Paul Prather

Paul Prather: This time I come to Pat Robertson's defense

Rev. Pat Robertson in 2010 (AP Photo/Clem Britt, File)
Rev. Pat Robertson in 2010 (AP Photo/Clem Britt, File) AP

It's not often I defend Pat Robertson, the controversial host of TV's The 700 Club.

But Robertson got a bum rap during last week's public dust-up — from his fellow conservatives, from more moderate and liberal Christians, and from secularists.

In their rush to judgment, his critics also overlooked the broader moral question with which Robertson was wrestling, one that has plagued religion since the days of Moses.

That question is: How do we balance our desire for ideal behavior with the fact that we're all flawed humans regularly trapped in less-than-ideal circumstances?

In case you missed the brouhaha, a 700 Club viewer posed a question in the show's Internet chat room that was then directed to Robertson while he was on live television.

The chat room correspondent said his friend's wife had advanced Alzheimer's disease. She no longer even recognized her husband. The husband had grown bitter toward God because of the couple's suffering and also was seeing another woman. How would Robertson advise the writer to counsel this friend?

Robertson's response, apparently given impromptu, was widely distorted afterward.

It was reported that he said the man's wife was, in effect, dead already and the husband thus was free to divorce her and get on with his life.

Not surprisingly, this outraged a lot of people.

Except that's not what Robertson said.

I went online to The 700 Club's Web site and watched the entire exchange in its context.

Robertson's reply was murky. There were unfinished sentences. He appeared hesitant, as if struggling to think through his answer as he spoke.

But what he ultimately said was far more nuanced — and compassionate — than what was reported later.

Robertson said marriage is supposed to be a lifelong commitment, until the couple is parted by death. At the same time, Alzheimer's is a horrible disease, worse than most illnesses because it robs its victims of their very identities, and robs loved ones of a sick person's emotional companionship.

"I hate Alzheimer's," Robertson said.

Ideally, the husband ought to stay with his wife, he said. But this husband already had entered a relationship with another woman.

That being the case, he should at least ensure that his wife was well cared for. And he probably ought to divorce her, if he was determined to remain in this other relationship.

The whole situation was tragic, Robertson added. The husband, caught in desperate straits, lonely and grieving, shouldn't be judged too harshly.

"This is a kind of death," he said of the wife's disease and its consequences.

Finally, he admitted he wasn't qualified to parse such a difficult dilemma and suggested that those involved consult a professional ethicist.

I realize Robertson has said a lot of bone-headed things in his time.

This wasn't one of them.

He didn't give the spouses of those suffering from Alzheimer's a free pass to divorce and move on. But he did acknowledge that a lengthy, mind-wrecking, terminal disease can destroy relationships and lead to unfortunate decisions.

I think Robertson was saying that in such cases the best course for those observing from the outside is to help minimize the damage already done, if we can, and to not judge too harshly.

There's always been a tug of war in religion between upholding ideal behavior as our model and yet learning to accommodate the less-than-ideal.

For instance, in the Old Testament, Moses gives the children of Israel permission to divorce if they can't work out their marital problems.

Hundreds of years later, Jesus says Moses compromised God's will. God intended couples to remain together for life, Jesus says, and the only legitimate grounds for divorce is adultery. But Moses said what he did, according to Jesus, because he knew his followers couldn't live up to God's standard of perfection.

So, even in biblical times, there seemed to be a tension between what everyone agreed was ideal — marriage for life — and the fact that some people couldn't achieve that lofty goal.

Similarly, nearly everyone who voiced an opinion on this Robertson uproar, including Robertson, agreed about one thing: Ideally, a husband whose wife is stricken with Alzheimer's should remain faithfully by her side for as long as she draws breath.

The problem is, not every husband can, or at least not every husband will, do that.

All around us, nearly every day, we see people fall short of perfection. Every one of us has fallen short at some time in some area. It's the human condition.

Sometimes the people who fail aren't bad people. Sometimes they're good people overwhelmed by awful situations. Sometimes they've given their very best efforts. They've wept and prayed and logged countless sleepless nights until they have nothing left inside them to fight with. They implode. They mess up.

What then? What's the next-best thing they can do? What can we do to help?

I think that's the matter Robertson was addressing.

And it could have been the starting point for a truly meaningful conversation.