Televangelist Pat Robertson’s call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez provoked a storm of criticism Tuesday, triggering condemnation from religious leaders and international outrage, though the Bush administration said he was a private citizen whose remarks were “inappropriate.”
Robertson, who did not comment on the furor, was criticized across the political spectrum in the United States. The head of the National Assn. of Evangelicals said Robertson was endangering the lives of Christian missionaries in Venezuela.
A pioneer of the nation’s evangelical political movement, Robertson is the founder of the Christian Coalition of America and was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988. Hundreds of thousands of his conservative Christian fans tune in daily to his television show “The 700 Club.”
Although in recent years the influence of the 75-year-old Robertson has ebbed among religious conservatives nationally, he retains a huge following and occupies a revered position within a key GOP constituency.
Robertson said on Monday’s “700 Club” program that the Venezuelan leader would make his nation “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.” Killing Chavez, an ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro, would be “a whole lot cheaper than starting a war,” Robertson said.
He added: “We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200-billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.”
In Venezuela, Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel said Tuesday that Robertson’s remarks were “terrorist statements.” He condemned them as incitement to commit murder, and called on U.S. officials to make clear that the law applied “even to such Christians.”
An executive order signed by President Ford on Feb. 18, 1976, prohibits any U.S. government employee from engaging in political assassination.
Speaking at a news conference in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, Rangel said: “The ball is in the U.S. court after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country. It’s a huge hypocrisy to maintain this discourse against terrorism and at the same time, in the heart of that country, there are entirely terrorist statements like those.”
Chavez, who was winding up a visit with Castro in Cuba, brushed off the controversy. He told reporters at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport that he had never heard of Robertson and did not know or care what the televangelist had said.
Still, Robertson’s remarks caught -- and exaggerated -- the tensions that have existed between the Chavez and Bush administrations.
Chavez, who according to polls has the approval of 70% of his nation even as poverty increases, uses his open hostility toward the United States to maintain his political foundation, and the U.S. government, wary of Chavez, nevertheless looks to Venezuela as a reliable supplier of oil.
The scope of Robertson’s influence drew considerable debate Tuesday.
His syndicated television program, for which he claims an audience of at least 1 million, has drawn an average of 863,000 viewers a day during the 2004-2005 television season, Nielsen Media Research said.
His electoral reach was at its peak in the 1988 presidential campaign. He won primary elections in Hawaii, Alaska, Nevada and Washington, but captured only 15% of his native state, Virginia, and was out of the race after the Super Tuesday contests.
Some in the evangelical movement have said Robertson’s influence among evangelicals in the United States had weakened.
“He’s an old man and there’s a group of old women and old men who watch him,” said one leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he respected Robertson’s past ministry and did not want to alienate Robertson’s followers. “The spokespeople for evangelicalism are significantly distanced from him politically and spiritually. The Moral Majority days are long gone. It’s a different world.”
Yet, Robertson maintains a degree of influence with the religious conservative movement through his Christian Broadcasting Network and, in particular, as a leader in the push to confirm conservative judges. He has had differences with the White House and is not considered a member of President Bush’s inner circle.
Some of his most vocal critics insisted in telephone interviews Tuesday that he remained influential.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said any effort to portray Robertson as lacking an audience was “just not accurate,” and the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Robertson had “tremendous authority in the minds and hearts of about 20% of the American electorate.”
Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA and who served as a Pennsylvania Democrat on the House Select Committee on Assassinations from 1976 to 1979, said Robertson’s comments made no sense.
“It defies logic that a clergyman could so casually dismiss thousands of years of Judeo-Christian law, including the commandment that we are not to kill,” Edgar said.
The Rev. Ted Haggard, a Colorado pastor and president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, said Robertson increased the danger for evangelical missionaries in Venezuela because “if this dictator starts to think of evangelicals as people who are gunning for him, that could be difficult for missionaries there.”
In California, the Rev. Kevin Mannoia compared Robertson’s statement to those of Islamic extremists. “We complain about the Islamic fanatics making statements like that,” said Mannoia, a former president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals who is now chaplain at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical institution.
He called Robertson’s statement “an extreme, fanatical reaction that is not representative of the Christian faith in general and the evangelical movement in particular. It’s out of line and inappropriate and should not be made by a serious person in a serious forum.”
Mannoia said he thought Robertson’s influence was diminishing, particularly with new generations of evangelicals.
The ABC Family Channel, one of the outlets for “The 700 Club,” distanced itself from Robertson, saying in a statement that it was contractually obligated to carry the program and had “no editorial control over views expressed by the hosts or guests.”
“ABC Family strongly rejects the views expressed by Pat Robertson in the Aug. 22 telecast of the program,” the statement said.
Robertson’s office did not respond to a telephone call or an e-mail message seeking comments on his remarks and the reactions.
Robertson is familiar with controversy.
In 1998, he responded to a campaign to fly flags in downtown Orlando, Fla., to celebrate National Gay Pride Month with a warning to the city: “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. 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.”
During the 2004 presidential campaign, in which he supported Bush’s reelection, Robertson said he had expressed to the president his misgivings about going to war with Iraq.
Bush told him, Robertson said on CNN, “Oh, no, we’re not going to have any casualties.”
This year, Robertson said he would be wary of appointing Muslims to top positions in the U.S. government, including judgeships.
The White House made no comment on Robertson’s remarks. At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said Robertson’s views did not “represent the policy of the United States.” He called the comments “inappropriate.”
“I would think that people around the world would take the comments for what they are,” he said. “They’re the expression of one citizen.”
But Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, pointed to Robertson’s Republican political ties and his support for Bush and said, “Mr. Robertson is, of course, no ordinary private citizen.”
McCormack rejected suggestions that Robertson’s remarks would damage the U.S. agenda in Latin America. One expert in the region said the comments amounted to a political windfall for Chavez.
“This is pure gold for Chavez,” said Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, who served as Venezuela’s minister of trade and industry and played a central role in starting economic reforms in the early 1990s. “He could not have wished for anything better to happen.”
The comments dominated news coverage in Venezuela, which is divided between fierce Chavez opponents and an equally strident and larger group of loyal Chavistas.
“As a Venezuelan, I can tell you it was just an act of stupidity,” said Livia Suarez, a civil servant who works for the ministry of communications. She said she did not take Robertson’s comments as representative of a broader segment of the U.S. population. “I think this man is speaking without support from anyone.”
Alberto Ravel, president of private Globovision TV, which has sparred with the populist president over curbs on broadcast media, said “a lot of us can’t understand how a priest could say such things, even among opponents of Chavez.”
Gerstenzang reported from Washington and Stammer from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Carol J. Williams in Miami, Scott Collins in Los Angeles, Peter Wallsten in Boise, Idaho, and Tyler Marshall, Edwin Chen and Steven Bodzin in Washington contributed to this report.