Robertson Could Mobilize Religious Right : Evangelist's Presidential Bid: Test for Church, State

Times Political Writer

"If I'd worked for IBM for 30 years, it would be very strange if my supervisor never gave me any instructions," says television evangelist Pat Robertson. "I've worked for the Lord for 30 years now and, obviously, he's going to give me instructions as to how to carry out his work."

The silvery haired preacher with the beaming countenance--a Yale-trained lawyer and son of a U.S. senator from Virginia, who today presides over a multimillion-viewer, multimillion-dollar religious broadcasting complex--is actively considering a dramatic career change: seeking the 1988 Republican nomination for President of the United States.

A Robertson candidacy, which now seems increasingly likely, would not only bring to bear his practiced skills at television and fund raising; far more important, Robertson--perhaps better than anyone--could tap the energies of the millions of conservative Christians, known as evangelicals, who have been organizing and registering to vote at a furious pace in one of the most striking political phenomena of the last decade.

And the impact of a candidacy that focused on mobilizing such voters would extend well beyond the 1988 campaign. The conservative Christian crusade against what Robertson calls "anti-biblical" moral standards reaches across a broad range of public policy and private relationships--into classrooms, courtrooms and bedrooms, indeed, into nearly every recess of American life.

As a result, his candidacy could stir uncommon passions on both sides and shake the uneasy relationship that has always existed in America between religion and politics.

"We are moving on a flood tide of revival in America," the 55-year-old Robertson told the National Religious Broadcasters convention here this month, addressing an audience sprinkled with members of "Christians for Robertson" wearing "Pat Robertson '88" buttons. In simplistic terms, a Robertson presidential campaign would help determine whether the revival wave he champions will sweep on or whether, in keeping with historical cycles, it already has crested and is about to recede.

So far as his own ambitions are concerned, at this early stage few GOP strategists give Robertson a serious chance of winning the nomination. A fair number, however, believe that he could have a significant impact on the campaign and on the Republican Party by focusing attention on such emotionally explosive issues as abortion, homosexual rights and school prayer.

Although Robertson joins other conservative Republicans in calling for support of "freedom fighters" against communism around the world and proclaims the need to cut federal spending, his distinguishing emphasis is on moral concerns. In addressing the religious broadcasters, Robertson inveighed against divorce, drugs, crime and pornography.

'Dangerous Place to Be'

And, in a bitter double-edged attack on modern education and abortion, he charged that, for today's children, "school has become the most dangerous place to be, probably, outside the mother's womb--which is the most dangerous of all."

These issues engender fierce commitment among evangelicals, born-again believers in the infallibility of the Bible, who are becoming an increasingly potent political force. White evangelicals, mostly Baptists but also members of other Protestant denominations, now make up roughly one-fifth of the electorate, a larger group than such traditionally important political blocs as blacks, Latinos and Jews. Robertson admirers believe that his candidacy could further energize the evangelicals, as well as other similarly minded Christians, including conservative Catholics.

On the other hand, some analysts think that millions of other voters, especially young people who flocked to the GOP banner in surprising numbers in 1984, might feel threatened by the prospect that the values Robertson espouses might be converted into government action.

"Robertson's candidacy would trigger a level of commitment and intensity that no one else could match," said Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Political Action Committee. Yet Weyrich worries that "the very emotional opposition to a religious figure taking an active part in politics" could translate into grass-roots opposition to Robertson.

That conundrum helps to define the central problem confronting a Robertson candidacy: His clerical credentials as a spokesman on moral values help to establish his greatest strength--but they could also become a troublesome weakness if many voters see his candidacy as breaching the traditional line between church and state.

'It Will Be Too Late'

Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. already has zeroed in on Robertson's church background. In a recent test fund-raising letter, Kirk described Robertson as "an ultrafundamentalist leader of the Religious Right" and warned Democrats not to dismiss Robertson's chances in 1988, "because, when President Pat Robertson finishes his Scripture reading and begins his televised State of the Union address, it will be too late."

Robertson responded last weekend by accusing Kirk of "virulent anti-Christian bigotry" and demanded an apology. But, more generally, he hopes to deflect such criticism by emphasizing credentials that show him to be a man of many talents.

Marion Gordon (Pat) Robertson, who received a Yale law degree before getting a master's of divinity from New York Theological Seminary, is the founder and president of the Christian Broadcasting Network, the corporate umbrella for several thriving endeavors in communications and education, whose revenues Robertson estimates at more than $200 million a year.

"I want to be perceived not as a narrow, single-interest person," he said in an interview.

'Electronic Church'

Robertson is only one of a number of preachers described by Brookings Institution senior fellow A. James Reichley as "proprietors of the electronic church," who have used modern technology to put a political edge on biblical moral values. What sets Robertson apart is his low-key, conversational style and the almost indelible smile that is his hallmark. In his starring role on "The 700 Club," the news magazine show that is the centerpiece of Christian Broadcasting Network programming, Robertson functions more as an interlocutor than as a preacher.

"He has a wonderful knack of looking and sounding reasonable, even when he's taking an extreme position," said former Alabama Republican Rep. John Buchanan, chairman of People for the American Way, the organization established by television producer Norman Lear to monitor and counter the activities of the Religious Right.

Nonetheless, Robertson's political foes may be able to seize examples of his religious actions and utterances that, when transferred to the political arena, could cause embarrassment.

