Rev. Pat Robertson, Donald Trump, and the "mandate of heaven": Using "outlandish remarks" to help teach world history

By Robert Shaffer posted 20 days ago

  

World history teachers will take connections between past and present wherever we will find them, even if it means citing Rev. Pat Robertson. 

The 89-year-old fundamentalist Christian televangelist, normally a firm ally of Donald Trump, said several weeks ago (October 7, 2019) that the American President is in danger of losing the “mandate of heaven” for his abandonment of the Kurds in northern Syria to a Turkish military onslaught.  Robertson’s remarks received wide attention in the press; here’s one link, to a USA Today story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2019/10/07/pat-robertson-trump-losing-mandate-heaven-over-syria-decision/3903941002/.

The “mandate of heaven,” of course, is usually associated in world history with the Chinese dynastic system.  The emperors, the theory goes, maintained the right to rule under a mandate of heaven, but that they could be seen to have lost that mandate if calamities befell their people (natural disasters, wars, famine, and the like), or if these rulers transgressed the bounds of Chinese morality.  Thus, an ideology which provided a quasi-religious aura for imperial rule also provided a kind of right to rebel against the emperors when things went wrong.

Meanwhile, the American system of government is more usually regarded (to say the least) as deriving its legitimacy “from the consent of the governed,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and Presidents derive their power from the electorate (or at least the Electoral College).

World history teachers, nevertheless, could easily make the connection between the world view of imperial China and the particular religious views of Robertson positing a supernatural basis of government.  In both, there is a supposed divine intervention in human affairs, by God (in Robertson’s telling), or “heaven” (in the more ambiguous Chinese formulation).  Of course, Robertson represents the views of only a minority even among Protestant religious leaders in the U.S. today, although there has often been a popular conception in many religions that transgressions (governmental or personal) will bring down “the wrath of God” – or something of the sort – on rulers and people.

I have always emphasized when teaching world history that there are important similarities, not just differences, among world religions and moral systems.  Here Robertson is even using the common English translation of Chinese terminology, whether consciously or not.  So when I do teach early world history again next semester, I will certainly invoke Robertson’s statement to demonstrate that the Chinese ideology has been echoed elsewhere and at other times – and even in the U.S. down to today.  If students find the Chinese concept of the “mandate of heaven” to be strange, or worse, because it is from a society “not like us,” on the other side of the world, at least they will have to see that conceiving it as strange also means they must confront religious dogma held by influential figures in the contemporary U.S. 

I will also discuss with my students the idea that the Chinese concept, now channeled by Rev. Robertson, provides more of a right to rebellion than the European Christian conception of “the divine right of kings,” in which any challenge to royal authority was treated as a rebellion against God.

(The idea of some Christian fundamentalists that the Presidency of Donald Trump – one of the least religious men to ever hold that office – is somehow part of “God’s plan” for the world is a related issue that I probably would not address when discussing parallels between the Chinese “mandate of heaven” and Robertson’s use of the term.  It might come up when discussing the Babylonian captivity of the ancient Hebrews.  See this link for one explanation of how American fundamentalist Christians can support an administration that appears to reject many of the values that Jesus espoused in the Sermon on the Mount: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/31/opinion/trump-evangelicals-cyrus-king.html?searchResultPosition=1.)

Interestingly, the press coverage I have seen of Robertson’s remarks has generally not made the connection of the “mandate of heaven” to the Chinese imperial system of government.  And I am certainly not in a position to know whether Robertson is even aware that he is using a term so clearly associated with non-Christian China.

Of course, there is the danger in making a connection between Robertson and traditional China, because the televangelist’s views have often been so odious.  Here is an account from The Guardian, in September 2001, of the reactions of Robertson and a fellow ultra-conservative evangelists to the 9/11 attacks:

“The Rev Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson set off a minor explosion of their own when they asserted on US television that an angry God had allowed the terrorists to succeed in their deadly mission because the United States had become a nation of abortion, homosexuality, secular schools and courts, and the American Civil Liberties Union.”  (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/19/september11.usa9)

Robertson continued in that same vein in his reactions to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, in which, in his twisted view, a God angry over abortion in the U.S. decided to punish that city.  And the horrific 2010 earthquake in Haiti?  That came about, somehow, according to Robertson, because of an alleged pact with the devil that Haitians had made two centuries earlier to end French rule of their island.  (CBS News has a slide show of what it calls “some of [Robertson’s] most outlandish remarks”: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/pat-robertson-controversies/.)

Do we wish to give wider exposure to such remarks?  If done in the context of a well-structured discussion of “correlation and causation,” of critical analysis of rhetoric and discourse, and of comparative world views, then it is worthwhile.  So a discussion of the “mandate of heaven” during a unit on traditional China might very well lead to student critical analysis of the ideology of some present-day American religious fundamentalists.  We might even invoke the National Council for the Social Studies’ C3 Framework, as such a consideration requires the use of disciplinary tools, the analysis and evaluation of evidence, and the communication of conclusions about the concepts involved.

So, for better and worse, teachers must sometimes use such “outlandish remarks” to bring world history alive for our students, to see how concepts originating in other times and places continue to resonate into the present.

Robert Shaffer, Professor of History, Shippensburg University

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