On the Monday, August 23, 2005 edition of “The 700 Club,” Reverend Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition who was also a 1988 candidate for the Republican nomination for president, said that Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, would make his nation “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.” And then he went on, inciting an international firestorm, with remarks that Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel called “terrorist statements.”
“We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It’s a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with … You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war … and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop,” said Reverend Robertson.
Mr. Rangel said the U.S. response to Reverend Robertson’s comments would be a test of American anti-terrorism policies, “The ball is in the U.S. court, after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country.” Mr. Rangel also said, “This is a huge hypocrisy to maintain an anti-terrorist line and at the same time have such terrorist statements as these made by Christian preacher Pat Robertson coming from the same country.”
While speaking with reporters in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Mr. Chavez compared Reverend Robertson and other critics of his government to the “rather mad dogs with rabies,” that chased after the main characters in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Mr. Chavez has, on numerous occasions, accused the United States of backing a plan to assassinate him, an accusation that Bush administration officials have denied.
Mr. Chavez regularly criticizes President Bush and the U.S., calling President Bush “Mr. Danger,” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “the imperial lady.” The U.S. has accused Mr. Chavez of behaving in an undemocratic manner, but Ms. Rice was careful not to call him any names during a trip to Latin America earlier this year.
Mr. Chavez has threatened to cut off oil exports to the U.S. if it supports any efforts to overthrow him, which is no small threat when the price of gasoline is hovering around $3 per gallon. Venezuelan exports account for 8% (1.3 million barrels per day) of the U.S. total supply of oil.
Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S. said, “We are concerned about the safety of the president.” Mr. Alvarez said that steps should be taken to guarantee Mr. Chavez’s safety whenever he visits the United States. Mr. Chavez is expected to travel to New York next month for a special session of the U.N. General Assembly.
In the past, the U.S. was believed to have been involved in the 1963 assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. The U.S. has also been accused of attempting to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
On February 18, 1976, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order prohibiting any U.S. government employee from engaging in political assassinations.
Distance Without Denouncement
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the Pentagon isn’t in the business of killing foreign leaders, but did not condemn Reverend Robertson for his remarks. “He’s a private citizen. Private citizens say all kinds of things all the time,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Mr. Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials have linked Mr. Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro as troublemakers in unstable democracies in Latin America. Traveling home from Paraguay and Peru earlier this month, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters, “There certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that Reverend Robertson’s remarks about Mr. Chavez were “inappropriate,” but did not denounce them. “This is not the policy of the United States government,” Mr. McCormack said, “We do not share his views.”
Mr. McCormack was noncommittal in his response to the question of whether the rest of the world might presume that Reverend Robertson spoke for a sizable share of the Republican Party, if not expressly for President Bush. “I would think that people around the world would take the comments for what they are,” Mr. McCormack said. “They’re the expression of one citizen.”
National Clergy Council president, Reverend Rob Schenck released a statement saying Reverend Robertson should “immediately apologize, retract his statement and clarify what the Bible and Christianity teaches about the permissibility of taking human life outside of law.”
Reverend Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals said that he and “most evangelical leaders” would disassociate themselves from such “unfortunate and particularly irresponsible” comments. Reverend Cizik also expressed concern for Christian aid workers and missionaries, “It complicates circumstances for foreign missionaries and Christian aid workers overseas who are already perceived, wrongly, especially by leftists and other leaders, as collaborators with U.S. intelligence agencies.”
Reverend Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said that Reverend Robertson endangered evangelical missionaries in Venezuela because “if this dictator starts to think of evangelicals as people who are gunning for him, that could be difficult for missionaries there.”
In California, Reverend Kevin Mannoia, chaplain at Azusa Pacific University, compared Reverend Robertson’s comments to those of Islamic extremists, “We complain about the Islamic fanatics making statements like that.” he said, calling Reverend Robertson’s statement, “an extreme, fanatical reaction that is not representative of the Christian faith in general and the evangelical movement in particular. It’s out of line and inappropriate and should not be made by a serious person in a serious forum.”
Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, said that Reverend Robertson’s comments made no sense, “It defies logic that a clergyman could so casually dismiss thousands of years of Judeo-Christian law, including the commandment that we are not to kill,” he remarked.
Reverend Jesse Jackson denounced Reverend Robertson’s remarks as “morally reprehensible and dangerously suggestive.” Reverend Jackson also called for a Federal Communications Commission investigation, “This is even more threatening to hemispheric stability than the flash of a breast on television during a ballgame,” he said, referring to the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” that caused pop singer Janet Jackson’s breast to be exposed during the live broadcast of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
Mvume Dandala, general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches said, “No matter how he tries to justify it, Robertson’s public demand that the United States kill Chavez is simply a tragic betrayal of the Gospel.”
Others Chime In
Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group, sent a letter to ABC Family, urging the network to cease carrying “The 700 Club.”
In an August 23, 2005 statement, ABC Family said the company was “contractually obligated to air ‘The 700 Club’ and has no editorial control over views expressed by the hosts or guests. ”
Former Senate Majority Leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole criticized Reverend Robertson, calling his comments “stupid” and “ludicrous,” and suggested that the Reverend should apologize “very quickly.”
Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere said, “It was an incredibly stupid statement and has no reflection on reality.”
Democrats called the Bush administration’s responses tepid, and said that it lends credence to the notion that the White House doesn’t want to offend some of its most loyal supporters. Democratic political consultant Steve McMahon said, “It seems they are shuffling their feet when they should be running away from what Pat Robertson said. That this president, who projects himself as brave and bold, doesn’t want to stand up to his own right wing is ironic.”
The Bush administration shares many of Reverend Robertson’s views on several issues, such as stem cell research, abortion and same-sex marriage, and his mostly conservative, evangelical audience is an essential part of President Bush’s political base.
The Reverend Backpedals
On Wednesday, August 24, 2005 Reverend Robertson said that his remarks about Mr. Chavez were taken out of context and that he never called for the killing of the Venezuelan president.
“I didn’t say ‘assassination.’ I said our special forces should ‘take him out,’” Reverend Robertson said on the “The 700 Club” program, “And ‘take him out’ can be a number of things, including kidnapping; there are a number of ways to take out a dictator from power besides killing him. I was misinterpreted by the AP [Associated Press], but that happens all the time.”
Because of Reverend Robertson’s death threat, Mr. Chavez could see his popularity increase, according to Venezuela’s top polling company, Datanalisis.
Reverend Robertson’s remarks will lead more Venezuelans to believe Mr. Chavez’s claims about the Bush administration trying to kill him, said Datanalisis director, Luis Vicente Leon, “The evangelist’s declarations are terrible for the U.S. in that they totally back up Chavez,” he said, “It is absolutely going to have the opposite effect on Chavez than the U.S. wants. It’s something that resonates with the country’s poor.” The additional support may also help Mr. Chavez’s ruling coalition extend its majority in congress in Venezuela’s December elections.
In a May poll conducted by Datanalisis, 71% of Venezuelans said they support Mr. Chavez, which is an increase from 67% percent in April. Mr. Leon declined to comment about how much of a boost Mr. Chavez could get from Reverend Robertson’s comments.
The Reverend’s Influence
The scope of Reverend Robertson’s influence has been the subject of much debate, with some saying that the Reverend’s clout with US evangelicals has waned, while others say that he still has prestige with religious conservatives through his Christian Broadcasting Network and as a recognized leader in the push to get conservative judges confirmed.
According to Nielsen Media Research, Reverend Robertson’s syndicated television program has drawn an average of 863,000 viewers a day during the 2004-2005 television season.
However, the Reverend’s electoral reach was at its peak during the 1988 presidential campaign in which he won primary elections in Hawaii, Alaska, Nevada and Washington, but captured only 15% of his home state, Virginia. After the Super Tuesday contests, he was out of the running.
One leader, who spoke to the Los Angeles Times on condition of anonymity because he said he respected the Reverend’s past ministry said, “He’s an old man and there’s a group of old women and old men who watch him. The spokespeople for evangelicalism are significantly distanced from him politically and spiritually. The Moral Majority days are long gone. It’s a different world.”
Reverend Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Reverend Robertson had “tremendous authority in the minds and hearts of about 20% of the American electorate.”
Alec Foege, author of The Empire God Built: Inside Pat Robertson’s Media Machine — who suggested that Reverend Robertson’s statements were “along the lines of what Rush Limbaugh does.” — said of the Reverend’s influence outside of his core audience, “he’s not at his peak.” Mr. Foege believes the Reverend’s peak was reached around the time of the national election of 1996.
Allen D. Hertzke, professor of political science and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma said, “Pat Robertson is rather a marginal figure politically these days. He’s not taken seriously by the main leaders of Christian conservatism.”
Dr. Hertzke, who has written books on religion and politics, said that Reverend Robertson’s status now depends more on his charisma as an evangelical preacher than his political acumen,
“His ministry survives in spite of, not because of, his more outrageous statements on politics,” he said.
The Reverend’s Greatest “Hits”
Reverend Robertson is quite familiar with controversy, having verbally placed his foot into his mouth on several previous occasions.
The Reverend has denounced “out of control” federal judges as a greater threat to the fabric of the country than “a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings,” and beseeched
God to create a few more openings on the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, in which the Reverend supported President Bush’s re-election, he said he had expressed to Mr. Bush his misgivings about going to war with Iraq. On CNN, Reverend Robertson said that Mr. Bush told him, “Oh, no, we’re not going to have any casualties.”
The Reverend — and God, too — endorsed Mr. Bush’s re-election, “George Bush has the favor of heaven,” he said. However, Reverend Robertson apparently disagrees with Mr. Bush’s assessment that Islam is at heart a religion of peace.
The Reverend has said, “Islam, at least at its core, teaches violence.” He also said that he would be wary of appointing Muslims to top positions in the U.S. government, including judgeships.
Shortly after 9/11, the Reverend agreed with fellow evangelist Jerry Falwell (the man who “outed” Tinky-Winky, the purple — and allegedly gay — Teletubbie) that feminists, gays, abortionists and civil libertarians were to blame for the attacks.
The Reverend often appears to be rather obsessed with homosexuals, whom he has called “self-absorbed narcissists who are willing to destroy any institution so long as they can have affirmation of their lifestyle.”
In 1998, the Reverend responded to an Orlando, Florida campaign to fly flags in celebration of National Gay Pride Month with a warning to the city, “You’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you. This is not a message of hate; this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It’ll bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor.”