That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

… an evangelical preacher who appears regularly on television to preach and appeal for funds.

That’s the ticket — especially if the word “preach” is used in a negative manner, as in someone who goes on and on and on talking about an awkward or unwelcome subject.

That’s the Pat Robertson that journalists know and love, the lion of the old-guard Religious Right who can be counted on to say something edgy and embarrassing that will — for pundits and late-night humorists — be seen as damaging to whatever cause he thinks he is backing. That’s the Pat Robertson who, allegedly, is the authoritative voice for traditional religious believers in America.

Here’s how I stated this thesis in 2005, writing for the ethics team at Poynter.org:

Let’s pretend it is Oct. 1, 2005. After a long, long September of storms, Hurricane Wilma misses the Keys and veers into the Gulf of Mexico. It heads straight for Louisiana.

After a long, long day in the newsroom, you sit on the couch flipping from one cable news channel to another. Then you see a familiar face in an MSNBC tease and hear, “We’ll be back, live, with the Rev. Pat Robertson, who says that this new hurricane is more evidence that God is angry at New Orleans because …”

Pause for a minute. When you hear these words do you experience (a) an acidic surge of joy because you are 99.9 percent sure that you know what Robertson is going to say, or (b) a sense of sorrow for precisely the same reason?

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn’t think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson’s face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian.

Now, let me pause for a word of confession: I have never met Robertson and, frankly, I have never been anxious to cover him — even though the very first “On Religion” column I wrote, 31 years ago, was about one of his political rallies during his gadfly run for the GOP presidential nomination.

However, when thinking about the Alabama abortion law, I understand why the press thought it was unique and newsworthy, if not downright odd, that Robertson spoke against the bill.

The key was that Robertson — speaking as a media pundit — was trying to make a legal point, and then a political, point about the law.

Thus, as I noted in a GetReligion post this week, it really would have helped if political journalists covering this story had included one or two sentences of extra content noting that Robertson (a) is a graduate of Yale Law School and that (b) he grew up in Washington, D.C., as the son of a U.S. Senator.

Readers: Did you know those facts?

We’re not talking about your normal credentials for a charismatic-Pentecostal reverend-religious broadcaster. That might be worth a sentence or two, when someone addresses an issue of law and politics (whether you agree with him or not).

Let me end with one final fun fact about this hard-to-label man.

Yes, Robertson is an ordained minister. In fact, he has been ordained twice. That twist led me to make the following observation back in 2000, in an “On Religion” column:

Six prominent ministers recently gathered in Virginia Beach, Va., for a rite to renew religious broadcaster Pat Robertson's vows as an ordained minister, a role which he surrendered in 1988 to run for president. Among the clergy who placed his hands on Robertson's shoulders during the ordination prayers was Episcopal Bishop John Howe of Orlando.

So I'm curious. Historically speaking, are we talking about the Rev. Pat Robertson or Father Pat Robertson? 

You can’t make some of this stuff up.

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