It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?
This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.
So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?
It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.
I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)
We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?
Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:
Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.
"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."
"They want to challenge Roe v. Wade, but my humble view is that this is not the case that we want to bring to the Supreme Court because I think this will lose," he added.
Robertson cited the law's lack of exemptions for rape or incest and its punishment up to 99 years in prison for performing an abortion in the state as extreme.
So what is Robertson doing here?
First of all, he is making a legal argument that this Alabama law may create a case that paints SCOTUS into a corner.
Second, he is making a political case that several details in the law go to far at this moment in time, in terms of where the American public is on this issue.
A few lines later there is this:
"I think it's ill-considered," Robertson told viewers on the Christian Broadcasting Network. The televangelist continued by criticizing the Roe v. Wade decision and emphasizing the need for strict abortion laws in the country.
"But the Alabama case, God bless them. They're trying to do something but I don't think that's the case, and I don't want to bring it to the Supreme Court," Robertson said.
OK, I totally get that this is a set of quotes that is newsworthy.
Nevertheless, here is my question about this latest strange, newsworthy opinion from Pat Robertson — “televangelist.”
Robertson is (a) making a comment about legal questions linked to this Alabama law and, (b) also about the political realities surrounding it.
Thus, I am asking: Should journalists consider adding one or two sentences to their reports noting that Robertson is (a) a graduate of Yale Law School and (b) someone who grew up in Washington, D.C., as the son of a U.S. Senator? How many readers know these two facts about this famous religious leader?
Yes, I know that Robertson never passed the New York bar exam and I am not saying that these two biographical details make him a legal and/or political seer of any kind.
I am saying that — it would only take a sentence or two — these facts are relevant to what he has said about this Alabama law and journalists might consider including them. They are as relevant to this story as calling him a “televangelist,” a term that really says little or nothing (especially since Robertson has never been an evangelist, by trade).