Television preacher Pat Robertson abruptly announced last week that he will no longer be hosting “The 700 Club,” the flagship program of his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
Robertson is 91, so his decision to step down as host isn’t terribly surprising. But it naturally led to attempts to assess Robertson’s career and his impact on American politics, religion and culture.
During the 1990s when Robertson’s political unit, the Christian Coalition, was the nation’s most powerful Religious Right organization, Americans United was its constant foil. We were especially appalled that the group, which essentially functioned as an arm of the Republican Party, was abusing its tax-exempt status. The Coalition was infamous for producing slanted “voter guides” that made conservative candidates look like saints and liberal ones like sinners. Millions of these were distributed in fundamentalist churches in a scheme of dubious legality.
Robertson also played a fairly significant role in the controversial 2000 presidential election, although it’s not well known. In 1997, Robertson gave a speech urging conservative Christians to rally early around one candidate – in this case, George W. Bush – rather than be divided. He spoke fondly of political machines of old such as New York’s Tammany Hall and expressed his hopes that the Christian Coalition would become a kingmaker in GOP politics. He hoped to have the organization select ''the next President of the United States.''
The speech was nakedly partisan, and Robertson knew it. He made it clear at the outset that he was “sort of speaking in the family,” and he admonished any reporters in the room to “please shoot yourself. Leave. Do something.”
Americans United obtained a recording of the talk and turned it over to the media. The spate of stories that followed embarrassed Robertson, but in the end, his scheme worked. Bush won the support of Christian conservatives and took office (with a little help from the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Over the years, AU also worked to hold Robertson accountable for his extreme statements. These are legion, and I collected many of them in a critical 1996 book on Robertson. His attacks on LGBTQ people were especially appalling.
Robertson predicted the end of the word several times, claimed the power to control hurricanes and said he could heal people of serious illness if they’d just watch him on TV. He was also a conspiracy theorist whose 1991 book The New World Order recycled thinly veiled wild tales of international bankers and sinister cabals secretly engineering historical events and world financial markets. Several critics labeled the book an anti-Semitic screed.
When people ask me today if I still consider Robertson such a dangerous figure, I have to answer honestly that I don’t. We’ve seen worse since 2000 – a certain ex-president who refused to accept defeat and instigated an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol comes to mind – but that doesn’t mean Robertson is off the hook for his past behavior and statements. Far from it.
So, if we are assessing the man on the occasion of his retirement from CBN, let me put it right out there. Pat Robertson had something that few people get: a massive broadcasting company that reached a worldwide audience. He could have done a lot of good with that power; instead, he squandered it by frequently peddling hate against LGBTQ people, feminists, liberals, non-Christians, non-believers and others who did not measure up to his narrow vision of an officially “Christian America.” He was also infamous for his endorsement of the most reactionary forms of far-right politics and decades of extreme statements.
As Robertson steps down from “The 700 Club,” I’m sure he has convinced himself that he is leaving a legacy as a benign religious broadcaster and successful Christian businessman. Alas, it’s too late for that. Robertson spent years spewing invective and bile on television and liberally mixing far-right politics and fundamentalist Christianity into a toxic brew that became a festering sore on the body politic. His actions contributed greatly to the divisions we see in our country today.
That is the final legacy of Pat Robertson. It is an unfortunate one indeed.
Photo: Screenshot from CBN