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.