July/August 2023 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2023

Preacher of partisan politics: Television evangelist Pat Robertson leaves a legacy of division and extremism

  Rob Boston

Some people have accused me of hating Pat Robertson, the TV preacher and conservative political figure who died June 8 at age 93.

It’s not true. I didn’t hate Robertson, a man I never met. But I did hate what he stood for. I hated the way he harmed others. I hated the lies he peddled about America. I hated his vision for our country, and I worked hard to ensure that Robertson’s America never came about.

Others have accused me of being obsessed with Robertson, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and longtime host of “The 700 Club.”

That’s also not true. What is true is that I wrote a critical book about Robertson in 1996 called The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition. Robertson was attacking separation of church and state and demanding that America become a “Christian nation” during a time when many of today’s advocates of Christian Nationalism were in diapers. Robertson’s views were alarming, and it was clear they were gaining strength in conservative politics. I felt it was necessary to sound the alarm.

Pat Robertson: A lifetime of spreading division and conspiracy theories (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

I’m old enough to remember when conservative politics meant things like individual freedom, low taxes and small government. Many conservatives today still claim fealty to these concepts, but they’ve become mere slogans. Much of conservative politics these days isn’t about freedom, but about control — controlling women’s reproductive choices, controlling where transgender people can go to the bathroom and what services they can receive, controlling what prayers a kid can say in a public school.

This didn’t happen by accident. It happened because Robertson and people like him enacted a revolution that made the social issues that they obsess over the official policy of one of our political parties. Figures like U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and even former President Donald Trump did not spring magically from the American body politic; they are the results of experiments begun many years ago by Robertson.

Many political commentators today bemoan the level of our national discourse. Trump, for example, spouts outrageous comments regularly. He has labeled Mexicans rapists, mocked disabled people and even criticized veterans. But long before Trump was uttering these hate-filled gibes, Robertson was blazing the trail.

Consider some of Robertson’s “greatest hits,” if you will:

  • Robertson repeatedly attacked non-Christian faiths, once calling Hinduism a “cult” that is “in touch with Satan and demon spirits.”
  • In 1991, Robertson penned The New World Order, a book steeped in antisemitic conspiracy theories.
  • Robertson 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, Robertson asserted that you don’t have to be nice to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and others because they reflect “the spirit of the Antichrist.”
  • Being gay, Robertson said in 1990, is “a pathology. It is a sickness, and it needs to be treated.” He 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.”
  • After officials in Orlando, Fla., voted to fly gay pride flags from city light poles in 1998, an angry Robertson glowered, “I would warn Orlando that you’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you. … It’ll bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”
  • Robertson was furious after the residents of Dover, Pa., voted out members of a school board who had tried to instill “intelligent design” creationism in the local public schools. On the “700 Club” he ranted, “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God — you just rejected him from your city. And don’t wonder why he hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for his help because he might not be there.”
  • In January 2010, after more than 200,000 people were killed by an earthquake in Haiti, Robertson suggested that the people there deserved it. He opined that the disaster happened because more than 200 years ago, the Haitians “got together and swore a pact to the devil.”
  • As growing numbers of Americans endorsed LGBTQ+ rights, Robertson had a different view. In July 2013, he quipped about Facebook, “You’ve got a couple of same-sex guys kissing. You like that. Well, that makes me want to throw up. To me, I’d want to punch ‘vomit’ not ‘like,’ but they don’t give you that option on Facebook.”  
  • Robertson, in 2020, blasted the Black Lives Matter movement, telling his television audience that it was a “stalking horse for a very, very radical anti-family, anti-God agenda.”

And let’s not forget Robertson’s constant attacks on separation of church and state, a concept he tactlessly tied to communism in the former Soviet Union.

Americans United tracked these attacks over the years. Here are some highlights:

October 1981: During a special series of CBN broadcasts titled “Seven Days Ablaze,” Robertson asserted that church-state separation was foisted on the country by “unelected tyrants” sitting on the courts and by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. Their goal, he asserted, was to “bring the United States into line with the Constitution, not of the United States, but of the USSR.”

August 1982: Testifying in favor of a school prayer amendment before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Robertson remarked, “We often hear of the constitutionally mandated ‘separation of church and state.’ Of course, as you know, that phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. … We do find this phrase in the constitution of another nation, however: ‘The state shall be separate from the church, and the church from the school.’ Those words are not in the Constitution of the United States but that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

October 1984: Robertson told his “700 Club” audience, “There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that sanctifies the separation of church and state.”

