Robertson's remarks on Islam put McDonnell in bind

Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R) says that he and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson speak only once or twice a year.
Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R) says that he and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson speak only once or twice a year. (Steve Helber/associated Press)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fresh off his landslide victory in the race for Virginia governor, Robert F. McDonnell is already being forced to confront how he plans to handle his friendship with minister Pat Robertson, a longtime ally but also a highly controversial figure, once he takes office.

Virginia Muslims are calling on McDonnell (R) to disavow comments made by the Virginia Beach religious broadcaster last week in response to the shootings at Fort Hood, Tex., in which Robertson asserted that Islam is "not a religion" but a "violent political system" and that those who practice it should be treated like members of a communist or fascist party.

Robertson has made similar assertions about Islam before, but the recent comments came only a couple of weeks after he made a late $25,000 donation to McDonnell's campaign and just days after he attended McDonnell's election night party. He told a reporter there that he would be visiting McDonnell in his hotel suite while awaiting election results.

During the campaign, McDonnell played down his ties to Robertson, whom he has known since he attended the law school Robertson founded in the late 1980s. McDonnell tried during the race to convince Virginians that he was a social conservative who could speak more broadly to issues that cross party lines.

But Robertson's comments last week suggest he might prove to be a continuing political liability for McDonnell as he seeks to turn his bipartisan campaign promises into a governing coalition. Now assembling his administration before his Jan. 16 inauguration, McDonnell is under close scrutiny from Democrats and others to see how he balances his allegiances to the social conservatives who helped elect him with his pledges to spend most of his time in office focused on jobs and the economy.

"McDonnell has tried to suggest he should be judged on his own actions and not on Robertson's comments," said Virginia political analyst Robert D. Holsworth. "But the fact of the matter is he does have a major contributor who has made these comments. My guess is that he will not be able to simply say 'no comment,' himself, forever."

Hints of the future?

Like President Obama, who formally denounced remarks by his former minister Jeremiah Wright, McDonnell will probably face continued questions about Robertson's stands through his four-year term, Holsworth said.

McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin would not comment last week, saying only that McDonnell is "focused on the transition as he prepares to take office in January."

The stance was disappointing to Mohamed Magid, imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a mosque in Sterling, which hosted McDonnell for lunch during the campaign.

Although McDonnell should not be held responsible for Robertson's comments, Magid said, "I would rather see him say something in defense of Muslim Americans in Northern Virginia.

"He promised and campaigned to be the governor for all Virginians. Therefore, we expect him to distance himself from such remarks of hate toward very contributing, very loyal Americans in this area."

Speaking on his television program "The 700 Club" on Monday, Robertson said the military had overlooked warning signs from Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, the suspect in the attack that left 13 people dead and dozens wounded, out of a politically correct refusal to face the truth about Islam.

"Islam is a violent -- I was going to say religion, but it's not a religion. It's a political system. It's a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination," he said. "I think we should treat it as such and treat its adherents as such, as we would members of the Communist Party or members of some fascist group."

Not backing down

Chris Roslan, a spokesman for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, said the minister stands by his position.

"It is a shame that the media are exploiting this now in a clear attempt to discredit Virginia's governor-elect, who has absolutely nothing to do with Dr. Robertson's position," he said.

McDonnell attended law school at what was then called CBN University, the Virginia Beach institution founded by Robertson and named after the Christian Broadcasting Network, whose studios share the campus. After the school changed its name to Regent University, McDonnell served on the board of trustees for eight years and last year spoke at its law school graduation.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign giving, McDonnell received donations just before the election totaling $40,000 from Pat Robertson, his son and daughter-in-law. In all, Robertson donated $35,000 to his campaign for governor and $66,000 to his campaign four years ago for attorney general.

"Our motto at Regent is 'Christian Leadership to Change the World,' and this is the way we do it," Robertson said in an interview for the law school's blog on election night.

But McDonnell was also careful not to embrace Robertson too closely while running for office. At a dinner for the Richmond news media last winter, an event at which politicians traditionally give humorous speeches, McDonnell cracked that he planned to call Robertson and request that he send a hurricane to hit the Democrats' annual gala.

He also said in an interview this year that he and Robertson did not become well acquainted until years after he was first elected to office and that the two men speak only once or twice a year.

"I don't think he wants to get into a back and forth with Robertson," Holsworth said. "But ultimately, he may have to deal with this."

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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