TV preacher Pat Robertson and I go way back. In 1996, I wrote a book about him, and I’ve followed his career since.
I long ago concluded that no one can track every zany thing the oracle of Virginia Beach spouts. Doing that would be a full-time job, and I have other things to do.
But every now and then Robertson pops off with something especially kooky or galling, and I feel the need to respond. Such was the case yesterday when Brother Pat decided to warn us all about Islam, which, he says, is not a religion, it’s a political movement.
“I think what we’ve got to do in terms of Islam is identify what it is,” Robertson said on his “700 Club” show. “Islam is a political system that is intent on world domination. It isn’t a quote, religion, as such; it’s a political system masquerading as a religion.”
Pardon me while I choke on my tea. Mind you, this is coming from a guy who has spent virtually his entire adult life working to turn Christianity into an appendage of the Republican Party.
As you might recall, Robertson in the late 1980s founded the Christian Coalition, which for more than a decade was the most powerful Religious Right group in the nation. I used to attend the Coalition’s “Road to Victory” conference every year, where fundamentalist Christianity and right-wing politics were mixed up like a Caesar salad. Republican candidates for governorships, U.S. House and Senate seats and the presidency would regularly trek to these gatherings in the hopes of winning Robertson’s blessing.
In 1997, Robertson outlined his plan to create a political unit along the lines of the 19th-century Tammany Hall machine in New York City and the later Byrd machine in Virginia.
Robertson noted that he had just hired Don Hodel, who headed the U.S. Department of Energy during the Reagan years, to run the Coalition and remarked, “I told Don Hodel when he joined us, ‘My dear friend, I want to hold out to you the possibility of selecting the next president of the United States because I think that’s what we have in this organization.’ And I believe we can indeed.”
Robertson spoke in an especially frank manner because he thought he was addressing a closed-door meeting of faithful acolytes. Americans United obtained a copy of a recording of the speech and released it to the media. People were stunned to hear a TV preacher, who, I remind you, had run for president himself in 1988, engaging in such nakedly partisan schemes.
For various reasons, the Christian Coalition started to fall apart around the year 2000. Groups like the Family Research Council (FRC) and the American Family Association have filled the gap. The FRC’s annual “Values Voter Summit” in Washington, D.C., is virtually identical to the old “Road to Victory” confabs.
So, yes, Robertson is a bit of a hypocrite for attacking Islam for allegedly being a political system disguised as a religion when that is essentially the thing he has worked for all of his life.
The only difference is that Robertson wants us all to live under the yoke of his version of fundamentalist Christianity, not fundamentalist Islam. And here’s the grand irony: Fundamentalists of all stripes – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish – share certain beliefs. They attack LGBT people, they seek to keep women down and control their reproductive lives, they reject much modern science and they labor to merge their belief system with the public schools and government, turning those entities into instruments of evangelism.
As I noted in my 2014 book Taking Liberties, “[I] am often amused (or perhaps I should say alarmed) by how much these groups sound alike when discussing social issues. You could strip away the theological references from an extreme Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia who is talking about gay rights and easily conclude that you were listening to an American television evangelist. The ultraorthodox Jew who denies women’s rights has a lot more in common with his fundamentalist Muslim and Christian counterparts than any of them would care to admit. They read from different scripts, but the result is the same.”
It is certainly true that some Muslims have been seduced by violent philosophies and employ the tactics of terror. But the overwhelming majority of American Muslims reject that approach. As The Nation noted recently, a snapshot of the American Muslim community shows a highly successful group of individuals. In general, they are better educated and make more money than other Americans.
Most importantly, their politics are moderate. “Almost seven in 10 Muslims identify as political moderates or liberals, according to a 2009 survey by Gallup,” The Nation reported. “Multiple surveys have found that, by and large, American Muslims have an optimistic outlook on life in this country, and want to be welcomed into the mainstream.”
Maybe that’s why Robertson so dislikes Muslims: Most aren’t Republicans!
Make no mistake, there are religious extremists trying to take over the reins of government in the United States and force everyone to live under a narrow and oppressive version of theology. Yes, theocrats do walk on American streets.
But their names are not “Mohammed” and “Abdul.” They are more likely to have names like “Pat,” “Tony,” “Tim” and “Jerry.”
Home-grown theocrats who yearn to run your life by the rules of their religion don’t come from places like Riyadh, Kabul and Islamabad. Rather, you can find them lurking in office buildings in Washington, D.C., and grinning manically into television cameras in Virginia Beach.