The Christian talk show host contemplates a ‘lateral move.’
The process of electing a U.S. President makes it certain that few individuals will ever attempt a run for the Oval Office. Those who do, need a sure-fire mix of fund-raising genius, proven administrative ability, a clear grasp of global issues, and a compelling personality suited to the electronic media.
Some say that Pat Robertson, host of television’s “700 Club” talk show, has all these and more. Consequently, the founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) says he has been asked to consider running for President in 1988. He says he is praying about the decision and seeking counsel from trusted Christian friends.
Meanwhile, the machinery of Robertson’s Virginia Beach, Virginia, empire appears to be primed to propel Robertson into national public life. It is likely that he will not decide for another year or more. Nonetheless, speculation about his candidacy is energizing the Republican party’s right wing and fueling fears of a split between social-issue conservatives and the party’s moderates.
The idea of a Robertson candidacy first appeared in a Saturday Evening Post article (March 1985), complete with a lengthy “agenda for public action” proposed by Robertson. Since then, articles in the Wall Street Journal, Conservative Digest, Washington Times, and elsewhere have reinforced the possibility of Robertson as a White House contender. He is the son of a former U.S. senator, A. Willis Robertson, Democrat, of Virginia. Pat Robertson, asked frequently why he does not run for the Senate himself, jokes that he would consider that office a demotion. “But the presidency would be a lateral move,” he has said in interviews as long ago as 1979.
Robertson resists the label “television evangelist.” Instead, he seeks to present himself as a Christian businessman, lawyer, and specialist in economics. His Christian identity remains undiluted, however, even in circles where that could be unpopular. In a speech to the United Republican Fund of Illinois, Robertson said spiritual revival is a major development in the world today. He described it as “a turning to God and desire for God that the world has never seen.”
He is intensely interested in educating Christians about public affairs and stirring their enthusiasm for political involvement. He believes America faces a crossroads where family values and faith in God could lose out to statism and hedonism. Running for President will not guarantee Robertson a term in the White House, but it will almost certainly mean that the presidential candidates in 1988 will not be able to dismiss moral issues that matter to Christians.
Robertson recently switched his party affiliation to Republican, and he is expected to frame a possible candidacy around themes of individual initiative; economic policies to reduce the federal deficit; judicial conservatism; opposition to Soviet adventurism in the Third World; and a return to moral values on the part of American citizens. In recent years, Robertson has warned of an impending economic disaster and has embraced an eschatology that relates Bible prophecy to current events in the Middle East. On television, and via a newsletter called “Perspective,” he has sounded “a warning to prepare” for recession and world crises, and offered “a message of hope” from the gospel. In 1983, Robertson discontinued the newsletter.
Today, however, he talks in terms of solutions to domestic and international difficulties. He has been visiting Capitol Hill more frequently to testify before Congress on issues, including the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985. That legislation was designed to overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing federally funded programs to continue at a Christian college that refused to sign a commitment to nondiscrimination based on sex. Robertson opposed the bill, terming it “a new and sizable extension of federal oversight into a vast area of American institutional life.”
Pro And Con
Robertson’s supporters say he is competent to hold high office. “When he confronts political dilemmas that our culture faces, he doesn’t approach them with a broad-stroke, shallow, naive perspective,” said Charles W. Jarvis. “He comes with a sophisticated understanding of domestic and international economics.” Jarvis, an evangelical who is acquainted with Robertson, is vice-president of the Legal Services Corporation in Washington, D.C., a federally funded office providing legal counsel to the poor.
Robertson’s backers also say that he, like President Reagan, is capable of articulating a highly developed image of America’s potential. “What we will be discussing in 1988,” Jarvis predicted, “are visions and countervisions of what America as a nation and as a set of communities can be.”
That is a process the Christian in politics needs to approach wisely, according to British evangelical author Os Guinness. “Christians tend to argue various positions pro and con,” Guinness said. “What is conspicuously lacking is any attempt to be more like the Founding Fathers and describe a setting—a precondition for debate that will not alienate Jews, secularists, and all others. If the setting of the debate makes others comfortable, then Christians can be as specific as they like about their own faith.”
Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and former aide to President Nixon, said he would caution Robertson to “be absolutely certain it is a calling from God. Subdue, wrestle to the ground, personal ambition. The presidency would not be something a Christian leader could run for, but something he’d be drafted for, and there is only one Person who could do the drafting.”
Colson said Robertson has the advantage of a widespread appeal to evangelicals. “Pat is a uniquely gifted public figure. It is not outrageous to consider his running, [but] it would have to be unmistakably obvious that the Holy Spirit was leading.”
A main area of concern expressed by Christians who are less enthusiastic about Robertson’s possible candidacy is the effect it could have on his ministry. Jerry Herbert, editor of the book America: Christian or Secular? (Multnomah), said Robertson would be distracted from his primary task of proclaiming the gospel, a task he performs in a more balanced manner than many preachers on television. “Some of us are called to public life, and some are called to articulate the gospel,” Herbert said. “Maybe he feels his call is changing, but it will lessen his ability to maintain the impact of the various CBN ministries.”
Also, Herbert warned, a prominent evangelical candidate for office could inadvertently have the effect of “isolating Christian voters and moving them away from effective involvement in the body politic. It would give secularists more opportunity to dismiss us and undercut the legitimacy of our concerns on issues such as the right to life.”
Doug Bandow, a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at The Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, said, “I fear he’d be humiliated. The biggest danger is that he will not be taken seriously, and that may hurt his ministry.”
The scope of that ministry has grown tremendously. And there are indications that the day-to-day operations of CBN and its related organizations are being streamlined to permit Robertson to disengage himself so he can pursue political life. Already, the major tasks of running CBN’s cable network, its graduate university, news bureaus, and outreach programs are delegated to lieutenants at the Virginia Beach headquarters, in Washington, D.C., and around the world.
James R. Whelan, former editor of the Washington Times and a veteran conservative journalist, has been named managing director of CBN News in Washington. In January, CBN will introduce a half-hour, weeknight news program called “CBN News Tonight.” CBN intends to compete with other cable-television news shows and eventually with network television.
Two organizations headed by Robertson but unrelated to CBN provide additional clues about how a run for the presidency might take shape. Robertson established the National Perspectives Institute, described in one of its publications as an organization “devoted to scholarly research and analysis of the practical problems of public policy in the areas of economics, government, foreign policy, and the general social sciences.”
Is Pat Robertson Raising Money for Anti-Sandinista Guerrillas?
Pat Robertson’s mild-mannered style doesn’t camouflage the depth of his political convictions. On his “700 Club” television program, he affirms his support of the Reagan Administration, including its policies in Central America. In reference to the armed conflict in Nicaragua, Robertson has prayed on the air that “the Lord will give aid to those people who are struggling against Communist rule.”
Some critics charge that Robertson’s political leanings affect much more than the content of his prayers, however. They say that Operation Blessing, the relief arm of Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), is one of a handful of private organizations that supports the contras, guerrillas who are fighting against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
That and other allegations are summarized in the October issue of Sojourners, a politically Left-leaning evangelical magazine. Sojourners states that “millions of well-meaning U.S. Christians are donating money that is serving, directly or indirectly, to sustain Nicaraguan contras and to perpetuate … contra terrorism.”
Operation Blessing has given several million dollars’ worth of food, medicine, and other aid to Central America. One CBN news release announced a $20 million effort to send aid to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
While no one has publicly accused the organization of supplying contras with direct military aid, some critics argue that in certain circumstances, the line between humanitarian assistance and military aid is easily blurred. They say guerrillas can spend more of their own resources on guns if their families are being supplied with food and medicine.
Critics, including Sojourners, maintain that Operation Blessing has done too little to ensure that aid does not fall into the hands of guerrillas. Sojourners alleges that Operation Blessing on occasion has worked with relief organizations that have explicit political goals. These include the Air Commandos Association, Friends of the Americas, and the Nicaragua Patriotic Association.
Perhaps Sojourners’ most serious charge involved a $3 million donation that Operation Blessing allegedly made to the Nicaragua Patriotic Association. That organization’s leader is known to have ties to the contras.
A Sojourners spokesman said the allegation was based on a report published in the Milwaukee Journal. The spokesman could not establish that Sojourners had verified the report independently.
In response, CBN spokesman Earl Weirich said Operation Blessing has had no contact with the Nicaragua Patriotic Association. In addition, he said he was unaware of any CBN connections with Friends of the Americas.
However, a Sojourners spokesman said one of the magazine’s reporters attended a meeting at which Friends of the Americas leader Louis Jenkins thanked Robertson for Operation Blessing’s support of refugees through Friends of the Americas. (Jenkins is a Louisiana state representative. He was quoted in The Nation as saying, “I want the Sandinistas kicked out of Nicaragua. That’s one of the main motivations for my work.” However, he also affirmed that “our role is to help refugees, not to get involved with combatants.”)
Weirich acknowledges that CBN has worked with the Air Commandos Association—a group of retired air force officers—on at least three occasions. Generally, aid delivered by groups like the Air Commandos Association is nonmilitary. However, those organizations do not abide by a United Nations policy that prohibits relief centers from operating within 50 kilometers of an armed conflict. That policy attempts to prevent humanitarian aid from being used to perpetuate fighting.
Sojourners also alleges that a CBN television news crew used a vehicle owned by the contras and lied about it to a representative of World Relief, the relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. Tom Hawk, formerly World Relief’s coordinator in Honduras, said he is “disappointed in [CBN’s] reporting on Central America.… It’s very, very one-sided.” He said the situation is so complex that “you can go down and prove just about any story you want.”
Given that politically conservative Americans generally feel the United States should be aiding the contras, the implication by Sojourners that CBN is misleading “millions of well meaning” financial supporters seems unfounded. Because Robertson is so candid about his political views, it is unlikely that many of those who donate to Operation Blessing are misled about what it is doing.
Nevertheless, critics charge that any aid to the contras would violate the U.S. Neutrality Act, which prohibits support for the overthrow of any government with which the United States is at peace. The tiff over CBN’s alleged relationship with the contras reflects a fundamental disagreement over how to interpret the strife in Central America. And on this issue, American evangelicals are far from a consensus.
The institute is preparing position papers on a variety of concerns, such as the Communist threat in Central America. One observer, certain that Robertson will indeed run, described the institute as a “shadow cabinet.” Its president, Jerry Ralph Curry, is a retired major general in the army, with extensive overseas experience.
A second organization headed by Robertson, Freedom Council, has been reorganized to separate it completely from CBN. Robertson still serves as president, a post he has held since Freedom Council was formed three years ago. The organization began as an effort to educate local congregations about concerns related to religious freedom in America. Today, it is organizing state and precinct chapters led by church members who are interested in politics.
Bob Partlow, Freedom Council’s executive director, said the group employs 20 people in Virginia Beach, 50 field organizers, and two representatives in Washington who lobby and keep Freedom Council members informed about legislation.
Freedom Council has hired a former political assistant to Paul Weyrich, leading New Right organizer in Washington, as political director. In North Carolina, Freedom Council’s state coordinator is Carl Horn, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer and former counsel to Wheaton (Ill.) College.
What Republicans Think
There is little doubt that many Freedom Council members would be inclined to support Robertson if he decided to run for office. That prospect invites mixed reactions from Republicans in Washington. Robertson is viewed as a catalyst for party building, yet he could siphon votes away from other conservative contenders, such as Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). Robertson has already gained the backing of some New Right leaders in Washington, including Weyrich and Howard Phillips, because they object to Kemp’s support of sanctions against South Africa and his reluctance to speak up on the social issues they care about most.
A source in the Republican party said the Republican National Committee is taking Robertson seriously because “they understand the numbers. Evangelicals are increasingly active in politics, and eight out of ten voted for Ronald Reagan. Those are numbers they like.” At the very least, they expect Robertson to inspire millions of voters to register.
Whether his flirtation with politics develops into a courtship of American voters depends on Robertson’s interpretation of the Holy Spirit’s leading and the counsel he gathers from other Christians. The exercise of deciding seems likely to stir thought-provoking assessments of what it means to carry personal faith into every arena of public life—what benefits might be gained and what liabilities suffered.
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