January 18, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
You know the old joke: When someone absolutely diabolical died, the rabbi asked if anyone wanted to say anything about him at the funeral. No one dared, as there was nothing nice to say. Eventually one stood up and said, “His brother was even worse.” Was anyone worse than Pat Robertson, who credited the earthquake in Haiti to “true story” of the Haitians having “made a pact with the devil”? Say something nice about Robertson now?
As of this writing, Google turns up 363,000 links to “Pat Robertson” and “pact with the devil.” Mr. Robertson seems to occasion such an outpouring of responses every time there is a natural disaster, for his words about what God had in mind in selecting subjects for destruction. So many commentators had something bad to say that Sightings might well have skipped comment. Still, saying nothing evokes so much curiosity – “Come on, Sightings, don’t you keep up on the news?” – that we will comment.
Some of the 363,000 references were from Bible-believers who defended Robertson, not noticing that the “pact with the devil” phrase and charge did not come from the Bible. Most commentators simply heaped on poor Mr. Robertson. The only relative refuge he could find was, indeed, “his brother is even worse.” Many did charge that Robertson’s brother-on-the-right Rush Limbaugh was “even worse.” Robertson at least raised funds for the suffering, accursed Haitians, while Limbaugh spoke against giving them aid in their hour of suffering.
Still, the idea that someone was “even worse” than he was amounted to praising with faint damns. More should be said by anyone who wants to put in a positive word, and here is mine: The incident shows development and expansiveness in Robertson, who has been one of the most consistent critics of secular humanism in all its forms. Yet for this – his televised revelation of the meaning of the catastrophe – the evangelist drew not on the Bible but on secular humanist sources.
You won’t find “pact with the devil” in your biblical concordance, as the phrase did not enter our culture from the Bible. Mention a “pact with the devil” and you will immediately be dredging up the explicit language of the Faust legend, whether from Marlowe or Goethe or Thomas Mann, who told classic versions of Dr. Faust’s famed contract. Search the literature and you will find secular humanists touting the greatest, Goethe’s Faust, as a “secular humanist manifesto.” Something good to say about Robertson, then? Yes: We like to document popular evangelicalism’s enlarging scope; here is an instance. Could Robertson have been courting secular humanists with this turn to non-Biblical sources?
Goethe’s Faust is big in college curricula and Great Books clubs and among opera goers; but the story of a pact with the devil also shows up in less elite circles, including one most explicit source. Guy Endore’s Babouk (1934) is a fictionalized version of the incident Robertson used to explain the curse on the Haitian people, who, in his estimation, deserved the earthquake because of an ancestral pact with the devil. Stalinist Endore did his research in Haiti, and came back to tell the story of Babouk, his version of Duffy Boukman, believed to have been the agent of the Haitian revolution against the French. Could Endore’s bad Communist novel have been Robertson’s source? If so, then we see the scope of sources that Robertson takes to be “true stories.”
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.