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Public disaster

Pat Robertson needs a dose of biblical ethics

Public disaster

For a growing number of people, the definition of a public disaster is waiting for Pat Robertson to make his next statement about world affairs. But knowing just how to deal with the influential broadcaster isn't always so easy.

Mr. Robertson's announcements are coming with embarrassing frequency. It was bad enough in August when he called openly for the U.S. government to assassinate the president of Venezuela, and when he told the people of Dover, Pa., that they had forfeited the right ever to call on God for help. Then, most recently, he said bluntly that Ariel Sharon's stroke was a judgment from God in response to the Israeli prime minister's carelessness in "giving away" the Gaza Strip. "He was dividing God's land," Mr. Robertson said. "And I would say, 'Woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations, or the United States of America.' God says, 'This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone.'"

If the evangelical Christian world was generally uncomfortable with Mr. Robertson's comments, nobody was squirming more than the leadership people at National Religious Broadcasters. Indeed, a not-very-well-concealed debate was going on at NRB headquarters over how best to handle the shoot-from-the-lip habits of one of their best-known members. Included in the debate was a sub-argument faced by many other Christians over what are public and what are private issues.

Not the least of NRB's worries is that Pat Robertson is scheduled as one of the headline speakers for the organization's annual convention in Dallas just a few weeks from now. One long-time NRB leader argued that Mr. Robertson should be promptly disinvited from his prominent role. "There isn't any good reason," he said bluntly in an internal memo, "why NRB should give its platform over to anyone who so frequently shows a complete lack of sensitivity to events such as the severe health situation faced by Ariel Sharon and what that means right now to the entire world. Pat is outside the line-as he frequently has been of late."

No higher-ups at NRB seemed ready to defend the strange Robertson perspective on Mr. Sharon-but no one seemed ready with a good answer about how to handle such an influential but clearly embarrassing insider. "Based on my understanding of Matthew 18," said one leader, "a private conversation is in order before a public rebuke. . . . I am not defending his remarks, just the appropriate way of addressing them. My experience is that it is far too easy to join in on public condemnation and much harder to talk to the offender face to face. My concern is that our rebuke will only foster another round of unhelpful news articles, whereas this whole story will be gone in a week. The world is happy to condemn Pat, but if we do so publicly, they will not love us any the more. A private rebuke, however, may be in order. If a group of godly NRB leaders met with Pat and explained how damaging his remarks are, that may accomplish more than beating him up in the media."

The folks at NRB didn't ask for my advice on the matter. But because the issue comes up so often in a variety of contexts, I want to agree here with both parties in the debate.

On the one hand, there's no doubt this is a public issue-and that Matthew 18 has only limited application. Mr. Robertson's offensive comments were as public as they could have been. NRB is a public organization, serving millions of people. The whole matter is literally an issue of public relations. So the solution to the problem must, by its very character, be a public solution.

On the other hand, private face-to-face meetings are typically a very sound preface to going public. Go public without such a meeting, and all you have to report is that you have an embarrassing difference. Have the private meeting first, and you may be able to announce that you've found a way to resolve the embarrassing difference-or even that retractions and apologies have been offered.

Biblical principles are almost never offered as formulas to be applied in a sterile and clinical manner. And more often than we like, biblical principles don't force us into an "either-or" mode so much as they do a "both-and" style of thinking. In this case-as in so many that we find ourselves in along the way-Pat Robertson needs a dose of truth and a dose of love. The secular public knows too little of such a combination.