Today’s GOP is the product of Pat Robertson’s anti-LGBTQ+, Christian nationalist vision

Televangelist Pat Robertson
Televangelist Pat Robertson Photo: Screenshot

Pat Robertson’s obituaries described him as a major influence on the Republican party. In the words of The New York Times, he was “a Baptist minister with a passion for politics who marshaled Christian conservatives into a powerful constituency that helped Republicans capture both houses of Congress in 1994.”

This is a little like saying Donald Trump was a real estate developer who scored a surprising success in politics. It’s a factual statement that minimizes the historical – and destructive – impact that Robertson had on democracy.

Today’s GOP is a creation of Pat Robertson. From its embrace of Christian nationalism to its vicious hatred of LGBTQ+ people, the Republican party today is exactly what Robertson wanted it to become. And he succeeded.

At the time, Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign seemed like folly, a fringe candidate on an ego trip. In fact, it was the harbinger of what the party was to become. To begin with, Robertson promised to launch his campaign only if he got three million signatures on petitions asking him to do so. He had no problem clearing that bar, a sign of his reach.

He also performed surprisingly well against a field that included then-vice president and heir-apparent George H.W. Bush. Robertson came in second in the Iowa caucuses and won outright in a handful of other states. He didn’t have staying power, but he did better than some established politicians running in the race.

He used that power to form the Christian Coalition, which, along with the Moral Majority, became the tail that wagged the GOP dog.

That’s where Robertson’s greatest influence was. He leveraged his control over conservative evangelicals not only to make them a unified political force but to impose their will upon their entire country.

In an interview with Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, Rick Perlstein, a historian of the American right, properly credits Robertson with creating the political vision that animates today’s Republican party. It all began with Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and the 700 Club, where Robertson held forth daily with his combination of prayer, bromides, and faith healing.

CBN was the template for Fox News, the bubble where people would see the world through a distorted lens, where facts would never intrude, and everything was black and white. Robertson was creating a world where people could live their lives without having to interact with the secular world, except through politics.

And Robertson’s goal in politics was to end secularism. It was also to merge politics with religion. “The idea that God’s law trumps man’s law absolutely saturates his world,” Perlstein notes. “Along with Falwell, he’s most responsible for turning Christianity into Christian nationalism and Christian nationalism into insurrectionism.”

Robertson made no bones about what that meant. In particular, he wanted to drive LGBTQ+ people from public and private life, labeling them agents of Satan intent on destroying society. He accused gay men of wearing rings infected with the AIDS virus with which they would intentionally infect unwitting people. He blamed the 9/11 attacks on God’s anger at America because of LGBTQ+ rights.

Along with vehement attacks on abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ attacks became a staple of Robertson’s rhetoric and, by extension, the GOP’s. As Perlstein put it, “Every time a riot breaks out at a school board meeting because the board wants to recognize that gay people exist, that’s Pat Robertson’s shadow.”

Sadly, Robertson’s legacy won’t be buried with him. It continues to play out in the virus that pushes the Republican party further and further right, into the arms of authoritarianism. Robertson certainly had no problem with silencing dissent. He once bluntly said that only faithful Christians (and certain kinds of Jews) should be allowed to hold government positions.

Perhaps most haunting is a quote from Robertson that Perlstein found: “We have enough votes to run the country. When people say, ‘We have had enough,’ we’re going to take over.”

It hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.

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