A conversation between U.S. Christian leaders Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell on the 700 Club Sept.14 provoked strong media reaction. Both Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, and Falwell, a Baptist minister and chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., said that God had lifted his hand of protection from the country and that Americans must repent.

Robertson listed insults to God committed in America by identifying general trends such as abortion, pornography, and barring God from schools and the public square, whereas Falwell was more explicit in identifying groups he believed contributed to God’s removal of protection from the nation such as abortionists, atheists, feminists, and homosexuals. Falwell said, “I point the finger in their face and say, You helped this happen.”

Falwell later apologized, saying, “I made a statement that I should not have made and which I sincerely regret.” He apologized for having “singled out for blame certain groups of Americans” and called his actions “insensitive” and “uncalled for at the time.” The Wall Street Journal reports the White House called Falwell to say President George W. Bush disagreed with Falwell’s comments, calling them “inappropriate.”

But Robertson remained steadfast. In a press release on the issue, Robertson reaffirmed his own statements but distanced himself from Falwell’s comment, which he said was “a political statement of blame directed at certain segments of the population that was severe and harsh in tone.”

People For The American Way, a radical activist group that seeks to bar religion from the public square, sent a partial transcript of Robertson and Falwell’s exchange to the media, suggesting that Falwell was blaming abortionists and homosexuals for the terrorist attacks. The 700 Club website later explained that PFAW has for years taped the show “and unfortunately takes statements out of context and spins them to the press for their own political ends.”

Robertson later reaffirmed his statement from Sept. 14 “that indicated that the church and all of America should come in repentance before God so that He would not lift the protective covering that has graced our land since its founding.”

In his earlier statement, Robertson said, “The focus of many in America has been on the pursuit of health, wealth, material pleasures and sexuality. Sadly, those in the churches have been as self-indulgent as those in the world. We have allowed rampant pornography on the Internet, and rampant secularism and the occult, etc. to be broadcast on television. We have permitted somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 million unborn babies to be slaughtered by our society. We have a court that has essentially stuck its finger in God’s eye and said, ‘We are going to legislate You out of the schools and take your commandments from the courthouses in various states. We are not going to let little children read the commandments of God. We are not going to allow the Bible or prayer in our schools.’ We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, Why does this happen? It is happening because God Almighty is lifting His protection from us.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Timothy George, a Baptist minister and dean of the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham Alabama, said Falwell’s comments would be used by the media (and others) to “reinforce the worst stereotypes of conservative Christianity.” Indeed, many journalists have said there is little difference between the Islamic extremists thought to be behind the terrorist attacks and the likes of Falwell and Robertson. The Toronto Star’s Antonia Zerbisias called the Falwell-Robertson exchange an example of “hateful people beating their podiums into swords.”

George said that while Falwell’s comments are divisive and indefensible, “This is not to say that we should think of the events ¼ apart from the judgement of God.” “Cataclysmic events” should “inspire in us a desire for self-examination or a need to intrepet the evil we have witnessed.