Although the concept of separation of church and state is entrenched in the US constitution, the influence of churchmen in political affairs is an American tradition dating back to the colonial era. Indeed, modern media has made the voice of contemporary evangelists every bit as powerful as Cotton Mather’s sermons were to the early Puritans. Pat Robertson, who has died aged 93, rode the growth of cable television, and a shrewd sense of the economics of the business, to become the most overtly political, and arguably the most influential, of them all.
When Robertson appeared on the front of Time magazine in 1986, the cover line read Gospel TV: Religion, Politics and Money. The melding of those three strands of his career was not always seamless, though in American fundamentalism, material wealth is usually seen as a visible sign of God’s blessing. Through his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), he progressed from televised faith healing to a serious run at the US presidency in 1988, and made a fortune in the process.
Robertson started that campaign for the Republican nomination with a petition, and contributions, from 3 million viewers, and finished second in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of the then vice-president George HW Bush. But voters gave him little support in the Republican primaries, and Bush of course went on to the presidency.
Robertson, who had handed control of CBN to his son Tim, then founded the Christian Coalition of America. Having failed to take over the Republican party, his “rainbow coalition” of fundamentalists would attempt to steer the party in its ideological direction.
The coalition’s lobbying exerted immense influence, helping spearhead the right’s assault on President Bill Clinton, and provided both a fundraising and ideological template for Bush. Although the coalition was censured and fined for coordinating its campaigns directly with the Republican party, and for improper aid delivered to then-House majority leader Newt Gingrich and the Virginia senatorial candidate Oliver North, its success spurred on Robertson’s indulgence in another grand tradition of American evangelical preachers, the hubris that found him courting constant controversy, and frequent financial scandal.
Controversy became inevitable with the shift from mainstream politics to the Christian Coalition. Preaching to the converted meant the restraints on expressing his true beliefs were lifted. The framework for those beliefs was set out in his 1991 bestseller The New World Order, an amalgam of historical conspiracy theories, which posited an alliance of Masons and Jewish bankers who controlled the world.
Robertson called feminism a “socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”. He predicted that the staging of “gay days” at Disney World would result in God’s retribution through earthquakes, tornados, terrorist bombings or meteors.
Asked to be “nice” about rival Protestant denominations, such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians or Methodists, he said: “I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the antichrist.” He described leftwing academics as “racists, murderers, sexual deviants, and supporters of al-Qaida”.
In 2005 he called for the assassination of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and explained Ariel Sharon’s 2006 stroke as God’s retribution for giving land back to Palestinians. He later apologised to Sharon’s family and claimed to have been misquoted.
That followed Robertson’s standard pattern, of making wild accusations that pleased his core audience, then claiming to have been misquoted by an anti-Christian mainstream media. Most notoriously, on his TV show The 700 Club, he agreed emphatically with his fellow evangelist Jerry Falwell’s theory that the 9/11 attacks were caused by “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union, and [the progressive advocacy group] People for the American Way”. After the ensuing uproar, he claimed that due to a malfunctioning earpiece he had not actually heard what Falwell was saying when he agreed with it.
Robertson came by his political ambitions naturally, being related through the family of his mother, Gladys (nee Willis), to two presidents, the Harrisons, William Henry and Benjamin, while his father, Willis Robertson, was a US Senator from Virginia, one of the conservative segregationist southern Democrats dubbed “Dixiecrats”. He was born in Lexington, Virginia, and christened Marion Robertson, but was nicknamed Pat, because his older brother, Willis Jr, would say “pat, pat, pat” while patting baby Marion’s cheeks.
Pat was educated at two military academies: McDonogh, near Baltimore, and McCallie, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He attended Washington and Lee University in his home town. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Marines, but his claims to have seen combat with the First Marine Division in Korea came back to haunt him during his run for the presidential nomination.
His Republican rival, Congressman Pete McCloskey, who had served with Robertson, said Robertson’s father had used influence to keep him out of combat, and that his primary responsibility had been to keep the officers’ clubs stocked with liquor. Robertson denounced this, and allegations by fellow Marines that he had consorted with prostitutes, as attempts to discredit him.
Robertson returned home to gain a law degree in 1955 from Yale, but failed the bar exam. Soon afterwards, he was converted by the Dutch missionary Cornelius Vanderbreggen. By the time he was ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1961, he had bought his first television station, in Portsmouth, Virginia, and established the Christian Broadcasting Network. He gave Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker their first break, doing a children’s programme, and started the breakfast-time show The 700 Club, its title taken from a fundraising drive for 700 subscribers.
Robertson’s early success was based on televised faith healing. Critics pointed out that God seemed to speak through Robertson while taking programme cues from the director. His style, with fixed smile and narrow eyes, could seem almost a caricature of a snake-oil salesman, but its appeal was unquestionable, as CBN eventually claimed an audience in 180 countries. It functioned as a network of affiliated stations subscribing to its programming, but in 1977 Robertson started his own cable channel, CBN Cable, offering mainstream entertainment bookended by The 700 Club.
Renamed the Family Channel, its profits eventually threatened CBN’s religious non-profit status, so Robertson set up International Family Entertainment, with himself and Tim as its heads, and sold the Family Channel to it. In 1992 he took IFE public, making $90m on the launch. In 1997, IFE sold the Family Channel to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network for $1.9bn. Fox has since sold it on to Disney, but as a condition of the original sale, the channel, now called Freeform, is still required to broadcast The 700 Club, hosted by Pat’s son Gordon, president of CBN, twice a day.
Evangelists including Oral Roberts and Bob Jones had founded their own colleges, and Robertson’s television success spawned CBN University, now called Regent University, at the CBN headquarters in Virginia Beach, the city where Robertson lived in a hilltop mansion with its own landing strip. On a number of occasions he credited his public prayers for steering hurricanes away from Virginia Beach, though he was unsuccessful with Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
More controversial than Regent was his international humanitarian charity Operation Blessing. In 1994, it was claimed in his local newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, that Robertson’s impassioned fundraising for Operation Blessing’s refugee airlift in Rwanda and Zaire was at least partly a cover for the use of his aircraft to transport diamond-mining equipment for the Robertson-owned African Development Corporation. A long investigation by Virginia’s Office of Consumer Affairs recommended Robertson be prosecuted for fraud, but the state’s attorney general, Mark Earley, brought no charges against him. The George W Bush administration made Operation Blessing the second-largest recipient of federal relief funds in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, which was seen in some quarters as payback for Robertson’s support.
In 2003, Robertson used The 700 Club as a platform to argue on behalf of the Liberian president Charles Taylor, who had been indicted by the UN for war crimes. It emerged that Robertson had an investment in a Liberian gold mine, which he claimed was intended to help pay for Operation Blessing’s humanitarian efforts in the country, but which was allowed to go bankrupt after Taylor’s departure from office.
Other business enterprises included the Ice Capades, a pyramid sales scheme, and a financial services venture with the Bank of Scotland, which was cancelled after Robertson called Scotland “a dark land overrun by homosexuals”. No matter how outrageous his statements, Robertson never alienated his core audience, and could count on the committed support of born-again Christians who felt the Lord spoke through him, and rewarded him for passing on his message, as did countless politicians hungry for his endorsement.
He married Dede (Adelia) Elmer in 1954. She died in 2022 and Robertson is survived by their sons, Tim and Gordon, and daughters, Elizabeth and Ann, 14 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.
Title: Pat Robertson obituary
Source: World news: Religion | guardian.co.uk
Source URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/religion
Date: June 8, 2023 at 09:15PM
Feedly Board(s): Religion