Judging Pat Robertson’s Influence

Evangelical pastors, writers, and activists have stepped up to condemn Pat Robertson’s remarks about Haiti, saying that he does not represent them, nor do comments represent Christianity. If that’s true, why does anyone care about anything Robertson says at all?

Judging a public figure’s influence is a tricky business. Sure, best-selling books, sell-out crowds and the like tell you something. You could look at the 700 Club’s Nielsen ratings, or do a public opinion survey on someone’s favorability ratings, or ask other other evangelicals to name their most “influential” brethren. Or you could perform the Washington journalist’s task of eliciting gossip (“asshole” is how one conservative operative once described Robertson to me) and figure out whether the person in question has any “juice.”

But all of that, even, makes it difficult to prove just how “influential” or “powerful” someone is. Surely there are 700 Club viewers who hang on Robertson’s every word, and others who would fast-forward through them if they could. The collapse (and feeble reinvention) of the Christian Coalition surely played a role in Robertson’s diminished standing. For politicians, Rudy Giuliani was the only Republican presidential candidate in 2008 who sought — and received — Robertson’s endorsement. (Speaking of curses . . . )

Peter Wehner, a former Bush speechwriter and fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted at the National Review:

I fully realize that Robertson long ago ceased being a serious figure in the eyes of many people. Still, he remains a person of some influence, an individual who ran for president, whose words still garner attention, and whose views reflect a strand of thought within Christendom.

Of course, conservatives see the PR disaster in not distancing themselves from Robertson — that’s why many of them have. Yet there isn’t, and probably couldn’t be, a push to drive Robertson off the airwaves. Robertson’s empire will soldier on in spite of him.

Robertson presides over an enormous (and tax-exempt) conglomerate comprised of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Regent University (of which the governor-elect of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, is a graduate), the American Center for Law and Justice (whose president, Jay Sekulow, is considered “the leading Supreme Court advocate of the Christian right”), and Robertson’s “humanitarian” arm, Operation Blessing (which has been involved in highly questionable — but lucrative — relationships with brutal dictators like former Liberian president Charles Taylor, speaking of pacts with the devil). These are far-reaching, well-funded organizations with collective hundreds of million in assets and donations, which interact with the world’s powerful, educate the next class of policymakers and lawyers, and project a conservative evangelical interpretation of politics and world affairs around the globe.

Is Pat Robertson influential? Maybe just a little bit.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email