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'