Part two of my thoughts on Robertson and marriage, over at the Washington Post.

My basic argument there is that the reaction should be seen as a genuine sign of hope for evangelicals and Americans:

Evangelicals are hardly a perfect lot, a fact which we are often reminded of and have internalized well. And our cultural indignation is only sometimes righteous. But the evangelical reaction against Robertson’s errant and unfortunate remarks is a hopeful sign not just for evangelicals, but for those who are concerned about the public viability of the institution of marriage. If we can bracket, if only for one moment, the thorny question of who should get married, we might be able to see here the seeds of consensus about the sort of thing marriage should be.

The backlash against Robertson’s remarks by evangelicals and those who also recognized their corrosive effects may not be marriage’s finest moment. But it may provide hope that the civic and religious virtues needed to make the institution of marriage strong are not yet as far gone as cultural critics are sometimes tempted to think.

Read the whole thing.  And then let me know what you think.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. A couple of points on the Washington Post piece. First, should we consider Pat Robertson an evangelical or a fundamentalist? I’m inclined to think he’s the latter. Second, I wouldn’t characterize Russell Moore’s response as “elegant.” How about “stern”? As much as Robertson has wandered off the reservation, I don’t think we need to follow the fashionable trend of turning every issue into a “gospel issue.” Rather than saying Robertson’s remarks were “a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” I’d prefer saying they lack wisdom. In short, he’s a fool – not a heretic. Beyond these points, I like how you emphasized that marriage ought to involve self-sacrifice and oath-keeping.


    1. Christopher,

      You’re right about the characterization. However, most in the media don’t make that distinction for him, so I followed suit.




    2. There is at least one good reason not to call Robertson a fundamentalist, as a meaningful term and not simply as a term for a disreputable conservative/reactionary. Robertson is a serious Charismatic, so serious that he gave up his Southern Baptist credentials way back in the 80’s. He holds himself forward as someone with a bona fide gift of prophecy, and in a way that is more substantial than the common “Jesus told me in my heart” stuff. And most self-identified fundamentalists have at least as many reservations about the charismatic movement as they do towards Billy Graham and Carl Henry-type neo-evangelicals.

      So unless we want to withhold the term “evangelical” on the basis of politics, rhetoric, or individual distaste, or unless we want to consistently draw the doctrinal lines of broader evangelicalism to exclude the more aggressively Charismatic types, I don’t know what else to call the guy.
      Unless you want to mainly call him a Charismatic, but the lines between the Charismatic and (neo)evangelical communities have been blurring for decades.


      1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 17, 2011 at 9:59 am

        Kevin, I love it when you drop knowledge on us this way. More of this, please.


        1. I’ll work on it. :)


  2. “The sacredness of marriage exists precisely in the opportunity to keep our word, regardless of the personal cost. And the vow exists to guide us and remind us of those possibilities precisely when the cost seems the highest.”

    I consider myself a Christian, but I am a member of a church in main line denomination. I don’t find myself in agreement with Pat Robertson on many issues, and I think he was a little cavalier in his comment re: Alzheimer’s. That said, I’ve heard that an enormous percentage of people leave spouses who have been physically or mentally disabled. Its an excruciatingly difficult situation to be in– I see little acknowledgment of that in your remarks. And when you bring up “the sacredness of marriage,” I’m a little baffled. Marriage is not a sacrament for Protestants, so I don’t think that language is merited (if you are going to argue that a Protestant shouldn’t divorce in a given circumstance, don’t invoke the sacredness of marriage as the reason– there are all sorts of arguments you can make, but you can’t logically make that one).


    1. Marco,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I’m looking for the source, but I remember reading the American said that the actual percentage of people who divorce their spouses who have Alzheimer’s is surprisingly low.

      Second, you’re right that I didn’t underscore the difficulty of the decision. I probably should have done that better. My goal, though, was not to reflect about the decision *per se* but to examine the meaning of the reaction to Robertson’s comments.

