Defending Pat Robertson

Yes, I shock even myself. But the ignorant and sanctimonious response by so many to his remarks about Alzheimer’s and divorce is the sort of thing that makes me ashamed to be a liberal.

Here’s what he said:

“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.” In response to a question about how that tallies with the marriage vow “Until death do us part, he replied, “This is a kind of death.”

This statement is remarkable in many respects. First, it is non-literalistic. Historical Jesus scholars will disagree about many things, but the one thing we know with a high degree of confidence is that Jesus prohibits divorce. More theologically liberal interpreters of the scripture they regard as authoritative look to the spirit and not the letter (as Christian supporters of same-sex marriage do, for example). Robertson has followed them, eschewing a more simplistic approach, on several levels.

He did not say “what part of ‘no divorce’ do you not understand?” Instead, Robertson is clearly thinking in terms of the experiences and functions of the marital relationship. He is not giving a get out of jail free card to those who lazily refuse to honor the commitment of care “in sickness and in health.” The presupposition of his comment is clearly meant to be late stage dementia, where custodial care is, of necessity, being provided by a facility and not by the spouse. The only alternatives are for the surviving spouse to live alone in honor of what once was, a “once was” that lives on only in their own heart and not that of the spouse, or to seek solace and companionship outside of marriage. To think that either of these choices obviously honors the meaning of marriage more than what Robertson advised is to be dogmatic and ignorant at best. At worst, it is simply to define one’s own positions by negation and a spirit of blithering partisanship.

To his further credit, Robertson does here what millions of religious opponents of abortion have not done: drawn metaphysical conclusions about selfhood in light of empirical evidence instead of conceptual reflection. Instead of saying that there is a soul which enters the body at conception and leaves it at death, Robertson has followed Wittgenstein’s demand that we look instead of “think.” And what he sees is that after a certain point in time, a point that cannot be reassuringly defined by a bright line, nothing worthy of the word “soul” remains. If a few religious conservatives would do as much with regard to the beginning of life and mentality as he has done here about its end, a sensitive discussion of abortion could begin, instead of the ridiculous all-or-nothing dogmatism that has dominated it for the past forty years.

But perhaps the most important thing about this episode is that Robertson was not only thinking afresh about something that, soon enough, all of us as a society will have to think about, but he was thinking compassionately in light of the concrete experiences involved. No one abandons a spouse willingly; all spousal caregivers endure and bear as long as humanly possible. A terrifyingly large number of the self-righteous who stood in judgment over him and his remarks today will someday find themselves stretched to their breaking point and look beyond themselves to their community for compassion. Those who resemble their former selves will show nothing but contempt and misunderstanding; Pat Robertson and those who understood their plight will offer compassion instead, for the spirit of the words of the man they follow says: love one another, and judge not.

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3 comments on “Defending Pat Robertson

  1. Alan says:

    I was taken aback by the nearly universal condemnation of Pat Robertson from both sides. Both religious adherents and religious critics could not find some substance in what he said. This blog was one of the few places where I did.

    I’ve concluded divorce in this instance – even when the ailing spouse does not recognize his or her spouse anymore – is still inappropriate, in that institutional care is not a substitute for someone who has shown the commitment of the life-long partner. Some sort of presence and stability is important to the Alzheimer’s victim, even if they no longer understand who is providing that presence.

    Still, I’ve been to several funerals where people were not in deep mourning – not because they didn’t love the departed, but because the deceased had effectively left them many years before, due to Alzheimer’s or some other sort of mental deterioration. I’ve also seen the stresses that Alzheimer’s can place upon loved ones – that they have deep needs, too. I think Pat’s comments were a rather clumsy acknowledgment of this reality that so many have difficulty facing up to.

  2. Alan says:

    By the way – the part of the quote “The Lord took the soul out of that husk a long time ago…” actually comes from a parody of what Robertson said. He didn’t actually say that.

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