Mar 1 1998

Inside the 700 Club

Pat Robertson's former co-host speaks out

Many people have heard of Pat Robertson, but few can say they know him, even among his limited number of close friends. To the general public he is an enigma–a Baptist minister, a televangelist, a would-be kingmaker behind the Republican Party, the founder of the powerful Christian Coalition, a businessman, a broadcast mogul, a defender of the faith and a failed presidential contender.

As the host of his own nationally syndicated television show, the 700 Club, Robertson has also called himself a broadcast journalist, interpreting and commenting on the news of the day. Aired on his own Christian Broadcasting Network, as well as the Family Channel (recently purchased from Robertson by Rupert Murdoch), his 90-minute show utilizes news as part of a greater evangelical purpose.

Robertson reports his news from an obvious Christian, conservative perspective, without the veneer of objectivity offered by traditional new outlets. But though he deals from a subjective deck, he still has a few cards up his sleeve: There’s an unstated spin to the lessons he teaches his flock.

Robertson’s agenda can be understood in terms of the heady decade of the ’80s, when televangelism reached its peak of popularity and profitability. Many of these TV preachers fell into disgrace and ridicule by way of three insidious temptations: money, sex and power. Money brought Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to bankruptcy, jail time and divorce when they got caught with their hands in the non-profit till. Sex brought Jimmy Swaggart crashing down to his knees in a tearful public apology.

Power, perhaps the most pernicious of the three, has slowly been strangling Pat Robertson since he was ensnared by the idea that God called him to run for president of the United States. Over the years Robertson’s voice has become more shrill, his statements more bizarre and his judgments harsher as he is squeezed by this anaconda of vices.

The Blonde and the Baptist

From my perch as co-host of Robertson’s 700 Club, I was privy to some of the most tumultuous moments in the history of television evangelism. I had been working as a radio news reporter and television host in San Diego in 1983 when CBN hired me for its flagship cable program–the beginning of an eye-opening five-year ride. There were three of us on the set: Ben Kinchlow, me (then Danuta Soderman) and Pat Robertson. We privately called ourselves “the Black, the Blonde and the Baptist.”

I quickly learned that the case for women’s liberation had made little headway in Robertson’s Pentecostal world. Women were expected to be seen but not heard, to be instructed but not to instruct, to counsel one another but not counsel men and certainly not their husbands, to praise the Lord and pass the potatoes but not to preach, to submit to the counsel of the male elders of the Church, and, most of all, to be married. There were no women on the board of directors, no women holding corporate offices, no women preaching from the CBN pulpit. Women were wives, secretaries, CBN staff or volunteers.

There was no room for “liberals” and even less for Democrats. But no one asked about my politics. My Liberal/Democratic/Feminism was “converted,” by association, to Conservative/Republican/Fundamentalism. I felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but soon adapted somewhat awkwardly to becoming one of the sheep.

My next revelation about Robertson’s Christianity was cosmetic. It was widely understood by all the producers that Christianity was to be synonymous with attractiveness. Videotaped testimonials of usually showed a perfect demographic of white people between 25 and 45 who found the Lord, improved their lives and radiated health and wholeness. Their stories often concluded with an enthusiastic donation to the CBN. The spiritual mantra “if you give, you will get” was heavy in the air.

There was no room at the inn for anyone with a progressive illness, who was overweight, or who faced challenges that were too hard to overcome. There were no facial blemishes, no wheelchairs, no crutches or blindness, no disabilities that could not be healed. According to Robertson, people with such problems were failures of the faith. Besides, it was bad television to have unhappy endings. The spin was to create a world in which Spirit-filled, born-again Christians led lives of youth and vitality, in this world and the next. Superficial answers to complex questions eliminated any shade of gray and gave comfort to an increasingly uncomfortable, complicated world. It was just good business. Why should people pay money to a ministry that doesn’t deliver the goods?

