And they point at me and say, “He brought in these rock and rollers and that girl doesn’t have any underwear and they’re filthy people and this is God’s building dedicated to God’s purposes.” And Pat just looked at all these people and said, “The day this building becomes more important than those people, I will personally burn this building to the ground.”

That story seems so out of character compared to the person Robertson had become by the time Aronowitz was writing this (in 1996) and compared to the person Pat Robertson is today.

These days it’s very hard to imagine Robertson welcoming a bunch of hippies off the street — or declaring people like that to be more important than property. Putting people ahead of property violates the platform he ran on as a Republican candidate for president in 1988.

I suppose what’s most startling to me about Ross’ anecdote is that it’s a reminder that Robertson wasn’t always, and perhaps didn’t originally set out to become, the right-wing huckster, media mogul and political power-broker that he is today. Much of what Robertson does these days appears as cynical ploys for power and money — from the perpetual telethon of his TV programming, to his peddling of quackish dietary supplements, to his publishing books filled with John Birch nuttery and conspiracy theories plagiarized from Lyndon LaRouche.

The Robertson of Ross’ story also seems incompatible with the Robertson we’ve all gotten to know over the past several decades — a pundit who specializes in kicking people when they’re down. Whenever there’s a terror attack, earthquake or hurricane, Pat Robertson always rushes forward to assign blame — assuring his audience that the victims of 9/11 or in Haiti or in Andrew, Hugo, Gloria, Katrina or Irene had it coming and deserved to suffer.

Robertson always sees a connection between natural disasters and those people he views as Those People — gays, liberals, evolutionists, atheists, Pagans and women who have sex. His scapegoating condemnations have become so routine that I’ve come to think of them as just another part of natural disaster. Earthquakes are followed by aftershocks, and both earthquakes and hurricanes are followed by appalling pronouncements by Pat Robertson.

If you mute the TV and ignore the substance of his comments, you can almost view Robertson’s reflexive blaming as a kind of “all-clear” signal showing that the worst of the storm has passed. “The wind is dying down a bit and, oh, look, there’s Pat Robertson saying this is all gay people’s fault — I think we’re out of danger.”

But it’s not really that easy to ignore the substance of Robertson’s hateful post-tragedy statements. If you love God, or if you love GLBT people, or if you love both God and people, then it’s not easy to ignore Robertson’s habitual suggestion that every natural disaster is the product of a petty, reckless, sloppy god indiscriminately pouring out wrathful destruction due to some divine “gay panic” defense. That’s blasphemy. And the scapegoating of GLBT people as the alleged focus of this poorly aimed divine wrath invites Robertson’s many followers to imitate his churlish god by directing their own animus toward Those People as well.

Robertson’s post-disaster ritual thus isn’t just abstractly hateful, it’s tangibly hurtful.

Just once, I’ve often said, just once I’d like to see this guy respond with a little humility in the wake of human tragedy. I’d like to see him rendered speechless and incapable of glibly dismissive “explanations” — not rushing to judge others by imagining some direct and specific causal link between suffering and supposed sins. Just once I’d like to hear him say, “I don’t know.” I’d like to see him withhold blame and judgment and simply mourn with those who mourn.

And, just once, I finally got to see this.

In a recent broadcast of The 700 Club, Robertson fielded a message from a viewer describing a man who was devastated by personal tragedy. The man’s wife had Alzheimer’s disease. He was no longer able to care for her and she was no longer able to recognize him. She no longer even remembered that she had a husband. The daily, unyielding painfulness of the man’s situation was more than he could bear.

The call seemed to knock Robertson back on his heels. The man’s pain seemed to reach Robertson in a way that, somehow, the pain of the Haitian earthquake victims or the post-Katrina devastation in New Orleans had somehow not reached him. For once he seemed unable to muster the arrogant certainty that would enable him to explain away suffering by assigning blame for it.

Here’s the video of Robertson’s stumbling attempt to respond to this question:

That video has gotten a great deal of attention, sparking widespread criticism from Robertson’s fellow evangelicals piling on to condemn Robertson for endorsing the “abandonment” of an ailing spouse. That’s a stretch from what he actually said, though I’m not inclined to try to defend him — Pat Robertson has long since surrendered any claim to the benefit of the doubt. Plus I can’t help but wonder if his advice would have been quite the same if the caller’s question had involved a wife struggling with her ailing husband.

(For a defense of Robertson’s response, see Becky Knight’s “Til Death Do Us Part?” — via, which starts with her bewilderment at actually agreeing with Robertson about anything.)

I’m less concerned here with the specifics of Robertson’s advice than I am with the way he framed that advice:

“That is a terribly hard thing …”

“This is an ethical question that is beyond my ken to tell you, but I certainly wouldn’t put a guilt-trip on you …”

“It is a terrible, difficult thing for somebody and I, I can’t fault them … ”

“Get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer because I recognize the dilemma and the last thing I’d do is condemn you.”

This is something Pat Robertson needs to learn to say more often. Perhaps he’ll remember this the next time a natural disaster strikes somewhere in the world.

Perhaps then, rather than explaining away such tragedies as the wrath of a petulant god against his political foes, he will just step back as he did here, as he ought to have been doing all along, and say again that such tragedies defy certainty and blame.

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  • Albanaeon

    Yeah, abortion is rather an interesting thing within the evangelical subculture.  I remember reading that for a long time is was pretty strictly a “Catholic thing” which meant even if you agreed with it, you didn’t make a big deal of it because well Catholics did.  But Fred Schaeffer and his dad seem to have found a perfect resonating point when they brought opposing abortion as a Christian Duty.  It opposed modernity which appealed to general conservatives.  It brought in a heap of sexists by giving them an opposition to feminism which they can cloak in moral rectitude.  And it has a pretty good latch in “think of the babies!” to get the less decided to stop thinking rationally and go for emotions.  Added bonus that “when is it a person?” is a fairly tricky thing to decide so you don’t get those damned scientists poking holes easily in it.  Finally, it is a easy thing to coach into hyperbole to set off the grand rhetoric needed to motivate large groups of less than critical people into following you into dubious things. 

