J. M. Pressley
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Old Yeller

The separation of church and state in this nation is primarily designed to ensure that the government cannot mandate a state religion and that all faiths are equally protected. While this would be enough by itself to commend the idea, it has a few side benefits that add significant value. For instance, separation of church and state here has largely prevented an orthodoxy from instituting an authoritarian theocracy based on divine right to rule. The founding fathers separated government from religion because many of the original settlers that came to colonize America were fleeing religious repression or outright persecution in the lands from which they came. And yet, certain zealots in America insist on returning the country to a past that never was, in the name of the founding fathers who would be mortified.

If one needs a personification of the argument for separation of church and state, look no farther than Pat Robertson. The fusion of religion, politics, and money that is Citizen Robertson exemplifies the dangers inherent when a man starts confusing the seat of power with the throne of God. Furthermore, Robertson is best described as a prophet of hypocrisy. More huckster than minister, Robertson has always had a dual mission: lining his wallet and spreading the word of Pat. Starting in the 1980s, however, that mission expanded to encompass a literal interpretation of the phrase, "one nation under God."

Citizen Robertson

For those who might not remember the 1988 presidential campaign, Robertson ran for the Republican nomination, saying that God had told him to run. After Robertson was exposed as a liar for claiming to be a combat marine in Korea, God abandoned him on Super Tuesday. He would drop out of the primary race, but the political machine Robertson created was to live on in the form of the Christian Coalition. Ever since, Robertson has engendered controversy for comments that are neither politic nor Christian.

The most recent flap occurred when he started pontificating on the subject of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez is a democratically elected populist in his country who is on friendly relations with Cuba and maniacally paranoid about U.S. intentions in Venezuela. From his bully pulpit of The 700 Club television show, Robertson called Chavez "a dangerous enemy to our south" who was making Venezuela "a launching pad for Communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent." Robertson had a simple solution.

"If he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. 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 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."

—Pat Robertson, 8/22/2005

It's uncertain which Gospel condones political assassinations, but it's a lesson most of us must have missed in Sunday school. That's a taste of what kind of policy we could have seen had the American voting public lost its collective mind and voted Robertson into office once upon a time. But the hilarity that ensued in the wake of Robertson's comments was nonstop as the criticism flooded in and the backpedaling began. First, Robertson claimed his remarks were somehow misinterpreted, saying,

"I didn't say 'assassination.' I said our special forces should 'take him out.' And 'take him out' can be a number of things, including kidnapping; there are a number of ways to take out a dictator from power besides killing him. I was misinterpreted by the [Associated Press], but that happens all the time.

—Pat Robertson, 8/24/2005

Set aside for a moment that Gerald Ford made assassination of heads of state illegal by executive order, and that it seems unlikely a country with a 98% Catholic population is bent on exporting Muslim extremism. Misinterpreted? Let's make a minor change to the original statement and have Robertson say on broadcast television,"If President Bush thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it." Robertson would be violating 18 U.S.C. 871 (a); it's a federal offense to threaten the President. The Secret Service would neither be amused nor inclined to believe it was a simple misinterpretation. And Robertson's elaboration on the finer points of "take him out" speaks for itself. By that evening. however, Robertson delivered an alleged apology on his website that still compared Chavez with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

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 said before the war in Iraq began that the wisest course would be to wage war against Saddam Hussein, not the whole nation of Iraq. When faced with the threat of a comparable dictator in our own hemisphere, would it not be wiser to wage war against one person than finding ourselves down the road locked in a bitter struggle with a whole nation?

—Pat Robertson, 8/24/2005

Robertson's own words undermine his credibility, as does his history. The fact is, Robertson is on the record in August of 1999 lamenting the executive order ban on assassinating heads of state, ruminating, "It would just seem so much more practical to have that flexibility.... I just think it's the intelligent thing to do, and I don't see anything un-Christian about it." Hypocritically chilling, those words. What happens when you run out of enemies outside your borders? You start looking for the enemy within. And surely there's nothing un-Christian about that, either.

The Gospel of Pat

That's not the only questionably Christian sentiment that Robertson has espoused over the many years. It's a mixed blessing, having a television network for a pulpit—there's plenty of fodder for the record. Here is a smattering of some of Pat's greatest hits over the years.

700: New Number of the Beast?

Unsurprisingly, Robertson is also on the record innumerable times denying that the concept of the separation of church and state is anything more than a myth. According to Robertson, the doctrine of separation is nothing less than a Soviet concept. He assigns blame for propagating the myth alternately among liberals, the judiciary, Democrats, feminists, atheists, gays, lesbians, communists, and presumably anyone else who isn't closely allied with the Christian Coalition. In Robertson's own words,

"There was no concept of separation between God and government in the New Testament or the Old Testament. The concept that was before us in the Bible is that rulers are ministers of God, that the sword that they wield is not in vain, but they've been placed in authority by God to make sure that law and order prevails in our land and there is no anarchy.... There is nothing that should indicate that God Almighty should be separated from the government nor that Godly people should not hold office in government.... So there is nothing to indicate that there should be a separation."

—Pat Robertson, 8/1/1995

Ironically, this comes from a man also on the record as vigorously arguing for a secular government in the newly minted republic of Iraq—so that a religious majority could not gain oppressive dominance over the other religious and ethnic minorities of the nation.

That's the whole point, whether it's Iraq or America. Rather than fabricating a fantasy Camelot of an American past, Robertson, as the student of history he claims to be, would do well to remember that America's founding owes more to Enlightenment philosophy than it does to the Bible. And the principles of that founding are what protects all Americans from dangerously sanctimonious hypocrites.

Citizens rely on their governments for many things, but salvation shouldn't be one of them. Regardless of intent, the fact remains that the populace of this nation is better off as a citizenry and not as a denomination. The separation of church and state so disparaged by Robertson is the best defense of liberty—religious and otherwise—for all.

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