Pat Robertson speaks his mind on his television show The 700 Club, often with an unpolished spontaneity that is missing from network news. Viewers evidently like this, and assume that he speaks from the heart. But every now and then, this unvarnished approach causes an explosion that reveals more than we really wanted to know about the heart of evangelical politics in this country.
Thus did a firestorm of outrage greet Robertson's casual but very sincere call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez, a sworn enemy of President Bush, often proclaims that U.S. officials are plotting to kill him. This charge, of course, is calculated to boost his flagging support within Venezuela, where his political power depends heavily on an anti-American posture.
What, exactly, did Robertson say? There was not a lot of room for misinterpretation: “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, and I don't think any oil shipments will stop.”
Blood for oil anyone? Must Robertson live up to every possible caricature that the Left has made of right-wing preachers?
This all must have been music to the ears of Chavez, who follows Fidel Castro's model of bolstering his own dictatorship by whipping up public fear of the United States as the great Satan. Rightly or wrongly, Robertson is perceived as one of the most influential voices among evangelical Christians, a group that is widely believed to have vast influence on President Bush's foreign policy.
Finally, facing enormous pressure, Robertson did repudiate his statement. “Is it right to call for assassination?” he asked. “No, and I apologize for that statement.” He went on to explain that he was considering this as an alternative to war, as if killing one or killing many were the only choices we have in dealing with a bad foreign leader.
But something very important is missing: a moral rationale for the repudiation. And the problem isn't just Robertson himself. He is symptomatic of a larger problem that I fear has crept up within Christian Right circles. Some believe that they have a friend in the White House who protects and guards their interests, and generally does the Lord's work in foreign policy. The Iraq war enjoys huge support within this segment of the population.
Sadly, every political moment encourages certain habits of mind that can become the enemy of clear thinking, prudence, and careful moral reflection.
There is no question that Chavez is a dangerous and ruthless man. I've been to the country under his rule and visited his political opponents in jail. I've talked at length to opposition leaders and openly rooted for him to be dislodged from power.
Assassination, however, is contrary to the long-run interests of freedom in that country. As an elected dictator, even dubiously elected, he enjoys more legitimacy than a dictator who rules by explicit seizure of power. The ideological basis for his rule is widely, if sadly, shared in that society. There is the principle of prudence at stake, and also morality: foreign policy violence should be used only as a last resort and only consistently with the principles of just war (defensive, proportional, limited).
Evangelicals need to reflect on the history of institutions such as cultural exchange, moral example, diplomatic pressure, and free trade as tools of social and political change. These institutions have roots in the Christian moral order, which calls for justice but also extols the merit of peace. It is true that Christian moral teaching does not rule out the idea of tyrannicide – indeed Renaissance thinkers in Spain defended the idea in principle – but only after every other alternative has been exhausted, and with some assurance that the cure would not prove worse than the disease.
Robertson himself has come to the defense of the idea of trading with China, a position that was not widely accepted within evangelical circles. He argues that Christian missionaries stand a greater chance of influencing a country through mutually beneficial trade than through trade war and belligerence. I agree with him on this and suggest that we carry the model further. What applies in the case of China is equally applicable in Venezuela.
Robertson's comments shocked many people who have worried that the Christian Right is literally losing its soul in its support for increasingly uncritical nationalism. What is needed here, I believe, is a time of reflection. Christianity is not a national religion. It does not regard every enemy of the nation-state as worthy of execution. It prefers peace to war. It chooses diplomacy over threat. It respects the right to life of everyone, even those who have objectionable political views.
Violence is terrible and terrifying, even if sometimes regrettably justifiable. It is more often demonic than godly. Its application, according to the just war tradition, depends on prudence – something that has been in little evidence in Pat Robertson's remarks of late.