Sunday, January 08, 2006

Is Pat Robertson's Mind Going... Going... ?

Even His Christian-Right Allies Are Now Turning Against Televangelist After He Sticks His Foot in Mouth Over Israeli PM's Health Crisis

By Skeeter Sanders

Pat Robertson has long been a controversial figure in both religion and politics. For years, the conservative Christian evangelist has made statements that have pleased some and outraged others, mainly on his daily religious TV show, "The 700 Club."

Last Thursday, however, the 75-year-old Robertson made a statement so completely off the wall that even his longtime allies and admirers in the Christian Right reacted with shock and outrage -- and some are now shunning him the way Superman would avoid contact with a chunk of deadly kryptonite.

Can you blame them?

Consider that last June, Robertson warned that Walt Disney World would become a target for a terrorist attack by al-Qaida for allowing its grounds to be "sullied" by homosexuals visiting the park for the annual "Gay Days" there.

In August, Robertson called for the assassination of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war and I don't think any [of Venezuela's] oil shipments [to the United States] would stop," he said.

In October, Robertson blamed the nation's failure to outlaw abortion for last summer's devastating hurricane season.

Then there was his remark in November about the voters of Dover, Pennsylvania, who swept out of office members of the city's school board who supported teaching "intelligent design" in place of evolution: "To the people of Dover, Pennsylvania: Don't call upon God to help you if a tornado, flood or some other disaster strikes your city, because you've turned against God" for voting out "intelligent design" supporters.

(A federal judge -- himself an evangelical Christian -- subsequently ruled that "intelligent design" is a thinly-disguised religious teaching and to teach it in the public schools violated the constitutional separation of church and state).

Remark on Sharon the Final Straw?

But Robertson's statement on his TV show last Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's current health crisis was "divine retribution for dividing God's land" was too much even for many fellow Christian conservatives.

Sharon suffered a massive stroke -- his second in 18 days -- last Wednesday. As this article was being written late Saturday night for posting on Sunday, Sharon remained hospitalized in critical but stable condition and in a medically-induced coma.

The prime minister's doctors were to decide Sunday whether to lift him out of his coma to examine the severity of the damage to his brain caused by the stroke. Dr. Jose Cohen, one of the doctors who performed emergency surgery on Sharon, told Israel's Channel 2 Television late Saturday that his chances of survival were "very high," but that he may never be able to resume his duties as prime minister.

Southern Baptist Leader Furious With Robertson

An angry Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Friday that Robertson's remarks were appalling and arrogant. "He ought to know better," Land told the Los Angeles Times. "The arrogance of [Robertson's] statement shocks me almost as much as the insensitivity of it."

Donald Wildmon, founder and president of the American Family Association, called Robertson's remark about Sharon "most unfortunate" and that it undermines the credibility of the conservative Christian movement. "This doesn't serve our cause very well," Wildmon told The New York Times.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, was even more blunt, ripping Robertson as "no more speaking for evangelicals than [TV talk-show host] Dr. Phil [McGraw] speaks for psychologists."

Robertson's latest gaffe even drew condemnation from the White House, with Deputy Press Secretary Trent Duffy telling reporters that the televangelist's comments were "wholly inappropriate and offensive and really don't have a place in this or any other debate."

Evangelicals Worried About a New Rift With Jews

That conservative Christian leaders are dumping on one of their own so swiftly and so massively is unusual, given that they're on the same page most of the time. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why. Many evangelicals have long believed that the survival of Israel is vital to the second coming of Christ, and for Robertson to make such a highly inflammatory statement about the Jewish state's prime minister is extremely harmful.

Left unspoken is a deep fear among evangelicals that Robertson's comment will rekindle longstanding suspicions among many Jews that Christian evangelicals are anti-Semitic. For centuries, it was an article of faith among some Christians that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Interestingly, one other prominent conservative Christian evangelical -- no stranger to making controversial public statements himself -- has been conspicuously silent about this tempest. The Rev. Jerry Falwell has, as of late Saturday night, refused to comment on Robertson's remarks.

Is Robertson Losing Grip With Reality?

At age 75, Robertson is clearly no longer measuring his words carefully when he speaks -- a far cry from his 1988 bid for the Republican presidential nomination and from his heyday as the founder and leader of the once-politically powerful Christian Coalition.

It's as if he's grasping at straws in a desperate attempt to recapture his lost stature as a religious and political force to be reckoned with, according to the Rev. Kevin Mannoia, a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

"I wonder whether, consciously or subconsciously, this is an effort on the part of an individual ... who has recognized that his influence is waning [and that he's making these] increasingly controversial statements ... out of desperation [or] out of [wanting] more attention," Mannoia told the Los Angeles Times.

This blogger finds it difficult to resist coming to the conclusion that Robertson is simply getting senile in his old age. At the very least, Roberson is sounding increasingly bitter as he becomes the object of greater and greater ridicule, to the point of even being compared to Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and other Muslim extremists.

His Christian Coalition is all but bankrupt, having been denied tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service for its political activities and limping along since Robertson stepped down as its leader in 2001.

His daily TV show, which at its zenith drew as many as seven million viewers nationwide in 1990, now draws barely 800,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The ABC Family Channel would love to dump "The 700 Club," but is contractually obligated to carry it -- part of the agreement the Walt Disney Co., ABC's corporate parent, made in 1999 to purchase the cable channel from Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network.

Land suggested that Robertson has, in his isolation, surrounded himself with yes men who will say anything to please their boss. "When you're the head of your own organization, if you don't cultivate people telling you what you don't want to hear, sometimes you don't hear it," he said.

Robertson's TV Network Fights Back

Indeed, CBN promptly lashed out at Robertson's critics, with a spokesperson blaming the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, which released a transcript of Robertson's remarks, of "taking his comments out of context on an ongoing basis in an attempt to discredit him as part of its pursuit of a left-wing political agenda"

Yet when videotapes of Robertson's remarks began airing on TV news programs, the CBN spokesperson refused all further comment. Robertson did not appear on last Friday's broadcast of "The 700 Club." Instead, Robertson's son, Gordon, hosted the show, during which he prayed for Sharon's recovery.

It remains to be seen whether the sharp criticism of Robertson by his fellow evangelicals has gotten through to him. If it hasn't, then Americans may well be witnessing one of the most dramatic displays of a once-powerful man's plunge into self-destruction since Sen. Joe McCarthy.


Volume I, Number 6
Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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