Thursday, August 25, 2005

Aurelius Augustine Where Are You Now?

"The actions of sinners ... cannot obstruct the 'great works of God, carefully designed to fulfill all his decisions'"(St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God, XIV, 27).

A lot of people think that Pat Robertson is stupid. It’s rather blithely assumed that anyone routinely identified as a “U.S. Televangelist” is some sort of dim-witted hillbilly with a third-grade education. Sure, such men might be shrewd enough to bilk your grandma out of her pension with their Gospel pompadours, over-the-airwaves crocodile tears, and holy handkerchiefs mailed out by eBay for sending in a “faith pledge.” But the general consensus is that they are not smart, compos mentis, men of gravity.

Probably a lot more people think Pat Robertson is stupid after what he said on his long-running show The 700 Club on Monday August 22. He basically opened up a whole can of culture-warring worms by calling on his government to assassinate Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela. To set the record straight, this is exactly what Robertson ad-libbed in response to the comments of analyst Dale Hurd:

Thanks, Dale. If you look back just a few years, there was a popular coup that overthrew him; and what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing; and as a result, within about 48 hours, that coup was broken, Chavez was back in power. But we had a chance to move in. He has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he’s going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent. I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger, and this is in our sphere of influence, so we can’t let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, and we have other doctrines that we have announced, and without question, this is a dangerous enemy to our south, controlling a huge pool of oil that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another 200-billion-dollar war to get rid of one strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.

Perhaps the stupidest part was that later Robertson attempted to take the edge off his fatwa by saying that he didn’t really urge assignation per se, but only to that the U.S. should “take out” Chavez in some way. Does he mean on a date? Perhaps kidnapping would do the trick. But, of course, the show was already taped and broadcast, and Robertson’s remarks were unequivocal, which he later admitted and explained in a somewhat regretful tone. You can read his comments at

The gist of what he says is this:

Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him… . I am a person who believes in peace, but not peace at any price… There are many who disagree with my comments, and I respect their opinions. There are others who think that stopping a dictator is the appropriate course of action. In any event, the incredible publicity surrounding my remarks has focused our government’s attention on a growing problem which has been largely ignored.

I’ll be frank. I am not one of those people who think that Pat Robertson is stupid. I think that like George W. Bush his ‘folksy’ demeanour may be a bit of a pose. Robertson, 75, is the son of a U.S. Senator and earned his Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School in 1955. Previously, while admitting to partying heartily during his undergrad years, he earned a very solid History B.A., and also studied for a time at the University of London. After law school he sensed a vocation into Christian ministry and completed a Master of Divinity at the New York Theological Seminary in 1959. While ordained a minister within the Baptist Church of his upbringing, Robertson never pastored a parish. Instead he bought a TV station and pioneered modern religious broadcasting, forging a major network that later was sold to Disney for 1.9 billion dollars. He also worked in tandem with Jerry Falwell to found the “Moral Majority,” established the two million member Christian Coalition and made an unsuccessful Presidential bid as a Republican candidate in 1988. I disagree with major premises in his argument, but I do not believe that Robertson is stupid. Rather, I think that the whole Chavez debaucle is a rather masterfully managed publicity stunt for Robertson’s belief in the justifiable homicide of a dictator he believes to be pernicious.

Premises Pat Robertson Has Totally Wrong
Does anybody else find it a little bizarre that Robertson believes that Venezuela will become “a launching pad for communist infiltration…” I can appreciate that Hugo Chavez is buddies with Fidel Castro, and that various socialist models hold great currency in Latin America. But seriously, Robertson’s feverish domino theory over “communist infiltration” seems about 30 to 50 years out of date. Was Pat Robertson so deflated after his flubbed attempt at the Presidency that he went into hibernation for glasnost and perestroika? This “I’m afraid of the Bolsheviks” argument does really hold up.

The second point of Robertson’s rant that makes no sense is his fear that Venezuela will become a hotbed of “Muslim extremism all over the continent.” Since Robertson seems to want the CIA to “take out” Chavez, I looked up some facts about the country on the online CIA World Fact Book. There I found that 96% of Venezuelans are nominally Roman Catholic, 2% are Protestant, and the remaining 2% are “other.” Now even if every last one of those two percent of Venezuelans were a practicing Muslim, it would only work out to roughly the same percentage of Canadians who are Muslims. Maybe all those are violent extremists, but I doubt it. You get the point. On the basis of the logic employed, I can’t believe why Robertson didn’t long ago call for the assassination of late Prime Minister and fellow Castro buddy, Pierre Trudeau.

