Rein in your own radical preachers, America

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 August, 2005, 12:00am

Perhaps in ordinary circumstances, the idiotic and unwanted comment by the Reverend Pat Robertson, the prominent American cleric, might have just wafted past us like typical air pollution or loopy background noise. There are plenty of these kinds of people all over the world, not just in the United States, who make all sorts of whacko comments, to be sure. So why pick on preacher Pat?

The answer is that these are no ordinary times. The world is all too frequently set on edge these days because of thoughtless or provocative comments by loud-mouthed clerics of all religious persuasions. In this instance, as a matter of fact, Robertson is nothing less than the leader of America's largest evangelical Christian group.

He is also a televangelist, and it was on his own show last week that he offered some pointed policy advice for dealing with the leftist president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

Mr Chavez, who has said western intelligence circles want to kill him, has been critical of US policies, expressed sympathy for liberationist left-wing outfits and generally has made Washington nervous. To its credit, however, the Bush administration - preoccupied as it is with Iraq, Iran, North Korea and a bunch of other major policy messes - has declined to engage Mr Chavez publicly, more or less seeming to take things in its stride.

Offering his own foreign policy, however, Robertson all but issued a fatwa on the head of Mr Chavez. The host of the Christian Broadcasting Network show, The 700 Club, said: 'You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he [Chavez] thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability.'

Then, with an utter lack of moral outrage, the US State Department simply characterised Robertson's remarks as 'inappropriate'. The Christian Right in America has to put a lid on its nuts, just as the west rightly asks Islam to get a handle on its own crazies. Remember the anti-Islamic remarks of Lieutenant-General William Boykin about two years ago? This prominent American military man declaimed in a public speech that Allah was 'not a real God'.

The right thing to do in the Robertson case would be for President George W. Bush to clear the air by pointedly distancing himself from the preacher, on his next national broadcast.

World reaction to Robertson's policy prescription has so far been relatively muted. One notes the immediate reaction of the only Christian television channel in Finland. It announced that the call to assassinate Mr Chavez had prompted it to drop Robertson's show because the channel's mission statement wishes to emphasise a truly all-embracing Christian message, not a crass political one.

Is America increasingly being perceived as no longer championing a political system that constitutionally institutionalises the rightful separation of church and state?

The very fact that anyone could plausibly ask this question tells us that America now has some kind of serious image problem in the world.

This fact, it seems, was fully grasped by William Devlin, the evangelical founder of the anti-abortion Urban Family Council of Philadelphia: 'Unfortunately, what it means for the rest of us is that we have to respond to questions of, 'Is this what you guys really believe'?'

That is exactly the problem.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network

Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre