Pat Robertson, Christianity's crazy uncle
By Jonathan Merritt, October 17, 2016
An elderly man with a silver comb-over and a blazer two sizes too large stares at the ground with sunken eyes as if he's unaware there's a television camera broadcasting his words. He's rambling about Donald Trump, dismissing the 2005 video in which the candidate brags about sexual assault as nothing more than "macho" talk. Glancing up at the camera, he goes on to say that Trump is "like the phoenix" who the world presumed dead, but "came back strong" to win the second presidential debate despite all initial scientific polls indicating the exact opposite.
This man is Christianity's crazy uncle, Pat Robertson. He was once an influential televangelist and powerful leader of the religious right, but in recent years, he's used his 700 Club television show to spout extreme rhetoric, peddle bizarre prophecies, and fling insensitive comments. He has tarnished his reputation, diminished his influence, and embarrassed his fellow Christians. He needs to step down.
The 86-year-old former Baptist minister rose to prominence in 1960 when he founded the Christian Broadcast Network, the first Christian television channel in the United States. During that era, America experienced a cultural revolution that united conservative Christians and gave rise to the religious right movement.
Because of his high visibility, Robertson mobilized a following of politically active Christians and launched a bid in 1988 to become the Republican nominee for president. He ultimately lost to George H.W. Bush, despite winning primary contests in Washington, Nevada, Alaska, and Hawaii. He used his political success to launch the Christian Coalition, a conservative religious advocacy group, in 1989.
With the religious right riding high, the Christian Coalition initially surged, even influencing national elections, but waned during the late '90s before Robertson resigned as president. Throughout this period, Robertson himself declined. He seemed to grow mad and perhaps go mad as he made embarrassing comments with impunity.
Robertson has always utilized extreme rhetoric to fire up his fans. In 1991, he called left-leaning Christian denominations such as Episcopalians "the spirit of the anti-Christ." In a 1992 fundraising letter, he labeled feminism a "socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." He also linked homosexuality to Nazism, claiming many of Hitler's henchmen were gay and saying, "The two things seem to go together." And in 1998, he warned that Disney's "Gay Days" might convince God to send "terrorist bombs" or "possibly a meteor" to punish the city of Orlando, Florida.
Robertson's comments seemed to plumb new depths after the turn of the century. On his television program in 2001, he agreed with Rev. Jerry Falwell that abortionists, gays, and the ACLU were partly to blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks because they made God "mad." In 2005, he publicly urged America to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
What he lacks in self-awareness, he makes up in confidence. But somewhere along the line, Robertson seemed to completely detach from reality, exhibiting bizarre behaviors and making strange statements. To wit:
- In 2002, he acknowledged buying a racehorse for $520,000 that he named "Mr. Pat" even though conservative Christians have historically opposed gambling. When a New York Times reporter questioned Robertson, the televangelist replied that he doesn't support betting and "just enjoy watching horses running and performing."
- He drew widespread criticism in 2011 when he stated that a husband would be justified for divorcing his wife who was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. He advised, "I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her."
- In 2013, he claimed that gay people in San Francisco were using special rings that, upon shaking hands, would cut people and infect them with AIDS.
- Also in 2013, Robertson said that demons could attach themselves to material goods such as secondhand clothing. He encouraged viewers of his television show to pray over material goods before permitting them into their homes.
There is an entire library of peculiar remarks that Robertson has made about natural disasters. He said Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment against America's sins. He claimed the devastating 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti occurred because Satan himself tempted the people of that country years ago and they "swore a pact to the devil." And in 2012, Robertson said that deadly tornadoes wreaked havoc across the Midwest because people didn't pray hard enough.
Robertson's network has been forced to release a litany of apologies and press releases over the years, but the octogenarian soldiers on. It seems that no one in his organization has attempted to force him out. When Robertson sold his network to ABC, he made a shrewd deal that contractually obligated the network to air his show. As a result, the show continued to be broadcast on "ABC Family" and now under the channel's new name, "Freeform." For better or worse, he continues to shape the thinking of a number of religious television viewers.
"I fully realize that Robertson long ago ceased being a serious figure in the eyes of many people," former George W. Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner wrote for National Review. "Still, he remains a person of some influence, an individual who ran for president, whose words still garner attention, and whose views reflect a strand of thought within Christendom."
If Robertson does not step down, the televangelist will continue eroding whatever reputation he has left. He will continue afflicting Americans with his oddities and insensitivity. And he'll continue misrepresenting countless numbers of believers, forcing them to qualify their faith to friends and neighbors: "Yes, I'm a Christian. But I'm not a Pat-Robertson-kind-of-Christian."
For his sake and ours, it's time for Pat Robertson to retire.