Weekend Reads: Pat Robertson Edition

In 1992, Pat Robertson famously decreed that feminism – or what he imagined “feminism” to be – was “a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” These sorts of comments litter Robertson’s half-century career as a for-profit conservative televangelist extraordinaire and have hardly made the 1988 Republican Presidential candidate a darling of the progressive set. To America’s reactionary religious right, Robertson’s views on the threat of “angel rape” and the tornado-fighting powers of prayer make the octogenarian Virginian the perfect antidote to the moral laxness of 21st century secular America. To the left and many non-social conservative members of the right, however, Robertson is a malevolent force.

Given how wildly divisive his politics tend to be, and how roundly progressives have dismissed the views of the Christian Broadcasting Network founder, Robertson’s recent comments on marijuana have sent shockwaves through the battlefields of the Culture Wars. In an interview with the New York Times’ Jesse McKinley on March 7, Robertson expressed his support for marijuana legalization and, for the last eleven days, the media has been buzzing. After having made some guarded pro-legalization comments on The 700 Club a week earlier, Robertson unequivocally told McKinley ““I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol. I’ve never used marijuana and I don’t intend to, but it’s just one of those things that I think: this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded.” These comments seem all the more shocking given Robertson’s popularity with far-right social conservative groups. Robertson, however, continued by explaining that he does not, nor does he plan to, smoke marijuana, but legalization is the only way to bring down soaring incarceration rates. Mindful of alienating his core constituency, however, he also added the rather remarkable belief that the War on Drugs and prison overpopulation were attributable not to reactionary conservative policies but a “liberal mindset to have an all-encompassing government.”

Naturally, Robertson’s comments begged instant analysis. In the Christian Science Monitor, the most respected national Christian periodical currently in circulation, Daniel Wood contemplated this issue in “Pat Robertson Backs Legal Marijuana. Will Other Conservatives Follow?” Wood begins by noting how reasonable Robertson’s rationale is. Robertson has shown a new sense of self-awareness, explaining, “we’ve said, ‘We’re conservative, we’re tough on crime.’ That’s baloney. It’s costing us billions and billions of dollars.” Robertson also professes to being deeply troubled by the fact that America makes up 5% of the world’s population but has 25% of its prisoners. Robertson’s conclusions lead Professor Robert MacCoun of the Berkeley School of Law to remark ,“he’s wrong about many things, but the fact that he is someone who usually represents the extreme conservative point of view makes the coming legalization debate more wide open now.” An expert on marijuana laws, MacCoun also points out that Robertson’s stance may help loosen up the rigidity of national discussions over drugs. “We can now have a more grown up discussion about what are the tools in the tool box – rather than just hyperlatives hurled at each side from the extremes.” Though Wood also covers critics of Robertson’s views – notably Calvina Fay of the Drug Free America Foundation – he clearly sees the positive potential for a political sea change in Robertson’s comments.

Madison Gray of the African-American-centric online publication The Root also sees Robertson as an augur of more progressive drug policies, though he wonders, “why haven’t black preachers spoken out against drug laws that hurt our community?” Like Robertson, Gray notices extraordinarily inequitable patterns in drug sentencing, noting that blacks make up “14 percent of regular drug users but 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.” This leads Gray to note, “I’m really not hearing the Creflo Dollars and T.D. Jakeses of the world from the very loud and popular mega-church sounding board when it comes to this issue.” In Gray’s view, “mass incarceration, especially of black males, is probably the single most important civil rights issue of this generation,” and yet lily-white archconservatives like Pat Robertson are now more powerful advocates for drug-policy liberalization than any of the black community’s major religious leaders.  He notes that African-American clergymen often insist that legalizing marijuana possession would allow drug pushers into the black community. “News flash,” Gray wryly responds, “Drug pushers have been in the black community for generations. Apparently the only ones that haven’t noticed are the churches.”

Whereas Wood and Gray see something authentic and earnest in Robertson’s newly professed sentiments, Lee Siegel of The Daily Beast is far more cynical. In “Is Pat Robertson’s Reefer Madness Code for Resisting Mormon Advances?” Siegel views Robertson’s new tack as a stroke of political genius, a means of slowing down – or maybe even derailing – Mitt Romney’s seemingly inevitable march toward the Republican Party Presidential nomination. Siegel claims that, in advocating for the legalization of marijuana, Robertson has “radically redefined Christianity” in a way that is inhospitable to Romney’s straight arrow, abstinent lifestyle. In claiming “I don’t think [Christ] was a teetotaler,” Robertson situates Christianity as being far wetter than the Mormon Church would have you believe, meaning, in Siegel’s view, that “an abstinent Mormon couldn’t possibly claim to speak for a Christian America” and “Santorum’s attempt to join Catholic obsessions to evangelical anxieties now has a new life.” While Siegel may overreach in his conclusions – Mitt Romney’s nomination still remains all-but-inevitable – he is quite right to point out the larger political ramifications of Robertson’s comments.

