Televangelist Pat Robertson surprised some and angered others when he told 700 Club broadcast viewers this week that divorce may be morally permissible when one spouse is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Robertson called the disease “a kind of death” and said as long as the suffering spouse has appropriate care, divorce could be justifiable. “I hate Alzheimers,” Robertson explained. “It is one of the most awful things because here’s the loved one, this is the woman or man that you have loved for 20, 30, 40 years and suddenly that person is gone.” Referring to a caller’s dilemma of seeing another woman while his wife was suffering with the disease, Robertson replied, “The last thing I would do is condemn you for taking that kind of action…I know it sounds cruel but if he’s going to do something he should divorce her and start all over again.”
Christian leaders and health care professionals alike are responding to Robertson’s statement with indignation. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Orlando, Florida says he’s “flabbergasted” by Robertson’s comments, saying “I just don’t know how anyone who is reading Scripture or is even familiar with the traditional wedding vows can come out with a statement like that.” Hunter added that people could interpret Robertson’s words as justification to end a marriage when they feel any kind of symbolic “death” has occurred, such as in the case of typical marital strife. Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, affirmed that Scripture calls marriage is a lifelong commitment and that spouses belong to one another: “You can’t quit your own body with Alzheimer’s, so you shouldn’t quit your husband’s or wife’s body either.” And Dr. Amanda Smith of the University of South Florida’s Health Alzheimer’s Center said, “To condone abandoning one’s spouse in the throes of this mind-robbing illness is absurd.”
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reacted via Twitter: “This is what happens when you abandon Scripture and do theology and morality by your gizzard. Let’s call it what it is.” And John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis tweeted, “Pat Robertson’s view of how Christ loves the church and gives himself for her. Leave her for another.” And Russell D. Moore with Christianity Today wrote in an article, “(Robertson’s statement) is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Alzheimer’s Association reports that Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually get worse over time. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Today, some 5.4 million Americans, most of them over age 65, are living with Alzheimer’s. Most diagnosed with Alzheimer’s survive an average of four to eight years.