Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pat Robertson on Depression and Dabbling with Devils

Pat Robertson is no stranger to controversy, given his penchant for making controversial comments on The 700 Club. The October 20th edition of The 700 Club was brimming with jaw-dropping quotes from Robertson on mental illness and "witchcraft," which were startling in their insensitivity.

First, after a report on antidepressant use, Robertson asserted that depression springs from lack of faith. At the 12:27 mark, Robertson had this to say.

"You lose God, you lose hope, and God gives hope, and with hope comes praise and joy and happiness because you have a future. If you don't believe in the Lord, you've got no future, and everything looks dark and gloomy, so I've got to have something to kill the pain ... They use this term self-medicating. I'm not quite sure what all that entails, but its not a very pleasant thing."

Robertson's facile comment reveals a simplistic understanding of mental illness. Obviously, depression can spring from any number of causes, including traumatic experiences and chemical imbalances in the brain. To claim that depression erupts out of a lack of faith is not only incorrect, but suggests that depression sufferers are to blame for their own suffering. (Therese J. Borchard discussed this at length in a 2009 post at Beyond Blue.) Stigmatization of mental illness sufferers is nothing new, sadly, but to encourage such stigmatization is unethical.

Furthermore, assuming that faith makes depression evaporate is also facile. Some kinds of religious belief can bring comfort and healing, but toxic forms of faith can actually exacerbate mental illness. (See Religion That Heals, Religion That Harms by James L. Griffith for a fascinating discussion of this subject.) To boot, religion does not have a monopoly on psychological well-being, as this study on coping in old age suggests. Pat Robertson's comments on depression were not only insensitive, but inaccurate.

Robertson also made a strange comment during the question and answer segment of the same episode. A viewer named Amber sent in a question about her mother-on-law, who allegedly practiced palm reading and "witchcraft." We don't know what "witchcraft" meant in this context -- fortune telling, or New Age spirituality, or neo-paganism, or indigenous religious beliefs -- but Robertson was convinced that it involved "dabbling in devils." The viewer wrote that she did not want her daughter exposed to such things, and asked The 700 Club if she should cut the mother-in-law out of their lives. Robertson said that she should. At the 52:36 mark, he made the following statement.
"You cannot have yourself exposed to that. This is the daughter of the devil. Billy Graham said, if somebody marries an unbeliever, he takes the devil for his father-in-law. Well, you apparently got Mrs. Devil as a mother-in-law. I don't know how you got into this situation. Do you have a husband? What does the husband say? Is he into this stuff with his mother? ... You've got to put God first. This is a clear violation, and she is in league with Satanic forces. You cannot have a part of that, and what you need to do is to bind that in prayer, speak against it, and cast those spirits away, because this is dabbling with devils. This isn't something you want."

The callousness of this advice was breathtaking. We know nothing else about the woman's mother-in-law. Is she a good mother and grandmother? Is she kind and honest in her dealings with others? To shun someone just because they dabble in fortune telling is to judge them on account of one aspect of their lives, to the exclusion of all others.

Robertson encouraged Amber to cut ties with her mother-in-law solely on the basis of palm reading and "witchcraft." What does it say when Robertson assumes that someone's belief system is demonic, without knowing anything about it? To literally demonize practitioners of "witchcraft" and palm reading is to invite hostile treatment of such people, including but not limited to the shunning Roberts encourages.

I bring attention to these quotes not just because of their absurdity, but because of the impact they might have on others. Robertson has a significant following of Christian viewers who hold his words in high esteem. When Robertson attributes depression to insufficient faith in God, or claims that palm readers are in league with Satan, some listeners will take his words seriously. Rather than encourage listeners to learn more about depression and non-Christian belief systems, Robertson promoted ignorance, stigmatization, and fear. For a public figure who has the ear of millions of viewers, this was profoundly irresponsible.

Hat tip to Media Matters and Right Wing Watch. To watch the full episode, click here. To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Laura Droege's Blog: An open letter to Pat Robertson about antidepressants and faith

You Know What I Don't Understand?: Pat Robertson Promotes Lies About Mental Illness

God Discussion: Pat Robertson tells viewer to keep daughter away from grandmother because she reads palms and 'practices witchcraft'


  1. Robertson: "You've got to put God first. This is a clear violation, and she is in league with Satanic forces. You cannot have a part of that, and what you need to do is to bind that in prayer, speak against it, and cast those spirits away, because this is dabbling with devils. This isn't something you want."

    In other words: "You gotta' fight magic with magic!"

    What a moron.

  2. Great post! What do you expect out Robertson? Jesus, after all, thought sin caused illness and said He did not come here to bring peace, but rather to set family members against one another.

    I wish there was an easy way to show Pat the real truth in a way in which he would repent.

  3. Pat Robertson, who ran for president in 1988 and is the creator of The Christian Coalition, swears up and down that he's not a Dominionist. Wikipedia defines Dominionism this way:

    "Dominionism, in the context of politics and religion, is the tendency among some politically active conservative Christians to seek influence or control over secular civil government through political action, especially in the United States. It is also known as subjectivism. The goal is either a nation governed by Christians, or a nation governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law."

    By that definition, Robertson is one of the originators of that religio-political movement. They want to bring Robertson's sort of ethics to Washington and make them the law of the land.

    He is at the very rotten core of the extreme right-wing social agenda in politics that has joined forces with fiscal conservatives in Congress to stall out the country's efforts to climb out of recession. And imagine, if you can, the mental health policies that an administration of über-cons would enact. Just as depression is rampant in America due to the real losses and stresses brought on by the recession...just as we bring the exhausted and enervated troops home from wars...just as we ask Americans to make yet more sacrifices, we would be subject to Pat Robertson's positions?

    Pat Robertson is the Lord of the New Dark Age.

  4. It's mind-boggling to me that people take anything Robertson says seriously. Truly mind-boggling.

    On a related note, I was raised with the belief that mental illness is a sign of unrighteousness; that God can cure anything and everything. Very damaging and harmful for all the reasons you outlined, Ahab.

  5. What bothers me most about Robertson's theory about depression is that some of his followers who are depressed are left to believe that they are so afflicted because they are evil ... which can lead them into deeper depression, even suicide.

  6. What a complete and utter *sshole. He and his ilk make me sick.

  7. Tristan -- Robertson has become a self-parody. Then again, this has been the case for years.

    Wise Fool -- I don't see someone as proud as Robertson repenting for his irresponsible statements, unfortunately.

    Nance -- Aye, Robertson is a soft dominionist all right. The Religious Right's policies would NOT be good for public health. Most people focus on reproductive issues and the Religious Right, but you're correct in that they could have a deleterious effect on mental health services.

    Cognitive Dissenter -- The parallels between right-wing evangelicals and Mormons continue to surprise me. (Strange that they can't get along -- they should compare notes.) Such an attitude toward mental illness can only bring greater suffering. It's disgusting.

    Knatolee -- You and me both. Where is the compassion here? Or the good judgment?

  8. Donna -- It's victim-blaming, pure and simple. I can't believe ignorance about mental illness still exists like this in the 21st century.

  9. Robertson is an idiot. I know two devout Christians who both suffer from depression. One has been hospitalized several times her depression is so severe. God apparently isn't much of a cure for depression, or anything else.

    Incidentally, one believer opined that depression is caused when people grow up and discover they have to work for a living. One for the nutty files.

  10. Buffy -- Agreed. Robertson's opinion on depression doesn't match up with reality.


All comments are subject to moderation. Threatening, violent, or bigoted comments will not be published.