In May 1992, television preacher Pat Robertson announced that he was interested in buying United Press International, the financially struggling news service. Reflecting on the proposed deal, Robertson told reporters the purchase "may be a little opportunity" for God to touch society.
Two months later, the deal was off. Robertson explained that his auditors had looked at UPI's books and determined it would take at least $31 million to turn the troubled news agency around. Robertson said the investment just wasn't worth it. God, it seems, would have to look elsewhere to touch society.
As the UPI move illustrates, Robertson's religious commitment is matched by a keen eye for the bottom line. That combination has made Robertson extremely wealthy, and, coupled with the growing political clout his Christian Coalition enjoys in the Republican party, extremely powerful.
Robertson, now 64, began his empire in 1960 with the purchase of a defunct television station in Portsmouth, Va. Relying on donations from evangelical Christian viewers, shrewd business judgment and—in his view—divine approval, Robertson has since constructed a religious, political and financial empire of epic proportions.
In 1992 Robertson told Christianity Today (6/22/92):
And move Robertson has. Today the Virginia Beach entrepreneur boasts a political unit with immense influence in the Republican Party, a legal arm that jousts with the ACLU, and a graduate school. His media domain includes his flagship Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the popular Family Channel on cable TV, a radio news service called Standard News, and Zap News, a fax-based news service. Beyond his far-flung broadcasting conglomerate, his diverse business empire includes a four-diamond hotel, the Ice Capades and syndication rights to reruns of programs like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant and Hill Street Blues.
Robertson's business deals occasionally border on the audacious. Recently he tried to buy the Houston Post, a 280,000-circulation daily currently owned by the MediaNews Group chain. Robertson said he had been approached by a group of investors interested in buying the Post, but there's a catch: The paper isn't for sale. MediaNews executive William Dean Singleton met with Robertson but declined the offer.
Exact information about Robertson's wealth is hard to come by. But the Virginian-Pilot reported in 1992 (5/24/92) that the non-profit, tax-exempt CBN has quietly amassed a staggering $1 billion in assets and long-term financial commitments. CBN's financial planning department, the paper added, has launched an ambitious effort to double that figure by the end of the decade.
Some enterprises spawned by Robertson and CBN have become so successful that they had to be turned into for-profit ventures. Perhaps the most prominent is the fast-growing Family Channel, which the National Cable Television Association describes as the nation's seventh-largest cable channel, reaching nearly 60 million homes.
In 1992 stock in Robertson's International Family Entertainment, Inc., which owns the Family Channel, was put up for public sale. Financial experts said the estimated $150 million deal conveyed $90 million worth of stock to Robertson and his son Timothy, a nearly 500-fold increase over their original $183,000 investment.
A Robertson spokesman dismissed criticism of the transaction. Profit, he said, isn't "a dirty word." Perhaps to allay criticism, Robertson later donated $117 million in cash and stock options to Regent University, Robertson's graduate school in Virginia Beach (originally called CBN University).
Regent's five graduate divisions include a communications school designed to turn out journalists who will move into the secular media and produce broadcasting more to Robertson's liking. In a 1982 review of his "master plan," Robertson said, "How nice it would be if all the presidents of the three major networks happened to be trained with masters degrees from CBN University."
Robertson's media operation is both sophisticated and effective. Robertson's primary source of donations and public support is his 700 Club program, a show carried on the Family Channel and TV stations around the country. Broadcasting from state-of-the-art studios on a 700-acre property in Virginia Beach, the 700 Club reaches millions of viewers every weekday in the United States.
The program combines news reportage, Pentecostal theology and pragmatic advice about everything from child-rearing to financial investments. Viewers can "claim" the "words of knowledge" that Robertson and his co-hosts receive directly from God, and this divine source of miraculous healing has reportedly cured everything from sinus problems to cancer.
The public affairs reportage that begins each show, however, is much less exotic. 700 Club news segments on the surface appear to be standard network fare. Nicely dressed correspondents with carefully coiffed hair brandish microphones as they stand in front of cameras at the White House, foreign capitals and elsewhere. The reports have a patina of objectivity, but what follows them most decidedly does not.
