religious broadcasting

Take Pat Robertson, please

Once again, inquiring media minds wanted to know: Does the Rev. Pat Robertson's telephone actually have a speed-dial button for the angel of death?

The evangelical alpha male keeps making news with grim pronouncements about life, death and God's will. In the past, he has discussed the steering mechanisms of hurricanes and the aging hearts of liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justices. This past summer he said it wouldn't be a bad idea to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Now, of course, he has speculated that, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is "a very likeable person," there may be a link between his devastating stroke and his decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. And what about that 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin?

The Old Testament, Robertson noted on the 700 Club, "makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, quote, 'divide my land.' ... I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU (European Union), the United Nations or United States of America. God said, 'This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.' "

This is old news. What is new is the growing chorus of voices crying out that, while Robertson speaks for himself and an aging niche TV audience, he long ago wandered far out of mainstream Christian life.

Consider this urgent reaction to his remarks about Sharon.

"The Bible clearly reveals God to be a God of justice and righteousness as well as a God of forgiveness and mercy. Does God judge? Yes. However, whether or not a particular event is God?s judgment is something that the Apostle Paul has told us is 'past finding out.' No one ?hath known the mind of the Lord.'

"Even if one agreed with Pat Robertson?s position that the Israelis do not have the right to grant part of the Holy Land to the Palestinians, it would be well beyond Rev. Robertson's competence to discern that these tragic events were in any way, shape or form the result of God's judgment on any individuals. I am almost as shocked by Pat Robertson's arrogance as I am by his insensitivity."

Did these blunt words come from an official at the National Council of Churches? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Former President Jimmy Carter?

Actually, this quotation came from Dr. Richard Land, president of The Southern Baptist Convention?s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Land said he asked a classroom of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary students what they thought of Robertson's statement and they were "embarrassed and incensed."

It's understandable that journalists want to craft edgy sound bites and hilarious headlines out of Robertson's comments. And there are, in fact, "Christian Zionists" who share his beliefs about the land of Israel. Reporters writing in-depth stories about tensions between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East would want to cover this small, but vocal, group in order to contrast its beliefs with those of other Christians in Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Truth is, evangelical Protestantism is both unorganized and complex and it does not have one or two acknowledged leaders, noted the liberal media critic Amy Sullivan, writing for the Washington Monthly weblog.

"Given that, there are a few different groups of people who should be (and sometimes are) featured as evangelical voices," she noted. "For religious leaders, there are Ted Haggard of New Life Church and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, Brian McLaren of Cedar Ridge Church, Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church, Rod Parsley of World Harvest Church, and Franklin Graham (Billy?s son). Political voices include Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Cizik of NAE, Joseph Loconte of the Heritage Foundation, and Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center."

The list goes on and on. Journalists should learn these leaders' names and tap them for comments, instead of aiming their pens and cameras at Robertson again and again and again.

"As for Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, their heyday was 20 years ago," wrote Sullivan. "The only reason they?re still booked as talking heads is that most producers don?t know these two men no longer have any power. But more than that, they?re just not representative of today?s evangelicals."