Who Is Pat Robertson? Pat Robertson Profile 1994
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Who Is Pat Robertson? Pat Robertson Profile 1994

Jan 19, 2024

Jesus made him rich. The Christian Coalition made him powerful. Next, he wanted to be nothing short of President.

This article originally appeared in the November 1994 issue of Esquire. To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access.

It was noon, which meant it was time for the daily prayer meeting at the Christian Broadcasting Network. These meetings are held in the CBN television studio, and except for the technicians monitoring the broadcast equipment, all members of the staff are required to attend. Since Pat Robertson had just returned from a religious retreat, there was, on this particular day, a stir of anticipation in the crowded room.

Robertson, dressed as always in a suit and tie, but with his cowboy boots providing a subtle rakish statement, stood at the front of the studio's main set. He is a tall, powerfully built man, handsome despite his jug ears, short neck, and a certain Nixonian hunch to his shoulders. While the things he says may at times seem harsh, bewildering, even deranged, Robertson himself has a genial and comforting manner. He does not reek of the trailer park. His background, to the contrary, is aristocratic. He speaks in the soft cadences of the Virginia gentleman.

"Each year, at least for the last decade, I have said to the Lord, ‘What kind of year is it going to be?’" Robertson, in describing the pattern of his retreats, told the assembled employees. "Each year, the Lord has said to me, ‘It's going to be a good year for the world.’" But on this last retreat, Robertson continued, the nature of the message changed. "I asked the Lord, ‘What about this year?’ And I didn't get the same answer. I got a different answer. And he said, ‘It will be a year of sorrow and bloodshed that will not end soon, for the world is being torn apart, and my kingdom shall rise from the ruins of it.’"

But Robertson assured his followers that they had no reason to fear. God had said he would let them know when the world would end. Absent any warning, no event, regardless of how calamitous, should be deemed apocalyptic. One morning in the early Seventies, Robertson went on, he turned his radio on in a Dallas hotel room to learn that President Nixon had scrambled the air defense over Houston as part of a military emergency.

Robertson's first thought was that this was it; the end had finally come. His second thought was, Why didn't I know anything about it?

After all, God had promised due notice. "So I got on my knees, and I said, ‘Lord, what is happening?’ And I opened my Bible to the Book of Amos, and in the Book of Amos, it said, ‘Does the Lord permit anything without revealing it to his servants the prophets?’ and I said, ‘No, he doesn't.’ And he said, ‘Did I reveal anything to you?’ I said, ‘No, you didn't.’ He said, ‘Did I reveal anything to any of your friends?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, there isn't anything happening.’ And, sure enough, nothing happened."

That particular prayer meeting took place on January 1, 1980. In the intervening years, while expecting the end at any moment, Robertson has run for president, suffered a humiliating defeat that almost bankrupted CBN, built a formidable political organization out of the campaign wreckage, and, on the side, amassed an immense personal fortune. All through that time, he has never renounced either his apocalyptic scenario or his claim to some sort of spiritual priority with God.

With the emergence of Robertson's Christian Coalition as the dominant organizational force in the Republican party, questions about the televangelist's true religious beliefs—questions never fully answered—have assumed renewed political significance. The coalition now controls the Republican party apparatus in at least six states, including Texas and Florida. Although the perception of religious intolerance at the Republicans’ 1992 convention is widely believed to have contributed to George Bush's defeat, Christian conservatives will send more delegates to the 1996 convention than they did to the last one.

Some people, including Herbert Titus, whom Robertson fired last year as dean of the law school at CBN's Regent University, believe that Robertson himself is preparing to run for president in 1996. Robertson denies this, and one of his most severe critics concurs. "Pat Robertson is never going to be president, and he knows it," says Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "But he does believe he can be the kingmaker. Not a Republican around thinks Clinton can be reelected in ’96, and Robertson wants to pick the next president."

In an apparent effort to make that ambition more palatable to the rest of the country, Robertson has in the last year moderated his rhetoric—he will now support pro-choice Republicans—and sought to forge a "pro-family" alliance with nonevangelical blacks, Hispanics, and Catholics. But it's far from certain how genuine Robertson's new, moderate views really are. The "wider net" he and his colleagues now say they want to cast may well be a disingenuous ruse, a variation on the "stealth" tactics they used with much success in the early Nineties.

