Pat Robertson on divorce and Alzheimer's: Is it OK to leave your sick wife?

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 16 2011 8:55 AM

The After-Wife

Pat Robertson says Alzheimer's can justify divorce because your spouse is "gone." Is he right?

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. Click image to expand.
Pat Robertson

There he goes again.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Pat Robertson, the televangelist famous for blaming earthquakes and hurricanes on sexual deviance, has provoked another outcry. According to multiple reports, Robertson said you should divorce your wife if she gets Alzheimer's.

Except he didn't.

Over the years, Robertson has said a lot of nutty things. But this wasn't one of them. His thoughts about dementia and divorce, aired Tuesday on the 700 Club, showed a man grappling with the kind of real-world experience that can shake your confidence in unbreakable rules.

The cartoon version of Robertson's comments is that he told men to "dump" their wives. "Pat Robertson Urges Man to Divorce, Abandon Sick Wife," says one headline. "Pat Robertson Says to Divorce Your Wife If She's Terminally Ill," says another. One report says Robertson "thinks it's totally cool for you to divorce your spouse" if she gets Alzheimer's. Another says he claimed "divorce is a way better option than being with a sick broad."

Here's what Robertson actually said. At the tail end of Tuesday's show, his co-host, Terry Meeuwsen, read a chat-room question from a man seeking advice. The message said:

I have a friend whose wife suffers from Alzheimer's. She doesn't even recognize him anymore, and, as you can imagine, the marriage has been rough. My friend has gotten bitter at God for allowing his wife to be in that condition, and now he's started seeing another woman. He says that he should be allowed to see other people because his wife as he knows her is gone … I'm not quite sure what to tell him.

Meeuwsen turned to Robertson for an answer. In the video (50th minute), you can see him struggling:

That is a terribly hard thing. I hate Alzheimer's. It is one of the most awful things, because here's the loved one—this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years, and suddenly that person is gone. They're gone. They are gone. So what he says basically is correct, but—I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again. But to make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her—

Meeuwsen interjected: "But isn't that the vow that we take when we marry someone, that it's for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer?" To this, Robertson replied,

Yeah, I know, if you respect that vow, but you say "till death do us part," this is a kind of death. So that's what he's saying, is that she's like—but this is an ethical question that is beyond my ken to tell you. But I certainly wouldn't put a guilt trip on you if you decided that you had to have companionship. You're lonely, and you're asking for some companionship, as opposed to—but what a grief. I know one man who went to see his wife every single day, and she didn't recognize him one single day, and she would complain that he never came to see her. And it's really hurtful, because they say crazy things. … It is a terribly difficult thing for somebody, and I can't fault them for wanting some kind of companionship. And if he says in a sense she is gone, he's right. It's like a walking death. But get some ethicist besides me to give you the answer, because I recognize the dilemma and the last thing I'd do is condemn you for taking that kind of action.

That's the whole text of the conversation. Robertson wasn't talking about terminal illness, much less sickness in general. He wasn't even talking broadly about Alzheimer's. He was talking about dementia so advanced that the afflicted spouse could no longer recognize her partner. This is different from other kinds of illness. It isn't just a loss of predicates such as mobility or strength. It's a loss of the subject herself. Four times, Robertson described her as "gone." Twice, he called it "death." You may disagree, but from the viewpoint he was articulating, this wasn't a question of abandonment. The loved one was already departed.

Second, Robertson wasn't talking about bugging out when the going gets tough. In the story he recounted, the diseased woman's husband had visited her every day, enduring her reproaches and the loneliness of being a perpetual stranger. The husband had given love and labor. The question was whether at some point, his obligations changed.

Third, Robertson didn't say divorce was better than staying with an afflicted spouse. He said divorce was better than adultery. In the situation presented to him, the husband was already seeing another woman.  Robertson's answer was that the man should get a divorce "if he's going to do something." Again, you may object. But the point of Robertson's answer was that the man shouldn't go on dating while married.

Fourth, Robertson didn't advocate divorce. He said he wouldn't "condemn" or "put a guilt trip" on someone who did it under the circumstances. And he stipulated that the obligation to provide custodial care couldn't be broken.

For these comments, Robertson has been denounced not just as a hypocrite by liberals, but as a heretic by Christians. The Gospel of Mark, as quoted on Robertson's Web site, forbids divorce:

Some Pharisees came and tried to trap [Jesus] with this question: "Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?" Jesus answered them with a question: "What did Moses say in the law about divorce?" "Well, he permitted it," they replied. "He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away." But Jesus responded, "He wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But `God made them male and female' from the beginning of creation. This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.' Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together." Later, when [Jesus] was alone with his disciples in the house, they brought up the subject again. He told them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery against her."

Joel Hunter, a prominent evangelical pastor, sees no wiggle room in those words. "We can all rationalize" that it's "OK to divorce our spouse if circumstances become very different or inconvenient," Hunter told ABC News. But "we have to stop trying to mischaracterize what Scripture says for our own convenience." Hunter worried that "you could do this for anything." For example: "My husband watches and plays video games, and so he has left the marriage, and it's kind of like a death."

Come on. Advanced Alzheimer's is no video game. And the spouse who is no longer recognized faces an ordeal much more excruciating than inconvenience. What's striking in Robertson's answer is that he gets this. Instead of quoting the Bible, he thinks of someone he knows: the man whose wife lost her mind. He celebrates a love that endured for decades but, in the same breath, affirms the awful reality that the person who had lived in that body is gone. He grapples with the paradox of walking death. He struggles to reconcile duty, effort, and pain. He gropes for an interpretation of marriage vows that won't imprison the surviving partner. He offers sympathy and withholds condemnation. He says the dilemma's complexity exceeds his powers of ethical judgment.

This isn't how an ideologue thinks. It's how a liberal thinks. He faces the reality of human experience in all its contours and contradictions. And he's willing to let that experience complicate his principles.

That's why Robertson's answer scares his fellow fundamentalists. They see it as a step toward "relative morality." Pretty soon, you're letting your experience of same-sex couples erode your certainty that they shouldn't be allowed to marry. You might even start to think some women have good reasons for abortion.

Robertson has had squishy tendencies all along. In 1992, he said  "if a woman gets raped by a syphilitic or something like that, I mean, she maybe should have a right" to terminate the pregnancy. In 2001, he said Chinese officials enforcing that country's one-child policy were "doing what they have to do." In principle, Robertson opposes abortion, the one-child policy, and divorce. But in all three cases, he's open to contrary viewpoints and exceptions.

Maybe he's just a hypocrite. Or maybe, like the rest of us, he's trying to learn from living.

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