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On Thursday, Pat Robertson, the television preacher and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, died at the age of 93. The obituaries duly noted that he transformed Christian fundamentalism into a potent political force with the Christian Coalition that he founded in 1990 and that became an influential component of the Republican Party. They also included an array of outrageous and absurd remarks he had made over the years. He blamed natural disasters on feminists and LGBTQ people. He called Black Lives Matter activists anti-Christian. He said a devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti occurred because Haitians had made a “pact with the devil” to win their freedom from France. He prayed for the deaths of liberal Supreme Court justices. He insisted the 9/11 attacks happened because liberals, feminists, and gay rights advocates had angered God. He claimed Kenyans could get AIDS via towels. He insisted Christians were more patriotic than non-Christians. He purported to have prayed away a hurricane from striking Virginia Beach. (The storm hit elsewhere.)
Yet left out of the accounts of Robertson’s life was a basic fact: He was an antisemitic conspiracy theory nutter.
In 1991, Robertson published a book called The New World Order. As I noted in my recent book, American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, it was a pile of paranoia that amassed assorted conspiracy theories of the ages. He melded together unfounded tales of secret societies, such as the Illuminati and the Masons, and claimed they and their secret partners—communists, elites, and, yes, occultists—had for centuries plotted to imprison the entire world in a godless, collectivist dictatorship. The list of colluders was mind-blowingly long: the Federal Reserve, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the Ford Foundation, the J.P. Morgan bank, the United Nations, the Rockefellers, Henry Kissinger, and many others. (Okay, maybe he was correct about Kissinger.) Also in on it were “European bankers,” including the Rothschild family, long a target of antisemitic conspiracy theories that Robertson echoed.
In the book, he called the Rothschilds possibly “the missing link between the occult and the world of high finance.” He asserted that Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush had “unwittingly” carried out “the mission” and mouthed “the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.”
Robertson was saying that the first President Bush was a Satanic dupe and fronting for a nefarious global elite that was in league with Beelzebub. What was his evidence for this? Bush had repeatedly in speeches referred to the “new world order.” Now that’s some high-powered logic.
The Christian leader—who was fervently courted by Republican politicians who yearned for campaign cash, volunteers, and votes from the Christian Coalition—offered an apocalyptic view of the future. Looking at the US military action Bush had launched earlier that year that had repelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait and interpreting it according to the Book of Revelation, Robertson maintained that the Persian Gulf War was a sign that “demonic spirits” would soon unleash a “world horror” that would kill 2 billion people. (You might recall that did not happen.)
His The New World Order transmitted classic antisemitic garbage and the swill of conspiracism, within an end-is-near biblical narrative. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and became a bestseller. The Wall Street Journal described the work as a “compendium of the lunatic fringe’s greatest hits.” Robertson was pushing a narrative that had been adopted by the right over the previous decades: Democrats and liberals (and even some numbskull Republicans) were not just wrong on issues; they were a Devil-driven clandestine operation seeking to annihilate the United States and Christianity. They were pure evil.
On his television show, Robertson repeatedly served up this dark message for the faithful. During one broadcast, he exclaimed, “Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is doing to evangelical Christians. It’s no different…It is the Democratic Congress, the liberal-biased media, and the homosexuals who want to destroy all Christians.” This was a foul and hysterical comparison: Democrats were the equivalent of Hitler and committing genocide against Christians. Robertson begged viewers to donate $20 a month: “Send me money today or these liberals will be putting Christians like you and me in concentration camps.”
Yet the Republican Party welcomed Robertson, who had mounted a failed campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, into its tent. Top Republicans trekked to Christian Coalition conferences to kiss his ring. In search of political support and money, they validated an antisemitic and paranoid zealot and signaled to his followers and the world that he was worth heeding and that his dangerous and tribalist propaganda ought to be believed.
In 1992, Bush addressed the Christian Coalition’s second annual conference. He hailed Robertson for “all the work you’re doing to restore the spiritual foundation of this nation.” He then attended a private reception with major contributors to the coalition in the rose garden of Robertson’s estate. Black swans swam in a pond, a harpist played, and Bush warmly greeted members of the televangelist’s inner circle. Presumably, Bush’s alliance with Satan was not mentioned.
Robertson got away with being a crazy antisemite because Republicans needed him and his following. His Christian Coalition aided a great many GOP politicians in getting elected. This included George W. Bush, the son of that Satanic tool. In 2000, the younger Bush called on the Christian Coalition to help him win the crucial South Carolina primary and beat back the threat of Sen. John McCain. In one of the nastiest political battles in modern history, Robertson’s troops rallied, and Bush’s presidential prospects were saved.
Robertson had inherited the religious right from Jerry Falwell, who had created the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, and he further—and perhaps more effectively—injected Christian fundamentalism into electoral politics. His grand view was demented and detrimental to a diverse and democratic society. It paved the way to the divisive politics of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, the tea party, and, yes, Donald Trump.
And he was bonkers.
Yet because this antisemite was embraced and enabled by the GOP, he had a tremendous impact on the political life of the United States. Reflecting on Robertson’s death, historian Rick Perlstein told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “The idea that God’s law trumps man’s law absolutely saturates [Robertson’s] world. Along with Falwell, he’s most responsible for turning Christianity into Christian nationalism and Christian nationalism into insurrectionism.”
Given all the damage Robertson did and all the hatred he spread, it’s hard to wish him a peaceful rest in eternity.