Pat Robertson cover of Time

Preaching With a Vengeance

Pat Robertson's Fierce Rhetoric May Have Diminished His Political Clout

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005; C01

What do Hugo Chavez and Harriet Miers have in common?

Pat Robertson: The rhetorical hit man who opined several weeks ago that Chavez, the Venezuelan president, should be assassinated now has thrown down the gauntlet for senators who oppose Miers's nomination for the Supreme Court. "Now they're going to turn against a Christian who is a conservative picked by a conservative president and they're going to vote against her for confirmation?" he said Thursday on "The 700 Club," his voice sarcastic with disbelief. "Not on your sweet life, if they want to stay in office."

It's becoming almost routine, this strident talk. Indeed, Robertson, 75, has a long history of controversial statements, dating at least to his infamous 1991 conspiracist tract, "The New World Order." And he shows no sign of slowing down. This week, he accused Chavez of sending money to Osama bin Laden, making nice with the jailed terrorist "Carlos the Jackal" and negotiating with Iran for nuclear materials. And after Katrina, Rita and the spate of global earthquakes and floods, he's raised the biblical end-of-the-world scenario. Or could it be, he's also offered, that it is God's wrath against abortion?

Sometimes it's hard to keep up with this man who once equated feminism with witchcraft, who said of the State Department: "You've got to blow that thing up." So just who listens to Robertson (other than Chavez and the news media), and does he matter in politics? Depending on whom you talk to, Robertson is an embarrassment to the conservative movement who has yet to realize his own irrelevance, or he is a valuable Christian leader of millions, a man still capable of marshaling votes and influencing politics.

All of that can be debated. But we know this: He is founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, where his show, "The 700 Club," beams his brand of populist, charismatic Christian evangelism to a daily audience of 1 million from his base in Virginia Beach. "He's not oblivious to the fact that people in Washington will take note when he says something, especially something outlandish, but his primary audience is his listeners," says Richard Cizik, a senior official with the National Association of Evangelicals.

And yet Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty University and founder of the Moral Majority, says it is Robertson's political nature that drives the strident, pointed talk. "Pat ran for president once and he's a very political person, and that is the way politicians talk," says Falwell, who describes himself as Robertson's friend. "They all use intimidation and political strong-arming to hopefully pick up a vote or two."

Though Robertson's not running for anything, says Falwell, "Pat is one of the most political people I know." Robertson declined to be interviewed for this article. It is unclear what impact he will have on the Miers nomination. A Senate Republican source burst out laughing when told of Robertson's threat on the Miers nomination. "I don't know anybody on the Hill who's going to quake in their boots when Pat Robertson issues some sort of a threat or a decree," said the source, who requested anonymity to protect his boss.

Robertson's clout stems from his founding in 1989 of the Christian Coalition, which succeeded in inserting the power of evangelicalism into the political arena -- a force shaping the nation's politics to this day, as the Miers battle shows. And Robertson's 1988 run for the White House, though it failed, painted him as the go-to leader on Christian conservatism. But the Christian Coalition today is a shadow of its former self politically. And some analysts say Robertson's credibility has suffered, in part, from his rhetoric.

It is notable, though, that the American Center for Law and Justice, another institution Robertson founded, is headed by Jay Sekulow, one of the White House's advisers on judicial nominations. Sekulow says he is not a Robertson conduit to the Oval Office. "Pat Robertson's an influential conservative leader," says Sekulow. "He's quite capable of picking up the phone himself."

A poll conducted for the Public Broadcasting Service last year found that half of white evangelicals viewed Robertson favorably, while James Dobson of Focus on the Family, another Christian conservative group, received favorable ratings from 75 percent. Robertson, in his "700 Club" statement Thursday, listed some of the conservative leaders supporting Miers. In addition to himself, they were Dobson, Falwell, Sekulow and Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dobson declined to comment on Robertson.

Land, who said he is on friendly terms with Robertson, said he did not agree with Robertson's tactic of "making threats to senators" and called Robertson's comments suggesting Chavez should be assassinated "inappropriate," "foolish" and "counterproductive."

