Pat Robertson OK’s Divorce if Wife has Alzheimer’s

Simply put I think this is pretty messed up. Pat Robertson not long ago on 700 Club said that it was ok for a man to divorce his wife who has Alzheimer’s:

During the portion of the show where the one-time Republican presidential candidate takes questions from viewers, Robertson was asked what advice a man should give to a friend who began seeing another woman after his wife started suffering from the incurable neurological disorder.

“I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her,” Robertson said.

It does sound cruel. And it is cruel. It also goes against pretty much every Christian ethicist of the past 2000 years, and against a lot of non-Christian ethicists, too. We looked at this in my Social Ethics class the other day, and tried to see how different ethical frameworks would respond to this. We concluded that one of the ethical systems does line up with this in a way, but all of the other ways were opposed. The one that would sort of allow it would be utilitarianism. Utilitarianism aims to make the most happiness for the most people. So you could reason using that: the wife is very unhappy either way, and probably wouldn’t be any worse off if she was divorced, so long as there is still somebody caring for her (which Robertson did specify as a requirement). The husband will be horribly unhappy staying in the marriage, but would be much happier divorcing and getting somebody new. There’s also an assumption that he would be sleeping with another woman anyway, in which it is better to get a divorce than to commit adultery.

We also talked about Kantian imperatives, rights and responsibilities theories, subversive ethics, and ecclesial ethics. We were left with questions like: can we set a precedent for breaking an oath that was until death? Are we reducing the woman only to an object for her husband’s pleasure, which since she can no longer provide we therefore set aside? Does she no longer have her rights to be treated as a human being because she is already “a kind of dead” anyway? What other diseases does this extend to? Does he have a responsibility to follow through on his commitment, or was his commitment only to take care of her physical needs? Would we even be having this conversation if the genders were reversed or would we immediately think it was terrible for a woman to do that to her husband? How does this stand up to the two millenia of church teaching that discourages (and in some cases outright bans) divorce and remarriage? Every other framework except for utilitarianism was clearly against divorce in this situation.

I’m not totally opposed to divorce, although I definitely don’t think it should be nearly as common as it usually is. Instead of being a quick and easy way out, it should really be a last-ditch resort in my opinion. I pull my views largely from Matthew 19, where Jesus says that what God has put together, no person should tear apart. In a few places adultery is given as an exception – even if you try hard to forgive it is sometimes impossible to recover a marriage in that situation. I think abuse would also be a very important exception as well where divorce may regrettably be the best option. Maybe there are some more although I haven’t thought of any, and I definitely don’t have a rule list by any means, but it really should take extreme circumstances, not just “falling out of love” which is a ridiculous idea when you realize love is a verb under your control. In any case, because she got sick is a pretty terrible reason and I stand with many others, Christian and not, who have rebuked Robertson on this one.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.