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The Robertson Pitch

February 14, 1988

The issue of Pat Robertson's presidential campaign is not whether he is a television evangelist or a Christian broadcaster, or even whether he is or is not an ordained minister of God. The point is that his campaign is founded on the false premise that the nation's problems are rooted in moral decay and that government can or should impose a narrow set of moral solutions to problems that do not lend themselves to moral solutions.

Robertson paints the American landscape in bold, simple patterns of Christian right and wrong. Even in speeches carefully scrubbed of religious references, Robertson sees the world in terms of good and evil. But most of the issues with which government must grapple are not so clearly defined, as President Reagan has discovered in his relationship with the Soviet Union.

The most difficult governmental problems of all come in shades of gray that defy obvious solution, where there is no clear right or wrong. From reading Robertson's speeches, the observer must conclude either that he is incredibly naive about the traditional role of government in the United States or that he truly seeks to apply religious answers to secular questions.

At its basic roots, the American system of government is a secular one. Most of the framers of the Constitution did seem to have strong religious faiths in their personal lives. But they were careful to leave their own theological leanings out of the Constitution. The Constitution, a crowning achievement of the Age of Enlightenment, was to be an inclusive document. The United States was to be an inclusive and diverse nation in which one group could not use government to impose its own moral or religious will on the minority.

There must be limits, of course, and clear moral guidelines certainly are critical to the maintenance of an orderly society. Much of American law is based on moral precepts. Murder is outlawed. Theft is illegal because the Constitution protects a person's right to property. In spite of vigorous protests by Mormon leaders, Utah was not allowed to join the Union so long as it allowed multiple marriages. As columnist George F. Will has noted, the notion that you can't legislate morality is a silly one. It is done all the time.

But legal morality in the United States has been carefully woven from the rich tapestry of all civilized culture, not just theocratic dogma. The strength of the nation has been its ability to tolerate and incorporate different creeds, ideas, argument and dissent--not on the basis of whether that behavior was judged to be good or bad by the personal standards of a righteous few. A variety of religions thrive in this country for the very reason that a distinct break was cleared between government and religion.

The undercurrent of Robertson's campaign, however, is that much of what government does is evil or morally corrupt because it does not have a strict Christian underpinning. If only Americans can be taught to think properly--and pray--in the public schools, problems can be solved without governmental intervention or help. The problem of AIDS, he says, will not be solved by spending money on it. "All these people have to do is stop," he says of homosexuals and drug users. Scrapping welfare will help stem the breakup of the family.

These are simplistic and implausible notions. There is not even any compelling evidence that the United States is significantly more infected by moral decay now than at any other time in American history. What the nation does need is a President who can instill in all Americans a new spirit of openness, compassion and tolerance. That message cannot be found, however, in the pietistic and exclusionary campaign of Pat Robertson.

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