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The end of the line for Pat Robertson?

IN 1995, I WROTE a book called The Most Dangerous Man in America?: Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition. Were I to write that book today I would call it The Biggest Loose Cannon in America and leave off the question mark.

It has been a long, strange trip for Robertson. Now seventy-six, he is increasingly viewed as a has-been religious right leader in his dotage, prone to say bizarre and offensive things.

Recent months have provided a treasure trove of Robertsonalia. He suggested that U.S. forces assassinate Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. He warned the residents of Dover, Pennsylvania, to no longer expect God's protection after they removed creationists from the school board. He opined that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke might have been punishment from God for giving Gaza to the Palestinians. He said of Muslims, "These people are crazed fanatics and I want to say it now: I believe it's motivated by demonic power, it is satanic and it's time we recognize what we're dealing with."

Even some conservative Christians can no longer stomach Robertson. Following the Sharon incident Richard Land, top lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for the Southern Baptist Convention remarked, "I'm appalled that Pat Robertson would make such statements. He ought to know better. The arrogance of the statement shocks me almost as much as the insensitivity of it." Land added that he believes Robertson's influence among evangelicals is weakening and "with each episode like this the rate of diminishment accelerates."

Also after the Sharon flap, Robertson announced that he wouldn't be speaking at the annual conference of the National Religious Broadcasters. Robertson cited scheduling conflicts but it's common knowledge he was dumped by skittish NRB officials. Following that blow Robertson, who has long served on the NRB's board of directors, then failed to win reelection to his seat.

The NRB's decision to keep Robertson at arm's length is welcome, as is Land's pointed criticism. But I have to wonder what took so long. The fact is, Robertson isn't just becoming increasingly eccentric as he ages. He has always been a loose cannon.

I wrote The Most Dangerous Man in America? partly to catalog some of Robertson's bizarre utterances over the years. There was a wealth to choose from--and I limited myself to 1980-1995. Had I been so inclined, I could have issued annual supplements.

Compiling the book, then monitoring Robertson since, have made me all too familiar with some of his "greatest hits." Here are some highlights:

* "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians" (1992 fund-raising letter opposing the Equal Rights Amendment in Iowa).

* "Many of those people involved with Adolf Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together" (700 Club, March 7, 1990).

* "Demons work behind the Hindu and other Oriental religions, as well as behind the teaching of mind control" (700 Club, July 4, 1995).

* "You say you're supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing. Nonsense! I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can love the people who hold false opinions, but I don't have to be nice to them" (700 Club, Jan. 14, 1991).

* "I want to say very clearly, ladies and gentlemen, there's no such thing in the Constitution as, quote, separation of church and state. That term does not exist in the United States Constitution. It existed in the former Soviet Union's constitution, but not America's" (700 Club, June 17, 1998).

Robertson has embraced--not just flirted with--extremism during his long career as a religious broadcaster. His off-the-wall comments aren't a recent development brought about by increasing senility. They form the basis of his career.

Indeed, I see no evidence that Robertson is becoming senile. He is saying the same things today that he was fifteen years ago. Advocates of religious diversity and separation of church and state have frequently called him on the carpet about it. But at long last some conservative Christians are speaking out--but only because they realize Robertson is finally becoming a liability to their political cause.

The sad thing is, Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), with an annual budget of about $185 million, is broadcast all over the world. I don't challenge Robertson's right to access the airwaves, but I do think it's unfortunate that millions around the globe see Robertson as the face of American Christianity. He speaks for a small slice of ultra-conservative fundamentalism, but what are the chances that someone living in an African nation or a remote part of Russia realizes that?

Robertson is also an astute businessman. Years ago he began laying the groundwork to keep CBN going after he's gone. The ministry now has an endowment that tops $2 billion, a cushion that should make the post-Robertson transition less rocky. The line of succession is clear: Robertson is increasingly handing off the ministry to his son, Gordon.

The rather bland Gordon Robertson, a frequent co-host on the 700 Club, seems to understand the need for ratcheting up his own rhetoric. Following in his dad's footsteps, Gordon attacked church-state separation on the air February 3, 2006, during a rant about pulpit-based politicking, telling viewers, "It's incredible the brainwashing that's happened in America today. Where a pastor can literally stand in front of a camera and say that any political action, whether it's against abortion or for traditional marriage, is somehow unconstitutional because the church has now violated the separation between church and state. It's absolutely incredible. That is brainwashing. There's nothing in the Constitution, there's no phrase that talks about the separation of church and state."

At the same time, Robertson's legal group, the American Center for Law and Justice, headed by attorney Jay Sekulow, continues to attack church-state separation in the courts. It is receiving an increasingly warm reception as President George W. Bush remakes the federal judiciary in a more conservative mode.

The only bright spot is that the Christian Coalition, the political group Robertson founded after the demise of his presidential campaign in 1988, is on the verge of collapse. Robertson cut the organization loose in 2000, and it has gone steadily downhill since. At the height of its power in the mid-1990s the Coalition had an annual budget of $25 million and was run by the savvy Republican Party operative Ralph Reed. Today the group's budget is a paltry $1 million. It limps along, headed by South Carolinian Roberta Combs and serving more or less as an employment agency for her family. (But even here the good news is tempered. The Coalition has faded but other groups, mainly the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, have moved in to fill the void. As a political force, the religious right is more powerful than ever.)

Eventually Robertson will be too old and infirm to rant and rave on the air. But that won't be the end of his influence. Like it or not, the organizations Robertson created have changed the American political and legal climates for the worse. We will have to deal with the fallout from that for many years to come.

Rob Boston is assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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