As some of you already know, Americans United has a staff member who, among other duties, watches each riveting episode of TV preacher Pat Robertson's "700 Club."
Right now that person is Communications Assistant Donya Khalili, a recent Yale University graduate. She admits that watching Robertson every day can get tedious, but occasionally among the chaff is a kernel of wheat so pure that it could bring tears to a baker 's eye.
Donya plucked out one of those kernels March 17 when she heard the good reverend plainly and clearly endorse the separation of church and state.
Imagine my surprise. I have been arguing with Robertson about this for years. Apparently, he was paying attention, I thought, as I glanced at the transcript of his words. Phrases leaped forth: "absolutely imperative to set up a constitution and safeguards that say we will maintain a secular state" and "at the very top of its agenda a separation of church and state."
Then I noticed that a lot of these comments seemed to be in the future tense. Doesn't the United States already have a constitution with this provision? What's going on here? Oops. Robertson was in fact talking about the need for secular government in Iraq not the United States.
His argument was that if the United States didn't demand a secular state to replace the Hussein regime, an open vote would likely occur along religious lines. Then a Shi'ite majority would prevail and they would "go in for shariah [Islamic law], and the next thing you know, you've got a mini-Iran in there." Without separation, Robertson opined, all the other religious and ethnic groups could suffer: the Sunni Muslims, the orthodox Christians, the Assyrian Christians and the Kurds for starters. These are all very valid points.
So, here is Pat Robertson telling the United States government to make sure it establishes a secular state with full separation of church and state in the post-war Iraq. But, wait. Where does that principle of separation come from? Robertson himself has said it isn't even an American idea. He has, on several occasions, asserted that church-state separation is a communist, Soviet-style doctrine. Just last year at a Christian Coalition conference in Washington, Robertson called separation a "distortion" and a "lie foisted on us."
I was sufficiently perplexed now that I could only assume that Robertson has had a full-blown conversion experience in which he now respects the separation in America and finds it the perfect model for nation building around the word. What else could I do? Of course, I immediately sent Robertson a letter hailing his amazing change of heart. I wrote, "This is exactly the point of view we at Americans United have held for years. Church-state separation and a constitutionally mandated secular government ensure religious liberty rights for everyone."
And let's face it, I'm the kind of guy who strikes when the iron is hot (metaphorically, of course, not being a blacksmith), so I tucked an Americans United membership form into my overnight package to Virginia Beach. I even took the liberty of informing Robertson that Americans United has "special programs for members who are able to make large contributions to the cause." After all, according to one business publication, the man's estimated net worth is over $155 million.
All right, let me come clean. I really don't expect Robertson to send a big check or even join just to get this magazine. I think he was just spouting off in order to make a point about Islam. He is not a fan of that religion, once referring to it as "the religion of the slavers" and asserting that Americans who join it are "insane." He is worried that minorities will be treated badly, and Christians are one of those minorities. He is not wrong to be worried: check the former government of Afghanistan for quick reference.
However, what I suspect he will still miss is that right here in the U.S.A., plenty of non-Christians, or Christian non-fundamentalists, are worried about exactly the same thing. They don't like the sinking feeling that Pat Robertson is working with President George W. Bush, whom Robertson frequently claims he helped elect, to establish a Christian-preference nation here. In fact, many of us have feared that was the goal behind the TV preacher's brainchild, the Christian Coalition, which exemplified the idea that people should cast their ballots based on religion. It seemed the entire purpose of those slanted Christian Coalition "voter guides" was to guide Christians to the most "godly" candidates for public office. Once elected, they could be expected to put policies into place that would parallel the very Bible-based morality that Robertson touts daily on his television show.
The religious majority always believes itself to be two things: correct and benign. Sadly, the history of far too many historical periods and too many spaces on the world map today demonstrates that the allegedly correct and benign can result, in fact, in a catastrophic treatment of those deemed in theological error. So, my advice to the Rev. Robertson is this: keep reviewing that history and at some point you may really be ready to become a member in good standing, with a membership card and all, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (Everywhere).
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.