      Finally, I don’t at all think that we can only use “sacred” with respect to marriage if we are sacramentalists about it. I don’t think that baptism is a sacrament, but I do think it is a sacred act ordained by God. To restrict the use of “sacred” to “that which is sacramental” strikes me as an odd standard to have.




  3. […] blog friend Matthew Anderson writes about Pat Robertson’s stupid (my description) response to married couples divorcing a […]


  4. Matthew,

    My assessment of Robertson’s opinions are quite the opposite of yours. You find in the reaction to them “a genuine sign of hope for evangelicals and Americans.” Secularized Americans find Robertson’s remarks to be evidence of hypocrisy among evangelicals (or fundamentalists, or charismatics, or whatever else thou listeth). I’m on the side of the secularists here, except I’d add that the overall evangelical hand-wringing and posturing (e.g. Russell Moore’s “elegant decimation” of Robertson’s views) is no more than a self-refuting exercise in the pot calling the kettle black. A plague on both their hypocritical houses!

    Why protest that Robertson’s views are incompatible with “the sacredness of marriage,” when evangelicals long ago made their peace with serial monogamy? With co-habitation apart from marriage?

    Ten years ago, Barna published survey results showing that divorce among evangelicals was the same as the population at large. But, one of his findings shows just how thoroughly a culture of divorce has established itself within supposedly evangelical churches: “More than 90% of the born again adults who have been divorced experienced that divorce after they accepted Christ, not before. It is unfortunate that so many people, regardless of their faith, experience a divorce, but especially unsettling to find that the faith commitment of so many born again individuals has not enabled them to strengthen and save their marriages.”

    Indeed. Once conclusion Barna does not specify is that profession of evangelical religion is a powerful predicter of a subsequent divorce! Want to avoid a divorce? Then avoid evangelical religion!

    That was ten years ago (August 2001). Does anyone think evangelicals’ opinions about marriage are better today than then? And, if not, then how are we to assess the hand-wringing among evangelicals over Robertson’s opinions on divorcing Alzheimer’s-afflicted spouses?

    Such hand-wringing is far more apt to be evidence of hardening hearts than softening ones.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 17, 2011 at 10:07 am

      Fr. Bill,

      I sometimes try to follow a maxim from Montaigne that I was once told: “Find the good and praise it.” That’s what I set out to do here.

      As for Moore, I’d point out that his boss Mohler has called evangelical attitudes toward divorce “the scandal of the evangelical conscience.” To accuse him of hypocrisy is a pretty strong charge, and grossly misunderstands the man’s public ministry. Perhaps you’re not familiar with it–I would encourage you to read more of his work.

      As for your bit about evangelicals and divorce, it’s amusing because growing up I heard all that same handwringing about how terrible our divorce culture is. And yes, there’s some truth to it. But Barna’s stat is, frankly, wrong and it’s embarrassing that so many evangelicals take it seriously. Once you adjust for people who attend church on a regular basis, which any self-respecting sociologist would do, rather than taking self-reporting as determinative, evangelicals actually divorce *less*, not more than the surrounding culture.

      And yet, evangelicals continue to trot out the very lines you’ve raised in order to maintain the self-laceration that perhaps most distinctively marks our movement. Self-loathing evangelicals are a real phenomenon.

      For more on the sociology, I’d commend to you Bradley Wright’s excellent and thorough *Christians are Hate-filled Hypocrites and Ten Other Lies You’ve been Told.”




  5. Matthew,

    “Amusing?” You find my bit about evangelicals and divorce amusing? QED.

    As for your criticisms of Barna’s survey reports, he made these sorts or reports twice. The first time, he was widely excoriated for his conclusions, for mostly the same reasons you have done so. For which reason, he went back to the field and repeated his survey, shoring up points of data gathering relevant to the criticisms leveled against his sampling methods. It was to this second survey that I linked in my previous comments. And, it was in this second survey that Barna not only shored up what “evangelical” is supposed to mean as far as the respondents’ faith commitment is concerned (including regular church attendance!), but when he added the report of the 90 percent of divorced evangelicals experiencing their divorce after their conversion.