"People in the mainstream of the conservative movement would be inclined to look with great skepticism on a Robertson candidacy until it can be demonstrated that it's not a candidacy that borders on the bizarre," David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said.

Robertson already may have given the press and his political opponents some ammunition by the dramatic way he calls on the Almighty on television to heal the victims of specific afflictions and--among other things--to chase away hurricanes. But he contends that calling on the Lord for that sort of help is much closer to the norm than many skeptics realize.

"Every believer in Jesus, and in a sense every Jewish believer--if he will turn to the Lord--has supernatural power over disease and poverty and sickness and those things that would cripple and hurt humanity," Robertson said in a recent interview.

"It's just a question of knowing how to do it. It's like saying that everybody can drive a car if you give them lessons. The question is: what do you do," Robertson continued. "Do you pray to God or do you speak to the disease?"

In the case of Hurricane Gloria, which threatened the Virginia Beach, Va., headquarters of Robertson's operations last September, Robertson said: "I told the storm to move out to sea. There were about a million people praying with me. What would have been a devastating disaster to our area was a minor inconvenience."

May Have to Defend Views

In the peculiarly intensive scrutiny of a presidential campaign, Robertson would also be called on to defend and clarify many of the views that he has aired over the years.

One such issue is Social Security. In a 1984 speech to a conservative policy council, Robertson stated: "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we took all that money that goes into Social Security and invested it properly with insurance companies, banks, private business and private enterprise?"

When asked where, if such a plan were carried out, he would get the money to pay existing obligations to the elderly, Robertson told The Times that some could come from "general revenues," although he added: "I don't have the formula now, but I think we should go to work toward finding a formula.

"We have a commitment to the elderly in this," he stressed. "Nobody, least of all me, would ever diminish the claim of those who have been paying all their life into Social Security. That has to be guaranteed."

Status of Women

On another sensitive question, the status of women, in his book "Shout It From the Housetops," Robertson quotes his wife, Dede, as saying to him: "I know you think a wife is supposed to submit herself to her husband, and I think that, too."

"She was quoting the Bible, the Apostle Paul," Robertson explained. He said that there was "an enormous difference . . . between embodying such biblical admonitions in the rules for a church or other voluntary body and incorporating them in the rules for government."

"One rule is for a voluntary association that says what is the best order for family. And the answer, according to the Bible, is a single head," he said. That answer, he explained, applies to a relationship founded on love, "where the husband loves the wife as much as his own body, and the wife, in turn, because of that love, submits to the husband in the same way that people voluntary submit themselves to God." But he added, "There's no way through force of law that can be put in."

By Robertson's own account, God and Scripture have played a more direct and active role in his life than in most other people's.

Seemed Well Positioned

At 26, as the son of Democratic Sen. A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington and Lee University, before going on to Yale, and chairman of the local Adlai E. Stevenson for President committee, he seemed well positioned, he later wrote, "to build (with his wife) our image as sophisticated New York swingers who were rapidly climbing the success ladder."

Yet, all was not well. For one thing, Robertson had failed the New York bar exam. And, as Robertson wrote, "things just didn't seem to be adding up." An inner voice kept insisting that "God has a purpose for your life."

Robertson said he heeded that voice, experienced personal salvation and rebirth as a Christian, then sold his share in a small electronics business and most of his worldly possessions and eventually became a television evangelist, all the time following God's directions.

The public policy side of Robinson's religious commitment has found additional outlets in organizations closely related to politics and founded by him or his supporters.

Tax-Exempt Groups

There are two tax-exempt educational groups, the National Perspectives Institute, a center for issues research headed by Jerry Curry, a retired Army major general who functions as Robertson's unofficial political coordinator, and the Freedom Council, which recruits and trains religious conservatives for grass-roots political action. A more recent creation, the Committee for Freedom, is a political action committee that intends to take advantage of Robertson's appeal to rally financial and political support for conservative candidates for office.

Under federal law, none of these groups could support Robertson directly should he become an official presidential candidate, but they could help him indirectly while he is deciding whether to run.

One important element in Robertson's political prospects is his fund-raising ability. By his own reckoning, the various arms of the Christian Broadcasting Network took in $129 million in contributions in 1985, and a spokesman for the network says its donor list now contains about 600,000 names. "All he has to do is say the word and the money rolls in," Weyrich said.

Another asset is his television following. The Christian Broadcasting Network says that an A.C. Nielsen study it commissioned last year showed that "The 700 Club," carried on cable and also on about 200 UHF and VHF stations around the country, reaches more viewers than any other religious broadcast--with 16.3 million households tuning in at least briefly once a month. The average weekly audience for the program, as William Behanna of Nielsen, who conducted the survey, acknowledged, is much smaller--about 1.4 million households.

The question remains whether Robertson can persuade his television audience and other religious conservatives to unite behind him as a presidential candidate.

As the skirmishing for the 1988 campaign intensifies, Robertson claims to be increasingly encouraged by the "external" response from politicians to his prospective candidacy--"Nobody is saying this is something that is bizarre or out of reach or out of reason"--and the "inward" guidance he says he is getting from God.

"Right now, I have peace and I have complete calm and complete assurance that what I'm doing at this moment is right down the right track," he said.

Does that mean God is on his side?

"That," said Robertson with a laugh, "is what we're going to find out."

Times religion writer Russell Chandler contributed to this story.

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