Righting America

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Pat Robertson on Police Brutality, or, Onward Christian Police Marching as to War | Righting America

by Matthew Merringer

Matthew Merringer is a Master Student at the University of Dayton in the Department of Religious Studies. He studies the history and politics of American Protestantism. His interests include radicals such as Dorothy Day, Jerry Falwell, and nativist preachers in the 19th Century. He finds the unique political imaginations crafted by these leaders help provide rubrics for understanding the daily practices of their followers. 

Pat Robertson comparing a handgun to a taser on his April 15, 2021 episode of The 700 Club. Image via politizoom.com.

As many watched and listened live via social media, television, radio, and in person outside the Minneapolis courthouse, Judge Peter Cahill read aloud the jury’s verdict in the murder trial of George Floyd. Guilty…Guilty…Guilty. Found guilty on all three charges, Derek Chauvin was led away in handcuffs. 

But as Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison poignantly remarked, “I would not call today’s verdict justice, however, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability, which is the first step towards justice.” Looking at the country, at least on the surface, one might argue that there is a growing consensus for the need of justice for people of color, not only at the hands of police but perhaps across the entire criminal justice system.

Many were shocked that, just a week before the verdict, Pat Robertson sat behind the desk on his legendary 700 Club broadcast and called attention to the inexcusable killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center (just outside Minneapolis). He went on to say of police that “if they don’t stop this onslaught, they cannot do this [sic].” As regards the officer who killed George Floyd, Robertson said that “they ought to put him under the jail.”

The next day,  Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough and his guest Jon Meacham gushed over the fact that this cultural and religious icon had called out policing, with the latter comparing him to the Prodigal Son who should be welcomed when he does something correctly. Meacham goes on to say that Robertson is using “God-given intelligence” to see with his eyes that something is wrong. The implication of all this is that there seems to be an emerging common ground between the conservative religious right and progressives when it comes to police reform, perhaps even regarding the justice that Ellison alludes to. 

However, this ignores the very essence of the movement which Robertson embodies, as a careful examination of his rhetoric reveals (start at 9:01): 

  1. The voiceover from the introduction frames the issue in a particular way. “More violence overnight in Minnesota”, “over the death of Daunte Wright”, “demonstrators tried to get over the fence added… to protect the [police] department” (italics added for emphasis). Words have power and one does not need to go far to conclude that the voiceover was instructing viewers that a correct reading of the story would be that “violent demonstrators attacked the police over something that happens every day, death.” Contrast that reading with an alternative introduction: “Americans protested in the street against fortified police positions over another police killing of a member of the community they are sworn to protect.” 
  2. Pat then sets the stage of authority. The next 1:26 of the show is dedicated to Pat and his cohost Terry playing with a fake gun and a taser to make a point that anyone in their right mind should not have confused a bright yellow taser and a heavy black gun. This is important for two reasons. First, it establishes that authority is based in common sense empirical observation. Pat and Terry know something is wrong because they (upper-class white evangelicals) can see and touch it. Wrongdoing must be plain and observable to all. Second, it positions them as equal authorities on the matter of police violence as minorities who have experienced it firsthand. In the simple process of playing with a toy gun, Robertson has established a basis of evidence of police wrongdoing and has elevated himself to an authority on the subject. (Those familiar with the Fundamentalist movement will quickly recognize this as their same approach to the authority of the Bible)
  3. The George Floyd murder trial was in its second week at the time of the taping, and Pat crafted the story of his death into the killing of Daunte Wright to provide a larger narrative.:“Derek Chauvin, they ought to put him under the jail, he has caused so much trouble by kneeling of the death [sic] of George Floyd… on his neck. It’s just terrible what is happening.” Obviously to Robertson, this is pattern that needs attention. Then Robertson went on to ask “why don’t they [police] open their eyes to what the public relations are?” Suddenly the trouble Chauvin has caused comes into light. The murder of George Floyd is not troublesome for the fact that ANOTHER black man has died at the hands of the police, but because it has brought dishonor to and questions about police. 
  4. His co-host Terry offers the comment that perhaps the police need better more consistent training. This is quickly dismissed by the “very pro-police” Robertson. His solution? “We’ve got to pay them more. We don’t have the finest in the police department.” “It is not a question of training; it is hiring a more superior workforce.” 

In the 2 minutes and 26 seconds dedicated to the story, not once is race or ethnicity mentioned. What we have then is not an acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter, not surprisingly as Pat has called the movement a “lesbian, anti-family, anti-capitalist, Marxist revolution.” Or even that policing in America is in need of reform, as Joe Scarborough would like to think. 

Instead, we have business as usual for Pat and his conservative followers. The religious right establishes the threshold of evidence, as they are the only ones with access to propositional truth. In this privileged position, they are the only ones who understand the difference between true good and evil, and they are the only ones who can determine when a wrong has been committed. And in this case, the ultimate “wrong” in America’s policing is being done to the police! They are not getting paid enough, and so the good people are not becoming and staying police officers. 

In Pat’s world, there is no space for the oppressed to speak. There is no reason to practice listening. The solution is already known. Justice is not something we are moving toward in America. It is something we have lost and fallen from in some past glory day of the Republic. If America will simply return to Christ and live in the Christian morality of capitalism, America’s (presumably Christian) finest will return to the police department .They will be able to fix this public relations issue and return America to its status quo. Then, according to Pat, we will have justice for George Floyd.

In the slightly modified words of that favorite old fundamentalist hymn, 

Onward Christian police marching as to war…