The 700 Club audience had been cultivated over the years to accept Robertson’s interpretation of biblical, social and political events. Pat understood early on that many people don’t like to think for themselves, especially where there is uncertainty about God and their place in the heavenly hierarchy. From Genesis to Revelation, Robertson offers the Reader’s Digest version of answers to difficult and demanding religious, social, financial, marital, political, sexual and moral concepts. “My people are sheep,” Jesus said. They are also profitable.

Robertson had become a multi-millionaire due in part to a keen business sense and a hefty boost from the non-profit status of CBN. He has been soundly criticized for soliciting hundreds of millions of dollars each year, ostensibly to spread the Gospel, but later converting some of these non-profit solicitations into a personal financial bonanza. Although Robertson insists that his business dealing are legal, some criticize his use of the letter of the law. It would be inaccurate to suggest that money is what makes him tick, however. He loves the power that money brings.

Christian Contras

Interpreting the social and political events of the day, unchallenged against the backdrop of the Almighty, Robertson nurtured a huge political force. Now star wars technologies, welfare reform, and balancing the budget became major moral issues to be supported by concerned Christians. While these discussions did little to elevate the souls of viewers, they went a long way to elevating Robertson’s status as a presidential candidate.

During the Contra-Sandinista conflict, CBN News, which identifies itself as “Journalism With a Different Spirit,” ran a piece showing Robertson walking into a Contra camp in the jungles of Nicaragua, shaking hands with camp commanders and being mobbed by adoring children. These same children, with guns slung over their shoulders, lined up like the Vienna Boys Choir and sang Christian songs for him. Robertson spent just the few minutes it took to tape the scene before flying out of the camp. The story ran that the Contras were being unfairly represented by “mainstream press” and that Robertson was invited deep into the jungle to see them for himself. He commented on the show that the Contras were simply Christian children fighting the good fight.

What viewers weren’t told was that the camp was a prop set up by the Contras for Robertson’s visit, hurriedly prepared on the outside of a landing field. The children were recruited and rehearsed for the taping by savvy Contra propagandists who out-spun the spinner at his own game. Nevertheless, Robertson portrayed himself as an intrepid diplomat who dared to go where angels and other journalists feared to tread. In so doing, he had aligned himself with Reagan’s hard line on Nicaragua and positioned himself as a stalwart republican spokesman. It didn’t matter that he had grossly misrepresented the Contras as peacemakers. What did matter was image.

Church organizations and human rights groups documented that thousands of civilians were killed by the U.S.-trained Contras. Journalists and congressional committees also found that the contras were involved in drug trafficking. Robertson never stood up, owned up, ‘fessed up, or offered a journalistic mea culpa. He did, however, embrace Oliver North as a patriot, a Christian and a friend.

Lying eyes

Facts seldom got in the way of Robertson’s self-image. The 700 Club had become the conduit for breaking one of the most damaging and long running spy sagas in the history of the United States. In 1985, I interviewed Laura Walker when she disclosed that her father John Walker and her brother Michael had been involved in 20 years of espionage for the Soviet Union. The interview, which first exposed the “Walker spy family,” was taped when Robertson was out of town.

Upset that he was effectively left out of the loop of our breaking news story by his absence that week, Robertson discredited the interview and wanted the piece canceled. Previewing the tape before the show, he insisted that he could tell that Laura Walked was lying “just by looking at her eyes,” and that the story, was bogus. The producer and I prevailed with research substantiating the story, and the piece was shown. It was later learned that Walker had convinced her mother that week to turn over her husband and son to the FBI. In subsequent interviews with her, Robertson took the credit for helping break her story to the press and the authorities.

Just as there was no room for imperfection in our testimonials, there was no quarter given to dissension. While arrogance is an acceptable character trait in the world of big business, it ids hardly what one comes to expect from a man ho represents the gentle and approachable leadership of Jesus. But power carries with it its own fatal sting. When subjects are intimidated, they seldom point out the king’s flawed thinking. Few people ever contradicted Robertson. Since I was the new kid on the block, and considered a colleague, I was often an outspoken exception.