Robertson himself, of course, cannot be counted on for a candid explanation. On a recent broadcast of his television show, The 700 Club, he discussed the New Testament analogy about the futility of casting pearls before swine: "Jesus said don't put pearls out before people who have no spiritual discernment, because they’ll turn around and hurt you. I’ve seen it done to me time and time again by unbelieving reporters. So I just do not use what is called spiritual idiom when I’m speaking with secular reporters. They just cannot handle [it]."

The most powerful religious leader in the country, Robertson is a man of both extraordinary accomplishments and extraordinary contradictions. He likes to portray himself merely as a pious man in an impious world, a humble minister persecuted by "anti-Christian bigots." But even his own wife once accused him of being a "religious nut" with "schizoid tendencies." Others have called him, in turn, a psychotic, a prophet, a cynic, a huckster, an entrepreneur, a broadcasting genius. While he is undoubtedly brilliant at what he does, no one can agree on what that is.

"Somebody with prostate trouble is being healed by God's power! A bladder infection has been healed by God's power!"

It is the close of another episode of The 700 Club. Pat Robertson sits on one of three sets in the CBN studio, a lavishly appointed, barn-size room. Banks of massed klieg lights crowd the ceiling above the live audience.

On the set with Robertson are his cohosts, Terry Meeuwsen, a former Miss America, and Ben Kinchlow, a middle-aged black man who sculpts his snow-white hair into a modified pompadour. Robertson holds Terry's hand. She holds Kinchlow's hand. All three have their eyes clenched shut. Robertson is praying aloud, and as he prays, messages from God appear unbidden in his mind, and he repeats them aloud. They are messages for people watching on television. They deal with hemorrhoids and varicose veins, gallbladders and psoriasis, neuralgia, chilblains, ague, gout—a veritable Jacobean chronicle of ailments and distemper.

When Robertson has repeated all the messages sent through him, he turns to Kinchlow and says, "Ben, you have something to say."

"Someone has a problem on their inner thigh," Kinchlow declares. "God's healing that problem right now in the name of our Lord Jesus."

"Someone else has an esophagus problem," Terry says. "And you have trouble swallowing. The Lord's going to heal that for you."

"Somebody is praying right now for $25,000!" Robertson says. "God is going to supply your need."

As the prayer session draws to a close, Robertson says, "Amen." Then he opens his eyes. "Wherever you are, call in, please." With that, the number to call to contribute to The 700 Club appears on the screen.

More than thirty years of such remarkable appeals—"Seeing them, you can be forgiven for thinking Pat's just another religious charlatan," says Skipp Porteous of the Institute for First Amendment Studies in Great Barrington, Massachusetts—have enabled Robertson to build quite an empire. His operations are today housed in a series of neocolonial brick buildings with gabled slate roofs across from a strip mall in the small coastal town of Virginia Beach, Virginia. They consist of the nonprofit CBN (1993 revenues, $140 million); Regent University (endowment, $154 million); International Family Entertainment, the for-profit holding company (1993 revenues, $208 million) that owns, among other things, the Family Channel, Mary Tyler Moore Entertainment, and the Ice Capades; and various other businesses, including the Founders Inn, a smoke-free, alcohol-free hotel and conference center that charges ninety dollars a night.

These operations have made Robertson—who subscribes to what is known as the "prosperity gospel," whereby God showers riches on those he favors—exceedingly wealthy. His annual salary and bonus as head of IFE come to $435,000 (which, as he likes to point out, is low for a broadcast executive). His 3.1 million shares of the company's stock are worth $50 million. He lives on the CBN campus, in a grand brick mansion built with proceeds from his book sales. The Arabian horses he likes to collect graze in an adjoining paddock.

The house is surrounded by a brick wall. Beyond it lies a wooden fence, and beyond that, an electronic fence, which, if breached, summons a guard. An underground tunnel enables Robertson to walk to CBN without going outside. The security may seem somewhat overwrought for a man of faith, but in 1990, he received a letter bomb. And in 1991, a man with a history of psychotic behavior crashed the gates at night and fired shots at a security guard.

