For many decades, Pat Robertson has been a go-it-alone evangelist. He has built a large organization for the conversion of souls on the strength of his own leadership and has kept a respectful distance from other television preachers, many of whom have fallen victim of their wanton hungers.
He has embraced right wing, sometimes conspiratorial politics, which deluded him into considering himself a valid presidential candidate, and his geo-political-apocalypticaltheology flirts with lunacy (earlier this year I noted his bizarre claim that Haitians had brought the horrid earthquake by having made a pact with the devil long ago) but he is a smart guy with no small amount of dash and savvy when he sticks to what he knows.
This week his courage and open-mindedness were on full display when he announced that he had become the subject of conversion on the issue of marijuana.
Robertson has concluded that those who possess it or smoke it shouldn't be punished by law. He had come to that position, he said, by ministering to those who were serving stiff jail sentences for handling even small amounts of pot. Judges said their hands were tied by mandatory sentencing laws. Robertson saw the injustice and decided that as much as he opposed drug use he couldn't condone exposing young people to the terrors of prison life in an effort to eradicate it.
My general impression is that conversion in such matters is a rare thing among religious leaders. They tend to dig in their heels on morality in particular and don't waver, lest they be considered weak or, worse, non-conformist.
Robertson's change of heart resulted from his being willing to witness the consequences of the nation's moral crusade against drugs by getting down in the trenches, awaking in the process to what it was actually like in the lives of real young people. I believe this is called pastoral and it's usually bypassed by those purists attempting to exercise moral purity without the messiness of life on the ground.
It's likely that Pat Robertson has infuriated many fellow evangelicals by taking his stand and thereby allying himself with a coalition that includes liberals and libertarians (though William F. Buckley, Jr., and Milton Freeman were among the conservatives who agreed). But he did it presumably because he was able to open his moral theology to the realities of experience -- honestly and perhaps uncomfortably.
His bold move adds another important voice to a growing movement that favors legalization of marijuana and other drugs. Given his successful history of keeping himself apart, however, he'll probably do this on his own, too.