While Siegel is more skeptical of Robertson’s comments than either Gray or Wood, he is far from critical. In fact, one gets the sense from his article that Siegel respects Robertson’s chutzpa, even if it is merely calculated to dog the Romney campaign. Robertson’s comments have come under significant fire from certain camps, however, with Stephen Colbert being one of the first to take Robertson to task. On the popular “Colbert Report,” the South Carolinian pundit fretter over the ominous threat of a “stoned Pat Robertson” and the imminent transformation of The 700 Club into The 420 Club. Colbert even took to biblical scripture to denounce Robertson’s views, claiming, “Jesus said he would make you a fisher of men—not a Phish fan of men.” Much as he showed in his ill-fated run for the Republican Presidential nomination, Colbert remains on the vanguard of traditional family values and a healthy skepticism toward the torturous guitar solos of Phish frontman Trey Anastasio.

For whatever reason, former Drug Czar Bill Bennett found Colbert’s critiques insufficiently rigorous, leading the CNN.com contributor to pen his own column, simply titled “Pat Robertson is Wrong About Marijuana.” You may remember Bennett from last month’s article on Whitney Houston, in which the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy claimed that his office had successfully beaten back the “cocaine and heroine epidemics” of the 1980s and 1990s. This month, Bill Bennett continues to trumpet the value of the War on Drugs, though he shows much great respect for Robertson in the process than he did for Tony Bennett, who he called an “idiot” for supporting the legalization of marijuana. While using guardedly respectful language, Bennett claims that to take Robertson’s view is to “renounce common sense.”

Like most pundits who attempt to boil down complex socio-political issues to their personal conception of “common sense,” Bennett offers a series of half-hearted rationales for his belief that America must not “surrender” in its battle against pot. Bennett explains, for instance, that “of the cannabis users who entered treatment services from 2000 to 2008, nearly a quarter report psychiatric problems,” though he does not consider the fact that psychiatric problems might be an independent indicator of a need for treatment and not necessarily a direct result of marijuana use. He also states that “new research suggests that driving under the influence of marijuana could double a person’s risk of getting in a serious or fatal car crash.” This fact should seem blindingly obvious for anyone remotely familiar with the dangers posed driving under the influence of alcohol, and should no more damn Mary Jane than it does Johnny Walker. Bennett consistently evades the liquored-up elephant in the room, refusing to acknowledge Robertson’s central tenet that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol. Instead, he elects to regress into his comfortable world of nostalgia, pining for “the late 1980s and early 1990s [when], with the help of the Partnership for a Drug Free America, America’s policymakers and opinion shapers got tough on drugs.” In a sense, Bennett’s failure to create an intellectually coherent critique of Robertson’s views speaks volumes about the present nature of America’s Drug War.

With the looming ballot measures of the partial legalization of marijuana possession in both Washington and Colorado, Pat Robertson’s comments were bound to stir up controversy. But are they earnest expressions of Robertson’s true beliefs, as Daniel Wood seems to belief, or is Lee Siegel right to consider them an example of inspired politicking for the evangelical political agenda? Considering how irritated Robertson’s longtime supporters at Focus on the Family seem to be at his statement, one is tempted to see this as a true expression of Robertson’s sentiments. And if that’s the case, what the heck is next?

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Doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, Department of History. Part-time Ro-Man.

3 thoughts on “Weekend Reads: Pat Robertson Edition”

  1. What’s really interesting here is not so much that Robertson is supporting decriminalization but that he is viewing the law as a means of engineering desired social outcomes — not merely as an expression of moral ideals.

    If all american Conservatives made the same conversion, all Americans would have a liberal view of law and politics generally. And that would put an end to current GOP pratt debates on almost every topic.

    Then, political discourse would be about looking at outcome data. At present, can you imagine Santorum or even Romney saying “show me the data”?

    • I think you’ve hit it right on the head. Pat’s being taken to task because he isn’t talking about the issue in emotional terms. He’s not describing drug use in the language of saving the children and “getting tough.” Instead, he has come to the long-obvious conclusion that it does more harm to lock people up than it does to let them smoke pot.

      But, of course, drug policy is hardly decided by data or even rationalism, but by principle. The reason Rick Santorum would never say “show me the data” is because the data must be considered of secondary importance to whatever the governing moral or ethical principle the GOP has laid out. And heck, you just can’t quantify a principle.

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