On each episode of The 700 Club, the 1.5 million viewers are invited to call in and confide their troubles to CBN's "prayer counselors" at no charge. Some of those calling are in moments of crisis, some are in physical pain, some simply need a little reassurance. The prayer counselors, working in gray-carpeted cubicles in a low-ceilinged room on the second floor of the network, offer them "Christian guidance." When I toured the headquarters in August, two of the prayer counselors, most of whom were young women, were singing into a telephone receiver. Others took down prayer messages to be placed in a basket in the CBN chapel, where the staff prays over them. "They’re not there to provide real psychological counseling," said the tour guide, Carolyn. "They mostly try to cheer people up or refer them to the Bible."

Although the prayer counselors provide genuine solace, they also represent an effective money machine. A sign attached to the walls of the counselors’ cubicles reads, ALWAYS REPEAT SPELL BACK ALL NAME AND ADDRESS INFORMATION TO CALLER. The names of the callers go on CBN's legendary mailing list. The callers can then be invited to join the 700 Club (for twenty-five dollars a month) or the 1,000 Club (for eighty-four dollars a month). They are also, from time to time, asked to make contributions to special projects.

Last Easter, for example, Robertson sent out a letter requesting a gift of "a hundred dollars or more over and above your regular giving" to enable CBN to broadcast an hourlong Hanna-Barbera cartoon, The Easter Story. "Millions of young people will hear the gospel, and we’re believing for tens of thousands of decisions for Christ!" Robertson wrote.

But not all of the money so raised necessarily goes to those special projects. A statement in minute print at the bottom of the letter said, "All funds are used for designated projects and for the worldwide ministry of CBN in accordance with Ezra 7:17–18." That biblical passage reads, "That thou mayest buy speedily with this money bullocks, rams, lambs, with their meal offerings and their drink offerings, and offer them upon the altar of the house of your God, which is in Jerusalem. And whatever shall seem good to thee, and to thy brethren, to do with the rest of the silver and the gold, that do after the will of your God."

The Christian Broadcasting Network reveals very little about its finances. In 1992, it resigned from the Better Business Bureau after failing to meet the bureau's standards for nonprofit organizations, and it has refused to join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an organization that monitors evangelical ministries for fraud. But CBN's annual report reveals that in 1993, it spent $15 million on overhead and another $15.5 million on fundraising; contributions came to $91 million.

One tenet of the prosperity gospel is that those whom God has blessed with wealth should express their gratitude by contributing generously to Christian charities. So CBN courts large donors. Members of its Christian Financial Planning Department, who are paid by a bonus system, have, according to The Virginian-Pilot, raised $1 billion in potential donations by persuading Robertson's followers to make charitable bequests in their wills.

But the unfortunate also need to contribute to Christian charities like CBN, since, by the logic of the prosperity gospel, one way to earn God's favor—and the wealth that accompanies it—is through largesse. "If you are in financial trouble, the smartest thing you can do is start giving money away," Robertson has said.

And so money, from the rich and the poor, the troubled and the happy, the thankful and the desperate, flows into the CBN coffers at the rate, roughly, of $240,000 a day, or $10,000 an hour. According to Gerard Straub, a former producer for Robertson who wrote the book Salvation for Sale, "We had a small, unmarked, guarded warehouse near our headquarters that received the daily donations that poured into Virginia Beach from all over the world. The volume of mail was so overwhelming that the post office had assigned us our own ZIP code. The bags of money, both cash and checks, were dumped onto a conveyor belt that carried its payload past dozens of people, who opened every letter."

Interestingly enough, there is no church on the CBN campus. Although Robertson is a member of the Freemason Street Baptist Church, he has not attended in years. "It is boring. I didn't enjoy going there," he told an interviewer in 1987. "How about that?" But there is no questioning Robertson's religious devotion. He studies the Bible every morning for an hour, prays daily, and regularly converses with God. In his accounts of these conversations, a distinct divine personality emerges. Robertson's God is irascible, sardonic, possessed of a certain wry streak. He is also extremely canny. God, Robertson says in his autobiography, Shout It from the Housetops, told him how much to pay for the small defunct television station in Portsmouth, Virginia, with which he began his teleministry: "‘Lord,’ I heard myself praying, ‘if you want me to take over that station, tell me how much it will cost.’ Immediately, a figure came to mind. It was $37,000." In 1969, when Robertson was negotiating the purchase of new television equipment, an RCA executive named Ed Tracy asked him how much he could spend.

