Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The CHRISTIAN with FOUR ACES

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The CHRISTIAN with FOUR ACES

Article excerpt

For nearly half a century, Pat Robertson has built a media juggernaut on the twin foundations of religious fundamentalism and hard-nosed politics. He has enjoyed unmatched influence, but is it the end of an era?

1

I SPOILED PAT ROBERTSON'S BIRTHDAY.

I know, because he told me so.

On March 22, 2007, the day he turned seventy-seven, the televangelist and I sat eyeball-to-eyeball across the corner of a long table in a dark-paneled conference room at the Christian Broadcasting Network's cross-shaped headquarters in Virginia Beach. Also at the table were two CBN lawyers and the editor, publisher, and lawyer from the newspaper I write for, the Virginian-Pilot. We had been summoned for a tongue-lashing over a story I had written about Robertson. It was a vicious piece, full of lies, he fumed-and what's more, I had consciously timed its appearance to ruin his birthday. He demanded a retraction, a correction, an apology. If he didn't get it, he implied none too subtly, he would sue.

"You guys are as crooked as a snake," he sputtered. "I'll have you all in depositions for the rest of your life."

The story traced the saga of Pat's Diet Shake, the latest commercial spinoff from Robertson's soul-winning empire. In a legal tussle worthy of a John Grisham yarn, Robertson had been sued by Phil Busch, a street-smart Dallas bodybuilder who appeared on the broadcaster's The 700 Club talk show claiming to have lost 200 pounds chugging Robertson's diet concoction. Busch charged that Robertson had used him as a poster boy to promote his product without compensating him. At one point during the dispute, Busch filed a police report alleging that Robertson had threatened his life while giving a deposition in the case. Robertson said he had merely warned Busch that "almighty God is going to take your strength away." Busch's lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful, but it produced a sheaf of internal correspondence revealing the fuzzy line between Robertson's for-profit enterprises, such as his weight-loss drink mix, and his nonprofit operation, most notably the bully pulpit of his television network, which enjoys tax-exempt status.

The paper never retracted the story, and Robertson didn't sue. But, at least, he had the opportunity to tell me in person that I needed to atone. "God says, 'Confess your sins,'" he told me, and as I shook his hand on the way out, added: "I'm going to pray for you."

Over forty-six years of electronic ministry, this icon of evangelicalism has done a lot of praying, and he says it has paid a multitude of dividends. He declares with utmost confidence that God speaks to and through him, has diverted hurricanes at his urging, and has healed thousands of the sick and lame in answer to his pleas. He claims to have had personal encounters with Satan and the demons at his command, and in January 2007 he told his national audience that God had personally warned him of a major terrorist attack, "perhaps nuclear," that would occur before year's end. Given this track record, it would be easy to dismiss Robertson as a caricature. But that would be a mistake.

Since Jerry Falwell's death, Robertson is the most visible evangelical leader in America. A recent public opinion survey conducted by Christian pollsters the Barna Group found that Robertson was the only religious figure besides Billy Graham-who has retired from preaching-known to at least half the population. Perhaps of most import for the nation and the world, he has pioneered a unique marriage between theology and politics. This is a man who ran for president because, he said, God told him to, but that brief campaign twenty years ago would be merely a footnote in American political history were it not for the potent legacy it spawned.

Robertson has never really left the political stage. He opines on world events daily on his TV show and regularly interviews national and world leaders. Presidential hopefuls give major speeches at Regent University, the school he founded, where former attorney general John Ashcroft is on the faculty. …

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