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The difference between Robertson and Keller is aesthetic
In the last month, two high-profile pastors died. They had the same views on queer people and women, so why does one get off easy?
“Don’t speak ill of the dead.” That aphorism seems to come up a lot as we remember the lives of dead celebrities. We’ve had no shortage of them in the last month: Tina Turner, Ted Kaczynski, The Iron Sheikh, and in my interests, Pat Robertson and Tim Keller. The last two are fundamentalist pastors who have received quite a difference of treatment in the press. In fact, the way that the press handled Robertson and Keller suggests that not speaking ill of the dead is limited to people we actually like.
The hypocrisy of the press and of well-meaning Christians isn’t in how they lambasted Robertson, the owner of CBN who helped to merge Republican politics with Christianity. But rather in how they were so willing to nail Robertson, but treated Keller with kid gloves. No one I know, really, hesitated to name Robertson for as evil as he was. Robertson was brazenly political, with tremendous and vocal hostility toward queer people, women, antiracists, and a laundry list of political opponents to the left of him. Robertson advanced harm in an overt and clear way, proudly expressing his prejudice loud and clear. There’s no confusing who Pat Robertson is and what his legacy is.
Tim Keller, on the other hand, wasn’t on TV much and didn’t have a very apparent personality. Subdued and reflective, Keller seemed to be very thoughtful for an Evangelical Christian, captivating to doubting New Yorkers. Further, in my ways, the ethics of his ecclesiology kept him from the Evangelical abuse and corruption that many of his fundamentalist counterparts were mired in. He didn’t openly engage in partisan politics. And, in fact, wrote in the New York Times that Christians don’t fit in the two-party system at all. And he drew ire from the fundamentalists near him who claimed he was too winsome – that is, he failed to make his own political convictions plain in order to evangelize. From the right, this is a fascinating critique. They’re upset with the “bait” not the “switch.” Of course, my issue is with the “switch.”
Robertson was clear as day about his politics, and while he was much more interested in right-wing politics than Keller, when it came to the dignity of LGBTQIA people and women, they two of them held the same viewpoints. Keller was less hostile toward his opponents, but to be sure, he thought they were wrong and even sinful. But Keller wasn’t upfront about it like Robertson was. To me, that is actually more dangerous. Keller had a “third way” approach that obfuscated the less popular views of Robertson that he deeply held. He was certainly less outrageous than Robertson, and I suppose that’s why he was tougher to speak plainly about, but the fruit of Keller and Robertson is still a version of Christian that oppresses the most vulnerable groups of people.
Keller’s approach to Christian hegemony was rooted in evangelism. His goal was to spread Christianity through winning souls to Jesus, often hiding the least popular parts of his faith in order to advance his greater mission. He never challenged those aspects of his faith and held true to them to his death. Robertson wanted to advance Christian hegemony through political power, though, and he was very loud about that. Robertson said the quiet parts loud, in other words.
For that reason, at least, it was easier for many of my peers and many of those in the press to speak frankly about how terrible Robertson’s legacy was. Robertson was so vocally offensive that we could speak ill of him back. But even though Keller had the same theological views, he presented in a way that guarded him from criticism from moderates, and in fact, elicited their defense. I was disheartened to see many progressives and would-be allies come to his defense, or speak softly about him, certainly in a way they would never about Robertson.
It’s not dissimilar to those who freely criticize Trump and those who feel like it might be inappropriate to do so with the same fervor of the moderate Republicans, like Reagan and Bush, who planted the seeds for Trump. In fact, among the 2024 Republican candidates, what separates them isn’t substance, but tone. But the different tone doesn’t lead to a different substance, it just allows people to tolerate it more. It doesn’t lead to liberation of the oppressed, but it quiets the opposition to their oppression. In a country run by Trump or DeSantis, the dignity and lives of women and queer people will be quite similar; similarly, for women and queer Christians who want to be fully dignified, Robertson and Keller would give them a similar result. Here, you at least see one witness, who said that embracing one’s sexual identity was dehumanizing. That viewpoint is just as bigoted toward queer people as saying queer people caused hurricanes and 9/11. Sure, it’s not as ridiculous, but it’s the same tree with the same fruit.
I want to be clear though, Robertson and Trump’s rhetoric is deadly on its own. It is worthy of the highest criticism. Blood is on their hands for what they have done, but just because less blood is on the heads of their less intense counterparts, does not mean that their prejudice should be criticized less, even after their death. I think if we are willing to speak ill of the dead with one, we shouldn’t hesitate with the other. The hypocrisy between the two seems to suggest that if we are quiet enough, urbane enough, and sound educated enough (to be sure, there is a classist, anti-ruralism that favors Keller to Robertson too). Robertson was a force that undid the evangelistic project of Keller – Keller was trying to deliver Robertson’s fundamentalism without the theatrics.
One reason I am particularly sensitive to this is because within my own family and within my own experiences in religious settings, I have seen the spectrum of prejudice across fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. I’ve been hurt very vocally by disciples of Pat Robertson, but just as painfully by disciples of Tim Keller. Robertson hurts queer people and women with his vocal hostility. You don’t even need to be close to him to get swiped. Keller pulls you in and poisons you slowly, and before you know it, you’re closeted and self-hating, thinking your very identity is antithetical to the Gospel. I am not suggesting one is worse than the other, but that both are worth naming. I’m saying that naming them isn’t speaking ill of the dead, but rather warning those who might be hurt and harmed by them.
I’m grateful then for the prophetic witnesses that named Keller as who he was, despite the backlash. And I am disappointed to those allies that lacked that courage to do the same. And I am struck by the hypocrisy itself. Christians need to have a prophetic witness against bigotry of all kinds, whether it comes from a quiet, educated pastor from Manhattan, or a loud-mouthed Christian nationalist on TV.
 I am defining fundamentalist as opposed to women’s ordination and queer exclusion from marriage, membership, and ministry here.