Last week, Pat Robertson told his viewers that he believes Alzheimer’s disease to be a “kind of death,” a basis for the un-afflicted spouse to seek divorce and move on with their life—so long as they act mercifully and provide a means for care of that spouse. This view logically corresponds with the evangelical expansion of views on divorce with very little to say on reconciliation. I never thought I would see the day when the difficult work of staying married is further undermined by an otherwise theologically conservative Christian. As a result of Robertson’s very irresponsible words, I’m sure there are many wondering if their situation equally represents a “kind of death” of their spouse as well. Don’t underestimate Robertson’s influence in living rooms everywhere.
On par with Robertson’s views on disease, dignity and death is the embrace of reproductive technologies that willingly and knowingly risk the lives of embryos (small humans at the earliest stage of life) or the Terri Schaivo’s whose lives are deemed without worth because the quality of life and the relationship has been compromised. Both examples speak to the lack of commitment by able, responsible agents in the relationship. Parents don’t yet need to act like parents to their embryos because the embryos are not yet warm, cooing little people to be physically bonded with yet. Spouses no longer need to abide by the marriage vows because the other spouse is, sorry to be crass, better off dead—and so, too, is the quality of the relationship.
Though small or disabled, they are fully human—a sufficient argument for defending their life (without a vitalist mentality that makes no room for death). The personhood debate has only done harm to the way we view and value these image bearers. As a philosophical term, “personhood” has been imported into our theological conversation to account for human capacities, not as a way to address ontology. The fruit of it is rotten and I believe this is what we are seeing in Robertson’s “kind of death” message.
In Robertson’s comments, we see the coalescing of views on marriage, divorce and human dignity that we should have come to expect because, as he so aptly demonstrates, evangelical Christians neither understand how to think about medical ethics issues nor how they impact other areas of the Christian life. Every day pew dwellers have been offered little in terms of framework for how to live through these types of situations to the glory of God. Instead, they get “pat” answers for how to make life more immediately pleasurable.
There are plenty self-described evangelicals who likely agree with Robertson on the diminished moral obligation in an Alzheimer’s (or cancer) relationship. In fact, I’m sure some are grateful he is taking the heat for a stance that they have been secretly embracing. Some evangelicals, of course, have rightly come out in defense of sacrificial living within marriage, a position summed up in the age-old
expression vow “til death do us part.” But with the recent tendency toward emotional-therapeutic approaches to ethical discourse—to the Christian life in general—“til ‘lack of consciousness’ do us part” is likely to become a morally sufficient argument for how Christians can choose to cope in similar circumstances. So as a matter of consistency, if our individual situations are going to have any determining weight in the rightness or wrongness of beginning of life questions, then Robertson’s view fits well within this new theological schema for end of life scenarios. If disease warrants the end of a parental relationship through diagnostic testing in utero or in the petri dish, certainly the prospect of terminal illness can justify the end of the marital relationship. May it never be.