More often than not, Robertson's beaming persona appears as the segments end to offer "biblical analysis" of the day's events. Flanked by sidekicks Ben Kinchlow and Terry Meeuwsen, Robertson proceeds to explain and interpret what the viewer just saw. Not surprisingly, the analysis reflects Robertson's ultra-conservative political stance and theocratic world view.
Thus, Robertson gets to have the best of both worlds: His reporters front as real newspeople, offering "balanced" reports on the day's events, while the "spin" is provided by the master of ceremonies himself.
Recently the arms of Robertson's broadcasting empire have been reaching overseas. In 1992, the Family Channel went global and now works with broadcast operations in the United Kingdom, South Korea, Canada, Australia and the Czech Republic. In addition, CBN claims 50 international ministry centers, including Middle East Television, a Lebanon-based operation that broadcasts to a potential audience of 11 million. Robertson has even targeted Communist countries like North Korea and Vietnam for broadcasting opportunities.
Predictably, Robertson has turned his wealth and grassroots following into political clout. His American Center for Law and Justice, based at Regent University Law School, boasts 20 full-time attorneys, including the increasingly prominent media personality Jay Sekulow, as well as a nationwide network of at least 220 volunteer lawyers. The group has an annual budget of $10 million.
Meanwhile, Robertson's Christian Coalition has become a huge player in the Republican party, controlling the GOP party machinery in an estimated 18 states, with significant influence in 13 others. Although Robertson's bid for the presidency in 1988 failed miserably, the grassroots network he built then has become one of the most successful forces in American political history, claiming 1.5 million members and a $20-million budget. Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's executive director, was named as one of Time magazine's stars of the future (12/5/94).
Marxists, Masons and Rothschilds
Robertson's climb to wealth and political power could be dismissed as yet another television preacher done well on the donations of the faithful, but few Americans know the extent of his extremist worldview. Robertson not only wants to move the United States as close as possible toward a fundamentalist theocracy, but he also spreads deeply paranoid political theories and conspiracy theories with anti-Semitic overtones.
Although the Christian Coalition's Reed has tried hard to moderate Robertson's public image, the religious broadcaster's bizarre opinions continue to erupt. While Robertson is usually careful to avoid extremist rhetoric when addressing the general public on television, he is less guarded in literature aimed at his diehard followers.
Perhaps his best examples come from his 1992 book The New World Order, a book that the Christian Coalition used to send to high donors. In it, Robertson links George Bush, Jimmy Carter, John Lennon and Vladimir Lenin, the Illuminati, Shirley MacLaine and the New Age Movement, Masons and Marxists, Rockefellers and Rothschilds, the United Nations, the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations—all "part of a Satan-spawned cabal to bring about a socialist, one-world government and, ultimately, the reign of the Anti-Christ."
Robertson lobs heavy criticism at the activities of "European bankers," a term which seems to be used as a synonym for the Jewish financiers who lurk behind the scenes in so many right-wing fantasies. (They even arranged the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he asserts.) "It is reported," Robertson writes,
And, shades of Willie Horton, Robertson raises the specter of black United Nations troops marauding through America. He twice cites a 1960 picture taken during civil conflict in the Congo: "I cannot forget," Robertson declares,
Despite this John Birch Society-style nuttiness (the only cover blurb for the paperback edition of the book comes from the Birchite New American magazine), Robertson has won a large measure of political respectability, speaking at the 1992 Republican convention and drawing to his Christian Coalition conference stage virtually every major GOP presidential hopeful.
What does Robertson want? According to his book, he seeks ultimately a "godly government," one where "God's house and God's people" (he and his flock) are given "their rightful place at the top of the world." (In a 1993 speech in South Carolina, Robertson denounced church-state separation as a "lie of the left.")
What does Robertson mean by "godly government"? Perhaps something like Guatemala under former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, a friend of Robertson and a fellow Pentecostal. Although human rights groups charged Rios Montt with massive human rights abuses, Robertson praises the brutal regime in The New World Order for its "enlightened leadership."
With Robertson beaming that kind of message to his followers—and marching toward center stage at the next Republican National Convention—1996 should be a very interesting year.
Joseph L. Conn is managing editor of Church & State, the monthly magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Rob Boston is assistant editor of that publication, and author of Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State.