In August on "The 700 Club," Robertson said of Chavez: "We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another 200-billion-dollar war to get rid of one strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with." Robertson later apologized.

Last month, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Robertson said, "We have killed over 40 million unborn babies in America." Then he mused about American society being "unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way?"

Robertson's style is that of the demagogue, some critics say, who profits from the sense of marginalization felt by many conservative Christians -- the us-vs.-them mentality that courses through the evangelical Christian movement. "If you watch his program on a regular basis, you find that he has created a kind of alternative world view that he presents to his viewers," says Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Boston is no fan of Robertson, it should be noted. He wrote the 1996 book "The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition."

Boston describes the Robertson worldview this way: "The rest of society mocks evangelical Christianity, doesn't understand God's plan, is un-Christian. . . . Public school systems are out to corrupt your children, that Christians are persecuted like Nazis." As Robertson's strange public statements have mounted in recent years, his political clout has diminished, and even fellow Christian leaders have tired of defending or explaining him, some observers say.

"Whether there are a lot of moms in Alabama or Kansas or Missouri who watch Pat [on television] every day while ironing, his own influence among the larger religious conservative movement has been on the wane for some time and is largely torpedoing," says Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals and Civic Life Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "On the conservative side politically, everybody's avoiding this guy and trying to figure out how not to make him mad and, at the same time, not make him an ally," he said. There are so many contradictions to Robertson. He is a Christian who advocates killing.

He opposes gambling and yet was involved in professional horse racing. (He disbanded his racing stable, including a horse named "Mr. Pat," amid criticism in 2002 of his racing interest.) He was a credible presidential candidate in 1988, even besting a sitting president (George H.W. Bush) in an Iowa caucus.

A mere three years later, he showed himself far outside the mainstream when he penned "The New World Order," which alleged a web of historic connections involving the Illuminati, Free Masons, Rothschilds, Warburgs, Trilateral Commission, Council on Foreign Relations and Satan, master of them all down through the ages.

Some commentators said the book carried a heavy dose of anti-Semitism, since the venal money men in it tended to be Jews. But in the years since "The New World Order" was published, Robertson's staunch advocacy for Israel (which he and other Christians justify because they believe Israel is key to the return of Jesus Christ) has won him high marks from some conservative Jewish commentators.

"The guy is going to Israel and speaking up for Israel and shaking hands with Jews," says William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "The 'lived reality' is, yeah, he has some wacky views. On the other hand, he's not seeking to put them to any effect."

Kristol says he's more troubled by a different Robertson contradiction: He is a religious leader who has been an apologist for an impressive list of dictators: Rios Montt of Guatemala, Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire, Charles Taylor of Liberia. (He even did business with the latter two, attempting diamond and gold mining deals in Zaire and Liberia, respectively.) "That's different from having some oddball views," says Kristol. "For me, that puts Robertson in a bad category."

Over the years, Robertson explained his advocacy for dictators in terms of the Cold War: Mobutu and Montt, he would say, were anti-Communist. And Taylor, he would say of the Liberian leader in more recent times, was a Christian leader facing the surge of Islam in Africa. Never mind that Taylor was associated with rebels who routinely amputated civilians' hands; never mind that he would be indicted as a war criminal. Robertson's involvement with Zaire and Liberia ran counter to U.S. State Department policies.

Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for Africa from 1989 to 1993, says Robertson's dealings with Mobutu were viewed in Foggy Bottom as a joke, an example of Mobutu scamming yet another American, as was his pattern. "Mobutu kind of conned him, probably says, 'I'm a great Christian,' " Cohen says.

Typically, Robertson's controversies create a temporary burst of outrage or interest that fades after a few days. He moves on to other targets, other subjects: from Chavez to Miers, for instance -- while the evangelical movement is left to decide once again how to position itself toward its controversial elder.

"The strengths of our movement are also its hamstrings," Cizik says. "Charismatic leaders, entrepreneurial in nature, who are populist and nonacademic, succeed with many of our constituents. But therein is also the flaw of evangelicalism for decades, namely the failure to develop a public theology or a more sophisticated political engagement."

2005 The Washington Post Company