The Devil is in the Details: Hulsether on Robertson

Kelly Baker

In the wake of Pat Robertson's comments on Haiti, Mark Hulsether explores the top five ways that Robertson is dangerous, which often are overshadowed by Robertson's bombastic rhetoric. Over at Religion Dispatches, Hulsether explores the prevalence of Robertson's ignorant comments and notes that the focus on outrageousness of Robertson's claims often obscures his commonality with "mainline" conservatives. The media frenzy that surrounds Robertson also means that the more pressing dangers of the minister's career go unmentioned or ignored. (For a clip of Robertson's comments, check Paul's post here.)

Here's a preview:
Is this worth acknowledging? Comments by Robertson that are racist, sexist, arrogant, complacent, misleading, and/or embarrassing are like a bus: if you miss one today, there will be another tomorrow. Those who stir the pot by writing “can you believe he said that!” do not always seem to grasp that Robertson makes such comments continually. The question is when and why a larger public tunes in and makes an issue of it—and who benefits if they do.

Often it is Robertson who benefits, and a ritual of liberals mocking him actually strengthens his subculture. Susan Harding’s Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton U. Press, 2001) shows how leaders of the New Christian Right (NCR) purposefully hone a rhetoric that creates “gaps” of credibility for listeners. Such gaps continually challenge people who are tempted by NCR rhetoric to reaffirm loyalty to their leaders—and by extension to burn bridges that could change them from believers to skeptical outsiders. The more outrageous the gaps, the more that reaffirming loyalty in the face of them allows conservatives to maintain their self-image as misunderstood and persecuted. Thus they can discount Robertson’s flaws within frames like “the sincere leader with feet of clay” (who, like King David, models repentance and rehabilitation) or the “truth-teller quoted out of context” (who, like Christ, will triumph in the end.)

Meanwhile, beyond an NCR subculture, sensational images of Robertson as a fringe figure—an extreme loose cannon—underplay continuities between him and mainstream conservatives, making allies with roughly similar ideas seem like lesser evils. (To see Mark's top five, click here.)


Manlius said…
I understand that Hulsether doesn't like the influence Robertson has on mainstream conservatives, and I'm quite sympathetic with his view. I wonder, though, what he thinks of the influence of Rev. Al Sharpton on Democratic politicians? Or how about President Obama's close friend and mentor, Jeremiah Wright, who appears in Obama's autobiography as a profoundly shaping influence? Remember that Rev. Wright has also said many outrageous things, including the idea that America deserved the 9/11 attacks.
mhulseth said…
Hmm, well, "Manlius" said something similar to this on the RD thread and I wrote a response there, so I guess it couldn't hurt to paste it in over here too.

I don't consider it damning that both Bush and Obama (and Shakespeare and Wyclef Jean and Timothy McVeigh, etc. etc.) often evoke Biblical images to back up what they are trying to do. The question is WHAT they are trying to do-- is it thoughtful and constructive?

So it goes back to the comment about credibility that I made earlier [sorry, if that doesn't make sense I guess you need to look at the RD thread, someone was trying to argue that all religious claims were equal in their lack of credibility and I had responded that this wasn't too insightful].

Robertson's people claim he is being quoted out of context; Jeremiah Wright's people claim he was being quoted out of context about basic truisms like "you reap what you show" or "chickens come home to roost." It should not be difficult to understand (and if I had more time I'd make the argument) that one of these two claims about being quoted out of context can be more credible and insightful than the other.
Manlius said…
Mark, thanks for your response (in both places! sorry about that:) ). My reply is over at the RD blog.