    Some of my pondering about this come from my father in law.  He’s pretty close to the archetypical conservative evangelical, Ned Flanders type.  Nice guy, hard working, but a few buttons turn him into a very not nice, not happy person.  The usual buttons are socialism, Muslims, and abortion.  However, take him away from his church and radio for a while, and he pretty quickly moderates out.  Its rather stunning actually that a week away from his worship services (ie church and Rush) he’ll start suggesting things like taxing the rich is good, and maybe we shouldn’t be at war with nations right now, and their might be something to this “choice” thing after all. 

    So back to my original wonderings, if a moderate had seized and organized the Christians in this country as the Right had done, I really wonder if we would have the problems we have now, because I wonder how much of the anger and zealousness is an artificial construct made by manipulative bastards.

  • Albanaeon

    And I wonder a lot in that last paragraph.  Aghh.. Too much medieval history.

  • Daughter

    I’m not sure that could have happened, because what confluence of events could have led to the organization of moderate Christians to the same extent? Moderate Christians had been organizing to some degree already around Civil Rights–but the numbers of those involved wouldn’t reach the numbers of those who’d become part of the Religious right. 

    This was the perfect storm: Roe v. Wade is decided by the Supreme Court, right around the time that the son of one of the world’s leading evangelical teachers gets his girlfriend pregnant.  So another question might be: what if that hadn’t happened?  Would evangelicals have continued to eschew politics, with moderate or liberal Christians continuing to organize around social justice issues? Would our political landscape look very different?

    Plus, once the religious right began to mobilize, their political involvment took a very different form from moderate and liberal Christians. The latter used tactics such as community organizing, advocacy, protests and civil disobedience rather than vying for public office.  And their organizing challenged the greed and warmongering of powers that be. Political opposition to gay rights or abortion doesn’t do that, so the right has had a much easier time allying with (and/or being co-opted by) the wealthy and powerful.

  • Emcee, cubed

    He also felt like, if the Christian community were more like his parents
    and responded to people with crisis pregnancies with grace and support,
    maybe young women wouldn’t feel the need to have abortions.

    His first point smacks of privilege (If I can do it, why can’t everyone?) and his last point has more than a whiff of persecution complex (They want to kill my baby!), but this part actually makes sense. It is a shame I haven’t seen the “pro-life” Christian community working toward this goal at all…

  • Responding to people with crisis pregnancies with grace and support sounds like a lot of work, and it’s not guaranteed to make you feel morally superior to everyone else 100%. Worse, you might actually have to take some of your personal time and probably some of your hard-earned money to do it. I’m not surprised that it hasn’t caught on as much as it should. Isn’t it easier just to humiliate them as much as possible and then abandon them to their fates?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Sorry, I can’t get past “God’s money” (from Ross’s anecdote). It throws my brain into some kind of DOES NOT COMPUTE loop. 

    Ever heard of the word “Corban”?  And this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth who didn’t fall for it either?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Luke 13:4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?

    i.e. “Sometimes, Shit Happens.”

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    In general, I think Robertson’s been deteriorating over the years.  Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s Alzheimers, maybe it was losing in the Republican primaries in the Eighties, maybe he’s been listening to his own PR for too long (like Rush Limbaugh), maybe his Eighties tangent into Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory messed him up and has influenced him ever since.  Either way, there’s been a lot of entropy between the early Pat Robertson (of Ross’s anecdote) and the scolding old man of today.

  • Frank Schaeffer reminds me of an important axiom I try to hold, “Compassion must be balanced by wisdom.”  

    Yes, compassion is important and necessary, but compassion alone is insufficient if one seeks to do good.  Compassion without the wisdom of knowing where, when, and how to apply it tends to lead down “Road to hell paved with good intentions,” routes, and one could end up doing more harm in the long run than good, as happened with Schaeffer.  

  • Rechan

    Part of the difference here is not that it’s a faceless group of people (either in his country or elsewhere in the world) but one man with one hard situation. It’s much more challenging to say to someone’s face (figuratively) that “Your wife’s alzheimers is because you’re a sinner”. Among other things, that shoots all of his listeners in the face that have ill family members.

    As Stalin said, a single death is a tragedy, a thousand dead is a statistic. A single man makes it more relatable than just what Robertson sees as the hand of an angry god smashing things willy nilly.

  • Rechan

    Part of the difference here is not that it’s a faceless group of people (either in his country or elsewhere in the world) but one man with one hard situation. It’s much more challenging to say to someone’s face (figuratively) that “Your wife’s alzheimers is because you’re a sinner”. Among other things, that shoots all of his listeners in the face that have ill family members.

    As Stalin said, a single death is a tragedy, a thousand dead is a statistic. A single man makes it more relatable than just what Robertson sees as the hand of an angry god smashing things willy nilly.

  • Rechan

    Part of the difference here is not that it’s a faceless group of people (either in his country or elsewhere in the world) but one man with one hard situation. It’s much more challenging to say to someone’s face (figuratively) that “Your wife’s alzheimers is because you’re a sinner”. Among other things, that shoots all of his listeners in the face that have ill family members.

    As Stalin said, a single death is a tragedy, a thousand dead is a statistic. A single man makes it more relatable than just what Robertson sees as the hand of an angry god smashing things willy nilly.