Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson stunned "700 Club" viewers Tuesday when he said divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's disease was justified.
Robertson, chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and former Republican presidential candidate, said he wouldn't "put a guilt trip" on someone for divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's disease, calling Alzheimer's itself "a kind of death."
"I'm just flabbergasted," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the 15,000 member Northland Church in Orlando, Fla. "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. Obviously, we can all rationalize the legitimacy for our own comfort that would somehow make it OK to divorce our spouse if circumstances become very different or inconvenient. ... That's almost universal, but there's just no way you can get out of what Jesus says about marriage."
Hunter, who is also a presidential appointee to an advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, said Robertson's words could lead people to interpret typical marital woes as proof that the spouse they married is symbolically dead, and they are therefore free to move on.
"Obviously, you could do this for anything. ... My husband watches and plays video games, and so he has left the marriage and it's kind of like a death," he said. "It's not death, and so we can't start describing things as death that are really not death, and we have to stop trying to mischaracterize what Scripture says for our own convenience."
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that calls for faithfulness in the best of times and the worst of times. Quoting Corinthians, Anderson said, "The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. You can't quit your own body with Alzheimer's, so you shouldn't quit your husband's or wife's body either."
Doctors and social workers who work with families affected by Alzheimer's disease were similarly dismissive of Robertson's advice.
"To condone abandoning one's spouse in the throes of this mind-robbing illness is absurd," said Dr. Amanda Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida Health Alzheimer's Center in Tampa. "While Alzheimer's certainly affects the dynamic of relationships, marriage vows are taken in sickness and in health."
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease – a figure expected to rise sharply as baby boomers enter their older years. And about 80 percent of Alzheimer patients who live at home are cared for by family members.
Robertson's comments came after a viewer asked what advice he should give a friend who had been seeing another woman since his wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her," Robertson said.
But the Rev. A.D. Baxter, a social worker with Cole Neuroscience Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said care from a loved one is irreplaceable.
"When being cared for by a spouse, the love of that spouse is often what enables a person with Alzheimer's disease to continue on and not feel abandoned," said Baxter, adding that caregivers need support, too. "Many believe a true friend does not abandon in the time of need."