Pat Robertson forgets: Marriage is about sacrifice, too

Christian televangelist Pat Robertson told his viewers that it is okay for a man to divorce his wife if she … Continued

Christian televangelist Pat Robertson told his viewers that it is okay for a man to divorce his wife if she has Alzheimer’s disease.

The state of marriage in America has become a perpetual source of handwringing for conservative pundits, and few pundits have proved more adept at the skill than Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcast Network and long time host of the 700 Club.

Yet with his latest offense, Robertson may have given evangelicals and Americans reason to hope that our belief in marriage’s permanence and sacredness is not dead yet.

As is by now well known, Robertson suggested on his show that a husband could divorce his wife and “start all over again” if she had Alzheimers. Robertson, in fairness, walked back an inch from his remarks, suggesting that they needed to get a professional ethicist to answer the question while underscoring his empathy for person in that situation and wrestling with the difficulty of the problem.

Yet the reaction to Robertson’s remarks was surprisingly unified: the condemnation was swift, strong, and universal–especially among the demographic that Robertson purportedly speaks for, evangelicals. Tobin Grant at Christianity Today was blunt: “Robertson’s advice stands in stark contrast with most theologians and ethicists who would advise fidelity.” And Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, elegantly decimated Robertson’s position, suggesting that Robertson’s remarks were “a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Evangelicals, of course, have the most reason to reject Robertson’s views, and to do so in the loudest and strongest possible terms. Robertson has become a lightening rod for controversy, offering inflammatory remarks and responses that have continue to draw media attention and scorn.

Yet his influence over the evangelical movement has declined precipitously. Robertson is a newsmaker these days only when he says things that are well outside mainstream evangelicalism. For most millennial evangelicals, Robertson is exhibit A of the sort of evangelicalism we would like to avoid.

Yet evangelicals weren’t the only one’s outraged. While much of the ire was rightly directed at Robertson’s characterization of Alzheimer’s as “walking death,” various observers also reacted against the hypocrisy of Robertson’s selective affirmation of divorce. Sounding a note that was echoed throughout the blogs, John Thorpe described Robertson’s view of marriage this way: “In it, you vow to be together until death…or inconvenience?”

While it might seem somewhat paradoxical, the uproar is an encouraging sign for those who want marriage to be a vibrant and healthy institution in American society. The widespread recognition that such a divorce would be rooted in a desire for personal convenience suggests we have not yet forgotten that the sacrifice necessary to make marriage work is a heroic sacrifice that often returns nothing–at least not immediately–to those who make it. The sacredness of marriage exists precisely in the opportunity to keep our word, regardless of the personal cost. And the vow exists to guide us and remind us of those possibilities precisely when the cost seems the highest.

One need not be a Christian, of course, to affirm that this sort of self-sacrifice is important for marriage. But it is more difficult, if not impossible, to uphold a definition marriage that has stripped out the sacrifice. The tragic beauty of marriage is that when we enter it, we are not yet capable of loving one another as we ought, but that such a possibility lies before us. But to arrive at our destination, we must discover that the path leads through the thickets of forgiveness and the trials of self-denial. Marriage enables and requires the acquisition of this virtue, the recognition that the other’s interest is more important than our own.

We can see this in the extreme circumstances like that which was posed to Pat Robertson and which he so abysmally failed to respond to appropriately. And while recognition is not yet practice, seeing and turning from the wrong and harmful vision of marriage laid forth by Robertson can, if we let it, take us a step closer on toward the other-directed love and heroic self-sacrifice that Robertson did not allow for.

Evangelicals are hardly a perfect lot, a fact which we are often reminded of and have internalized well. And our cultural indignation is only sometimes righteous. But the evangelical reaction against Robertson’s errant and unfortunate remarks is a hopeful sign not just for evangelicals, but for those who are concerned about the public viability of the institution of marriage. If we can bracket, if only for one moment, the thorny question of who should get married, we might be able to see here the seeds of consensus about the sort of thing marriage should be.

The backlash against Robertson’s remarks by evangelicals and those who also recognized their corrosive effects may not be marriage’s finest moment. But it may provide hope that the civic and religious virtues needed to make the institution of marriage strong are not yet as far gone as cultural critics are sometimes tempted to think.

Matthew Lee Anderson is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith. He writes at Mere Orthodoxy, and you can disagree with him on Twitter.

  • eslteacher

    For Mr. Anderson:

    “Lightening” rod?

  • jpbarber1

    Robertson is still crazy after all these years. Till death do us part? Just cut them off and let them die “naturally’ like the tea party advocates. This is the new compassionate conservative movement.

  • averddy

    Pat Robertson is what is wrong with television.

    Sometimes entertainment and religion do not mix.

    I miss Tammy Faye Baker and her WAY overdone makeup

  • dianagwright

    Sacrifice means “to make sacred.” It does not mean to give up one’s self, and to suffer. For some, that is possible. For others, it is not. The man who wrote the marriage vows we use, ‘for better or worse,” kept his own marriage secret and his wife hidden because of the political advantage he received. I dislike finding myself in sympathy with PR, but I think the transcription of his remarks shows that for once he recognizes the very many nuances within any particular situation. At the age of 68 I find myself with increased compassion for those who find themselves in this world. High moral standards are easier when you are younger, have your physical health, and working knees. Wait till walking upstairs leaves you out of breath and you have to rest after a trip to the laundry room, day after day, and then pronounce on caring for someone with Altzheimers.

