Reports of Robertson's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated
jhutson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Mar 05, 2006 at 01:25:49 PM EST
The man who defined televangelism in America has become an embarrassment, and neither his supporters nor his detractors know what to make of that universal observation. Critics assert that Pat Robertson's theology has been marginalized and that his influence has waned. But there's no evidence to support such claims. Indeed, some of Robertson's most vocal critics are leaders of organizations, such as the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which are working behind the scenes to exemplify his theology, exalt his work, and expand his outreach. Yet the mainstream media and bloggers miss the whole story, and thus misinterpret the story entirely.

Case in point: the current media flap over Robertson's failure to win reelection to a seat on the board of the NRB, a trade association of Christian radio and television professionals. Robertson held the seat for 30 years; now he doesn't. So what? He's a busy man; he's still America's most powerful televangelist. It's just one less meeting to attend. (In fact, Robertson attended only one NRB board meeting last year.)

Newspapers and web sites are ballyhooing Robertson's failure to win reelection to this seat during the NRB convention in February 2006 as if it means he's finished, or at least that key supporters are now distancing themselves and rejecting his message. But has the NRB washed its hands of him? Hardly. During the opening banquet at its national convention in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 18, 2006, the NRB named Robertson's daily television show, "The 700 Club," as its 2006 "Best Television Talk Show."

Pundits and bloggers are reflexively pursuing the pseudo-story of Robertson's demise the way dogs pursue a soaring and bouncing tennis ball - baying and bounding after that ball as if it were a real critter. They fail to reflect on who threw the ball, or wonder what game is being played. One thing is certain: reports of Robertson's demise are greatly exaggerated. And it's time to stop falling for the religious right's game of misdirection where Robertson is concerned.

So does the NRB come to praise Robertson or to bury him? They're not exactly sure. But maybe they'd like to give him a public burial and a private resurrection. On one hand, they don't want to offend a major benefactor: Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network donated $161,300 to NRB last year. So they presented the show with a nationally prestigious award. And if that's not strong evidence of NRB's agreement with Robertson's theology, then consider that successful candidates for the board included Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit group founded by Robertson, and Michael D. Little, president of Christian Broadcasting Network, which Robertson also founded, and which is the home of his "700 Club."

On the other hand, they'd like to avoid the glare of the critical spotlight that follows Robertson because of controversial comments he made last year on "The 700 Club." The NRB supports Robertson's message, but want to avoid the negative publicity that comes with it. Maybe that's why NRB press releases from Fort Worth listed several awards, but failed to mention this particular one.

After all, how would it look for the NRB to be highlighted in the mainstream media for giving "The 700 Club" an award as the best Christian talk show of the year? But as usual, the mainstream media was too busy chasing the story of Robertson's so-called demise to report on the fact that the NRB was in fact praising him, not burying him. (A tip of the hat to Crooks and Liars for picking up on this award, which Robertson's press people have been too bashful to comment on.)

And another tip of the hat to Media Matters for America for reminding us all that this is the show - and this is the year - in which Robertson uttered some of his most outrageous comments. For example:

*    Robertson told a national television audience on January 5 that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was a punishment from God for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.
*    He then suggested that the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was also divine retribution, before apologizing in a letter to Sharon's son on January 12.
*    On August 22, 2005, Robertson called for U.S. Special Forces to "take out" and "assassinate" Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez because, he said, "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war," and because Chávez is "controlling a huge pool of oil." Robertson then falsely claimed on August 24 that he never used the word "assassinate" - until videotapes instantly proved otherwise.
*    Robertson finally apologized for calling for an assassination. And then he went on CNN and compared Chávez with Hitler.

In addition to honoring Robertson's controversial show with an award, the NRB even invited Robertson to deliver an address at the closing banquet of its convention on February 21. But then they reconsidered, and NRB officials urged Robertson to decline the invitation, for fear of inviting negative media attention on the gathering of about 500 attendees, including nearly 200 Christian broadcast professionals and another 300 vendors.

The Virginian-Pilot reported on March 2 that near the end of the convention, NRB President Frank Wright delivered this lukewarm assessment: "I would say that there was broad dismay with some of Pat's comments and a feeling they were not helpful to Christian broadcasters in general, but by no means was there any broad effort in our association to disassociate ourselves with him."

'A Grape Picker from California'

To find out what's really going on with the NRB and Robertson, check out "The Panda in Winter," Marvin Olasky's spicy cover story in the February 18 issue of World Magazine. The piece paints Robertson as an aging and embattled but still potent king, whose "trademark geniality" and "crinkling eyes" belied the fact that he still "flashed his claws at times" during a February interview in his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) office.