    None of this, of course, is likely to change your mind about the credibility of his report. That would require you to leave academe and wade into the front lines of pastoral ministry.

    Yes, I have read both Moore and Mohler. In fact, I read Mohler’s blog when it first appeared where he used the term “scandal of the evangelical conscience.” As words go, they are true. Evidently, you do not find them to involve evangelical self-laceration?Is Mohler self-loathing on this point?

    I do believe you were trying to praise something good. We disagree on whether or not there was something good to praise.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 17, 2011 at 10:52 am

      Yes, mildly amusing because you’re point is that evangelicals have no moral authority to speak against Pat Robertson because they haven’t addressed their own divorce culture…and ever since Barna released his first report, I have heard nothing but handwringing about our own divorce culture.

      As for your line about “academe,” I’d point out I’m on staff at a church…and see this stuff up close and personal. So I don’t see how that pertains.

      But that doesn’t change my mind about the credibility of the report, mostly because I HAVE read it. Allow me to be so brash as to quote it:


      “Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again” or if they considered themselves to be “born again.”

      Okay, so we asked them a number of other questions. Great!

      “Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

      That’s true of the “subset” of “born again Christians,” then almost certainly the “born again Christians” were not asked about frequency of church attendence. The survey methodology that Barna uses has never included frequency
      of attendence, which skews the data that is really wrong.

      Again, read Brad Wright’s book. This isn’t a matter of defensiveness. It’s about the responsible use of survey data, which I take it we should strive for as Christians.




      1. Matthew Lee Anderson September 17, 2011 at 11:00 am

        One other point about this: by Barna’s own methodology, evangelicals and “born again” believers are not the same. So to use Barna’s research to target specifically evangelicals is wrong, even on its own account.

        I want to underscore that I’m NOT saying there are no problems. I think the number is around 32% of evangelicals who attend church regularly get divorced, which is still far too high. But how these numbers get framed really matters, and I think it’s important to be as fair toward evangelicals are we are toward anyone else.




    2. Note that, in the very Barna Group report you link to, the word “evangelical” appears only when it gives of definition of how they distinguish between “evangelicals” and “born agains.” All of the stats in the report are about “born agains”, and no divorce stats for their fairly well-defined evangelical subgroup are given. The lack of a church attendance filter only adds to the problem. This does not mean that divorce in not a problem in churches, it just means that this alarmist report does not describe the actual problem.

      And if it did, if the cited Barna report as completely accurate and on target, it still would not support your dismissal of Russel Moore and company. The presence of pervasive sin does not discredit by association any attempt by members of the group to call out the sin or to teach better practice. If it did, how could any minister preach repentance, especially for sins that are pervasive within his flock? Even if Robertson were the authentic voice of evangelical practice(!), that would not bar Moore from credibly offering a minority report.


    3. The 90% stat also needs careful framing and context to keep from being misleading. It does suggest that a born again experience will not in itself fix marriage problems. It shows that most born again divorcees did not have their conversion experience after their divorce. It does not say much, if anything, about what effect born again Christianity has in troubled marriages.

      Most importantly, the 90% stat does not make any moral distinctions. Not every divorced person is in the same position, or has the same fault. Some divorces come from mutual failure to keep to the marriage vows. Others are unilateral, the product of only one party’s action. Someone’s Christian character should not be denied just because their husband or wife chose to abandon the marriage and refuse reconciliation. And the 90% stat gives no information one way or the other about what role born-again divorcees have in their divorces.


  6. […] blog friend Matthew Anderson writes about Pat Robertson’s stupid (my description) response to married couples divorcing a […]


  7. […] blog friend Matthew Anderson writes about Pat Robertson’s stupid (my description) response to married couples divorcing a […]


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