Ah, where to begin on the continuing story of the Rev. Pat Robertson, regent of Virginia Beach? I would like to flash back, if I may, to an event at the Ethics & Public Policy Center days after the 2000 election. From time to time, Michael Cromartie puts together high-powered panels of speakers who react to trends in the news. In this case, the goal was to do a quick deconstruction of role that religious faith played in the election -- only the election was, of course, still twisting slowly in the wind.
The leaders of this particular discussion (click here to see a transcript) were two veteran election commentators -- John Green of the University of Akron and John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania. The room was full of experienced reporters, including Michael Barone of Fox News, U.S. News & World Report, The Almanac of American Politics and lots of other places. Afterward, several participants lingered to talk about the election stories that the MSM missed as well as the ones that made it into print and video.
It was Barone who made the most interesting point. One of the most important stories that went untold, he said, was the behind-the-scenes efforts made by Bush campaign insiders to keep the old lions of the Religious Right out of the spotlight. This could not have been easy, seeing as how Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others crave face time with candidates when cameras are near. But someone had cut them out or convinced them to stand down. In their place, some new faces began to emerge -- such as Rick Warren and Kirbyjon Caldwell.
Someone -- I honestly don't remember who -- summed up the heart of this untold story this way: "I wonder who managed to get Pat Robertson to shut up?"
Righto. That job would require a miracle worker.
This story rolls on and on, which means that the place to go for all of the links is the Christianity Today blog. You have had people leap to make fun of the Rev. Pat (headline: "God Denies Links to Pat Robertson"). Hip evangelicals have been doing this for years (art from The Wittenburg Door). There have even been a few brave religious conservatives who have asked him which part of those 10 Commandments he fails to grasp.
In the MSM, Baltimore Sun reporter Arthur Hirsch has one of the best stories, focusing on a question of substance rather than straw-man destruction. It is the question that Barone and others were discussing back in 2000. What power does Pat Robertson have, anyway, other than serving as the punching bag that liberals love to prop up as the symbolic religious conservative day after day, week after week, world without end, amen? Has he become the lifestyle left's best friend?
Tim Simpson, director of religious affairs for a new left-leaning group called the Christian Alliance for Progress, said the impact of Robertson's remarks broadcast Monday on The 700 Club suggests that he cannot be easily dismissed. "One does that at one's own peril," said Simpson. "I take him dead seriously."
(cough, cough) Here is a more constructive quote about the style and clout of the senator's son:
"He is actually very, very smart and has an impressive set of credentials," said Laura R. Olson, associate professor of political science at Clemson University and co-author of Religion and Politics in America. "He's not just a hick from the mountains who came down and decided to talk about politics."
She argued that if Robertson has lost much of the clout he wielded in the early 1990s, it's due in part to his success in establishing Christian conservatism as a broad force in American politics. With so many more Christian conservative organizations active in politics, many of them focused on local organizing and local concerns, she said, it is more difficult for any one figure to dominate the national stage.
"I don't know if I want to go so far as to say that Robertson is irrelevant," said Olson. She also could not quite fathom the method behind Robertson's pattern of making public statements that many consider outrageous.
The key is that Robertson has been playing this role for a long, long time, noted veteran scribe Richard N. Ostling of The Associated Press. For example:
Six years ago, Robertson said the U.S. could send agents to kill Osama bin Laden, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. "Isn't it better to do something like that . . . to take out Saddam Hussein, rather than to spend billions of dollars on a war that harms innocent civilians and destroys the infrastructure of a country?"
Ostling then serves up the must-have feature of the day, a kind of "greatest hits" collection from the mouth of the near South. There really isn't time to cover them all, of course. But who among us God-fearing newspaper readers can forget:
And in launching a 21-day "prayer offensive" in 2003 to pray for three justices to leave the U.S. Supreme Court after it had decriminalized sodomy, Robertson said: "We ask for miracles in regard to the Supreme Court." One justice was 83 years old and two others had serious ailments, he noted.
And the hits (so to speak) just keep on coming.
It is, of course, impossible to make a wealthy religious broadcaster vanish from the airwaves since he can pay his own bills. The 700 Club also retains a niche audience. Would Pat Robertson have the guts to fire Pat Robertson? Right now, there are more people on the cultural right yearning for that outcome than there are on the left.