For example, Robertson defended the usefulness of his comments on Hugo Chávez by again pointing a finger at the Venezuelan president while also dissing labor leader Cesar Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers: "Take Hugo Chávez. People thought in America that he was a grape picker from California. They'd never heard of Hugo Chávez.... The nation has now been alerted to this man."

For the record, Robertson's summation of César Chávez as "a grape picker from California" is about as dismissive and offensive as summing up Rosa Parks as a black lady on a bus. Someone might want to tell that to Robertson, since CBN is making a major effort to target Latino audiences. For example, CBN's Spanish language programming is aired in more than 25 Latin American countries. And in May 2005, CBN announced that Club 700 Hoy, a Spanish language version of its flagship program, The 700 Club, is now airing in 30 major markets in the U.S. on a Hispanic network, Azteca America.

Perhaps the person to inform Robertson on such delicate matters of public perception should be Baxter Ennis, a public relations executive from Regent University, which Robertson founded. World noted that Ennis was actually sitting in on the Robertson interview, and "seeming alarmed."

Now what could possibly alarm a p.r. flack about a man who claims to have direct contact with both God and Satan? As it turns out, most of the concern is with Robertson's ad libs.

Robertson said on ABC's Good Morning America on February 2, 2006, that he ad-libs his comments after watching news segments. "I'm passionate about things, and it is not politically correct," he told GMA. No, calling for the assassination of a world leader is most certainly not politically correct. Heck, assassination is not even legal, even in the Red States.

Robertson told World, "I didn't use to review the news. Now prior to the air we go over the news stories....I now have a former news producer from Good Morning America. I'm going to have an earpiece in my ear...he's going to be whispering in my ear...he's going to be in the control room, as the news comes up [he'll say], `why don't you say this, why don't you suggest this, let's discuss this.'"

Of course, any such control room instructions would likely be prefaced by: "Good morning, Pat. No, this is not God. Or Satan. This is your producer. You can tell because I'm the one waving at you from the control booth. In this next segment, why don't you say, `Turn the other cheek' and 'Blessed are the peacemakers'?" Yes, Pat, I realize that may sound satanic, but those are actual words of Jesus. Uh-huh. Of Nazareth."

A man who sums up César Chávez as "a grape picker from California," who needs a former ABC news producer whispering in his ear not to call for Special Forces to take out a world leader is not a man the NRB wants to hear delivering closing remarks at its national convention. Not that they wouldn't love it. But they don't think their neighbors would understand. As Heath Ledger says to Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, "If this thing we've got gets hold of us at the wrong place, at the wrong time..."

When World asked Robertson about why he turned down the invitation to speak at the NRB convention's closing banquet on February 21, he said it was his own decision. "They told me whatever I'd like to do would be fine."

Robertson demurred when he was asked whether some NRB board members suggested he not speak. "I'm on the board, for heaven's sake. I'm on the board. I'm going to vote to disinvite myself?"

Well, Robertson is no longer on the NRB board. And at least one NRB board member intimately familiar with the details told World on condition of anonymity that some board members were appalled that Robertson would speechify at their convention. NRB chair Ronald Harris and president Frank Wright reportedly met with Robertson, and found him "gracious" in declining the opportunity to deliver an address.

Before the convention, the NRB put out a face-saving cover story: they announced that Robertson "asked to be excused" from speaking at the banquet due to "scheduling complexities."

Please. Robertson "asked to be excused" from keynoting an NRB banquet in the same sense that a starving man asks to be excused from warm blueberry cobbler with icecream: May I please be excused from any fruit pie a la mode? My schedule's all jammed up with tummy grumblings.

Well, that's sweet. And that in itself is enough reason for NRB to heap accolades and a nationally prestigious award on Robertson's fear-mongering, hate-filled, scapegoating, and bloodthirsty "700 Club" as the very best television talk show of the past year.

After all, it is not as if Robertson's loudest critics are not working for organizations that push his message as hard as they can. Among the most vociferous of these critics are SBC leaders, such as Southern Baptist Seminary Dean Al Mohler, who said in the wake of Robertson's call for political violence against the president of Venezuela, "He has brought embarrassment upon us all."

And Richard Land, President of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said:

"I am both stunned an appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events, such as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995or Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke, were the judgments of God. Pat Robertson should know better."

Yes, Robertson should know better, and he does know better - but he doesn't care, and he doesn't have to care, because he's too powerful to be held truly accountable by the NRB or the SBC. And the media should know better than to take SBC leaders' criticisms of Robertson at face value. Because the SBC should know better than to criticize Robertson for his on-air "ad libs" and then turn right around and sign a partnership deal with Sirius Satellite Radio to beam "The 700 Club" with Pat Robertson worldwide six days a week.