"I waited. Then the Lord spoke, ‘Don't go over $2.5-million.’

"‘Ed,’ I said, ‘our top limit is $2.5 million.’"

According to a 1986 Gallup poll, 36 percent of Americans have such conversations with God on a regular basis. And it seems safe to say they are represented disproportionately on the CBN campus. Employees of CBN and Regent University, who can be heard praying aloud in the small prayer rooms found in many of the buildings, are required to be not just Christians but born-again Christians. And although the Founders Inn is a for-profit operation and therefore, in the view of some, should be prohibited from using discriminatory hiring practices, its job-application form asks candidates to "briefly state your Christian testimony." The testimony should include, according to the form, "(1) My life before receiving Christ. (2) How I became aware of my need for Christ. (3) How I came to Christ. (4) My life since receiving Christ."

Most of those who work on the CBN campus are Pentecostals. They believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, in miracles, and in speaking in tongues. Robertson has described how, while praying fervently after his son Tim had recovered from a fever, "I became aware my speech was garbled. I was speaking in another language. Something deep within me had been given a voice, and the Holy Spirit had supplied the words. I was aware of the sounds, but they were not of my own creation. It sounded more like some kind of African dialect."

A case can be made that the capacity for this sort of intense religious experience—a conviction, to use William James's phrase, in "the reality of the unseen"—is genetic. Natural selection would favor those born with a gene predisposing them toward religious emotions, since such emotions would make them less likely to despair in the face of adversity or pain. And intense religious conviction is a Robertson family trait.

Robertson was raised in Lexington, a quiet, graceful town in the mountains of Virginia. His father was Senator A. Willis Robertson, who chaired the Senate Banking Committee in the Sixties. Both Pat's grandfathers, however, were ministers, and his mother, Gladys, was so devout that his wife, Dede, initially regarded her as a "religious fanatic."

As a child, Robertson showed no signs of a religious temperament. Going to church was, as he puts it, "primarily social, not spiritual," and he stopped when he left home, first to attend a military prep school, then to attend Washington and Lee University, then, in 1951, to serve with the Marines in Korea.

Robertson had his share of fun during those years. Paul Brosman, a marine buddy who later became a professor at Tulane University, has said in a sworn deposition that while in Korea, Robertson "messed around with prostitutes" and at one point "was scared to death he had gonorrhea." Robertson has always denied Brosman's charges, but he has acknowledged that he indulged in "wine, women, and song" before "Jesus Christ came into my life."

When his military tour was over, Robertson enrolled in Yale Law School, but after graduating, he failed the bar exam, and with some friends started a small company that produced electronic components. His mother, a lonely woman who remained in Lexington while her husband was in Washington, wrote Robertson "long, involved, and often preachy letters" about God. "I tossed the letters aside," he confesses.

Eventually, his mother persuaded him to have dinner with Cornelius Vanderbreggen, a wealthy Philadelphia evangelist. During that meal, while buttering a roll as Vanderbreggen quizzed him about his faith, Robertson first experienced God as a vivid presence. The next day, he threw away the Modigliani nude that hung in his living room, poured all the whiskey down the drain—Dede, who liked a drink herself, tried unsuccessfully to stop him—and set out to become a minister.

Dede, a Roman Catholic EDE, from Ohio, was at first rather dismayed by this turn in her husband's life. "I don't mind you going into the ministry, but all this ‘saved’ stuff is too much for me," she told him. Particularly disturbing to her was her husband's insistence that if he felt God was telling him to do something, he had no choice but to obey—regardless of how inconvenient or preposterous the command might seem. When the Robertsons had one small child and Dede was seven months pregnant, Pat decided to spend a month on a religious retreat in Canada. His wife begged him not to go. "It's just not normal for a man to walk out on his wife and leave her with a small child when she's expecting a baby any minute—while he goes off into the woods to talk to God," she told him. "God doesn't tell people to do things like that. At least, my God doesn't."

