Robertson referred to how some National Football League players have knelt during the national anthem as a form of protest against police brutality toward African Americans.
“There is disrespect now for our national anthem, disrespect for our veterans, disrespect for the institutions of our government, disrespect for the court system,” he said. “All the way up and down the line, disrespect.”
The 87-year-old commentator and former presidential candidate has a history of connecting natural disasters and violence to a decline of public morality. But this one is particularly noteworthy.
Deep racial tensions, including “violence in the streets,” are stoked by the president’s own public comments. Most of the “terrible things” that are said about Trump are in direct response to his provocative tweets that contribute to the identity politics polarizing and poisoning our discourse.
For many who share Robertson’s views, the NFL kneeling issue is simply a matter of disrespect. For him, it’s a black-and-white issue, an issue of disrespect for authority.
Is there no room for nuance, for the free exercise of constitutional liberties that demands more self-reflection as a nation?
If Robertson wants to point out disrespect for our nation, he can look no further than the president. During his campaign, Trump infamously belittled Sen. John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war. Demanding loyalty while undermining his own appointed officials, the president has disrespected our institutions of government.
And as for the court system, we recall Trump’s Twitter storms attacking federal judges. In one lawsuit against Trump University, Trump attacked Indiana-born judge Gonzalo Curiel as being unfit to judge the case because he is “a Mexican.”
“He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico,” Trump said.
Yes indeed: “All the way up and down the line, disrespect.” Especially since Trump’s campaign, white nationalists and neo-Nazis have come out of the woodwork, a terrifying kind of disrespect.
For decades, Robertson has been an influential leader among evangelicals, especially among charismatic Christians, and he founded Regent University. After a tragedy, you can almost guarantee Robertson will say something eyebrow-raising. For instance, his past remarks include a claim that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was God’s judgment.
What are we to make of such religious claims?
Years ago, I was part of a roundtable in which the late philosopher Richard Rorty argued that religion is a “conversation-stopper.” If ever his argument had saliency, it is now. Many Americans have come to believe that religion inherently fosters violence, adding one more division to an already-divided society.
Rorty argued that political discourse requires public arguments. You can’t build public policy on private opinions. By definition, he said, religion is about private claims.
I disagreed. In the case of Christianity, the whole case is based on the resurrection of Jesus. It is a public argument about a public event. One may find the case compelling or nonsense, but it is a public argument. But it is also intrinsic to the New Testament that belief cannot be coerced. It is a gift of God through the announcement of the “good news” of what Jesus Christ accomplished for us. So you have to make a reasonable argument, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15).
Like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and other religions, agnosticism and atheism are perspectives on reality. All of us have some bedrock convictions about authority, meaning, truth and where history is going that inform even our most mundane views about policy.
To exclude basic convictions from public conversations is one way of not having a conversation at all. It is to presume a world without God, accountability and, yes, respect — for everyone, including those with whom we disagree.
Unfortunately, though, the loudest and often most outrageous voices divide us like an elementary school playground. It leaves many Americans imagining that people such as Pat Robertson, Paula White and Jerry Falwell Jr. represent conservative Christians (often called evangelicals). But they don’t.
If we are going to have a real conversation about deeper issues, it will take sympathy and respect on all sides. We need to have that conversation now — before another raft of tweets, shootings and ill-considered comments reduce us to puppets.