Pat Robertson gives religion a black eye


NEW YORK — Statements broadcast last week by television evangelist and former U.S. presidential candidate Pat Robertson throw a disturbing light on the influence of religion in American politics. Robertson told his audience that American agents should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to stop his country from becoming a “launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism.”

Talking on the Christian Broadcast Network, Robertson remarked that the United States doesn’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of a strong-arm dictator; some covert operatives could easily do that job. “This,” he said, “is a lot cheaper than starting a war.”

In the past few years Chavez has become one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. President George W. Bush’s policies, and has accused Bush on repeated occasions of trying to assassinate him, a charge that U.S. officials call ridiculous. By contrast, Robertson said the Lord has blessed Bush, and “it doesn’t make any difference what he does, good or bad. God picks him up because he is a man of prayer and God is blessing him.”

Robertson has made equally dangerous and irresponsible remarks in the past. In 2003 he suggested that the State Department should be blown up with a nuclear device, and stated that feminism makes women “kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Who is Chavez and what has he done to incur Robertson’s wrath? Although one may dislike his vociferous and authoritarian style, it is obvious that Chavez has more support from the poor and dispossessed in his country than any other Venezuelan president in recent memory. After clearly winning his re-election, he embarked on a pro Latin-American crusade that won him popular support in several countries on the continent.

Although one may dislike his strident behavior, he has carried out important economic cooperation agreements with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, among others.

Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, with the U.S. market absorbing almost 60 percent of Venezuela’s exports. Chavez has taken advantage of his country’s enormous oil reserves to improve the economic status of the poor in his country. Chavez’s government is the only one in Latin America pursuing an ambitious land and agrarian reform program.

Chavez is as disliked by the elites in Venezuela as by members of the Bush administration, many of whom have been favorite targets of Chavez’ scorn. At her Senate confirmation hearings in January, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Chavez of meddling in the affairs of Venezuela’s neighboring countries, a charge recently repeated by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during his visit to Latin America.

Although Chavez is not exempt from charges of economically favoring his allies, he has used oil revenues to finance infrastructure development, conduct literacy programs and create scores of small-scale workers’ cooperatives in agriculture and other sectors.

Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, spent more than $3.7 billion in 2004 in housing for the poor, free medical clinics, schools and literacy programs. More than 1.2 million adults have learned how to read since Chavez came into office, and the country now has one of the highest literacy rates (93.4 percent) in the hemisphere.

Dislike for Chavez among Venezuela’s elites has to do with his curtailing their benefits. It may also be due to his being of a darker color (he has been called by them “monkey” or “Negro”) than the ruling classes, who are mainly white. Chavez’s concern for the poor is obviously ignored by Robertson, who claims to be a defender of Christian values. His statements that Chavez should be assassinated are not only unworthy of a religious person; they also give religion a bad name.