"This is God who's commanding me," Robertson explained. "I have no choice." At the camp, Robertson received a letter from his wife. "Please come back," she wrote. "I need you desperately." Robertson prayed for help, then opened the Bible at random. He interpreted the passage that caught his eye as a sign that he should stay. "I can't leave," he wrote to his wife. "God will take care of you."

A couple of years later, while Dede was visiting her family in Ohio, Robertson, who had just graduated from the seminary, prayed to God for guidance about his future, then opened the Bible. He came across this passage in Luke: "Sell all that ye have and give alms." The next day, without informing, much less consulting, his wife, he sold all their furniture and moved into a parsonage in the Bedford-Stuyvesant slums of Brooklyn. "Oh, Pat, what have you done this time?" Dede sobbed when she found out.

At that point, Dede believed Robertson had become a fanatic. "I recognize schizoid tendencies when I see them, and I think you’re sick," she told him. She herself refused to submit to religious discipline. One day, when the Robertsons were still living in the Bed-Stuy parsonage, the "presiding elder" ordered everyone to take a bath. "I have a will of my own," Dede replied. "I’m not one of your slaves."

"Dede's rebellion bothered me," Robertson concedes. But eventually, she expressed a "willingness to submit herself to my spiritual leadership," and he woke one night to find her kneeling at the foot of the bed and chanting incomprehensibly. "It sounded like French—but I knew it was tongues—and I knew she was praising the Lord." His wife had become as much of a "religious nut" as she had previously believed him to be. And her willful disobedience vanished.

From the beginning, Robertson's father had been highly scornful of his son's plans for a television ministry. To his surprise, it became so successful that his son was actually in a position to help him during his 1966 reelection campaign. But Pat, who had been stung by his father's ridicule, did nothing. God, he said, forbade it, because although his father still attended church, Jesus Christ was not for him the all-consuming figure that he should be. "I felt I could have helped my father, but the Lord steadfastly refused to let me." The senator lost the race by slightly more than six hundred votes. "I knew my father's defeat was of the Lord, for his soul was far more important than his seniority in Washington."

In the first edition of his autobiography, which came out in 1972, Robertson wrote that God had told him, "You cannot tie my eternal purposes to the success of any political candidate." But when Robertson reissued the book during his 1988 presidential campaign, the line had been taken out. God had come to favor political involvement. "I have made this decision [to run] in response to the clear and distinct prompting of the Lord's spirit," Robertson said in 1987. "I know this is his will for my life."

Spending $22 million, Robertson beat George Bush in the Iowa caucus but placed fourth on Super Tuesday. His campaign had been dogged by the charge from former congressman Pete McCloskey, a decorated Korean War veteran, that Robertson had used his father's influence to avoid combat. While he attributed his decision to run to God, he explained his withdrawal from the race in more secular terms. "Politics is not fun. CBN is fun," he told one reporter.

Robertson's presidential bid in 1988 was the one disaster in a career otherwise defined by shrewdly successful calculations. It almost destroyed CBN. The number of households watching The 700 Club, which Tim Robertson had hosted while his father was away, declined by 56 percent. Contributions fell by $70 million. As a result, CBN had to cut its budget by $34 million and lay off 645 workers. When Robertson returned, the proportion of airtime that The 700 Club devoted to raising money increased from 20 percent to 44 percent.

The late Eighties were a confusing period for Robertson for other reasons as well. To put it simply, events played havoc with his understanding of the global conspiracy. R. J. Rushdoony, a Christian theologian more conservative than Pat Robertson, has written, "The view of history as a conspiracy . . . is a basic aspect of the perspective of orthodox Christianity." Gary North, another conservative Christian minister, explains that "Satan's supernatural conspiracy is the conspiracy; all other visible conspiracies are merely outworkings of this supernatural conspiracy."

Robertson has always shared this view of history as Satanic conspiracy. For years, he considered Communists the primary satanic forces on the global scene. In 1980, he prophesied a war, possibly nuclear, within a few years between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Middle East. It would, he had foretold, destroy the oil fields and cause worldwide economic collapse. When the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe disintegrated in a relatively peaceful manner, he shelved that scenario.

