Earlier this week, our friends over at the ethics and diversity office at Poynter.org published a column that I wrote pleading for journalists to drop the Rev. Pat Robertson from their list of "usual suspects" that they call to speak for the world of conservative Christians and other moral traditionalists. I thought the headline was pushy, but appropriate: "Excommunicating Pat Robertson." Here's the key idea I asked journalists who read that site to ponder. If another hurricane heads toward New Orleans, and you were one of the dozens of viewers who turned on MSNBC (OK, I wasn't that snarky) and saw Pat Robertson's face, would you be happy or sad? Would you be (a) happy or (b) sad because you knew that he was going to say something off the wall about why God was about to pour out his wrath once again on such a sinful city?
If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn't think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.
In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson's face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian. And they may sincerely believe that he remains a powerful leader among American evangelicals, someone who provides an appropriate "conservative" voice during coverage of controversial events.
I ended with a list of names, and hyperlinks, to a variety of traditional Christians that I wish reporters (and especially television producers) would call instead of Robertson. Check out the list and let me know who you think I should add. I also realize that we need lists of new voices on the religious left and in other traditions. This column was about Robertson, so I went with traditional Christians.
Apparently, Heritage Foundation pundit Joe Loconte was thinking along some very similar lines about the time that I was. He wrote a column arguing that Robertson is the perfect symbol for the authority problems that religious leaders, in general, are having in public debates right now.
Like who? Where do we start?
The Catholic Church still struggles to overcome its crisis of sexually abusive priests.
Liberal Protestant churches, mimicking the secular cant of political activists, have bled themselves dry in membership and prestige.
Though growing in numbers and political influence, evangelicals are among the most feared demographic group in the country, according to a recent Pew Forum poll. Here's one reason: An evangelical figure with Robertson's clout talks like a hit man from the Sopranos -- and what do his religious brethren do about it? Not much.
Yes, some traditional Christians dissected Robertson's remarks, but others ducked into their ministry foxholes. Loconte notes that a faithful few continue to respond to each new blast from Virginia Beach by opening up their checkbooks and sending Robertson more cash for his niche TV work.
Another excellent question: How did Robertson's latest remarks affect the safety of missionaries in Venezuela? But in a way, argued Loconte, this is almost beside the point. Robertson has been quoted and quoted and quoted saying this kind of stuff for 20-something years.
Yes, his words are news. But for whom does he actually speak? How should people respond when he erupts once again?
Loconte has some suggestions. Anyone who digs into this will have a news story.
. . . (Evangelical) leaders would be wise to marginalize Robertson and his media empire -- publicly and decisively. They should editorialize against his excesses, refuse to appear on his television program and deny him advertising space in their magazines. Board members should threaten to resign unless he steps down from his public platform.
Is anyone doing that?