The fact that that these points are flawed does not really matter to Robertson. He still thinks it would be a good idea for the U.S. to “take out” Hugo Chavez by whatever means expedient. In his statement, he explains his view with reference to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who actively opposed the evils of the Nazi regime, even agreeing to ‘sin boldly’ by participating in the plot to kill Hitler.

Stupid, No – Afraid, Yes.
Here Pat Robertson is participating in a whole tradition of political thinking associated with the concept of the “just war” that can be found in Augustine as well as in several Protestant Reformers. Inspired by some (not all) of this thinking, the United States’ foundational myths include a sort of “messianic” manifest destiny, i.e., “America will save the world.” For Christians, American or otherwise, to buy into this attitude is an idolatrous lie of the first degree. I would like to tell you what I really think of Pat Robertson. He is not stupid; he is afraid, and his all-consuming fear makes him incredibly weak and therefore dangerous.

Robertson does not engage in conversation about the finer points of just war theory. Plain and simply his point is that he does not what Venezuela to turn into another Iraq He fears this for both financial and societal reasons: it would cost too much and American lives would be lost. It should be made clear that Robertson does not want a war with Venezuela, he simply wants the U.S. to “take out” their President, and assassination may, in his opinion, be the most economical solution. But is Venezuela really going to become the next Cuba, let alone Iraq? Is that seriously on the agenda of the Bush administration? Is there going to be a sort of Bay of Pigs II? Doesn’t such sabre rattling on the part of people like Robertson advance even further – both at home and abroad – the suspicions that the American military-industrial complex is on a fishing expedition for future wars?

Hugo Chavez may be an evil man. Roman Catholic Cardinal Rosalio Castillo said that the Venezuelan leader needed "an exorcism" and that Chavez was orchestrating a "despotic government.” In turn Chavez called the Cardinal a devil-possessed “bandit.”

Name calling aside, St. Augustine, one of the original shapers of just war theory, believed that "no one is evil by nature, but anyone who is evil is evil because of a perversion of nature"(City of God, XIV, 6), instead we are simply lost and in bondage.

Pat Robertson’s publicity stunt for justifiable homicide perpetuates not only an idolatrous consciousness of U.S. identity, but also a captivity to fear antithetical to the Gospel. His call for assasination does not even come close to meeting Augustine’s well-developed criteria. Does anyone remember the first words of the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II, given in times at least as fever-pitched about “communist infiltration and Muslim extremism” as today? He shouted out, “Be not afraid!”

The members of this earthly city, Robertson and Chavez alike, are, "blown away from their homeland by the adverse winds of their own perverted characters" (Christian Doctrine 1.VIII). So we are called by Christ to “love our enemies. We do not fear them, for they cannot take away from us what we love, but we pity them, for they hate us all the more because they are separated from the one we love" (Christian Doctrine 1.XXIX).

Instead, through Jesus Christ, "the choice of will, then, is genuinely free when it is not subservient to faults and sins. God gave it that true freedom ... can be restored only by him who had the power to give it at the beginning" (City of God, XIV, 11). Our only path to avoiding sin in response to aggression from another is in the one who can set us free from our bondage.

Until then, I think we’d all do well to let Pat Robertson get back to what really he’s really good at, namely his recipe for his famous Age-Defying Protein Pancakes: (


Anonymous James said...

I agree that one gets the sense of overarching fear in all his comments. (So, as Schmemann would say, is that pride, or flesh? Or do we need to add a third source of sin, cowardice? I think it's pride and flesh in this case -- forgetting God and indulging our fight or flight instinct.)

So I think dinner and a movie with Chavez is indeed the answer. But I don't know much about politics.

I'm mostly disappointed that I have to be a CBN member to get his age-defying recipe. ("And Pat shares his cooking tips along the way to help make your pancakes light and fluffy."!) I hear Christ calling us to be gracious and transcendent, but here we are, belligerent and ridiculous. That about sums it up! Hot cakes and coups but no JP II, no Augustine, no St. Paul: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.

James, constantly reading CRFQ

7:26 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Who needs Pat's pancake tips anyway, eh James?

7:46 AM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

For those interested, I wrote this post originally for a fledgling Catholic magazine here in Edmonton, called "The Jerome" (hence the refs. to JPII, Cardinal Rosalio, and Augustine). My pals Matthew Wangler and Luke Campbell (brilliant Roman Catholics both) are also writing for the Jerome. I think it should be available on campuses (U of A, Newman, St. Joe's, Concordia, Kings, Taylor, Macewan) this Fall.

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Bald is Beautiful said...

How is it you keep getting smarter & I only keep getting fatter?

9:41 PM  

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