During a break on the set of the 700 Club during his run for president, Robertson had confided to me that his wife, Dede, was going to the hospital that day for a biopsy on a lump that was found in her breast. If the lump was found malignant she would immediately go into surgeryfor a mastectomy. “The problem is,” he said, “I have to fly to a speaking engagement and rally right after the show. What do you think I should do, go to the rally or stay with Dede?” I stared at him in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “Let’s put it this way, what if the press found out you left your wife who might be losing her breast so that you could make a speech!” The point hit home. “You’re right!” he said, “I should stay with Dede, then.” Talk about being politically correct!

Casting Stones

In order to follow Robertson’s lead, one has to ignore his contradictions. His denunciations were often made extemporaneously, shot from the hip, often using unsubstantiated or undocumented “facts” and figured. During the Mars Pathfinder success, Robertson dismissed efforts by NASA to explore the universe, saying that anyone who believed in extraterrestrial life essentially believed in demons, and, according to the Old Testament way of dealing with things, such believers ought to be stoned to death.

He also said that there was nothing in the universe to explore, other than dying and exploding suns. We are advised to discredit the entire field of astrophysics and to pick fist-sized rocks to throw at astro-sinners. It’s up to God to know how Robertson explains his belief in the celestial existence of angels, or the extraterrestrial existence of God himself!

There was no documentation when Robertson suggested that feminism taught women to divorce their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft and become lesbians. Again he came up with the Old testament stoning solution. Why does Robertson rely on the Old Testament’s ruthless judgments of an angry deity when the New Testament and the Gospel of Jesus was supposed to have changed our relationship with God? I have come to believe that Robertson is more comfortable when judgment is quick, often lethal, and the problem is eliminated. Simplify. Shades of gray are far too cloudy for viewers who have come to expect a Pat answer.

“Simplicity is the most deceitful mistress that ever betrayed man,” Henry Brooks Adams once wrote, and Pat Robertson’s journalistic simplicity reduces social and political issues to harsh and often bloody terms. In 1987, during a news conference, Robertson supported the use of government assassination squads to eliminate terrorists. In 1985, despite the Constitution, Robertson said that Christians and Jews were the only people qualified to run for political office in the United States. In 1995, according to Robertson, we don’t need science to figure out why we have global warming–it’s simply the beginning of the end of the world.

The list of rash and reckless, unsubstantiated statements goes on: AIDS is a punishment from God for homosexuality. Adolph Hitler, Satanists and homosexuals “seem to go together.” Fires and floods in California are signs of God’s displeasure with godless people. Separation of church and state is a lie of the left. Planned Parenthood teaches kids to fornicate and masturbate. Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists, Hindus, some Catholics and Democrats have the spirit of the Anti-Christ. Non-Christians are termites who are due for a “godly fumigation.”

Pat’s Spin

While the number of outrageous Robertson quotes escalates, it becomes more and more difficult to tell where his spin is coming from. When you’re watching TV football, you know that John Madden is the color guy. On the 700 Club, though, Robertson does both the play-by-play and the color. Is this hard news, is it ministry or is it an editorial? The seamless blending of components in the 700 Club production is so subtle at times, you can be thinking “journalism” when you’re really hearing “Pat-speak,”and for millions of viewers, this is no laughing matter.

Robertson has never pretended to be objective. He believes in what he says and what he stands for. It would be a mistake to dismiss him as a fraud. He is not a hypocrite. He is worse. He is an embezzler of great trust.

I recall an H.L. Mencken quote: “The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked out and he has not been caught.” Pat Robertson play loose with news, his views, his faith and his faithful, aptly manipulating them all with a type of situational Christianity to justify his own moral ends. He makes hundreds of gross misstatements that are seldom challenged by his lieutenants or his viewers. He almost never apologizes, or admits to making a mistake (although he has been known to backpedal). One could be led to believe he is always right.

Robertson sees himself in an exaggerated role as spokesman for God, Moses leading the chosen people to a political paradise of morality. He believes it. He is the purest form of the religious zealot, his ego fueled by a belief that he has a God-given gift of divining the world as it ought to be with a spiritual sense of noblesse oblige. Honesty, accuracy, truth, call it what you will, it is only a translation away from Pat-Spin.