He needed a new one, and George Bush's call for a "new world order" in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war provided it. The following year, Robertson published his book The New World Order, in which he traced the phrase to the eighteenth-century Order of the Illuminati. The secret society of "atheists and satanists" was committed to "the elevation to world leadership of a group of handpicked ‘adepts’ or ‘illumined’ ones."

The Illuminati, Robertson explained, went on to penetrate the Masonic order and the Rothschild banking family, provoke the French Revolution, inspire Karl Marx, and arrange the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Today, Robertson writes, the Illuminati control everything from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Federal Reserve Bank to the new-age movement. "Robertson reminds me of no one so much as Lyndon LaRouche," says Edmund Cohen, author of The Mind of the Bible Believer.

Indeed, in perhaps The New World Order's most extraordinary passage, Robertson writes, "It may well be that men of goodwill like Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush, who sincerely want a larger community of nations living at peace in our world, are unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers."

In the book, Robertson also forecast economic chaos, a prophecy he repeated that year in his newsletter, "Pat Robertson's Perspective," predicting a "debt implosion" in 1992. The country, he warned, would see "stock values collapse, bonds lose value, weak companies go out of business." Interestingly enough, at the same time he was making these dire predictions, he was planning an initial public offering of the stock of his own company—an offering that would amass him a breathtaking fortune.

Robertson, who is nothing if not innovative, founded the Family Channel in 1977 as a division of CBN. The first basic-cable television network to be carried by satellite, its primary purpose was to bring Robertson's religious programming to a national market. To fill in the remaining time, it also broadcast old family-oriented movies and television programs like Father Knows Best and The Waltons. By 1989, the Family Channel had become so profitable that it threatened CBN's tax-exempt status.

So that year, Robertson, his son Tim, and John Malone, the founder of Tele-Communications, Inc., the country's largest cable operator, undertook a classic leveraged buyout of the Family Channel. Malone put up $45 million, Robertson and his son invested a total of $183,000, and their shell corporation issued CBN $250 million in convertible debt. "[Robertson] actually approached us," Malone said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. "[He] said, ‘If you’ll make an investment in my channel, I’ll be able to restructure it, take it out of the church, pay the church for the channel, and retain the format.’"

Just how good a deal this was for the Robertsons can be seen from the fact that in the LBO, they bought 1.5 million shares of a special variety of the company's common stock for 2.2 cents a share. At the subsequent public offering in 1992, the stock was valued at fifteen dollars a share. The very year that Robertson had prophesied upheaval in the stock market, he and his son converted their $183,000 investment into shares of stock worth $90 million.

Robertson vigorously defends the deal. But critics have complained that using charitable contributions made to a tax-exempt organization to create a profit-making enterprise and then selling that enterprise to yourself is, while legal, shamelessly unethical. In introducing a bill last year that would, as he put it, restrict such "self-dealing," California congressman Pete Stark attacked the Robertson LBO, saying, "Assets accumulated by organizations enjoying tax-exempt status are being raided through certain business transactions."

In the fall of 1990, Ralph Reed, a former political organizer for Jesse Helms, was working as the director of the Christian Coalition. Helms was in the midst of a tight race to retain his Senate seat. Reed had access to tracking polls that shortly before the election showed the senator eight points down. "Pat called me up and said, ‘We’ve got to kick into action,’" Reed later told a reporter.

Within five days, the Christian Coalition had made 30,000 phone calls and distributed some 750,000 voter guides—supposedly nonpartisan pamphlets indicating the candidates’ positions on a variety of issues. Many of the pamphlets were placed on the windshields of cars parked in church lots during services. Helms won by a hundred thousand votes. "The press had no idea what we were doing," Jude Haynes, the coalition's southern regional director, said at the time. "But it worked."

Robertson formed the coalition in 1989 from the lists of people who had supported his presidential bid. It set out to take control of the Republican party "precinct by precinct," as Reed would say. At the same time, having learned from 1988 that many voters recoiled from candidates openly espousing a Christian agenda, coalition members ran for school boards and city councils from New York to California without revealing their true affiliation. "In Republican circles, never mention the name Christian Coalition," declared a handbook put out by the coalition's Pennsylvania chapter.

