A number of conservatives and Republicans have criticized televangelist Pat Robertson for suggesting that the U.S. government assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. “What an offense that this man was a serious candidate for the presidency,” wrote NR’s Richard Brookhiser, referring to Robertson’s 1988 run for the Republican nomination, in which Robertson defeated eventual nominee George H. W. Bush in the Iowa caucuses. “He was our Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.”
”It’s ludicrous, ridiculous, irresponsible,” said former Sen. Bob Dole, who ran against Robertson in that 1988 race. “I mean, whenever somebody makes such a stupid statement as Pat Robertson made, it’s probably going to benefit, in this case, Chavez.”
“It was an incredibly stupid statement and has no reflection on reality,” added Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. And conservative radio host Blanquita Cullum said, “I think what he did is a terrible thing. I think it’s a disgrace. And there’s no way I can support what he said. I don’t think any rational person can support that.”
The condemnations made clear that Robertson’s comments had absolutely no support anywhere. But they did not address another question: Just how influential is Robertson in today’s politics?
The answer from many conservatives, especially those in Washington and New York, would be quick and clear: Robertson has virtually no influence at all. “I don’t know anybody in the religiously conservative world who takes their nods from Pat,” said one conservative who closely tracks the world of faith and politics. “He’s just sort of had his day. Plus, you combine about three or four crackpot comments a year, and even your own constituents say you’re nuts. He’s worn out his welcome, even with his own people.”
To many on the right, Robertson’s most important role today seems to be as the maker of those crackpot comments, which give liberals the opportunity to hang the offending words–and Robertson himself–around conservatives’ necks.
There is some truth to that, but there is also some evidence to suggest that Robertson is not quite as marginalized a figure as conservatives would like to believe. His main forum, the television program The 700 Club, is available in nearly all of the country on the ABC Family Channel, FamilyNet, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and some broadcast stations. According to Nielsen Media Research, The 700 Club, aired each weekday, has averaged 863,000 viewers in the last year. While that is not enough to call it a popular program, it is still a significant audience. It is, for example, more than the average primetime audience for CNN last month–713,000 viewers–or MSNBC, which averaged 280,000 viewers in prime time. It is also greater than the viewership of CNBC and Headline News.
“It’s a pretty good audience,” says John Green, a professor at the University of Akron who is also a fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “He is certainly a consequential figure.” But Green and others point out that, even though Robertson has a core audience of supporters, his influence–which had a high point in 1988 and 1989, when he ran for president and founded the Christian Coalition–is unquestionably on the wane. Figures like James Dobson have eclipsed Robertson in political influence, and popular evangelicals like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have surpassed him in the religious world. “They are more in tune with contemporary culture, while Robertson was more in tune with what was happening with evangelicals 20 or 30 years ago,” says Green.
So these days, Robertson makes news only when he says something outrageous. And he has done that more than a few times. In early 2004, Robertson claimed divine inspiration as he predicted a Bush landslide in the presidential election. “I really believe I’m hearing from the Lord it’s going to be like a blowout election in 2004,” he said on The 700 Club. “It’s shaping up that way.”
In 2003, discussing a book critical of the State Department, Robertson said, “If I could just get a nuclear device inside Foggy Bottom, I think that’s the answer. I mean, you get through this [book], and you say, ‘We’ve got to blow that thing up.’”
In 2001, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Robertson nodded in agreement as fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell said the attacks were God’s punishment for the sins of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America.”
In 1998, Robertson warned the city of Orlando, Florida not to mark Gay Pride Month by flying flags downtown. “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,” Robertson said. “This is not a message of hate; this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It’ll bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”
And now Robertson has advised the United States to assassinate the president of Venezuela. (He later released a statement saying that he didn’t really mean Chavez should be killed.) Conservatives would like to dismiss him as a has-been and an embarrassment. To some extent, that’s true–but not to all those viewers of The 700 Club.
–Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.