The Rev. Pat Robertson seemed to delight years ago in waving before his television flock an American Civil Liberties Union letter showing his photograph alongside two other prominent Christian conservatives under the headline: "The Most Dangerous Men in America?"
His significance as menace or inspiration is less clear now than it was then, due not least to Robertson's success making Christian conservatism a force in mainstream national politics.
Many scholars who have written on Christian conservatism say the 75-year-old evangelist is well past his peak of influence. On the other hand, Robertson still commands a television audience said to number about 1 million on The 700 Club, and his suggestion on the show this week that the United States assassinate the president of Venezuela caused a storm of national and international response.
Robertson apologized yesterday for his comments about Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez.
"Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement," Robertson was quoted as saying yesterday in a story by Reuters, adding that he "spoke in frustration" about Chavez, a harsh critic of the Bush administration who has in the past claimed the United States was out to overthrow or assassinate him.
Tim Simpson, director of religious affairs for a new left-leaning group called the Christian Alliance for Progress, said the impact of Robertson's remarks broadcast Monday on The 700 Club suggests that he cannot be easily dismissed.
"One does that at one's own peril," said Simpson. "I take him dead seriously."
Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has written a number of books on Christian conservatism, including Onward Christian Soldiers: The Christian Right in American Politics, said in an e-mail that Robertson's "influence is far diminished. Most of the Christian conservative activists whom I speak to do not respect him much. There is a general belief that he puts his business empire ahead of his faith."
Although Robertson today tends to go by the general title of "religious broadcaster," that phrase hardly conveys the scope of the impact he has had on Christian conservatism as a cultural movement since he founded the Christian Broadcasting Network at a little television station in Portsmouth, Va., in 1960.
From that beginning, Marion Gordon "Pat" Robertson, son of a conservative Democratic U.S. senator from Virginia, built a formidable array of media, educational, legal and philanthropic institutions.
Robertson founded and chairs the Christian Broadcasting Network, an international media company, and Operation Blessing, a nonprofit international relief organization reporting revenues of nearly $65 million last year. In 1997 he sold his International Family Entertainment to Fox Kids Worldwide for $1.9 billion, according to Robertson's Web site.
In 1978 he founded the Christian-oriented Regent University in Virginia Beach, which now enrolls 3,000 students in undergraduate, graduate and law school. In 1990 he founded the American Center for Law and Justice, a constitutional law center in Washington that acts essentially as a conservative counterpart to the American Civil Liberties Union.
In view of Robertson's clout, Robert Boston in 1996 published a book on Robertson called The Most Dangerous Man in America?, which mentions the ACLU letter. In his introduction, Boston said he wrote the book as "a fire alarm ... that an intolerant extremist now comes perilously close to holding the reins of American politics."
Boston, affiliated with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was on vacation and could not be reached yesterday for comment.
In 2001 Robertson resigned as president of the Christian Coalition, which he founded in 1989 after his presidential campaign sputtered after some success in state caucuses. The coalition had clearly fallen from its height in 1994, when it was reported to have had a budget of $25 million and 4 million members, a mark of Robertson's skill as an organizer.
"Robertson played a critical transitional role in the development of the Christian conservative movement," said Wilcox, crediting Robertson for casting a wider net for support than activists such as Jerry Falwell.
"Robertson sought a broader theological appeal," Wilcox said. "He talked with Catholics, African-Americans, mainline Protestants and even conservative Jews. His campaign sought to mobilize a broad swath of religious conservatives."
Herb Titus, a constitutional lawyer in Virginia who was founding dean of the School of Public Policy and the law school at what became Regent University, said Robertson made a strong first impression on him at a Christian Legal Society meeting in 1978.
"He was a visionary," said Titus. "He had a very quick mind and a comprehensive intelligence. And from what I could see, he was very motivated by the Lord."
Although he was raised as a Southern Baptist, Robertson's religion "has been hard to characterize," wrote Justin Watson in The Christian Coalition: Dreams of Restoration, Demands for Recognition. "He has been called, with varying degrees of justification, a Pentecostal, a charismatic, an evangelical, and a fundamentalist."
Robertson graduated from Yale Law School in 1955, but did not pass the New York State bar examination. After a brief attempt at a career in business, he had a "conversion experience" in 1956, Watson wrote. He then studied at what is now the New York Theological Seminary in New York City, graduating with a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1959.
'Not just a hick'
"He is actually very, very smart and has an impressive set of credentials," said Laura R. Olson, associate professor of political science at Clemson University and co-author of Religion and Politics in America. "He's not just a hick from the mountains who came down and decided to talk about politics."
She argued that if Robertson has lost much of the clout he wielded in the early 1990s, it's due in part to his success in establishing Christian conservatism as a broad force in American politics. With so many more Christian conservative organizations active in politics, many of them focused on local organizing and local concerns, she said, it is more difficult for any one figure to dominate the national stage.
"I don't know if I want to go so far as to say that Robertson is irrelevant," said Olson. She also could not quite fathom the method behind Robertson's pattern of making public statements that many consider outrageous.
"I think he knows exactly what he's doing," said Simpson, of the Christian Alliance for Progress. "He's got more television experience than any politician in America."
The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, a conservative advocacy group, said he wonders if Robertson is so relaxed in front of a camera that he drops his guard against a tendency to say whatever pops into his head.
For Christian conservatism, Schenck said, Robertson has "been a general, but he's never been a philosopher-general. ... He has achieved great things, but he has his Achilles' heel."
"The feminist agenda ... is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." - From a Christian Coalition fundraising letter issued in July 1992
"I would warn Orlando that 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." - Warning in 1998 about the wrath of God for allowing gays to put rainbow flags on light poles in Orlando, Fla.
"God's pattern is for men to be the leaders, both in the church and in the family. ... Women should listen and learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them." - From his 2003 book "Bring It On"