This Illuminati-like approach to secretly seizing control worked at first. With little public notice, sixty-six religious conservatives won various local offices in San Diego in 1990. "It's like guerrilla warfare," Reed explained to a reporter.

But once in power, the Christian Coalition candidates in San Diego revealed their true agenda—creation science in the classroom, abstinence-based sex education—and as a result the Christian right lost forty-one of forty-two local races two years later. Like the narrowly sectarian message of the Christian Coalition, guerrilla warfare had its limits.

So Robertson abandoned both. At the same time, he launched a campaign to portray all criticism of him as the product of "anti-Christian bigotry." "We are the victims of scorn, slander, and ridicule," he has written. "Soon, I fear, without God's intervention, our protests may seem intolerant. When that happens, and it will, we can expect the same treatment that the Jews experienced in Nazi Germany." In other words, it's the Christians themselves who are threatened by oppression, not those with whom they differ.

Mel White takes a somewhat different view. White, the dean of the Metropolitan Community Church in Dallas, ghostwrote Robertson's 1986 campaign book and came to know him fairly well. White is both an evangelical Christian and a homosexual. For years, he fought against his sexual orientation. Finally, he decided to accept it, and last spring published the story of his saga, Stranger at the Gate.

In radio interviews during his book tour, the hosts of the shows frequently invited a member of the Christian Coalition to appear to counter White's views. Time and again, when the question of the Christian position on homosexuality was raised, the coalition member conceded holding the belief that homosexual acts did need to be punished with death. This acknowledgment was always made more in sadness than in anger. But the punishment was stipulated in the Bible, in Leviticus 20:13—"If a man also lie with mankind as he lie with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death"—and since biblical commandments express the will of God, they must be obeyed. Just who was to do the punishing? "That's for the civil authorities," one man told White. "That's why we need to elect more good men of God."

Robertson himself has never actually advocated killing homosexuals. But he has spoken on the subject.

"You’ve got a country filled with homosexuals, people who are living together outside of wedlock, who are engaged in drunkenness, fornication, drug addiction, crime, and violence," he said at that 1980 prayer meeting. "Now, what are we going to do with those people?"

Robertson paused. "Are you going to kill them all?"

He chuckled lightly at this notion, then continued. "Are you going to put them in jail? How are you going to enforce righteousness on them?"

As this notion of "enforcing righteousness" suggests, Robertson, for all his talk of Christians and Jesus, seems more drawn to the Old Testament than the New. His God is the wrathful, violent God of the tribes of Israel, one perpetually enraged over the abominable behavior of his disobedient children, one always on the verge of destroying them all.

Robertson himself, steeped in the obscure books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, hungry for signs and prophetic revelation, has, for all his electronic ministry, many of the characteristics of an Old Testament figure. A judgmental anger—sunstruck and stone-littered in its bleakness—possesses him. He is stirred by the prospect of impending doom. And because he hears the voice of God, all he requires of himself is obedience to that voice. That is why he seems such an unintegrated person, a figure predating Freud, predating even the Enlightenment. For all his prayer and meditation, he never seems to examine his own assumptions, to try to reconcile his own contradictions.

While Mel White is alarmed by the political movement Robertson has built, Bill Clinton and his aides hope the televangelist does run for president. When a report by Clinton's pollster, Stanley Greenberg, was leaked to The New York Times in August, most of the attention was focused on its recommendation that congressional Democrats could fare better in the midterm elections by distancing themselves from Clinton. But just as interesting was that a greater number of those polled were more worried about the religious right than they were about any putatively "anti-family" legislation the Democrats might push through.

As that suggests, the Christian Coalition may well seize control of the Republican party only to condemn it to the sort of national marginalization the McGovern delegates inflicted on the Democratic party in 1972. The righteousness that makes Robertson so appealing to his narrow if politically significant following is precisely what makes him so distasteful to the larger public. But, in the paradox that defines his political position, to the extent that he dilutes his message to expand his appeal, he risks alienating his core. Like a desert mirage, Robertson and the religious right loom large from a distance but recede as they are approached. Forever threatening but forever peripheral, they may well be, in political terms, condemned to an eternity of Becoming.

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