The UK church has many reasons to be grateful to American Christian leaders. Billy Graham, TD Jakes, Tony Campolo and Joyce Meyer are just some of the men and women of God who have blessed the British church with their input. Another is Rick Warren, who my colleague Andy Peck met and interviewed recently (read his fascinating comments are on page 18).
But along with the wise we have to suffer the wallies. Even before his most recent outburst Pat Robertson, the host of '700 Club' his long-running Christian TV show, has claimed that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were due to American feminists and liberals, and that true Christians could vote only for George W. Bush. In his latest ill-considered remark the Virginia-based TV evangelist told his viewers that the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, ought to be assassinated for making Venezuela "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism… I really think that we ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war."
Well known for his pro-life position, Robertson's request for the US government to murder a democratically elected leader has caused shock and offence. Chavez's attempts to take control of Venezuela's oil industry, they are the world's fifth-biggest producer, have provoked Robertson's ire, as well as his anti-globalist views and open support for Cuba's Fidel Castro. Temporarily forced from office in April, Chavez's supporters, mainly Venezuela's poor, took the streets, propelling him back into the presidential palace, despite the opposition of the Venezuelan military. Robertson subsequently claimed he didn't mean for Chavez to be killed - he claimed his phrase 'taken out' could be interpreted to mean 'kidnapped'. As if that made things OK!
Kenneth D MacHarg, a missionary with the Latin America Mission, points out that Robertson's words may provoke a backlash against evangelical Christians and missionaries in Venezuela and the wider region. The World Evangelical Alliance has denounced Robertson's words, but much damage has been done. Uninformed non-evangelicals and skeptical non-believers see people such as Robertson as representative of all evangelicals. This is also true in the UK-media. Already antagonistic towards evangelicals, Robertson's rant plays into their prejudices of what they think you and I are like. I don't know about you, but I'm fed up with being likened to US right-wing TV evangelists.
Andy Hickford, a regular speaker at Bible weeks like Keswick and Spring Harvest, and the Pastor of Maybridge Christian Fellowship in Sussex has called on Christian leaders in the UK to demonstrate integrity and equality. If we call on Muslim hatemongers to be silenced, we should also call on those from our own ranks to choose their words carefully, says Hickford. "Failure to retract his statement should surely see us petitioning the Home Office to have Pat Robertson banned from this country," says Hickford. I agree.
If there are any positives to come from this episode – it is the reminder that whether we have an audience or not, we all need to think before we open our mouths.