Pat Robertson’s God, Inc.

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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.

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