Jesus said we should not criticize the speck of sawdust in another's eye before removing the beam from our own eye.

Likewise, before the NRB or the SBC criticize Robertson, they should consider how their own organizations are helping Robertson beam his message of hate and violence across the globe. If the NRB and the SBC are truly embarrassed by Robertson's rhetoric, then why don't they stop beaming his message and release him from their warm embrace?

Since the NRB never got around to giving a pet name to its annual broadcasting awards, let's suggest one. You know, there are the Oscars, the Tonys, the Emmies, the Obbies. So how should we refer to an NRB award, such as the 2006 "Best Television Talk Show" award, which went to "The 700 Club"?

Ooh! Here's one. They could be named after Pat Robertson: The Patties!

Although his real name is Marion Gordon Robertson. So, how about the Marionettes?

by jhutson on Sun Mar 05, 2006 at 09:52:30 AM EST

Los Angeles Times writer Faye Fiore profiled Robertson on February 12, 2006. In her piece, Fiore repeats three myths about Pat Robertson. She writes:

In a sign of fading appeal in the Christian establishment, Robertson canceled a Feb. 21 speech to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Dallas after the group's leaders suggested his appearance could detract from the event.

Some political observers suggest that Robertson has ratcheted up his rhetoric in an attempt to reclaim his lost mantle as the voice and face of the Christian right

"He is fading to the sidelines of this movement," said Laura Olson, author of "Religion and Politics in America" and political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. "The Christian right has grown so sophisticated and so diversified, they don't need him guiding the movement anymore."
Still, Robertson's reach is vast. "The 700 Club's" average daily audience exceeded 830,000 this season, according to Nielsen Media Research, down from 1 million a decade ago but formidable enough that some dare not incur his notorious wrath....

Olson, the Clemson professor, said Robertson's legacy might be the success of the religious right he helped mobilize, even if the movement did not look to him for guidance the way it once had done.

"Like a parent holding the back of a child's bike when learning to ride," she said, "they learn, and they don't need the parent anymore."

There other three unfounded conclusions here. For example:

(1) Robertson's cancellation of the Feb. 21 NRB speech is not necessarily a sign of his "fading appeal in the Christian establishment." He's not "fading to the sidelines." He's still in the NRB Hall of Fame, he still has a daily TV audience of 830,000, plus a global Sirius Satellite Radio audience. And the NRB still loves him: that's why they named The 700 Club as "Best Television Talk Show of the Year."

(2) Robertson is not "ratcheting up his rhetoric in an attempt to reclaim his lost mantle" -- he's stated his beliefs boldly, repeatedly, and in controversial words for decades. There's no evidence to support the claim that he lost his mantle; Robertson remains America's most powerful and wealthy televangelist. No other religious right figure but Robertson has founded a university, a law school, a national law firm, or built a bigger global network of businesses and ministries to boot. He gets all the print and broadcast media coverage that he desires, and deals with government leaders in many nations.

(3) As for Laura Olson's analogy to a child not needed a parent to ride the bike anymore, consider this analogy instead: the kid can ride away, but Robertson owns the bike, the store that sold the bike, the factory that made the bike, and the TV network that advertised the bike. And he's mentoring plenty of other kids, showing them how to ride the bike.

by jhutson on Mon Mar 06, 2006 at 08:28:07 PM EST

Most in the Christian right are never honest. The only difference between Robertson and the rest is that Robertson occasionally says in public what the others only say in private. I have many fundamentalist relatives so I can speak with some authority about what these people are really like, in a way that those who study the movement as an outsider can't. In private, these folks use hate speech that would make Robertson's most outrageous comments seem mild. But unlike other hate groups, the Christian right understands that such speech is political suicide. So they are very careful what they say publicly. And what better tool than the Bible to make bigotry seem like morality? As a result of this brilliant PR campaign, the Christian right is rarely seen for what it is; a mere hate group. Because of their power, wealth and influence, we must always take them seriously as a threat to the country. But we must never fall in to the trap of taking them sincerely. There is no integrity to any of their pious public statements. They are simply a means to an end, and that end is control. This is one hate group that has found a way to keep itself from being relegated to the fringe. Before someone accuses me of demonizing these folks, let me say that most of my fundamentalist relatives are very nice, good-hearted people. Stay away from religion and politics and you'll love being around them. But touch on the right subject, and watch the intense, irrational hatred come out of someone who was having a funny enjoyable conversation just a minute ago. It's actually a little frightening to watch the transformation.

