By cultural convention, obituaries are supposed to tread lightly on all the worst things the newly deceased did in their lives. You can see that instinct playing out in the many obituaries for televangelist Pat Robertson, who died today at the ripe age of 93.
The obituarati play it straight and narrow, as much as they can, but there are no real claims that Robertson was a deeply spiritual man. He was the man who recognized television evangelism as a path to wealth and to political power both, and for half a century, Robertson was known to the world not as a vehicle of bottomless faith, but as a political voice, making political declarations while signing God's name to the bottom of them. He used his tele-religious empire to become a very rich man with a private jet, and died with enough money in the bank to count as a mortal sin (greed) no matter how you might look at it.
That would be well enough if he only pried money from his audience for the sake of a bigger mansion and a better jet than the next televangelist. But oh, the damage. The untold, immeasurable damage Robertson did to America. Robertson was among the first evangelical preachers who recognized television as a tool and swiftly turned it into a weapon, combining paranormal mysticism with and outright spite, bringing the spooky, spinning tent revivalism of past generations to a new audience that didn't have to so much as get off their flower-print sofas to see and hear and feel it. He showed the way for an entire generation of ambitious and sketchy godbotherers who also bought mansions and private jets and tied salvation and cash together as a package deal.
One of Robertson's most famous malevolencies came immediately after the 9/11 attacks in a joint effort with not-quite-ally, not-quite-enemy copycat preacher, Jerry Falwell.
“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen,’ ” Falwell said on “The 700 Club.”
“I totally concur,” Robertson said, “and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government.”
This was a common refrain for Robertson. When an earthquake in Haiti killed at least 100,000 people in 2010, Robertson claimed the deaths were holy judgment because Haiti "got together and swore a pact to the devil" in order to overthrow their French rulers in 1804, two hundred years beforehand—the sort of rancid half-drunk half-delusion that was by then standard fare for him. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Robertson speculated that it was punishment for legal abortion, and in 1985 he had claimed he had diverted another hurricane away from his Virginia Beach headquarters on the power of prayer alone—though he was considerably more cagey about whether he ought to be then held responsible for the resulting devastation farther north when his prayers supposedly deflected the storm like a holy 5-iron shanking a ball off into the rough, and never had much explanation for all the hurricanes to hit Virginia Beach before and since. In 1998 he warned Orlando, Florida, that God would send hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorists, and "possibly" a meteor in retaliation for waving rainbow flags "in God's face."
Whatever Robertson's faith was, it borrowed as much from the ancient Greeks as from Christianity itself. In his eyes, God was always prowling somewhere on the planet, an impossibly fickle and mostly-lazy deity looking for a person or town or country to smite the holy bejeezus out of, every now and then, because He caught a glance of a newspaper and learned that lesbians had too many rights these days. Robertson popularized the now-omnipresent televangelist notion of God being a minor mob boss, with Jesus his enforcer and the preacher his collection man, and that for a small amount of money fished out of your purse you might get the don to recognize your face at least well enough to spare you when the next hurricane loomed offshore.
He was a political figure through and through and through. God's enemies were conservatism's enemies were Republicanism's enemies, and that was all there was to it. So when a disaster struck, there was never talk that it was because God was angry at the greed of those who had cut poverty programs to give private jet owners slightly better tax treatment. God never smote those who pressed for less aid to poor children, or towns that treated immigrants with contempt. And when hurricanes hit places where hurricanes usually hit, it was never because God had gotten good and tired of a state's racist gerrymanderings or gun policies.
Conservatism's enemies were all the same to him; he could not be bothered to suss out any difference. In 2009 he dismissed Islam as a religion entirely, grousing with trademark vapidness that "it's not a religion, it's a political system, it's a violent political system bent on the overthrow of governments of the world and world domination," and, "I think you should treat it as such and treat its adherents as such, as we would members of the Communist party and members of some Fascist group." He called non-Christian Americans "termites" who would infiltrate and destroy the government.
Robertson used the names and donations generated from his televangelist empire to run for president in 1988, and he used his loss to become a fixture at Republican conventions from then on. He partnered with Ralph Reed, a con artist who likewise transmuted faith to cash and kept the cash. When Donald Trump came on the scene, the wealthy grotesquery who mocked every one of Christianity's tenets, bragged about sexual adventures and sexual assaults, the televangelist who was forever warning about his enemies being in league with the antichrist flung himself towards Trump and clung to him like a Christmas ornament.
He was worldly, and then some: A 1997 expose revealed the existence of a Robertson company that aimed to fish diamonds out of a river in then-Zaire (now Congo), an attempt that saw Robertson offering his personal support for dictator Mobutu Sese Seko after Mobutu's street massacre of pro-democracy Christians had disgusted the rest of the world. There were few diamonds worth fishing for, though, and Robertson's bribe-riddled partnership with the dictatorship soon cost him a seven-figure sum with not a damn thing to show for it.
None of the major media obituaries are premised on Robertson being a man of deep spiritual faith, or of generosity, or a renowned worker of great works or even petty charity. It is all about how he used his perch to achieve great political power and wealth, purchase his own college (Regent University), and become a Republican kingmaker willing to defend a Republican Anything if doing so would hurt "the gays," or "the lesbians," or "the feminists," or "the liberals," or "the communists." The list was very long, and if it looked like the same list that the most vicious far-right movements have scrawled out for a hundred years and then some, you would be hard-pressed to call that coincidence.
The AP's version of the tale stretches longer than the others, and is instructive in ways that the others are not, "Robertson was interested in politics until he found religion, Dede Robertson told the AP in 1987. He stunned her by pouring out their liquor, tearing a nude print off the wall and declaring he had found the Lord."
So that was how it started, and why Robertson then drug his wife into a New York City commune, of all things. But we can remember Robertson that way, too, if we can't stomach any of what would happen in the next 40 or so years. We can imagine that someone once yelled at Pat Robertson, "Damn it Pat, that was my favorite nude!" And he found religion, or didn't so much find one as craft one, scaffolded all up and over whichever groups of Americans he hated and which ones he didn't, and he made his country the meanest place he could make it before flying off again on the private jet it bought him.