While a good many of us go through life trying to find our identity, Pat Robertson is frantically trying to lose his. The former television evangelist has been recently reborn as a Republican presidential contender and, unlike Shirley MacLaine, he is doing everything in his power to forget his past lives.
Revising one's biography to suit the fashion of the times is nothing new in politics. Robertson, however, isn't merely tinkering with embarrassing dates and anniversaries anymore. He's launched a full-scale rewrite, leaping from fact into fiction, and he is asking the press and the voting public to go along with it. And he has begun attacking those who are unwilling to follow him down his latest yellow brick road.
Robertson made his fame and fortune as a television evangelist. He founded the Christian Broadcasting Network out of the remains of a broken-down UHF station in Portsmouth, Va., that he bought in 1959. He started the 700 Club as a fund-raising device so his audience could pledge money on a monthly basis to keep the station in business. Over the years, news reports have put the gross take of CBN's fund-raising efforts at more than $200 million a year.
Robertson has been the undisputed king of this hugely successful religious empire. One could certainly make the argument that he is one of America's most fabulously successful religious businessmen, but it is not as a businessman that he has gained his fame, or his following. Republicans may worship money, but evangelicals worship God. They have turned to Robertson not because he is a wildly successful religious broadcaster, but because he claims to have a most extraordinary relationship with the Almighty.
Now, however, he is playing down that relationship, and if you happen to be a true believer you might be wondering just how smart it is for someone to rewrite that particular relationship.
Robertson is objecting mightily to being described as a former television evangelist. He wants to be called a "religious broadcaster." He is telling reporters that labeling him a "former television evangelist" is a "bigoted slur" and he took to the airwaves Monday night to accuse NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw of religious bigotry when Brokaw questioned him about whether he got "God's advice" on political decisions.
To which Robertson answered, "I think it's the last time that I want to be called a television evangelist. I've been a TV broadcaster . . . and because I am a religious broadcaster I've talked to people on major issues. That's why they have given me this tremendous victory in Iowa and I really believe that henceforth the religious bigotry that that question of yours implies is going to be a dead issue."
Robertson, like a lot of television evangelists, has taken considerable pains to distance himself from his former proteges, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who were preeminent fund-raisers for the 700 Club before they went on to form their own broadcasting empire. The Bakkers have given television evangelists a terrible reputation, and that's unfortunate for evangelists who aren't charlatans.
That's no excuse, however, for Robertson to try to flee his past or to expect the media and electorate to do so as well. Robertson's evangelical ministry was replete with claims of faith healing and he claimed to have kept a hurricane from hitting the Tidewater area. He has also claimed to have conversed with God. In his autobiography, "Shout It From the Housetops," he told of wanting to fire Bakker at one point when he didn't show up to be host of a Saturday night radio show. "I started out the studio when I heard the voice of God: " 'Don't fire Jim Bakker.' "
Not long after that, Robertson wrote, 25 viewers were instantly healed of deafness in a momentous 24-hour period, and Jim Bakker straightened the eyes of a cross-eyed little boy.
These aren't your average broadcasters.
Robertson wants to be taken as a serious candidate, and to do that he has to broaden his appeal beyond his religious base. He is having the same kind of identity crisis that every other extremist candidate has in trying to homogenize himself into the mainstream. But the fact of the matter is that his launching pad into politics was his televised evangelical ministry and he can't escape that. It made him what he is today, and if he is still in direct communication with the Almighty he should be able to handle questions about it without rewriting his resume or accusing his interviewers of religious bigotry.
After all, whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.