Televangelist Pat Robertson’s incendiary remarks raise concerns, even within the religious right movement he helped found.
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Pat Robertson is lunching this sunny afternoon at his four-star hotel, where the waitresses have committed his favorite meal to memory: grilled chicken over field greens, berries in season, iced tea no lemon.
Just across the campus of the sprawling Christian Broadcast Network complex, pledges are pouring in to the “The 700 Club” telethon that Robertson has spent the morning hosting, demonstrating once again the famous fundraising prowess that has made him one of the world’s most recognizable and influential televangelists.
But lately the charismatic broadcaster is better known for something else — a series of controversial and incendiary remarks that have foisted him into the news. And the limelight has not been flattering.
His evangelical peers have branded him “arrogant” for his comments, and students at the Christian university he founded worry that his candor could damage their school’s credibility. The political left eagerly monitors his appearances on his spirits-raising morning show. What they find becomes fodder for talk-show monologues.
“Pat Robertson said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke was God’s punishment for him giving up Israeli territory…. If you are playing along at home, this is Pat’s first idiotic statement of the New Year,” Jay Leno quipped.
Outspokenness is nothing new for the man who once said feminism encouraged women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
But at age 75, and freed from the need to marshal political capital, Robertson seems even less restrained than ever. His verbal grenades sound more like bombs, and even those in the evangelical community are noticing.
“I am almost as shocked by Pat Robertson’s arrogance as I am by his insensitivity,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination.
Robertson said this month that his controversial comments were a result of impulsive tendencies. “My passion runs ahead of me…. The problem is, I ad lib,” he told “Good Morning America.”
The impromptu bombshells have been falling fast since last summer.
In August, he called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, proclaiming on the air: “We have the ability to take him out,” which he said would be “a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.” He later apologized.
In September, he suggested Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon were divine retribution for legalized abortion, citing a Bible passage that the earth will “vomit out” those who “shed innocent blood.”
In November, he warned the town of Dover, Pa., that it risked God’s wrath for voting out of office conservative school board members who favored teaching the religiously charged concept of intelligent design.
In January came the Sharon remark, delivered as the prime minister clung to life in a hospital bed: “God considers this land to be his…. For any prime minister of Israel who decides he will carve it up and give it away, God said, ‘No, this is mine.’ “
He later apologized for that too. Nevertheless, the Israeli government broke off advanced negotiations with American evangelicals over a tourism venture in the hills near the Sea of Galilee.
Robertson’s comments have thrust him back into the news. Declining an interview with this newspaper, his spokeswoman Angell Watts said “every media outlet you can imagine” wanted a piece of Robertson’s time.
But his reputation appears to have suffered within the conservative Christian movement he helped found about 40 years ago, when he turned a puny UHF station in Portsmouth, Va., into one of the world’s largest electronic ministries.
In a sign of fading appeal in the Christian establishment, Robertson canceled a Feb. 21 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Dallas after the group’s leaders suggested his appearance could detract from the event.
Some political observers suggest that Robertson has ratcheted up his rhetoric in an attempt to reclaim his lost mantle as the voice and face of the Christian right
“He is fading to the sidelines of this movement,” said Laura Olson, author of “Religion and Politics in America” and political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. “The Christian right has grown so sophisticated and so diversified, they don’t need him guiding the movement anymore.”
Still, Robertson’s reach is vast. “The 700 Club’s” average daily audience exceeded 830,000 this season, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from 1 million a decade ago but formidable enough that some dare not incur his notorious wrath.
“He’s like a little bitty Oprah among evangelicals,” said Doug Wead, an author and former advisor to President George H. W. Bush. “He’s got a talk show, so if someone comes out and says Pat’s a little goofy, he is going to have to accept the fact he won’t be on Pat Robertson’s show when his book comes out.”
Born Marion Gordon Robertson, the future televangelist grew up in a prominent Virginia family influenced by religion and politics. His father, A. Willis Robertson, served in Congress for about 30 years and was said to have been always ready with a Bible quotation. His mother, Gladys, was a woman of deep faith who ultimately became a religious recluse, according to biographer David Edwin Harrell Jr.
