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Pat Robertson: Sharon's Stroke Was Devine Punishment for Dividing God's Land


The New York Times, Jan. 8, 2006

Photo: Pat Robertson

Every day, two people pay particularly close attention to Pat Robertson's religious news and variety show, 'The 700 Club.' They have notepads in hand, and the V.C.R. set on 'record.'

They work in Washington at two of the nation's most ardent enemies of the Christian right: People for the American Way and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. They lay in wait for Mr. Robertson to say something truly jaw-dropping - like his suggestion on Thursday that Ariel Sharon's stroke was divine punishment for 'dividing God's land,' and giving away Gaza to the Palestinians.

Within hours of such comments, the remarks are disseminated by e-mail to journalists around the country, and soon video clips of Mr. Robertson are the subject of news broadcasts and nationwide ridicule.

Mr. Robertson, who has made provocative comments since he first came on the scene, has in recent months made news repeatedly. Last August, he suggested that the United States assassinate Hugo Chávez, the leftist Venezuelan president. 'It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and I don't think any oil shipments will stop,' he said.

In September he mused about whether the abortion rate in America could have provoked Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks on the United States.

The news media avidly reported his comments, but are they worthy of attention? Do conservative Christians still follow Mr. Robertson in large numbers?

Certainly, his following seems to have diminished. Mr. Robertson's political machine, the Christian Coalition, once a powerhouse at mobilizing voters, is limping along since he resigned as president five years ago, fending off a long waiting list of creditors, its presence in the capital reduced to a post office box.

His old friends and allies in the conservative Christian movement are cringing with embarrassment, giving interviews ruing his remarks. 'He speaks for an ever-diminishing number of American evangelicals, and that process accelerates every time he makes a statement like this,' said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Os Guinness, a prominent Christian writer and social critic, said: 'I know hundreds of people who are just terminally frustrated with the idiotic public statements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the idea that these people represent us. They don't.'

Donald Wildmon, the founder and head of American Family Association and American Family Radio, said: 'Pat's comments were most unfortunate. I don't think this served our cause very well.'

But dismissing Mr. Robertson at this point in his long career would be wrong. Whether his colleagues wish it or not, he remains a force among religious conservatives. At 75, Mr. Robertson still regularly appears on his show. And he remains connected to both Regent University and the American Center for Law and Justice, growing institutions that he founded.

'Among the elites in the movement, they're getting impatient with him and probably are past the point of being able to take him anymore,' said Mark J. Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University who has followed Mr. Robertson for years. 'But there is a real strong core of activists throughout the country who support and like Pat Robertson, might even agree with some of the things he says, though they might like him to express his views a little more delicately.'

For instance, many conservative Christians agree in principle with his comments about the Middle East - the Scriptures, they agree, call for a unified Israel.

Mr. Robertson's daily program, 'The 700 Club,' is carried in most markets nationwide on A.B.C. Family and the Trinity Broadcasting networks, and drew an average audience of 828,000 viewers in the last quarter of 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research. While he cannot compete with 'American Idol,' he had more viewers than C.N.B.C. or M.S.N.B.C. in prime time.

As a host, Mr. Robertson regularly draws guests like Republican leaders Bill Frist, Rick Santorum, Tom DeLay and Sam Brownback. Last week, he bantered with Fred Barnes, a Fox commentator and executive editor of The Weekly Standard. The show is also a prime advertising vehicle for Christian books, music and other products.

Mr. Guinness, the writer, said that while he has refused invitations to appear on Mr. Robertson's program, out of principle, 'I know a good number who go on because they want to sell their books.'

Those who know him say they are puzzled why Mr. Robertson continues to discredit himself - and the cause - with the kind of intemperate remarks that play in media roundups alongside those from the president of Iran.

Mr. Robertson refused interview requests on Friday. The Christian Broadcasting Network issued a statement defending Mr. Robertson, and accusing People for the American way of taking his comments out of context 'on an ongoing basis' and circulating them 'in an attempt to discredit him.'

Mr. Robertson did not appear on 'The 700 Club' on Friday. Instead it was hosted, as it often is, by his son, Gordon. He prayed for God to heal Mr. Sharon.