Pat Robertson fires off controversial statements with a regularity that seems downright reckless not only to a big chunk of the public but also to an increasing number of evangelical leaders who say the Christian broadcaster doesn’t speak for them.
Yet to those who share Robertson’s conservative and “charismatic” Christian beliefs, his comments are less a sign of arrogance than of modern-day prophecy and a vivid sense that Bible-based forecasts are playing out in modern times.
“I think his views originate in his theology,” said Vinson Synan , dean of the divinity school at Regent University, which Robertson founded. Synan called Robertson “evangelical with a charismatic emphasis.”
“He prophesizes . He speaks in tongues,” said Synan, an expert on charismatics, citing two of the most defining beliefs of charismatic Christianity. In addition, “Pat literally believes in the Old Testament testimony about Israel” and how it is linked to current events and the future “end times,” he said.
Robertson found himself in hot water last week when he suggested that God punished Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with a stroke for ceding Israeli-controlled land to the Palestinians.
Robertson spoke while hosting “The 700 Club,” a television show produced in Virginia Beach at the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he also founded.
“I would say, woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course,” said Robertson, who sought to back up his prognostication by citing the Old Testament prophet Joel.
The remarks elicited criticism from many evangelicals and Israel’s cancellation of Robertson’s involvement in a Christian tourist center proposed by the Israeli government for Galilee.
“I am both stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular events … were the judgments of God,” Richard Land , a Southern Baptist leader, said . Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and his criticism was echoed by other evangelical leaders.
On Wednesday , Robertson sent a letter of apology to Sharon’s son Omri and asked for Israelis’ forgiveness for his remarks.
However, Robertson’s earlier pronouncement against “dividing God’s land” was boilerplate doctrine for conservative Christians like him, Synan said.
“His view is basically a theological view of the Old Testament and the prophecy that the 'promised land’ was promised to the 'chosen people,’ and it’s theirs throughout history,” Synan said, referring to Israel and the Jewish people.
Robertson helped engineer conservative Christians’ rise to political power in the 1990s. He founded the Christian Coalition, a political action group, after running unsuccessfully for president in 1988.
Robertson originally was ordained a Baptist minister but is no longer officially affiliated with a denomination. He is part of the “evangelical” community that encompasses a wide diversity of denominations and movements. All emphasize evangelization, or spreading the Christian gospel.
Charismatics like Robertson are spread out among many Christian denominations. They share an emotive worship style and belief that divine wonders described in the New Testament, such as instantaneous healing and prophecy, are still performed today. Their views overlap with those espoused by members of Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God.
Among the traditions at CBN and Regent is a New Year’s chapel service at which Robertson shares “God-given insights” about events in the future. A Regent news release last year said Robertson revealed “messages from God” he received in a prayer retreat. The predictions included a lower threat of terrorism in 2005.
“The focus is more on revelation of what someone like Pat thinks is true rather than how it’s going to impact things,” J. Nelson Happy, a former dean of Regent’s law school, said in an interview last year. “People around him may have to clean up after him because of the way these statements are taken, but I never found those statements were ever insincere, and, in Pat’s view, were right.”
Still, even among Pentecostals, with whom charismatics such as Robertson share many beliefs, “there are various attitudes about prophecy,” said Gary B. McGee , a professor of Bible and Pentecostal studies at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo. The Assemblies of God is one of the oldest and largest Pentecostal denominations.
McGee, an Assemblies clergyman, said that in a typical Pentecostal congregation, a person usually receives a prophetic, divine message during a church service. The message is considered “a word of encouragement to the congregation.”
“It is not going to be, usually, a predictive prophecy that something is going to happen next year, or that God is going to judge some group,” McGee said. “That would be more the extreme.”
Unlike charismatics and Pentecostals, more traditional evangelicals say that wonders such as prophesy and speaking in tongues – speechlike sounds that are viewed by some as God-inspired – were limited to the early church, Syna n said. Some of the more traditional evangelicals frown on such expressions in the modern age, he sai d.
For example, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board bars people who publicly speak in tongues from qualifying as missionaries. The denomination’s North American Mission Board will not endorse chaplains who engage in speaking in tongues or “any other charismatic manifestations.”
Theology aside, “a lot of the opinions Pat Robertson holds would definitely put him outside the fold of evangelical Christianity,” said Ted Olsen , a news producer for Christianity Today magazine who monitors evangelicals.
Many conservative Christians were infuriated in 2001 when Robertson said in a CNN interview that he supported China’s policy of limiting families to one child. The comment seemed to condone abortion, which is anathema to most evangelicals and Robertson’s avowed anti-abortion stance.
Evangelicals also backed away in 2003 after Robertson defended Charles Taylor , the former Liberian president who was indicted for war crimes.
“I would say that Pat Robertson is way out on his own, in a leaking life raft, on this one,” Land said at the time.
Perhaps the sharpest criticism from evangelicals came in August after Robertson advocated assassinating Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez.
“Pat Robertson’s comments lacked any indication that he even understood the gravity of his proposal ,” Albert Mohler , president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in his personal Web blog. “He has brought embarrassment upon us all.”
Some observers, including the Rev. Kevin Mannoina , a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, have speculated that Robertson speaks audaciously to keep a high profile even as his real influence has shrunk.
Robertson derives little stature from the Christian Coalition, which is struggling to stay afloat and which he left as president in 2001. In a Barna Group survey last year , Robertson was ranked behind other Christian leaders – including Billy Graham , James Dobson , T.D. Jakes , Rick Warren and Bill Hybels – by clergy asked to cite their most trusted Christian spokesperson.
“He certainly does not represent all evangelicals,” Mannoina said. “Evangelicals are not the monolithic group people perhaps once thought they were. This is a case where he counts himself among evangelicals but does not represent them all.”
Nonetheless, CBN spokeswoman Angell Watts said there was been no drop in viewership, membership or contributions to CBN following Robertson’s remarks about Chavez and Sharon. The network claims a monthly viewership of about 1 million.
Robertson declined The Virginian-Pilot’s request for comment this week except on the question of whether he speaks as a political commentator, ordained minister or in a prophetic role.
“His answer was, 'All of the above,’” Watts said in an e-mail.