The Devil and Pat Robertson

Re-examining Our Secular Assumptions

Want to upset a hardened secularist? Mention God. Want to drive him crazy? Talk about the devil.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, drew mockery for saying that Haiti’s centuries of suffering, including the recent devastating earthquake, can be explained by a “pact with the devil” the former slave colony’s founders made in 1791. About the only people who aren’t laughing are the Haitians themselves.

Western critics see Robertson’s comment, coming in the middle of Haiti’s latest disaster, as rubbing salt in the wounds of the hemisphere’s poorest country. Referring to Haiti’s long embrace of voodoo, the comment nonetheless overlooks a strong Christian presence among the Haitian people. In the days following the quake, numerous observers reported that many were singing Christian hymns in the streets despite their extremity.

Robertson, an unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate in 1988, is a frequent lightning rod for media ire, and his many critics were quick to pounce this time. “Pat Robertson,” intoned Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, “is giving religion a terribly bad name, again and again." Jim Wallis huffed, “As a Christian leader, I have had to spend too much of my time trying to overcome an image of Christianity that was created by the likes of Pat Robertson.”

To what image is Wallis referring? Apparently Wallis has little use for Robertson’s Operation Blessing ministry, which, when Wallis was tearing down a fellow minister, was in Port-au-Prince providing a planeload of medical supplies to Israeli doctors for use in desperately needed mobile clinics.

Is Robertson’s talk of a Haitian “curse” really so beyond the pale in this age of scientific advancement? Full-time Hollywood activist and part-time actor Danny Glover attributed the earthquake to our failure to appease the global warming gods. “When we see what we did at the climate summit in Copenhagen, this is the response,” the Lethal Weapon costar said. “This is what happens, you know what I'm sayin'?"

Meanwhile, Phil Jackson, the Buddhist sage running the perennially powerful Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, was asked whether he believes there is a curse on the cross-town Clippers, who have had just two winning seasons in the past quarter-century. Jackson said no but wonders whether the Clippers’ owner—sued by the Justice Department on charges of housing discrimination—has bad karma.

So while Glover and Jackson can be just as unscientific as the unfashionable broadcaster from Virginia Beach, they get mostly a free pass while Robertson gets the Sarah Palin treatment. If prominent people can espouse belief in the wrath of mother earth and get away with it, why can’t Robertson say what he said? Whatever happened to tolerance for religious diversity?

Sure, Robertson hasn’t been in any cool movies and his politics don’t fit the prevailing progressive mindset, but I think there’s more to it than that. Simply put, it is not PC to believe in the devil. In 21st-century America, more people believe in God and heaven than in the devil and hell. While the figures vary, according to Barna Research, 55 percent of adults in 2006 said that Satan is not a living being but “a symbol of evil.” Even 45 percent of those whom Barna describes as “born again Christians” denied Satan’s existence. While we suffer no shortage of films about the existence of personal evil—witness the current Legion—we laugh out of court anyone who actually takes it seriously.

This secular worldview, of course, is quite recent. It is also geographically limited. Those who would mock the devil as a relic of a premodern, unscientific past are definitely in the minority. As Western Christianity continues to cede more ground to secularism, the power and influence of religion continue to decline. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to religion’s funeral: In large swathes of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, these are boom times for Christianity.

According to Philip Jenkins, these non-Western regions are the foundation for “the next Christendom.” And the new Christians have no problem believing in a personal malevolent spirit, for two reasons: (1) that’s what the Bible teaches, and (2) they have seen him. In many parts of the world, these people understand the what of what Westerners refer to as “natural disasters” but still want to know the why. In his book The New Faces of Christianity, Jenkins notes, “In North America...ideas of exorcism and deliverance appear bizarre or fanatical to outsiders or to secular observers, whereas they fit quite logically into conventional assumptions in many newer churches.”

While I believe some of these assumptions—and what Robertson said about a satanic “curse”—are too animistic and give the devil more than his due (since God rules over our fallen world), they are closer to the mark than we might like to admit. When we consider the cruelty that stalks the planet and the persistence of human suffering, despite all our learning and technology, can we say with confidence that human evil or ignorance is a sufficient explanation?

Have we forgotten the existence of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot? Have we solved our endemic racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism? Do we feel free to walk downtown at night or keep our doors unlocked? Why do people become serial killers or rapists rather than serial saints? What explains Enron or Bernie Madoff? Why has Haiti been the basket case of the Western Hemisphere for over two centuries? If man is inherently good, why do things turn out so badly, so often? If there is no devil, how do we explain all these horrors?

In such a dangerous world, the threefold biblical answer—that we battle the world, the flesh, and the devil—is a plausible hypothesis indeed. Oxford don C.S. Lewis agreed, noting in his classic Mere Christianity, “I know someone will ask me. ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to reintroduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes I do.’”

Stan Guthrie is freelance writer, editor, speaker, and teacher, and a Christianity Today editor at large. He and his wife, Christine, and their three children live near Chicago.

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