January 1986: In an interview with a conservative magazine, Robertson said, “It’s amazing that the Constitution of the United States says nothing about the separation of church and state. That phrase does appear in the Soviet constitution. … People in the educational 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.”

April 1986: During a “700 Club” episode, Robertson ranted, “The First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof — nothing about a wall of separation, nothing about separation of church and state! Merely Congress can’t set up a national religion. End of story.”

November 1993: Speaking at a rally in Greenville, S.C., Robertson asserted, “The radical left … has 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.”

January 1995: Asked about church-state separation in public schools during a “700 Club” segment, Robertson lashed out, “That was never in the Constitution! However much the liberals laugh at me for saying it, they know good and well it was never in the Constitution. Such language only appeared in the constitution of the communist Soviet Union.” (Remarkably, this outburst occurred just months after the Christian Coalition issued a booklet titled “Ten Myths about Pat Robertson and Religious Conservatives” that had the temerity to assert, “Robertson repeatedly has stated his belief in the separation of church and state…”)

Robertson hated separation of church and state so much that he created two organizations, the Christian Coalition and the American Center for Law and Justice, to undermine that principle both politically and in the courts.

These statements, as extreme as they are, pale in comparison to what Robertson said in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. Robertson’s sycophants would doubtless like Americans to forget this incident. That is precisely why we must not.

Just two days after the attacks, as many Americans were still in shock, Robertson invited fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell to appear on “The 700 Club,” where both men blamed the horrific assault not on the terrorists who actually planned and executed it, but on American courts and culture that endorsed church-state separation.

“We have a court that has essentially stuck its finger in God’s eye and said we’re going to legislate you out of the schools,” Robertson said. “We’re going to take your commandments from off the courthouse steps in various states. We’re not going to let little children read the commandments of God. We’re not going to let the Bible be read, no prayer in our schools. We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And then we say, ‘Why does this happen?’ Well, why it’s happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us.”

When Falwell opined that God has turned his back on the nation “to give us probably what we deserve,” Robertson replied, “Jerry, that’s my feeling.” Falwell went on to blame the American Civil Liberties Union, legal abortion and federal judges for the attacks, as well as groups like People For the American Way and “all of [those] who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

Nodding in agreement, Robertson replied, “Well, I totally concur.” He later insisted that the nation should “brush aside all these little yapping people who make so much noise about separation of church and state.”

There is more to say: Robertson snuggled up to dictators in Zaire, Zambia and Guatemala and used one of his charities as a cover for diamond mining in Africa. He ran a shady multi-level marketing company that left some investors high and dry.

Robertson claimed to have a direct pipeline to God, yet his predictions were frequently off base. He predicted that World War III would start in 1980, said the Soviets would invade Israel in 1982 and warned of a worldwide economic collapse between 1983-85. He asserted that meteors would hit various parts of the United States (often places that instituted progressive policies) and claimed that he has the ability to control the weather. Shortly before the 2020 election, Robertson assured his viewers that Trump was a shoo-in. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Robertson said Vladimir Putin would soon target Israel and spark Armageddon.

Despite these strange views, Robertson’s influence on American political life has been profound. A few years before the 2000 election, he called on conservatives to rally around George W. Bush even if they didn’t like all his policies. In the disputed election that followed, Bush was put into office after a Supreme Court ruling and during his second term had the opportunity to begin changing the composition of the high court. Two Bush appointees — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito — are leading the charge as the court works to erase separation from public life. Conservative politics has been radicalized to the extent that extremists felt emboldened to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Commenting on Robertson’s legacy in The Washington Post, historian Rick Perlstein asserted, “Every time a riot breaks out at a school board meeting because the board wants to recognize that gay people exist, that’s Pat Robertson’s shadow. Every time a crusade against teaching the history of race in America leads to a school limiting access to Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, that’s Pat Robertson’s shadow.”

Of course, Robertson did not do any of this alone. He had many allies and enablers. But Robertson had something many of the others lacked: a worldwide platform through his Christian Broadcasting Network.

Robertson could have used that stage to heal divisions and bring people together. Instead, he spent most of his time spreading hate, conspiracy theories and lies.

It gives me no pleasure to say these things, and I extend my condolences to the people who are mourning Robertson’s passing. But death is the time when we assess a person’s legacy, and that process must be honest — no sugarcoating.

Robertson did leave a legacy, but it is a poor one indeed. There can be no papering over that inconvenient fact. 

Editor’s Note: Portions of this article appeared in the November 2021 issue of Church & State. 

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