October 2001 Church & State | Featured

TV preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have faced national scorn and ridicule for controversial remarks several times in their careers. Neither, however, has ever faced the intense revulsion felt in the wake of the Sept. 13 episode of Robertson's nationally broadcast "700 Club" television program.

Forty-eight hours after terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C., while the nation was still coming to grips with what had occurred and dealing with an extraordinary sense of grief and loss, Robertson invited Falwell onto his program to discuss his thoughts on what had transpired. The infamous Religious Right leaders agreed that advocates of church-state separation and civil liberties were to blame for the horrific terrorist attacks because they have kicked God out of public life.

Their comments quickly sparked national disgust so severe that their tarnished reputations may never politically recover.

Robertson began his remarks with an error-ridden description of American society that argued that church-state separationists, in conjunction with the federal judiciary system, have angered God, who in turn, neglected to protect us on Sept. 11.

"We have a court that has essentially stuck its finger in God's eye and said we're going to legislate you out of the schools," Robertson said. "We're going to take your commandments from off the courthouse steps in various states. We're not going to let little children read the commandments of God. We're not going to let the Bible be read, no prayer in our schools. We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And, then we say, 'Why does this happen?' Well, why it's happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."

A few minutes later, Robertson brought Falwell on, via satellite from Lynchburg, and Falwell followed with a series of harsh remarks of his own.

"What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be miniscule if in fact, if in fact, God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," Falwell said.

Robertson agreed, saying, "Jerry, that's my feeling."

Though these words alone would have likely stirred controversy, Falwell then began identifying specific American groups and minorities whom he personally wanted to assign blame for the worst terrorist strike in U.S. history.

"The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this," Falwell said. "And, I know that I'll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the Pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America."

Falwell concluded, "I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

Responded Robertson, "Well, I totally concur. And the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And, the top people, of course, is the court system."

Later in the same program, Robertson took another swipe at civil liberties advocates, insisting that the nation should "brush aside all these little yapping people who make so much noise about separation of church and state."

The criticism from journalists, religious leaders and others was swift and intense. Even President George W. Bush, who just last year relied on the political and ideological support of both TV preachers, distanced himself from their remarks.

"The president believes that terrorists are responsible for these acts," said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius. "He does not share those views, and believes that those remarks are inappropriate."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the nation's leading watchdog of the Religious Right, voiced strong disapproval of Robertson and Falwell's remarks.

"Over the years, Robertson and Falwell have blamed church-state separation for just about every imaginable ill," said AU Executive Director, Barry W. Lynn. "This time they have gone too far. I call on all Americans to reject their divisive comments and to continue to nurture a spirit of unity."

Falwell and Robertson began a massive damage control campaign.

In an interview with CNN the day after making the controversial remarks, Falwell said he "apologizes" if he gave anyone the impression that he blamed anyone "except the terrorists." In the same interview, however, he said he believes advocates of church-state separation "have removed our nation from its relationship with Christ on which it was founded.

"I therefore believe that that created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812," Falwell said, suggesting that perhaps his "apology" did not necessarily represent a change of heart.

This unrepentant attitude was clearly evident in an interview with The Washington Post where Falwell continued taking a combative tone.

"I put all the blame legally and morally on the actions of the terrorist," Falwell said. But then he added that America's "secular and anti-Christian environment left us open to our Lord's [decision] not to protect. When a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture...the result is not good."

Following the media interviews, Falwell issued a written statement to reporters in which he expressed "regret" for his comments on the "700 Club." However, he still wouldn't accept full responsibility, insisting that his remarks were part of a "theological discussion on a Christian television program" and that media reports took his comments "out of their context."

For his part, Robertson was also slow to acknowledge making divisive remarks. The day after his discussion with Falwell was broadcast, the Christian Coalition president issued a press release but did not distance himself from the words of his Religious Right partner, nor his vocal agreement with the sentiments.

Instead, Robertson adopted Falwell's line and said the media was offering "a distorted view of the full context of the program." He went on to say that "there are organizations within the United States that have labored unceasingly to strip religious values from our public square, and, in the process, to take away the mantle of divine protection which our nation has enjoyed ever since the days of its founding."

With these announcements, the two TV preachers made a bad situation worse. The number of political figures from across the ideological spectrum condemning the men for being divisive escalated, and several began comparing their hatred and intolerance to that of the terrorists. One student at Falwell's Liberty University told The Washington Post that he was so offended by the TV preacher that he was leaving the school. Even The Weekly Standard, one of the nation's most reliably conservative magazines, described Falwell as "disgusting" beneath an "Osama bin Falwell" headline.

Under fire, Robertson and Falwell changed course on Sept. 17. Robertson issued his third press release on the controversy in the span of five days. This time, he called Falwell's remarks "harsh" and "unexpected." Robertson even said that he was watching Falwell on a monitor and Falwell's comments were "not fully understood."

For many, however, this strained credulity. Robertson understood Falwell's remarks well enough on Sept. 13 to say he "totally" agreed with them. In addition, Robertson himself had made almost identical comments earlier on the same program.

Falwell also began to back off on Sept. 17. In another statement posted on his personal website, Falwell acknowledged that his remarks were "ill-timed."

Yet this statement, which he titled "Why I Said What I Said," included careful language that continued to evade direct responsibility. Instead of saying his remarks were harsh, Falwell's statement said they "seemed harsh." Instead of noting the divisive nature of his words, Falwell wrote that his comments "were called divisive by some whom I mentioned by name."

On Sept. 20, Falwell gave up entirely on trying to pass the buck. Besieged by condemnation from virtually everyone, Falwell appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" to offer a full, unconditional, apology.

AU's Lynn concluded that Robertson and Falwell will have enormous difficulty earning the forgiveness of those millions of Americans who found their reaction to the Sept. 11 tragedies repugnant.

"Despite days of intense criticism, Robertson and Falwell were intent on escaping the wave of national revulsion their remarks sparked, instead of admitting they were wrong," said Lynn. "Both of them clearly crossed a line of decency that exists in America. They need a dramatic change of heart, not just a slight shift in rhetoric."