With a head for business and a law degree from Yale, Robertson started the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960 with no less a mission than to “prepare the world for the second coming of Jesus Christ.” He asked 700 donors to pledge $10 a month to meet expenses; hence was born one of the longest-running television shows in history.
Today, CBN has its headquarters in a cross-shaped building on 685 acres. Though built in the late ’70s, the complex smacks of the graceful Old South and holds the fruits of Robertson’s entrepreneurial vision — the upscale Founder’s Inn Hotel; Regent University, with one of the few accredited Christian law schools in the country; the American Center for Law and Justice, the Christian right’s answer to the ACLU; and Operation Blessing International, a global charity.
Robertson remains the chairman of CBN and a fixture on this Norfolk suburb. His face covers a wall at the local airport. The faux 19th century hotel is adorned with gold walls, federal-blue rugs and life-sized portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Robertson — standing, Bible in hand, before a flag unfurled.
But here, as in the larger world, Robertson is both revered and reviled.
“I support him 100%,” said Janet Jaworski, a prayer counselor at CBN who helps callers communicate with God. “He’s speaking the truth. Some people don’t want to hear the truth.”
“We think he’s an idiot,” said Dot Pierce, 70, one of several Virginia Beach seniors who had just emerged from the same hotel dining room as Robertson. “He has foot-in-mouth disease every time he speaks. He’s an embarrassment.”
In interviews, students at Regent University law school said they believed Robertson was a man of God but wished he would be more careful with his public statements, because they thought the school’s credibility rose and fell with Robertson’s.
“I don’t know if they are taken out of context or if he strongly believes what he says, but sometimes I think he should be more careful,” said first-year law student Michelle Walker, 25, expressing a sentiment echoed by other students. “It could reflect badly on Regent. I have friends around the country, and they kid me about it.”
From this Virginia Beach dominion, Robertson projects a youthful vitality and a larger-than-life image — clasping hands on-air with a co-host to pray for a miraculous healing or claiming to leg press 2,000 pounds thanks to his signature “Age-Defying Protein Pancakes.” He says he possesses paranormal gifts, such as direct communication with God and Satan, and the ability to speak in tongues and perform miracles. Although some of Robertson’s business ventures have been wildly successful, others have been widely criticized, including a 1999 stab at a gold mining project in Liberia with accused war criminal Charles Taylor. Robertson’s attempt in 2002 to reopen a Los Angeles-area oil refinery was protested by local residents on environmental grounds.
His critics do not contest that he is a man of tremendous faith. But several also spoke of his temper and impulsiveness.
When Wead, the former advisor to the first President Bush, supported him rather than Robertson in the 1988 presidential campaign, Robertson sent him a letter comparing him to Judas and Vidkun Quisling, Norway’s Benedict Arnold.
Watts, the Robertson spokeswoman, said Robertson did not recall such a letter and added that the two men were on friendly terms today.
“Pat is not known in the Christian community for mercy and for love,” said Herb Titus, a constitutional lawyer in Virginia and a founding dean at Regent, who ultimately sued Robertson for breach of contract. “You can find just numerous people who came to work and really believed it was a call of God and were dismissed summarily, sometimes just before Christmas.”
Watts offered a different picture of Robertson.
“Those among us who do work closely with him and know him personally,” he said, “know Dr. Robertson to be a reasoned man who possesses great vision and is very forgiving.”
Indeed, for many of his flock, Robertson is a beloved spiritual leader and the object of some fascination. His followers are fervent. Pledges as large as $50,000 poured into his show one morning during the recent telethon.
Olson, the Clemson professor, said Robertson’s legacy might be the success of the religious right he helped mobilize, even if the movement did not look to him for guidance the way it once had done.
“Like a parent holding the back of a child’s bike when learning to ride,” she said, “they learn, and they don’t need the parent anymore.”