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Haiti and the Pat Robertson Paradox

5 years ago
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Here's the Pat Robertson paradox: Maybe the overwhelming condemnation of his comments about Haiti following the earthquake is evidence of how much religion continues to matter to many Americans.

In case you missed it, Robertson said this on the 700 Club:

"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."

Let's leave aside questions about the veracity of the story -- and there are many. (For instance: Did anything like what Robertson describes actually happen? If it did, was the ceremony dedicated to the deities of the traditional Haitian religion, not Christianity's devil?)

I was intrigued by the broad wave of American voices raised in opposition to Robertson. When the secular, Jewish Jon Stewart tosses out a series of Bible verses to express his dismay, something interesting is going on.

Yes, Robertson is an easy punching bag. But after several years of surveys that indicate that the tenets and dogmas of Christianity are less central to American culture than they once were, maybe the reaction to Robertson shows that "less" is a long way from "gone."

Here's a sample of some of the reaction just from Baptist voices, to pull from one piece of the spectrum:
"God is ultimately responsible for the earthquake in Haiti and has a reason that is beyond our ability, trapped in time, to understand or comprehend. But it would be theological ignorance coupled with absolute arrogance to try and interpret God's actions as a judgment against a particular person or nation." -- Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, for Newsweek.
"Nevertheless, one thing I do know: The Christianity of Robertson and those who are quick to blame tragedy on some angry, vengeful God is a Christianity which I, following Hatuey's lead, reject and want no part of whatsoever." -- Miguel A. De La Torre, director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, for the website
"The alleged 1791 Haitian pact with the devil would put our Father on the side of slavery and Satan on the side of those seeking freedom. The reverse is actually the case. Satan is a "murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44), a thief who "comes only to steal and kill and destroy" (John 10:10) and seeks to make us "slaves to sin" (Rom. 6:17). Satan enslaves. God liberates." -- Jim Denison, president of the Center for Informed Faith and theologian-in-residence for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, from the first of three special opinion pieces about this topic he's writing for the Associated Baptist Press.
And now to the pop cultural side of the response, and Stewart on The Daily Show:
"Out of all the things you could draw on from your religion to bring comfort to a devastated people and region? Look how big your book is! 'The Lord is close to the broken hearted. He rescues those who are crushed in spirit. Fear thou not, for I am with thee. Be not dismayed, for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee. From the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed, says the Lord who has compassion on you.'

"That almost sounds like it's about a f**** earthquake!"

For those of you keeping score at home, Stewart used verses from Isaiah 51 and 54 and Psalms 34 and 71.

And finally, a nugget from one of the wittiest letters to the editor I've ever seen, signed by Lily Coyle in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In the tradition of the Screwtape Letters, this is from Satan to Robertson:

"I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"?

People only get outraged about something they care about. What's this outrage about? Part of it seems to be from folks who are upset that Robertson is profoundly mischaracterizing their concept of Christianity. Whether or not, as in the case of Stewart, they even believe in that religion.

I asked for analysis from John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics -- not to mention one of the nation's premiere analysts of surveys concerning faith and politics:
"Many people value religion and feel compelled to 'set the record straight' when Robertson speaks this way. This does strongly suggest that religion is a very important thing to many Americans. The Pew data certainly support this view: the importance of religion remains high even as American religion changes as regard to the specifics. In the case of Haiti, much of the relief effort is religiously inspired and conducted by religious people -- precisely because their faith instructs them to do. Defending faith in general as a legitimate enterprise is crucial to many people."
Within what we media types generally call the conservative side of Christianity, Robertson's comments prompted a lot of pushback. Ryan Messmore, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, was willing to speculate about that phenomenon:
"One dynamic that I've been tracking over the past year or two is the reaction by young evangelicals against a certain perception of their parents' Religious Right which they see summed up in and embodied by Robertson. Last year I sat down with different groups of college students and recent grads and listened to their thoughts about culture, politics, etc. Many of them seem to have intuitions that would align with some of Robertson's stances (for instance, they are very pro-life, perhaps even more so than their parents' generation). "

"However, they do not want to self-identify with Robertson or the larger 'Religious Right' movement that he represents. They are turned off by partisan political bickering, and they reject what they perceive as a narrow interest in only a couple moral issues -- namely abortion and gay marriage -- to the exclusion of issues like poverty, homelessness, human trafficking, etc. Comments by Robertson that seem morally judgmental and appear to lack compassion (although he did call for people to send aid to Haiti) only play into this perception."
When you go to the doctor for a checkup, she'll probably poke at you and ask "Does that hurt?" If it does, the doc knows there may be something important going on there.

Same thing with Pat Robertson. As long as so many people jump in pain when he talks, there's probably something important going on there, too.
Filed Under: Religion, Culture, Haiti

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