  • roadapathy1

    Whatever you do, don’t marry a Protestant. If you get sick, they’re gone! Protestant work ethic, according to Weber, helped the economy. Did it do anything at all for empathy or the family values of society? Absolutely not. Taught us all how to be selfish, power hungry backstabbers. Thank God there is science and Catholic Church.

  • MNUSA

    So does Robertson believe that a woman can divorce her husband and start all over again if he has Alzheimer’s? The article doesn’t make that clear.

  • Apoorsinner

    Where’s a Pope when you need one?

  • PattiFink1

    Christian denomination with the highest divorce rate? Southern Baptist.

  • mortified469

    Pat Robertson has forgotten many things. Among them is how to be a caring human being. He has only worried about his wallet.

  • tedwalsh7

    Read the Slate article. They actually read the full remarks before they wrote it. Robertson didn’t say divorce your wife if she has Alzheimers, he said he couldn’t condemn someone who cheated on his wife who had Alzheimers, because it is a very tricky ethical issue, but advocated divorcing instead of infidelity. It was actually quite a thought-provoking statement about what it means to be alive or dead, though considering Robertson’s stance on Teri Schivo it makes little sense coming from him.

  • PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large

    I rarely read Pat Robertson’s statements, but in this case he has been not reported in the context of the entirety of his remarks.

    Also, there are at least three very real, practical dilemmas that have not been addressed in our current society:

    1) People live a lot longer through extraordinary means that were not
    possible in Jesus’ time.

    2) We rarely have the extended family in today’s times to help one care
    for someone who is in either a ‘walking death’ like Alzeimer’s or who is
    delusional or even dangerous to keep living with due to mental illness.

    3) We do not provide respite care for spouses, especially if they are older,
    who may have to take care of a severely disabled spouse for 5, 10, or
    more years, when they themselves may start crippling illnesses.

    While I do not by any means favor callous abandonment of a very ill spouse just to save one inconvenience, we are clearly living in very extraordinary times, and new conversations, understanding and helpful answers are needed very badly.

  • conservtx1

    Baptists represent the largest group in the Protestant churches which represents 51% of the Christian population in America. Unfortunately, their divorce rate is also in line with the general population, about 50%. When people become Christians they don’t become sinless, they just recognize their need for a Savior.

  • marshalphillips

    Robertson counseled a husband to divorce his sick wife instead of mere cheating because its a tricky ehtical issue. That’s thought-provoking? That’s a tough call? What ever happend to in sickness and in health til death do us part?
    Isn’t Alzheimers sickness, or did I miss something in Robertson’s thought-provoking statement? He’s also blamed gays and lesbians for strong winds and storms in prior thought-provoking statments. He’s obvioulsy got a screw loose, in my view. Jus’ sayin’.

  • InNWDC

    Those who want to think about this issue and how one might handle it (as opposed to just weighing in on one side or the other) need to read “When Madeline Was Young.”

  • marshalphillips

    Pat Robertson ever the biblical dogmatic fundamentalist literalist when it comes to same-sex attraction, civil unions, gay marriage and just recognizing that some are born gay….he’s a big meanie…. BUT when it’s another condition that somehow affects married men…. then, oh, well, it gets to be a very tricky ethical question and there’s some wriggle room in “in sickness and in health til death do us part.” Right. He’s a intolerent homophobic hypocritical sanctimonious old gas bag and worse!

  • SCAtheist

    His ego is even bigger than his head.

  • marshalphillips

    Yah, Pat Robertson might want to modify his position on same-sex attraction in light of modern science and the wide-spread acceptance of gays in our lives as real people who just want to pursue their right to happiness without being targeted for spiritual abuse and discrimination by biblical fundamentallist.

  • mmurray2

    Why this article? Does anyone still have any concern about Robertson and his opinions?

  • rlappi

    There are obvious important ethical issues here which are poorly served by the absolutes attitude displayed by the writer. Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease which our society is not prepared to deal with on many levels. There is very little help available for caregivers who deal with the disease over many years. Medical assistance is virtually nil for institutionalized Alzheimer’s patients and (I speak from painful experience) what is provided is often inept, inappropriate, and inhumane. I am no fan of Pat Robertson but I praise him for discussing the subject. i have no use at all for Anderson’s position on the non-diseased spouse which essentially is: cowboy up you sissy.

  • ergatace

    One of the most dangerous things to happen to evangelicals in my life time is the attempts of men like Pat Robinson and Jerry Falwell to unite us as a political force. Any time that the church seeks political power instead of being a spiritual influence under the headship of Jesus Christ, it defeats its purpose and becomes like the world system it us supposed to influence by living as ambassadors of Jesus Christ that lives in a manner that honors Him. Pat and Jerry for political purposes made the only unacceptable sins to be abortion and homosexuality. Now, Pat has become a spokesman for situational ethics. His comments open the door to another question. If a person who has Alzheimer’s is already experiencing a form of “walking death”, and it is okay to break vows made to him or her; is it all right to go ahead and kill them?