The television evangelist Pat Robertson pontificated on the horrific earthquake that had struck the country of Haiti. Noting how many recent tragedies had befallen the Haitian people, Mr Robertson told his TV audience: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it - they were under the heel of the French and got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you and you'll get us free from the French. And so the devil said, OK, it's a deal. But ever since they've been cursed. But it may be a blessing in disguise."
As outrageous as these comments might be, they were shrugged off by many as just more nonsensical ranting from an old religious fanatic. Mr Robertson has a practice of using his bizarre theology to explain world events. It was, he said, debauchery that brought the terror of 9/11 to New York and the devastation of Katrina to New Orleans. And it was the decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza (dividing God's gift to the Jewish people) that caused the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon to be struck down by a stroke.
As a student of religion I have long followed Mr Robertson's rantings. His peculiar brand of theology - "pre-dispensational millenarianism" (PDM) - once seen as heretical by most Christians, has within the past two decades developed a strong following, becoming a political force, especially within the Republican Party. Those who share this theology believe that the current era is an exact replay of the Old Testament, and that the events that led up to the birth and death of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem are being mirrored in events today that will lead to the return of Jesus and the final battle that will lead to the destruction of the world.
In fact over the years, almost every war in the Middle East was accompanied by a Robertson TV show in which the televangelist gleefully prophesied that the "end was at hand". Given his theology, Mr Robertson is a fanatical supporter of Israel (except that his support is based on their role in his theology, requiring them to eventually convert to Christianity) and a virulent foe of Arabs and Muslims. This has led him to make additional outrageous comments. For example: "If we don't stop covering up what Islam is ... Islam is a violent - I was going to say religion, but it's not a religion, it's a political system, it's a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination." Mr Robertson continued that Muslims should be treated "as we would members of the communist party, members of some fascist group".
What is troubling to me is not only how Mr Robertson masks hateful remarks passing them off as "absolute" religious truth or the powerful political reach his television programme and movement have given him. It is the double standard that is applied to this man's outrages that is most disturbing. If a Muslim imam somewhere in the Middle East had made comments of the sort made by Mr Robertson, political leaders would demand a crackdown requiring the Imam's government to take definitive measures to end incitement. If that imam were an American citizen and had made contributions to political campaigns, recipients would be pressed to denounce the imam and return the money. But for years this approach has not been used with Mr Robertson. Instead, he has been revered by some and dismissed as a "quack" by others. This really should end.
Research shows that in the last decade Mr Robertson has given over $550,000 to the Republican Party and candidates in Virginia (including over $100,000 to the newly elected governor, Bob McDonnell). He has given another $50,000 to national GOP candidates. Shouldn't those politicians who have been recipients of Mr Robertson's largesse be pressed to denounce his remarks and return the amounts they received from him (or maybe asked to send an equal amount to Haitian relief)?
Mr Robertson should be free to say or believe whatever he wants, however vile his views may be. That is not at issue. Rather it is that his political influence and power should be exposed and challenged, and those who accept his support should be held accountable. James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute