For nearly half a century, Pat Robertson has built a media juggernaut on the twin foundations of religious fundamentalism and hard-nosed politics. He has enjoyed unmatched influence, but is it the end of an era?
- Pat Robertson speaks to a meeting of the Christian Coalition in Washington DC in 1994 (Wally McNaMee / Corbis).
I spoiled Pat Robertson’s birthday.
I know, because he told me so.
On March 22, 2007, the day he turned seventy-seven, the televangelist and I sat eyeball-to-eyeball across the corner of a long table in a dark-paneled conference room at the Christian Broadcasting Network’s cross-shaped headquarters in Virginia Beach. Also at the table were two CBN lawyers and the editor, publisher, and lawyer from the newspaper I write for, the Virginian-Pilot. We had been summoned for a tongue-lashing over a story I had written about Robertson. It was a vicious piece, full of lies, he fumed—and what’s more, I had consciously timed its appearance to ruin his birthday. He demanded a retraction, a correction, an apology. If he didn’t get it, he implied none too subtly, he would sue.
“You guys are as crooked as a snake,” he sputtered. “I’ll have you all in depositions for the rest of your life.”
The story traced the saga of Pat’s Diet Shake, the latest commercial spin-off from Robertson’s soul-winning empire. In a legal tussle worthy of a John Grisham yarn, Robertson had been sued by Phil Busch, a street-smart Dallas bodybuilder who appeared on the broadcaster’s The 700 Club talk show claiming to have lost 200 pounds chugging Robertson’s diet concoction. Busch charged that Robertson had used him as a poster boy to promote his product without compensating him. At one point during the dispute, Busch filed a police report alleging that Robertson had threatened his life while giving a deposition in the case. Robertson said he had merely warned Busch that “almighty God is going to take your strength away.” Busch’s lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful, but it produced a sheaf of internal correspondence revealing the fuzzy line between Robertson’s for-profit enterprises, such as his weight-loss drink mix, and his nonprofit operation, most notably the bully pulpit of his television network, which enjoys tax-exempt status.
The paper never retracted the story, and Robertson didn’t sue. But, at least, he had the opportunity to tell me in person that I needed to atone. “God says, ‘Confess your sins,’” he told me, and as I shook his hand on the way out, added: “I’m going to pray for you.”
Over forty-six years of electronic ministry, this icon of evangelicalism has done a lot of praying, and he says it has paid a multitude of dividends. He declares with utmost confidence that God speaks to and through him, has diverted hurricanes at his urging, and has healed thousands of the sick and lame in answer to his pleas. He claims to have had personal encounters with Satan and the demons at his command, and in January 2007 he told his national audience that God had personally warned him of a major terrorist attack, “perhaps nuclear,” that would occur before year’s end. Given this track record, it would be easy to dismiss Robertson as a caricature. But that would be a mistake.
Since Jerry Falwell’s death, Robertson is the most visible evangelical leader in America. A recent public opinion survey conducted by Christian pollsters the Barna Group found that Robertson was the only religious figure besides Billy Graham—who has retired from preaching—known to at least half the population. Perhaps of most import for the nation and the world, he has pioneered a unique marriage between theology and politics. This is a man who ran for president because, he said, God told him to, but that brief campaign twenty years ago would be merely a footnote in American political history were it not for the potent legacy it spawned.
- Robertson got his start in broadcasting in 1961 after buying a down-and-out TV station in Portsmouth, Virginia (Courtesy The Virginian-Pilot).
Robertson has never really left the political stage. He opines on world events daily on his TV show and regularly interviews national and world leaders. Presidential hopefuls give major speeches at Regent University, the school he founded, where former attorney general John Ashcroft is on the faculty. Out of the ashes of the Robertson presidential campaign came an army of Bible-believing religious fundamentalists which has won a degree of political power unprecedented in modern times.
It is not just happenstance that the White House is now occupied by a born-again Christian who, like Robertson, intimates that he has the ear of God; whose administration is stocked with dozens of Regent graduates; and who is waging what many on both sides are coming to perceive as a worldwide holy war. And Robertson sees himself as the movement’s latter-day John the Baptist, sent to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, who he believes will rule the world in a “perfect theocracy.”
Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson came by his twin passions, politics and religion, naturally.
His father, A. Willis Robertson, a conservative Democrat, was in the Virginia State Senate in 1930, when Pat was born, and progressed to Congress and the US Senate by 1948. Pat’s mother, Gladys Churchill Robertson, an intensely religious woman, was proud of her heritage, which included Winston Churchill and two US presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. She was fond of telling her son he was born for leadership. Both Willis and Gladys Robertson were the children of preachers and raised their son as a strict Southern Baptist.
Robertson attended military prep schools and majored in history at Washington and Lee University in his hometown of Lexington, Virginia. After a stint in the Marines during the Korean War, he entered the Yale law school. While at Yale, Robertson met his wife-to-be, Dede, a Catholic nursing student from Ohio. He received his JD in 1955 but failed the New York bar exam and never practiced law. Instead he decided to try his hand at business, working for the conglomerate W. R. Grace and later starting his own electronics business. He and Dede had set up housekeeping in a chauffeur’s cottage overlooking New York Harbor on Staten Island. They were trying to be “sophisticated New York swingers,” he wrote in his 1972 autobiography, Shout It from the Housetops, hanging a huge Modigliani nude over the sofa and keeping Courvoisier on the bar. But Robertson couldn’t find his niche and soon became “burdened with the futility of life.” He contemplated suicide.
“You need to be born again,” his mother told him, bombarding the couple with gospel tracts. At her urging, Robertson had dinner with an acquaintance of his mother, an itinerant evangelist named Cornelius Vanderbreggen, at an elegant restaurant in Philadelphia. Robertson was impressed. “I was used to the expensive bistros around New York, but that a faith missionary should say the Lord had led him to dine at this restaurant where the waiters wore white tie and tails was more than I could comprehend,” he wrote. “I thought that God’s people wore shabby clothes, baggy trousers, and suit coats that didn’t match. I thought they ate hamburger and boiled turnips.”
By the next day, Robertson had undergone a conversion experience. “Dede, I’m saved!” he exclaimed to his wife. He took the nude down from the wall and put it out with the trash and, to Dede’s consternation, poured all their cognac down the drain. Although his wife was seven months pregnant, Robertson trekked off to a Christian summer camp in the Canadian woods to commune with God.
“Please come back. I need you desperately,” Dede pleaded in a note.
“I can’t leave. God will take care of you,” Robertson replied.
Robertson believes that one night in his cabin, as he lay on his cot, Satan spoke to him, trying to dissuade him from his path. But Robertson resisted.
He returned to Manhattan and entered the Biblical Seminary in New York, a conservative evangelical school later renamed the New York Theological Seminary. Hungering for spiritual ecstasy, he and a group of friends became close to Harald Bredesen, a Pentecostal Lutheran minister who was instrumental in the birth of the modern charismatic movement. They began holding all-night prayer meetings. One night in 1959, Bredesen began speaking in tongues while he clapped his hands and spun around in a tight circle.
“It seemed as if a heavenly teletype machine had mysteriously been activated,” Robertson wrote. “Everyone in the room knew we had heard from God.”
Robertson, too, began speaking in tongues, which sounded like “some kind of African dialect,” he wrote. Eventually Dede underwent a conversion experience and took up the practice, too, which in her case sounded like French.
Soon after graduating from the seminary, while Dede was in Ohio nursing her sick brother, Robertson sold most of their household possessions, gave away the proceeds, and moved the family into a rat-infested brownstone next door to a brothel in the rundown Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The brownstone was the home of a seminary friend, Dick Simmons, who had taken a pastorate there. For two months Robertson and his friends held predawn prayer meetings, spoke in tongues, performed baptisms in Long Island Sound, and commanded the demons to come out of Ruby—the madam next door. “Her hair stood straight up on her head, she screamed ‘JESUS!’ and was delivered,” Robertson wrote.
Dede hated life in the brownstone and was overjoyed when Robertson announced in November 1959 that God had new plans for him. He had learned of a bankrupt UHF TV station for sale in Portsmouth, Virginia, and God had told him, “I want you to have it.” He even specified the price Robertson was to pay: $37,000. With that, he loaded the family’s remaining possessions into a U-Haul trailer and drove their 1953 DeSoto to Hampton Roads to become a pioneer in the brave new world of electronic evangelism.
Robertson had his work cut out for him.
Thanks to the Virginia Beach–based Association for Research and Enlightenment, founded in 1931 by famed seer Edgar Cayce, Robertson found the area overrun by “mediums, clairvoyants and necromancers” drawn by “satanic vibrations.” The giant Norfolk Naval Base, too, had left the region “rampant with sin.” Robertson later wrote that Hampton Roads “was literally a spiritual wasteland. For years it had been in the grip of demon power.” And the residents were none too eager for Robertson’s brand of salvation. He was even turned down for membership in one Baptist church, because they rejected his belief in speaking in tongues. He scraped by for 1960 and most of 1961, while he made his preparations for broadcasting. Only local philanthropist Fred W. Beazley, a longtime friend of Robertson’s father, kept the young preacher going by providing a $100-per-week stipend and allowing his family to live in an old mansion on the campus of Frederick College (later defunct and sold to the state to found Tidewater Community College).
Worst of all, in September 1961 just as Robertson’s fledgling TV station was preparing for its first broadcast, Hampton Roads was threatened with devastation by Hurricane Esther, a category-4 storm pushing northwest across the Atlantic. Nearly 15,000 residents were evacuated from the Norfolk area, where the National Weather Service predicted the hurricane would make landfall, but Robertson refused to leave. From a ballroom at the top of the Monticello Hotel in downtown Norfolk, he prayed that God would divert the hurricane and spare the station. The storm slowed and turned northward, skirting the Virginia coast and eventually making landfall on Nantucket Island and the coast of Maine. Robertson claimed credit for the miracle—and now says he has prayed away several other hurricanes from Hampton Roads in the years since. “For the past 45 years or so,” he wrote in Miracles Can Be Yours Today, published in 2006, “God has set an invisible shield around our area.”
On October 1, 1961, just days after the storm had passed, Robertson’s WYAH—as in “Yahweh”—went on the air, with the evangelist praying in front of a cardboard cross. Such humble beginnings notwithstanding, God wanted only the best for WYAH, which would expand into the goliath Christian Broadcast Network. Robertson wrote that the Almighty had told him, “Pat, I want you to have an RCA transmitter”—the most expensive FM transmitter then on the market at $19,000. In the beginning, pricey and divine demands like these strained Robertson’s budget to the breaking point. Expenses continued to skyrocket, and the future of the station seemed constantly imperiled. In 1962, Robertson came up with a solution for his financial woes by holding a telethon. The goal was to find 700 viewers who were willing to each pledge $10 a month, enough to cover the station’s expenses. Robertson dubbed this group The 700 Club.
On a brilliant cloudless morning, I strolled along the riverfront-shopping promenade in Branson, Missouri. The Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise” blared from street-side speakers. Just steps from Victoria’s Secret, a Christian Outdoorsman kiosk was hawking I’m Hooked on Jesus T-shirts. Up the street, an old-fashioned five-and-dime featured an Elvis fiber-optic light box—depicting the King resplendent in a rhinestone-studded outfit—for the strangely specific amount of $43.97.
Welcome to Middle America’s Vegas.
At night, on a gaudy strip ablaze with neon stretching westward from downtown, you can hear a down-home crooner at the God & Country Theatre or see racing pigs at the Dixie Stampede. On stages lining either side of the highway, you can see people you may not have known were still alive: Andy Williams. Bobby Vee. Fabian. Jim Bakker.
Yes, that Jim Bakker. Pat Robertson’s fallen prodigy has risen again. His new Jim Bakker Show is taped daily in Branson and beamed into millions of homes via satellite. The high-flying days of his PTL (“Praise the Lord”) TV show and the multi-million-dollar Christian complex he built outside Charlotte are long gone, felled by a sex-and-blackmail scandal. Before it was all over, Bakker suffered a nervous breakdown, during which he had to be coaxed from a fetal position under a sofa in his lawyer’s office, and spent five years in prison in the 1990s for fraud. He lost a lot of hair, and he lost his bubbly blond wife and ministry partner, Tammy Faye, who divorced him to marry his best friend. He came out of prison a chastened man.
But Jim Bakker is back onstage. He has a new bubbly blond wife, Lori, who co‑hosts his show, and he has a new message—one of restoration, of new beginnings, of broken spirits healed. “God is such a good God,” he told the studio audience of about fifty on the day I visited. “He’s the God of the second chance.” In homage to his adopted Ozarks home, he hosted the taping dressed in denim overalls and a plaid work shirt.
“I plan to live in these hills until the Rapture,” he said.
The TV format is that of a late-night talk show. Bakker sits behind a desk and banters with his guests and his wisecracking sidekick, Kevin, who sits on an adjacent couch. The chatter is casual and largely ad-libbed. It’s a format he pioneered in Christian TV, Bakker told me after the show. He came up with it while working for Pat Robertson.
He had no experience in TV when Robertson hired him and Tammy Faye to help develop programming for the nascent CBN in the early 1960s. “I had a dream as a young evangelist,” he said. “I used to like watching the Johnny Carson show, because it was so different from church. I thought, you know, it’s too bad there isn’t a Christian Johnny Carson. I said to Pat, ‘I want to do a late-night talk show.’ He said, ‘Okay, if you do a kids’ show first.’”
Jim and Tammy Faye had been putting on a puppet show for several years as part of their itinerant ministry, so together they devised the simple format—Tammy Faye putting on voices for Susie Moppett and Allie the Alligator and Jim out front interacting with the puppets. Everything was done on such a shoestring that Jim had to build all the sets himself. When Come On Over debuted on WYAH in September 1965, Tammy Faye was so nervous she couldn’t utter a word, but soon she grew at ease in front of the camera, and audiences loved the young couple. “They’re Tidewater’s answer to Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Green Jeans,” the Virginian-Pilot reported in 1970.
Bakker led me downstairs to his crowded office, its walls lined with memorabilia from his forty-five years of ministry, and pulled down a framed copy of the puppet show’s nameplate. He smiled, remembering the happy early days, but those times were rarely easy. Robertson’s station was always teetering on the brink of collapse, and Bakker told me that they decided in 1966 to extend their usual donation time into an all-night telethon in a last-ditch effort to stay on the air. In the wee hours, overcome by exhaustion, Bakker broke down on camera and wept like a baby. Donations poured in, erasing the station’s debts.
“That night,” Bakker said, “The 700 Club was born.”
For the next eight years, Bakker hosted the daily broadcast of The 700 Club—alone at first, joined later by Robertson—as the self-styled Christian Johnny Carson he had always imagined. While most televangelists at the time thundered from a pulpit in a bombastic, fire-and-brimstone style, Bakker talked to the guests and the audience in a folksy, chatty manner, with a self-deprecating charm. He discussed the news, family finance, parenting, and lifestyle choices. To all appearances, The 700 Club was formatted like any secular talk show, except for periodic testimonies of salvation and miraculous healings accompanied by Bakker’s reminding viewers that the phone bank was open to take donations and prayer requests.
To keep calls coming, Robertson repeatedly emphasized the “prosperity gospel”—the belief, common among televangelists, that Christians are entitled to claim financial rewards as evidence of God’s favor. Robertson likes to call it the Law of Reciprocity, telling viewers that if they are true-believing Christians, financial rewards are theirs for the asking. (“We are to command the money to come to us,” he once wrote.) As a result, Robertson never had to feign guilt over indulging in the just financial rewards of his spiritual successes. Today, he lives in a $3 million, 6,600-square-foot house with six and a half bathrooms, and he is partial to Corvettes. “You can be just as holy when you are financially comfortable as you can be when you are poor,” Robertson has written. “Poverty is a curse, not a blessing.”
One of the best ways to strengthen both piety and pocketbook, Robertson liked to remind his audience, was by donating to his ministry. To this day, The 700 Club features frequent stories about viewers who claim to have enjoyed dramatic financial gains after becoming regular donors. It’s no surprise, then, that the prosperity gospel which originally had drawn Robertson to evangelical Christianity became cemented in the financially shaky early days of his TV ministry, when he and Bakker would sometimes stay on the air until 4 a.m., hoping the phone would ring one more time with another donation.
To avoid the risk of alienating potential givers, Robertson’s one on-air rule was no discussion of politics. Even when Robertson’s father was running for reelection to the Senate in 1966, Robertson stayed decidedly out of the political arena. He later explained that God had told him not to get involved by campaigning for his father. “You cannot tie my eternal purpose to the success of any political candidate,” God said. Robertson insisted his role was to save souls and not to influence voters.
That political neutrality changed with two events—Watergate in 1972, and his father’s death in 1974; the first outraged him, and the second, perhaps, freed him to express that outrage. Robertson covered the Watergate scandal extensively on the network, repeatedly voicing his sense of betrayal and anger toward the White House. When Jimmy Carter—a fellow Baptist—ran for office, Robertson interviewed him and followed his campaign with great interest, but he soon grew dissatisfied by Carter as well. Eventually, as the Carter administration faltered, Robertson began to offer, to what he saw as the alienated Christian right, his own politics as an alternative.
And having done so, Robertson drew an ever-wider audience. In the decade between the time The 700 Club became a daily program and the midseventies, CBN purchased a new facility in Portsmouth with a 175,000-watt transmitter, then a staggering 2.25-million-watt transmitter that could reach most of the mid-Atlantic coastline. Robertson also purchased five radio stations in New York State and new TV stations in Atlanta and Dallas. Then, in 1976, CBN bought a satellite and, months later, broadcast its first feed from Jerusalem. Robertson’s teleministry was now big business. In 1972, Robertson wrote that you can’t “worry about technical production when the cameraman is caught up in the Spirit and begins to weep over someone’s testimony . . . Who cares about the time if God is moving?” But only a few years later, CBN’s brand of production had become distinctly professional. No longer were broadcast slots subject to whim. No more was airtime filled with homemade puppet shows.
Along with the increasingly political slant of the show came more and more secularized programming, aimed at broadening the network’s appeal. CBN began showing family-friendly reruns like Lassie to help finance pricey advertisements for The 700 Club on other networks. Soon, secular shows took up the bulk of CBN’s airtime. This shift led to Robertson’s first run-in with the government, when the state of Massachusetts realized that the programming on WXNE-TV in Boston, purchased by CBN in 1977, was more than 50 percent secular. The station could be tax-exempt only if it functioned as a church instead of a business. Robertson subsequently shifted his holdings to a new company, Continental Broadcasting—some said this shift was to prevent the state from accessing CBN’s financial records.
This glitch did little to slow CBN’s progress, however. The station was finally beginning to turn a profit, after years of surviving on charity from Robertson’s father and local donors. The gifts had often been generous (a local car dealer, for example, once gave Robertson a free Lincoln), but Robertson’s wife still had to work in a local hospital to support their four children—two boys and two girls. By the middle seventies, though, Robertson’s risky decision to “renounce wealth and privilege” to pursue a life of Christian televangelism was suddenly paying off in a whole lot of wealth and privilege. But in spite of the network’s burgeoning success—or perhaps because of it—tensions were growing between Bakker and Robertson.
One night, Bakker failed to show up for work, and Robertson was tempted to fire him. But as he was on his way out the studio doors, Robertson wrote later, he heard the voice of God say, “Don’t fire Jim Bakker,” so he relented. But eventually Bakker decided to leave on his own—or, as he told me in his Branson office, God told him to resign. “He said, ‘I want you to move, and I want you to resign.’ I said, ‘But God, I don’t have another job.’ He said, ‘I told you to resign.’ I said, ‘God, you sell the house, and then I’ll resign . . .’ I put the sign out, and within three days . . . God sold the house. Just sold it, just like that.”
Why did God want him to split with Robertson? God didn’t say. But Bakker admitted to me that in addition to his divine orders, “I was getting restless.” He insists now that it was an amicable parting, but in his autobiography, I Was Wrong, published in 1996, Bakker said simply: “Pat and I were never close after that.” Bakker had little time for looking back. By the mid-1980s, Bakker had his own daily TV show and had built the biggest Christian retreat center in the world, featuring a hotel, seven restaurants, time-shares, condos, a dinner theater, and a water park.
He quickly parlayed his new empire into political clout, meeting with presidents and presidential hopefuls. Among the memorabilia on the walls in Branson are photos of Bakker with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
A short hop from the glitz of Hollywood and the opulence of Beverly Hills, in a drab office behind a Quiznos sub shop in Burbank, California, Gerard Thomas Straub—Gerry to his friends— sits in front of a video monitor and watches endless pictures of poverty flash by. A leper colony in Brazil. A teeming slum at the base of a mountainous garbage dump in the Philippines. Homeless people living in cardboard boxes on Los Angeles’s skid row. Starving children lying helpless in the dirt in the remotest reaches of Uganda.
A gifted photographer and storyteller, Straub weaves these distressing images into documentary films aimed at exposing Americans to the harsh reality of persistent poverty. The films are difficult to watch. The scenes of abject squalor are presented with an unblinking eye, in an all-too-real cinema-verité style. Straub himself is nearly gnomelike in appearance with his droopy mustache and balding pate rimmed with longish hair. He grew up in Queens and still talks with a New Yorker’s staccato brio—one minute pondering the images on the screen, the next joking with his two young assistants about starting a cable TV channel with the slogan “All Misery, All the Time.” Straub knows that his films will penetrate only a tiny fraction of the audience he once reached, back when he made a cushy living producing soap operas such as General Hospital. But he doesn’t care. He believes he is doing the Lord’s work. “We try to find people who are living their faith,” he told me when I visited his small, windowless studio, which held a tangle of electronic equipment and mismatched office furniture. “People who exemplify a kind of self-emptying love, giving themselves away.”
Straub came to embrace this brand of Christianity—emphasizing social justice, concern for the poor, peace, and nonviolence—after a long and winding spiritual odyssey that included a life-changing stint with Pat Robertson and a public fracture that threatened to shake the ministry to its foundation.
The journey began when Straub, flipping through channels, caught Robertson on The 700 Club and was impressed. “I thought televangelists were buffoons,” he told me. “But Pat seemed sophisticated, intelligent. He didn’t seem like a phony.” Straub wrote to CBN—and was promptly offered a job. “I thought I’d landed in heaven,” he said, convinced, as he was, that it was the perfect opportunity to marry his twin passions: television and the Christian faith.
At the show, he advanced quickly, soon becoming a 700 Club producer and a Robertson confidant. The two men developed what Straub later described as almost a father–son relationship. “But it didn’t take long to discover that their faith was different from mine,” Straub told me. He grew particularly uncomfortable with Robertson’s claims of miracle cures for everything from acne, goiter, and varicose veins to arthritis, diabetes, and brain tumors. To this day, Robertson holds hands with his co-host, scrunches his eyes shut, and delivers “words of knowledge” to his viewers—accounts of people being healed as they watch the show. Even “a little shaggy dog” was being healed, he announced on one show in 2006.
“Not a soul in the place ever questioned what was happening,” Straub wrote later in his book Salvation for Sale. “I just assumed that someday I would understand. I was wrong.” Most people felt that everything was justified by Robertson’s apocalyptic theology. From the beginning of his ministry, Robertson has made plain that he expects to live to see the Second Coming of Jesus, and he is preparing for Christ’s final battle with the Antichrist, a demon-possessed man who will have ruled as a worldwide dictator for at least three and a half years. Robertson says lust, homosexuality, drunkenness, gluttony, and witchcraft can be expressions of demonic activity and believes that Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx were demon-possessed. At various times during the 1970s, he warned that Ouija boards, visits to fortune-tellers, and playing Dungeons and Dragons were potential sources of demonic possession. “It was dark, ominous,” Straub told me. “They saw evil everywhere.” And Robertson emphasizes that he does not regard such evil as mere metaphor for human failings. He believes, for example, that a wave of depression that he once experienced in a motel near Seattle was much more than self-doubt. “I realized I was under demonic attack,” he wrote. “I immediately took control over it and said, ‘Satan, in the name of Jesus, I cast you forth.’ The minute I said that, my mind was free and my despair was gone.”
Equally important to Robertson’s vision of the end-time is the nation of Israel. He sees Israel’s establishment in 1948 as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy—an event that set the clock ticking toward the creation of Christ’s kingdom—and took it as a sign from God that Israel’s Six-Day War began on the same day in 1967 that CBN broke ground on its new headquarters in Portsmouth. “In my thinking, the ministry of CBN was an end-times ministry,” he wrote. “Like John the Baptist, we had been called to proclaim the end of the old age and to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus Christ and the new age.” For Robertson the pact was sealed at a dedication ceremony for the new building when his old friend Harald Bredesen channeled God in a “word of prophecy,” intoning into the mike: “I have chosen you to usher in the coming of my Son.”
In order to prepare for the imminent Second Coming—which Robertson believes will occur on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem according to biblical prophecy—he acquired METV (Middle East Television), a station then based in southern Lebanon that could broadcast into Israel. Straub was given marching orders to be ready to televise Christ’s return. CBN executives drew up a detailed plan to broadcast the event to every nation and in all languages. Straub wrote: “We even discussed how Jesus’ radiance might be too bright for the cameras and how we would have to make adjustments for that problem. Can you imagine telling Jesus, ‘Hey, Lord, please tone down your luminosity; we’re having a problem with contrast. You’re causing the picture to flare.’”
Straub says it took him five years to deprogram himself after he left—a forced departure. Robertson had become convinced that Straub was having an affair with a married co-worker—a relationship Straub now admits. He says that Robertson, determined not to be brought down by sexual scandal as so many of his peers had been, had him followed and his office phone tapped. “Pat always seemed ill at ease around women, as if they were only temptations to be avoided,” he wrote later. “He is obsessed with the sins of the flesh.” As soon as Robertson was confident of the indiscretion, he let Straub go. Now Straub describes his former boss as rigid, hard-driving, cutthroat, and intolerant of dissent—but on the subject of his firing he betrays surprisingly little animosity. Whatever else he may have been, Straub insists, Robertson was not a charlatan. He considered what Straub was doing immoral and a threat, so he let him go. “Every fiber of his existence believes totally in his message,” Straub said, and he was forever seeking new avenues to win converts to his cause.
As a generation of ministers before Robertson knew, one of the best ways to spread your message is to found a university. Pioneer broadcast evangelist Bob Jones founded his own college in South Carolina in 1927—the same year that network radio was launched and his daily radio ministry was picked up all along the eastern seaboard. Subsequent generations of televangelists followed suit. Oral Roberts founded Oral Roberts University in 1963, and Jerry Falwell founded Lynchburg Baptist College (later Liberty University) in 1971. And Robertson, of course, had lived on the campus of conservative Frederick College in the early sixties and seen firsthand the remarkable influence the institution wielded over its students. An alumnus recently remembered, “Students could not be married; everyone had to live on campus; everyone had to go to chapel; women had to wear skirts or dresses and men wore ties and jackets. No one was allowed to have a car. I knew that once I was behind those gates, I was there to stay.” But Robertson claims that the idea of a university had never occurred to him until he had a revelation in August 1975 at Disneyland’s Grand Hotel just outside Los Angeles.
He was seeking guidance from God about whether to purchase a few acres in an empty section of land in Virginia Beach for his expanding television ministry. The WYAH studio building located in Portsmouth, according to CBN’s own website, “was taxed beyond its limits,” and Robertson worried about handling the additional expense. As he bowed his head to give thanks for his lunch of cantaloupe and cottage cheese, Robertson later recalled, “I sensed the Lord speak to me. ‘Buy all 143 acres and build an international communications center and school for my glory to take the message of Jesus Christ to the world.’ Little did I know then what God was about to do.”
Three years later, seventy-six students, under the direction of a mere seven faculty members and Robertson as president, began their graduate program in communication in rented classrooms in Chesapeake for what was then known as the Christian Broadcasting Network University. In 1980, that first class graduated, and the following fall the university took up its permanent home on the Virginia Beach acreage. The university’s original mission was to influence the media through its communication graduates. (In a later interview, Robertson imagined a day when “all three presidents of the major TV networks happened to be trained with master degrees from CBNU.”) In 1986, however, he saw a new opportunity. Early in the year, Oral Roberts University announced that it was abandoning its longtime goal of opening an accredited law school. Robertson acquired ORU’s law library (of nearly two hundred thousand volumes) and welcomed its twenty-five students and five faculty members to CBNU. In 1990, the name was changed to Regent University—a regent is one who governs in the absence of a sovereign, in this case, the “second earthly incarnation of Jesus”—as part of a concerted effort to separate the university from the rest of the CBN empire and create the appearance of autonomy. The new identity also would allow greater anonymity for its graduates, whose stated charge, according to Robertson’s authorized biographer, John B. Donovan, would be to “gradually infiltrate secular society.” Robertson began to imagine a future in which graduates of his law school would find footing in the world of politics and in the halls of justice.
Robertson had long rued the day in 1947 when the Supreme Court, in Everson v. Board of Education, enshrined Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Convention describing a “wall of separation between Church & State.” That decision, he has written, paved the way for the high court’s rulings in the early 1960s banning organized prayer and Bible reading in the public schools, which Robertson blames for “virtually every social pathology” in the United States today: the exploding prison population, teen pregnancy, drugs, divorce, murder, alcoholism, and low scholastic achievement. The lamentable result, he insists, has been the “establishment in the public schools of the religion of secular humanism with its attendant sexual permissiveness, embrace of one-world government, and Marxist-inspired economic theory.”
By training a new generation of lawmakers, Robertson hoped to reverse the Supreme Court’s wayward path. The first step would be to reject the legitimacy of the court’s landmark Marbury v. Madison decision of 1803, which established the concept of judicial review—the ability to declare laws unconstitutional. The final corrective, he wrote, would be for Congress to “nullify the decisions of the Supreme Court” by refusing to allow it to overturn new Christian-based laws: “Then those laws will remain in effect.”
At the same time, however, Robertson was pursuing a second strategy—a bid for the presidency. A president, he wrote, could simply refuse to enforce the court’s decisions. After all, he noted pointedly, the court has no army. According to Straub, as early as 1979, Robertson shared his presidential aspirations during private moments in the dressing room before 700 Club tapings. “Pat Robertson hopes he can ride his wave of spiritual superstardom straight to the White House,” Straub wrote. In 1986, Robertson made a pilgrimage to Charlotte to convince Jim Bakker to help him capture the evangelical vote. Bakker received his old mentor and also met with George H. W. Bush but ultimately endorsed neither—a snub that reportedly outraged Robertson.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A year later, as candidates were beginning to announce their runs for office, revelations surfaced of Bakker’s brief sexual fling with Jessica Hahn, a twenty-one-year-old church secretary, and his ministry’s subsequent payments of hush money to her. An ensuing investigation produced charges that Bakker fraudulently oversold “lifetime memberships” to his luxury hotel, resulting in his criminal conviction and imprisonment. Robertson reportedly viewed Bakker’s downfall as divine retribution for not endorsing an evangelical candidate.
Such thinking troubled Straub. “I would be terrified,” he wrote, “to have the president of the United States be a person who has daily conversations with both God and the Devil.”
On October 1, 1987, Robertson returned to the front steps of the Brooklyn brownstone where thirty years earlier he and Dede had lived to announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. It is a peaceful scene today, a tree-lined block, the graceful old townhouses humming with the renovations of gentrification. Back then, however, it was still a rough neighborhood, and Robertson was not exactly welcomed with open arms. He had to shout to be heard over dozens of protesters chanting, “Go home, Pat,” “Bigot, bigot, bigot,” and “Shame, shame, shame.” He pressed on, saying he had “a direct call and a leading from God” to run for president.
It was not the first time he had heard from the Lord about who should occupy the Oval Office. The days when God ordered Robertson not to mix his spiritual mission with a political agenda were long over. “I am persuaded,” he had written in 1984, “that in the year 1980 Ronald Reagan was God’s choice as president of the United States.” Reagan was not a man particularly noted for his piety. But his right-wing politics suited Robertson to a T. By 1986, Robertson was foreshadowing his own plans. “What began in 1980 with the march and the election of President Reagan must be continued in 1988 or all that we have gained as a nation may be lost,” he wrote. Election Day 1988 would be “another date with destiny.” Robertson clearly believed he would fulfill that destiny.
During the campaign, along with the traditional evangelical agenda, Robertson advocated a muscular foreign policy. He supported the legalization of assassinations of foreign leaders—a theme that he has famously revisited over the years. He suggested the United States should bankroll an invasion of Nicaragua by a government in exile and told interviewer David Frost he “wouldn’t have hesitated” to have Libyan leader Mu‘ammar al-Gadhafi killed. During a debate in New Hampshire in February 1988, Robertson alleged that Fidel Castro had twenty-five Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba—an incendiary charge for which no evidence ever surfaced. “Complete poppycock,” a Pentagon officer responded. “Outrageous,” said one of Robertson’s Republican opponents, Vice President (and former CIA chief) George H. W. Bush.
- Pat Robertson announces his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on October 1, 1987. Supporters and hecklers attended (Ezio Petersen / Bettmann / Corbis).
It didn’t take long for Robertson to be seared by the new scrutiny of national press coverage. A week after his announcement of candidacy, he was embarrassed by a story in the Wall Street Journal reporting that, contrary to his earlier account of getting married on his birthday, March 22, he and Dede didn’t actually tie the knot until August 27, 1954—just ten weeks before their son Tim was born. He explained that this was before his “born-again” experience. Robertson also had to contend with allegations by Paul “Pete” McCloskey, a former Republican congressman from California who served with him in the Marines. McCloskey claimed Robertson had boasted about his politician father pulling strings to get him out of combat duty in Korea. McCloskey also said Robertson served as the “division liquor officer” for his outfit, flying booze in from Japan for his fellow troops. Robertson, a vocal teetotaler, denied the allegations and filed a $35 million libel suit against McCloskey. Unfortunately for him, the trial was set for the worst possible time: Super Tuesday, the day of several critical Southern primaries. On the eve of the trial, Robertson finally dropped the lawsuit.
A week later, less than a year after Jim Bakker’s very public downfall, another televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, tearfully confessed on TV to sexual misconduct and was suspended from preaching. Robertson suggested the scandal was engineered by the Bush campaign to raise doubts about all televangelists, even all evangelical Christians, as a way to embarrass him by association. His campaign already faltering, Robertson took a body blow on Super Tuesday, finishing second in two states and third or worse everywhere else, including Virginia. He suspended his campaign and returned to CBN, which was hemorrhaging millions of dollars in revenue and laying off hundreds of employees in his absence. He remained unbowed, however, declaring at a church service in Denver that God had given him a new mandate: Run again in 1992. “That is his plan for me and for this nation,” he said.
But Robertson would never run again. Instead, he and his evangelical constituency seamlessly moved into Bush’s camp, and the remnants of his campaign were reconstituted as the Christian Coalition—a lobbying group aimed at drawing evangelical Christians into the political process. Robertson endorsed Bush, Bush embraced Robertson, and Robertson reshaped the religious right into the group we know today. In a joint appearance, Robertson received a warm welcome from the vice president’s son and key political adviser, George W. Bush. Just three years earlier, the younger Bush had been visited by Billy Graham at the family compound at Kennebunkport. George W. had been a heavy drinker, often confrontational and even violent, but after a few days of walks on the beach with Graham, he had experienced a spiritual rebirth. Now, he was the ideal person to bring Robertson and the Christian Coalition into the Republican mainstream. “We need your energy. We want your ideas,” the younger Bush said. “You’re in, and we want you in.”
- Robertson and a young George W. Bush before the Michigan delegation to the Republican convention in 1988 (Joe Polimeni / Bettmann / Corbis).
In the nineties, being “in” allowed the Christian Coalition to pull in as much as $25 million a year in revenue from more than two million members; in return it launched major direct-mail campaigns built around hot-button issues, such as abortion, and issued millions of its infamous “voter guides”—brief, pocket-size cards distributed in churches before elections, portraying candidates’ positions on issues of interest to evangelicals. The coalition always said the guides were nonpartisan, but critics attacked them as thinly disguised endorsements of particular conservative Republican candidates. Such partisan tilt ran afoul of both the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. Finally, in 1999, the IRS denied the group tax-exempt status, forcing a reorganization. The IRS also clamped down on Robertson’s mother ship, CBN, retroactively revoking its tax-exempt status for 1986 and 1987—related to improper campaign activities in the mid-1980s as Robertson was gearing up to run for president.
Robertson left the Christian Coalition in the wake of its tax troubles, but this setback did little to dim Robertson’s successes as he continued to rake in the cash at CBN. In 1997, the Family Channel, as the cable channel that carried The 700 Club was now called, was sold to Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch for $1.9 billion. That mega-deal sent a river of cash gushing through the organization—including a $147.5 million infusion into the Regent University endowment.
In April 1994, the bloody civil war in Rwanda turned into all-out genocide as the Hutu military began rounding up all Tutsis for extermination, driving over a million refugees into neighboring Zaire. CBN launched a media blitz, pleading for donations to send medical teams and win two million souls for Christ through Robertson’s international charity, Operation Blessing. For months The 700 Club aired regular reports on their teams’ successes in Rwanda. Thousands of lives were being saved, the show’s stand-in hosts told viewers, rolling footage of sick and dying refugees interspersed with images of Robertson being cheered and hugged by throngs of smiling African children.
At one point Robertson told viewers he was buying a Lockheed L-1011 jumbo jet and planned to transform it into a “Flying Hospital” equipped with state-of-the-art surgical gear. He conducted a weeklong phone-a-thon to raise funds for refurbishing the huge plane. “Imagine a hospital plane that is also a flying ambassador for the gospel wherever it goes,” an announcer said. “The Operation Blessing hospital plane will be a beacon of hope soaring on wings of healing to those in need.” Robertson urged viewers to send in generous pledges. Premiums were offered for different levels of giving: a lapel pin for $100, a desktop model of the plane for $250, a bronze model for $1,000, a gold-plated one for $5,000.
Ultimately, Operation Blessing spent a staggering $25 million to buy and outfit the Flying Hospital, which was rolled out with considerable fanfare at Dulles International Airport in May 1996, complete with a keynote speech by former president George H. W. Bush. The plane, it turned out, was too large to reach the remote, medically underserviced areas where it was needed, and the cost of using it was largely prohibitive anyway. By 2001, it was sitting unused in the Arizona desert.
In the meantime, however, Robertson told viewers he had acquired some cargo planes and implied that they were being used to ferry doctors and medicine into Zaire’s teeming refugee camps. “We actually carved an airstrip,” he said at one point, showing his co-host some photos. “This is a 3,000-foot airstrip carved by hand in two weeks by natives with machetes and mattocks. They were so excited . . . The whole village came out, because they were so thrilled to have a little airport.”
What Robertson didn’t tell viewers was what I learned from two pilots who flew the planes: The airstrip was actually built so the planes could bring in equipment to dredge diamonds from a remote jungle riverbed for the African Development Company, a for-profit owned by Robertson and registered in Bermuda, where there is no corporate income tax and business regulations are lax. The three planes, two of which were registered to Operation Blessing, were used almost exclusively for a mine deep in the jungle, the pilots told me. Only one or two of more than forty flights were charitable. Chief pilot Robert Hinkle, a former Peace Corps volunteer, said he became so embarrassed by what he considered the duplicity of the operation that he had Operation Blessing’s name removed from the planes’ tail fins. His account was backed up by notes he kept during most of the flights. On one day that Robertson was a passenger, the notes read, “Prayed for diamonds.”
- Curious villagers in Zaire (now Congo) watch a diamond-mining dredge being loaded onto a plane dispatched to Africa by Robertson’s in-ternational charity, Operation Blessing, in the mid-1990s.
God was not the only one Robertson turned to for help in his mining venture. He also gained the blessing of Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairean dictator and one of the most notorious African leaders of the Cold War era. Mobutu had amassed a large, plundered fortune at the cost of the Zairean people and such a horrific human rights record that the United States government banned him from traveling to this country. In return for granting the mining concession, Robertson vocally lobbied for the reversal of the travel sanctions.
Virginia State Senator Janet Howell spotted these red flags as well and asked the attorney general to investigate Robertson for possible misuse of charitable funds. The attorney general referred the complaint to the state Office of Consumer Affairs. That office conducted a yearlong investigation and found evidence that Robertson “willfully induced contributions from the public through the use of misleading statements and other implications”—which, if proven, would be a violation of the state charitable solicitation law. The investigators also reported that Operation Blessing repeatedly delayed providing requested materials and that the materials submitted were incomplete and conflicting. Lawyers in the office of Attorney General Mark Earley—to whom Robertson had given $35,000 in campaign contributions—agreed Robertson had made false claims that the airplanes were involved in humanitarian efforts. But they determined that he could not be successfully prosecuted because they couldn’t prove that he intended to defraud donors. Robertson reimbursed Operation Blessing $400,000 for the use of the planes and agreed to some new procedural safeguards, including a ban on business dealings with the charity’s directors or their families.
In 1999, I published an article in the Virginian-Pilot revealing the investigators’ findings. Robertson responded by calling a press conference to denounce me. He was livid. He demanded not only that the story be retracted but that I be fired—and my editor, too. He condemned my reporting as “blatantly and maliciously wrong” and threatened a lawsuit. “I’ve turned my other cheek so many times, my head is dizzy,” he said. There was no retraction and no lawsuit, and yet, when we met in 2007, Robertson clearly was still steamed over that ten-year-old story. The publicity cost him a bundle, he complained, and the crowning indignity was the venture’s meager output. “We got one tiny little diamond!” he exclaimed.
This, however, was not the last time I would hear about Robertson’s prospecting for African profit, or of his alliances with thuggish dictators. In 1999, I learned that Liberian President Charles Taylor had signed a mineral development agreement with Freedom Gold—another Robertson for-profit company incorporated in another well-known tax haven, the Cayman Islands. The agreement awarded the company mining rights in a region of Liberia believed to have substantial gold reserves.
- Robertson denounces a newspaper story about his African diamond-mining operation at a press conference outside Christian Broadcasting Network headquarters in Virginia Beach in 1999 (Steve Earley, The Virginian-Pilot).
In 1983, after being accused of embezzling $1 million from the Liberian government, Taylor fled to the US where he was arrested in Massachusetts. Two years later, he escaped from prison with a hacksaw and a rope of knotted bedsheets and wasn’t seen again until 1989, when he resurfaced in Liberia with an armed band of rebels. In his long, bloody march to power, half of Liberia’s three million people were killed or displaced. Human rights advocates blamed Taylor’s forces for forced labor, torture, and executions. As president, Taylor exchanged arms and logistical support for diamonds mined by rebels in next-door Sierra Leone who were notorious for hacking limbs off civilians and slicing open the bellies of pregnant women. In response, the United Nations slapped Liberia with an arms embargo, a travel ban on government officials, and a prohibition on diamond exports. Robertson lobbied vigorously to get the sanctions lifted. In a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, he wrote, “May I respectfully inquire as a taxpayer of the United States and one with significant financial investment in Liberia, why the State Department of the United States of America is determined to bring down the president of Liberia?”
In 2002, Taylor was the star attraction at a three-day “Liberia for Jesus” rally, which Robertson helped organize and covered on The 700 Club. Lying prostrate on the red-carpeted stage of Samuel Doe Stadium in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, Taylor told his long-suffering people: “I cannot help you. All help comes from God.” Robertson’s efforts notwithstanding, Taylor stepped down in 2003 in the face of mounting international pressure and is now on trial for war crimes in The Hague. At last report, Robertson’s gold-mining venture, which had been disrupted by the factional fighting, had resumed operations.
Operation Blessing did just fine though, and hit a goldmine of another kind in recent years. Thanks to President Bush’s “faith-based initiative”—implemented by executive order—billions of federal dollars have been funneled to religious groups, including $14 million to Operation Blessing in 2005 alone.
On April 29, 2007, about a month after my dressing-down in the CBN conference room, I stood on the Virginia Beach boardwalk under a dazzling sun, fanned by a gentle ocean breeze. Bikini-clad beachgoers strolled by, staring curiously at a sea of believers, their faces upturned, many carrying American flags or white plywood crosses. In front of the crowd was a stage with a huge American flag as a backdrop under a banner reading one nation under god. The religious fervor was palpable. At one point, two women, one on each side of me, grabbed my hands and closed their eyes earnestly as a speaker led the crowd in prayer.
This was Assembly 2007, a gathering billed as a Christian corollary to the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown. Among the speakers were two Republican members of Congress and a passel of evangelical superstars. Pat Robertson delivered the opening prayer. After he finished, Chief Carl “Lone Eagle” Custalow of the Mattaponi tribe presented Robertson with a “peace flute” and, noting that one of the evangelist’s forebears was a preacher in the Jamestown colony, offered: “Thank you for bringing the gospel to my ancestors.”
Robertson is fond of recalling his Jamestown roots and his connection to the religious component of the English settlement. He has written about a little-remembered venture of those early settlers that never panned out: a college at Henrico, up the James River toward Richmond, intended to Christianize the Indians. Construction of the college was underway by 1622, but was abandoned after settlers were massacred by Indians at the site. Robertson believes he is fulfilling the prayers of his ancestors—whose dreams of a Christian college were dashed 400 years ago—through Regent University, just ten miles inland from Cape Henry, nestled among magnolias and crape myrtles adjacent to the neocolonial CBN complex.
During the relative peace and prosperity of the Clinton years, Regent grads had little luck fulfilling their mission of “infiltrating” secular politics. However, after the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and the nomination of John Ashcroft for attorney general, Robertson gained both a sympathetic presence in the Oval Office and unprecedented access to the judiciary. Shortly thereafter, Bush tapped Kay Coles James, the dean of Regent’s government school, to direct the White House’s Office of Personnel Management, and Ashcroft changed the process for hiring to severely reduce the role of career civil servants, pushing out many who had worked under Clinton and making way for a different kind of employee.
The Bush administration has since hired more than 150 Regent graduates—a fact touted on the school’s website but not brought to national attention until early 2007, when Monica Goodling, a government lawyer who served as senior counsel to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and as Justice liaison to the White House, became the most prominent federal official since Oliver North to invoke the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before Congress.
Goodling graduated from Regent Law School 1999. It’s not known whether she passed the bar exam that year, but according to Regent’s own numbers, 60 percent of her class did not—and the program overall remains ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a fourth-tier school, its lowest ranking. Nevertheless, Goodling was hired by the Republican National Committee and worked as an opposition researcher, and then secured a job in the Justice Department. She enjoyed a meteoric rise—though her only noteworthy contribution, according to the National Journal, was the expenditure of $8,000 on drapes to conceal the partially nude Art Deco statues of Justice in the department’s Great Hall.
But while Goodling became the most infamous of Regent’s graduates in the Bush administration, she was hardly alone in having high placement despite thin credentials. In October 2003, Bill Condon, then a Regent student interviewing for a job at the Department of Justice, was asked to name the Supreme Court decision with which he most disagreed. Condon chose Lawrence v. Texas—the ruling that struck down a sodomy law on the grounds it violated the civil rights of gays. One of the interviewers chimed in, saying that the Lawrence decision was “maddening.” “I knew I correctly answered the question,” Condon wrote in the Regent Law School newsletter. The committee recommended a post in the Civil Rights Division, “because I went to Regent Law School.” It was his only job offer or, as Condon put it, “God opened only one door to employment.”
Under Ashcroft’s instructions, the department pushed out numerous career lawyers. Goodling, who ultimately resigned in the scandal over the politicization of US attorney appointments, appears to have been among a handful of people who oversaw the politically tinged firings. Granted limited immunity from prosecution, she admitted to the House Judiciary Committee in May 2007 that she “may have gone too far” in applying a partisan litmus test not only to political appointees but also to career Justice Department employees—a possible violation of the Hatch Act. These more seasoned lawyers were replaced by attorneys who had announced memberships in conservative or Christian groups, many of whom were placed in the Civil Rights Division. Since the housecleaning began in 2001, the Division, created to protect African Americans from voter and workplace discrimination, has brought no voting cases and only one employment case on behalf of an African American. The new focus, instead, has been on cases of discrimination against Christians. As late as February 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales authorized a new initiative called the First Freedom Project (so named because religion is the first freedom addressed in the Bill of Rights) and a Religious Freedom Task Force to commit the department to “even greater enforcement of religious rights for all Americans.”
The extent to which these appointments and initiatives may continue depends largely on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. One imagines that any Democratic president would replace all the US Attorneys, as Bill Clinton did in 1993, but a Republican president—especially one who had relied on conservative Christian voters—might not be so quick to make changes. Perhaps this is why Pat Robertson invited Mitt Romney to deliver the commencement address at Regent in May 2007, when Romney was leading in the polls; perhaps this is why Robertson offered Rudy Giuliani his endorsement in November. Ever the practitioner of power politics, perhaps Robertson will back whichever candidate he judges to be the strongest Republican horse.
For his part, John Ashcroft announced his resignation as attorney general immediately following Bush’s reelection in November 2004 and officially left his post the following February. Within a month, he was named a Distinguished Professor in the schools of law and government at Regent University, where he now teaches the course “Human Rights, Civil Liberties, and National Security.” Instrumental in wooing Ashcroft was Jim Davis, assistant dean for the Robertson School of Government, who had been hired by Ashcroft in 2001 as the Deputy Director and Counsel of the Department of Justice’s Task Force for Faith-Based & Community Initiatives, where he “provided guidance on constitutional issues to the White House.” According to Stephen L. McPherson, assistant dean for student affairs at the law school, Ashcroft “has been a great friend to us. We’re thankful that he is a part of this community.”
On November 30, just weeks after endorsing Giuliani, Pat Robertson resigned as chief executive of CBN and turned the reins over to his son Gordon. The younger Robertson told the Associated Press that his style is distinct from his father’s, pointing to their differing approaches to chess. “Dad likes the bold strikes and bold moves,” Gordon said. “I like looking at the end game, and I think it’s good to do that.” He declined, for example, to endorse a presidential candidate.
Under Gordon’s leadership, CBN may assume a less public stance on matters of the day, but one can be assured that the empire constructed by his father will continue to generate vast wealth and that those resources will continue to be put toward educating students in Robertson’s signature brand of Christianity. Those graduates, in turn, will have influence in the halls of justice and the upper echelons of executive power for generations to come. The exposure of Monica Goodling may spell an end to Robertson’s latest gambit to win influence, but he has shown remarkable savvy—and single-minded tenacity—in realizing his vision for the “perfect theocracy” of America’s future.
He will continue to push for a ban on abortion (“the height of pagan barbarity”), limits on other rights for women, restrictions on gay rights (“a sign that a society is in the last throes of decay”), narrower guidelines for artificial insemination and stem cell research, implementation of corporal punishment in schools, an end to teaching evolution (“There is no reproductive evidence to support evolution”), raising legal standards for granting divorce, expansion of capital punishment, and an end to the nation’s progressive tax structure (“the creation of Marxist communism”). Most of all, Robertson will continue to insist on a Christian litmus test for the nation’s highest office.
Yet that very insistence seems to be of fading importance to Americans at the moment. The strong showing by Mike Huckabee in Iowa, as Robertson himself knows well, does not necessarily translate to the rest of the country. And for many, Robertson seems less a vital part of the political process than a reminder of a hard-right past that has become a liability for the Republican Party. And, perhaps, such conviction no longer serves even the ends of a man such as Pat Robertson.
In the weeks just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, President Bush was reading each morning from a book of evangelical sermons by an itinerant Scottish Baptist preacher, Oswald Chambers, who accompanied soldiers massed in Egypt for the British invasion of Palestine in 1917—dubbed “the Last Crusade” by some enthusiasts. Chambers urged the troops to become “ablaze for the glory of God.” In a closed-door meeting with Robertson, Bush related some of what he had been reading and revealed his plans for the invasion. According to Robertson’s later account on CNN, he warned Bush, “The Lord told me it was going to be (a) a disaster and (b) messy.” Robertson remembered cautioning, “Mr. President, you had better prepare the American people for casualties.”
“Oh, no,” he said Bush replied, “we’re not going to have any casualties,” and he broke out in a benign smile that reminded Robertson of Mark Twain’s line about “the serene confidence which a Christian feels in four aces.”
So there they sat—two soldiers of God, each with his marching orders, each equally sure of his divine mission, a world on the line.
“The Christian with Four Aces” elicited a response from Pat Robertson's attorney, which we have made available in its entirety.