by Dave on Mon Mar 06, 2006 at 10:39:43 PM EST
it is not my experience that everyone on the Christian Right is hateful in the way you describe, and I have sources of my own.  The Christian Right certainly has its share of hatemongers and bigots, but as a social and political movement, it is not accurate to descrive it as as "hate group" by any standard definition of the term.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Mar 06, 2006 at 11:09:58 PM EST
Obviously, we're talking about millions of people so no one designation fits them all. I'm simply trying to dispel the notion held by so many moderates and leftists that these are sincere, though misguided people who are genuinely concerned about what they see as "moral decay." This convenient explanation ignores the fact that this is a movement which ultimately calls for the use of state power to execute, (or otherwise punish), all non-Christians, and all "heretical Christians." Hate group may be to strong a term, on the other hand, calling for the elimination of all who don't share your religious beliefs probably qualifies them. I also want to make it absolutely clear that these people don't care one bit if they're beliefs are scripturally accurate. They'd like the Bible to agree with them, but it's not necessary. All that matters is whether they can use religion to make themselves sound like good sincere people rather than bigots. In Jeff Sharlet's article, Sam Brownback Is A Fruit, we have a case in point.
Sharlet wanted to ask Brownback about the Biblical passages that supposedly support his "Christian" opposition to homosexuality. It turns out, Brownback wasn't even familiar with the verses in question. Even worse, he didn't particularly care to find out about them. Similarly, I've pointed out to fundamentalists that Jesus says that those who divorce and remarry (except for unchastity) are committing adultery, which carries the same punishment as homosexuality. Why then, do they not have an equally vital movement to criminalize second marriage, especially since gay marriage is much rarer, and still illegal in most places, while these adulterous marriages are legal and common? They argue for a while, but ultimately concede that I'm Biblically accurate. But they know that, in spite of what Jesus says, homosexuality is worse than adultery; and second marriage isn't really adultery anyway, Jesus notwithstanding. Again, the Bible is merely a tool to make hate socially and politically acceptable. That's why I said we must take them seriously, but not sincerely.

by Dave on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:36:11 AM EST
is your insistence on making such sweeping generalizations.

Firstly, we are talking here about the Christian right, or the wider grouping, the religious right in which not all are Christians. It is a social/political movement.

Second, not all of these are fundamentalists.

Third, not all fundamentalists are even conservative. Chip Berlet has noted that Martin Luther King was a fundamentalist.  

So I would urge you to use more care in your use of terms. (Religious Right Watch has a handy glossary you might want to check out.) There is no "they" in the sense you are using it here.

Finally, I am afraid that we will have to agree to disagree regarding your main point. Some people are sincere and some are insincere. Inconsistency for some is not necessarily the same as insincere. Anyone who wishes to be effective in persuading people, needs to know and respect the difference.

I do agree with you that some people tend to pooh pooh the radical religious/political agenda of much of the religious right by saying, as you note, that people are "sincere" or "misguided."  This is also an inaccurate, sweeping generalization that says more about those who use it than the people they are describing.

Failing to take seriously the religious right in its various tendencies, by insisting on ignorance, and is an error that too many people have made for too long.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 11:48:24 AM EST

You wrote:
Firstly, we are talking here about the Christian right, or the wider grouping, the religious right in which not all are Christians. It is a social/political movement.
I agree. In fact, that's one of the things I'm trying to get people to realize. It is a political movement. I think the primary reason so many on the left are timid about fighting this movement is because they see it as a religious movement with political aspects. And they don't want to be intolerant jerks attacking religion. If we can get them to see it as a political movement with vacuous religious overtones, then they'll be able to fight it strongly.
Second, not all of these are fundamentalists.
You'll have to forgive an old man for using out-of-date terminology. When I first started watching these folks 30 years ago, all the Pat Robertson types were simply called Christian fundamentalists.
Third, not all fundamentalists are even conservative. Chip Berlet has noted that Martin Luther King was a fundamentalist.
While you could make a case for it, I doubt you'd find Dr. King's views shared by a majority, (or even a statistically significant percentage) of self-described fundamentalists. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term:
A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by
intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.
often Fundamentalism An organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century in opposition
to Protestant Liberalism and secularism, insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture.
It doesn't seem to fit King very well. And while I know there are other definitions, this is what most people today think of when they hear the word fundamentalism.
Finally, I guess we do have to disagree on my main point. For me, integrity and consistency are inseparable. Jesus frequently criticized the religious leaders of his day for exalting certain scriptures while ignoring others of equal or greater importance. I don't know how someone can be sincere if they use scripture selectively, particularly when the inconsistency is pointed out to them and still they continue to do it.

by Dave on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 10:59:02 PM EST

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