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Till Alzheimer's do us part?

ChristianityBaptistMarriageProtestantismDiseases and IllnessesJustice System

In the week since Pat Robertson made his latest gaffe -- this one about the permissibility of divorcing a spouse who has Alzheimer’s disease -- secular media have taken turns swatting him like an off-season pinata.

They’ve fielded blogs and columns blasting him. They’ve asked theologians and chaplains about the comments. They’ve asked the opinions of people in Alzheimer’s advocacy organizations and those who have loved ones with the dreaded disease.

You know who they’re finally getting around to asking? Leaders in conservative Christianity -- the same movement as Robertson.

Typical of early reports was an article in the Miami Herald that quoted an Episcopal chaplain and people who had loved ones with the disease. And the chaplain said he "would not judge a person for moving on with his or her life.”

The Chicago Tribune did a little better, quoting an evangelical Christian who works with Alzheimer’s patients. But the main source was an ethicist who said Robertson's remarks "spotlight the void in conservative Christian thinking about divorce."

Evangelicals have, in fact, passed searing judgments on Robertson's comments. But they have spoken mainly through their own media.

One was Philadelphia evangelist Michael Marcavage of "Repent Now." His Sept. 15 post, two days after the Alzheimer’s comments, called them "disgraceful" and more appropriate for Jack Kevorkian than a minister. He said Robertson should apologize or resign.

"Marriage is one of the cornerstones of any healthy society," Marcavage said. "Robertson's ungodly counsel adds to the further degradation of marriage, and is a direct assault on the word of God."

Theologian Russell D. Moore of Southern Baptist Seminary picked apart Robertson's statement in Christianity Today. He blasted Robertson's "cruel marriage statement."

"Sadly, many of our neighbors assume . . . that when they see the giggling evangelist on the television screen, they see Jesus," Moore writes. "They assume that when they see the stadium political rallies to 'take back America for Christ,' that they see Jesus. But Jesus isn't there."

And the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Post asked several evangelical leaders against Robertson's comments. They included Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals, Al Mohler of the Southern Baptist Seminary and Pastor Joel Hunter, of the 15,000-member Northland Church in Orlando.

Moore's column did get quoted in a New York Times article. And ABC News quoted Hunter and Anderson, plus Tim King of Sojourners Fellowship. Both stories, though, were weighted more toward people who study Alzheimer’s and care for its victims.

Partly compensating were secular journalists, who stuck up for biblical standards of marriage -- even if they didn’t necessarily know they did.

"If it's cool to split when your spouse is stricken with Alzheimer's, what's next? The flu? Restless Leg Syndrome? An ingrown toenail?" Barry Saunders writes in the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.

Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press brings up issues like strokes, head injuries and patients permanently hooked up to machinery. "If we're meant to stick around only until the going gets tough, why bother to make those promises? Like " 'in sickness and in health' "?

But maybe it was the evangelicals' fault; most didn’t speak to the larger audience. Among the few was a mass e-mailed statement from Joni Eareckson Tada, who runs a ministry to disabled persons.

"When a Christian leader views marriage on a sliding scale, what does this say to the millions of couples who must deal daily with catastrophic injuries and illnesses?" said Tada, herself a quadriplegic since a diving accident in 1967. She called marriage a "picture of God’s sacrificial love for us."

Even those who otherwise stand in Robertson's corner were put off by the Alzheimer’s remark. One is Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries, the former Coral Ridge Ministries: This month, he gave a eulogy for his mother, who died after six years of Alzheimer’s.

Newcombe, senior producer of TIA, praised Robertson's news operation, as well as the law and communication schools Robertson founded. "But this statement, I can’t agree with it. Marriage is a common ground for all humans. And you’re still committed to the Lord even if your memory is gone."

James D. Davis

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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