A friend emailed me the news early today: TV preacher and longtime conservative political operative Pat Robertson died this morning. He was 93.
Like mothers everywhere, mine advised me not to speak ill of the dead. But (sorry, Mom!) this is not the time to ignore Robertson’s long track record of extreme statements. Indeed, an honest assessment of his legacy requires that we face those head-on.
Americans United had a long, complicated relationship with Robertson. He appeared on our radar screen in the early 1980s as one of a band of vocal televangelists who assailed church-state separation, vowing to usher in a “Christian nation.” AU sounded the alarm right away.
Constant attacks on church-state separation
Separation of church and state, according to Robertson, was not in the U.S. Constitution but was pioneered by communists in the former Soviet Union. He made this red-baiting argument repeatedly throughout the ’80s and into the 1990s.
Here is just one example: In 1986, Robertson told Conservative Digest, “It’s amazing that the Constitution of the United States says nothing about the separation of church and state. That phrase does appear, however, in the Soviet Constitution, which says the state shall be separate from the church and the church from the school. People in the educational establishment and in our judicial establishment have attempted to impose the Soviet strictures on the United States and have done so very successfully, even though they are not part of our Constitution.”
Here’s another: In November of 1993, Robertson addressed a “God & Country” rally in Greenville, S.C., during which he attacked the “radical left” and asserted, “They have kept us in submission because they have talked about separation of church and state. There is no such thing in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” (Just so we’re clear on this, church-state separation is absolutely embedded in the First Amendment.)
Robertson’s real legacy
Robertson created two organizations, the Christian Coalition and the American Center for Law and Justice, to undermine church-state separation politically and in the courts. There is much more to say: Robertson’s 1988 campaign for president was marked by a string of extreme statements and missteps, and he kicked it off with a claim that God told him to run. He repeatedly attacked non-Christian faiths, once calling Hinduism a “cult” that is “in touch with Satan and demon spirits.” In 1991, he penned The New World Order, a book anchored in antisemitic conspiracy theories.
He once signed a fundraising letter asserting that feminism teaches women to “leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” In 1991, he asserted that you don’t have to be nice to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and others because they reflect “the spirit of the Antichrist.” In 1990, he asserted that being gay is “a pathology. It is a sickness, and it needs to be treated” and went on to assert, “Many of those people involved with Adolf Hitler were satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together.”
There are people who are mourning Robertson’s loss today, and I extend my condolences to them. But Robertson’s death doesn’t mean we must overlook his long record of extremist rhetoric, much of which I chronicled in my 1996 book The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition.
Finally, let’s remember that Robertson had a thing few people get: a worldwide platform through his Christian Broadcasting Network. He could have used it to heal divisions and bring people together. Instead, Robertson spent most of his time spreading hate, conspiracy theories and lies.
That’s a poor legacy indeed – but it’s the one Pat Robertson leaves behind.