According to this Associated Press story, some Christian evangelicals have reached the conclusion that Pat Robertson’s regular outbursts may actually be damaging their movement. No, really?
You mean that saying federal judges are more dangerous than Al Qaeda might turn people off? Saying that Ariel Sharon’s death was God’s punishment might be a bit off-the-wall? Or that the U.S. deserved the 9/11 attacks might alienate people?
The Associated Press quotes Brin Britt of the Religious Studies Program at Virginia Tech who offers a functional explanation for why Robertson says nutty things like that,
On the other hand, Brian Britt, director of the Religious Studies Program at Virginia Tech, said Robertson’s remarks aren’t just “off-the-wall, crazy uncle stuff” but part of a strategy that earns him headlines.
When people attack Robertson, he wins sympathy for appearing to be an underdog, Britt said.
“It reinforces an image of Christianity as a persecuted religion, a religion that is being hounded by the secularists out of the public square, rather than a dominant and hegemonic force,” Britt said.
But Robertson’s statements probably do both. On the one hand, even at his nuttiest Robertson never appears anything but extremely sincere. On the other hand, such extreme remarks do create the sympathetic feelings from hardcore followers which then reinforce Robertson’s willingness to say such things in the future (whereas, if his followers were reacting negatively then he might think before sharing his more extreme views) as well as radicalizes the base making them more likely to accept such pronouncements.
This is a common dynamic that you see, for example, with extremist animal rights organizations. Groups like PETA genuinely believe the more extreme statements, but the reason they continue to make extreme statements over time is because of the positive feedback they receive from their followers. At the same time, this also gradually pushes the range of statements that followers are willing to accept.
Pat Robertson Accused of Damaging Movement. Sonja Barisic, Associated Press, February 18, 2006.