If disaster strikes, you can pretty much count on religious broadcaster Pat Robertson to say something about it that offends much of the population. It's not just Robertson, of course. You might recall Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., saying Katrina was about God wanting to smite Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or something. Anyway, with the horrific news out of Haiti, that the earthquake there led to unbelievable loss of life and property, Robertson came in on cue. And news organizations spread the word immediately. Here's how CNN reported it:
The Haitians "were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever," Robertson said on his broadcast Wednesday. "And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.' True story. And so, the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' "
Now, explaining why Haiti is so poverty-stricken and troubled is a surprisingly challenging task. But what in the world was Robertson talking about?
The general approach being taken by the media seems to be 1) get Robertson's quotes on air and in print STAT as they are ratings gold and 2) provide no context or explanation.
I wish we lived in a world where we had neither natural disasters nor Pat Robertson's verbal disasters, but the media really like to cover him and he certainly represents a slice of religious thinking that should be covered. Even if I feel dirty writing about it.
The first thing that should be noted, but that many media outlets don't, is that Robertson's story wasn't simply invented yesterday while he was on air. Let's go to ABC News' Jake Tapper who has the goods. After quoting Robertson extensively, he writes:
Robertson's tale stems from a legend that Jean Jacques Dessalines, who led the Haitian revolution against the French Army, entered into a pact with Satan disguised as a voodoo deity in exchange for a military victory, which finally happened in 1803.
One minister of a Haitian-American church -- who does not believe this legend -- recently wrote about the frequent references in Haiti "to a spiritual pact that the fathers of the nation supposedly made with the devil to help them win their freedom from France. As a result of that satanic alliance, as they put it, God has placed a curse on the country sometime around its birth, and that divine burden has made it virtually impossible for the vast majority of Haitians to live in peace and prosperity in their land...The satanic pact allegedly took place at Bois-Caiman near Cap-Haitien on August 14, 1791 during a meeting organized by several slave leaders, under [Dutty] Boukman's leadership, before launching what would become Haiti's Independence War."
Whatever one thinks of the veracity of this belief, it certainly should be included in stories about Robertson's risible remarks. Another way to deepen understanding in these regular stories about Robertson is to provide some context for where he sits on the spectrum of religious broadcasters and evangelicals. Cathy Grossman at USA Today writes that he wasn't just relying on this legend:
[H]e was also relying on his considerable talent for provoking attention, says Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay.
Lindsay interviewed Robertson for his book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. He says:
"Robertson is savvy and vastly underestimated by most observers. He knows exactly what galvanizes attention among his constituents and the larger American public. It's a mix of earnest belief and showmanship. He says these things intentionally. He's not a careless speaker.
"Why bad things happen when God is good is the great question people ask at times of tragedy and disaster. To Robertson, it has to mean that evil -- personified by the devil -- is at work."
Very interesting. I love having some perspective such as this. Sometimes I wonder whether the whole Pat Robertson experience doesn't fill some cosmic need that everyone has after a natural disaster or act of terror. We want to be angry, but in a safe way. Robertson provides this vehicle for anger that fits perfectly into the 24-hour-news cycle.
Anyway, Robertson actually issued a statement defending the actual remarks he made. You can read it here.