Pat Robertson, the bigoted Christian television host who spent years regaling the political right with racist, sexist, anti-gay and otherwise hateful rhetoric, has died.
Robertson technically retired from his longtime television show, “The 700 Club,” in 2021. At the time, MSNBC’s “The 11th Hour” put together this helpful mashup of Robertson’s lowlights as a host. This includes a tirade claiming Haitians had suffered a deadly earthquake after they “swore a pact to the devil” while overthrowing their French oppressors centuries earlier, along with a torrent of homophobia.
Lists ranking Robertson’s most deplorable bigotry are easy to find. And that’s his legacy in a nutshell: mainstreaming the sort of conspiratorial Christian hate-mongering that’s now common and openly encouraged in the conservative movement.
Barack Obama foresaw this in 2006 — when he was a U.S. senator — and I think his comments about Robertson in particular are more useful to reflect on today than anything Robertson said himself.
These comments were delivered during Obama’s keynote speech at a religious conference hosted by the liberal Christian activist Jim Wallis and his group Call to Renewal. The conference invited the freshman senator from Illinois to discuss ways to unite secular and religious Americans around social justice causes.
In his speech, Obama — who would eventually become one of Robertson’s most frequent targets — warns liberals against allowing extremists like Robertson to frame what it means to be a good practitioner of religion.
When we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense in terms of what it tells us about our obligations towards one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome — others will fill that vacuum, those with the most insular views of faith, or those who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends. In other words, if we don’t reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway.
You can watch Obama deliver these remarks a little after the 16-minute mark in the video below. (Keeping in mind that this is pre-presidency Obama talking, I’m inclined to give him a pass for the pie-in-the-sky talk about trying to persuade evangelicals to become more humane. That said, the “love thy enemy” approach has always seemed part of Obama’s heartfelt political philosophy.)
The speech is worth reading or watching in full. Obama starts out by talking about his 2004 Senate race in Illinois against Alan Keyes, who tried to convince voters that Obama, a self-identifying Christian, was misaligned with God, in part because of his opposition to anti-abortion legislation.
“Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama,” Keyes said. “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.”
In his speech, Obama summarized why liberal practitioners of religion need to push back against their extremist counterparts who use such rhetoric. He said:
Now, I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and his arguments were not worth entertaining. And since at the time, I was up 40 points in the polls, it probably wasn’t a bad piece of strategic advice. But what they didn’t understand was that I had to take Mr. Keyes seriously, for he claimed to speak on behalf of my religion and my God. He claimed to know certain truths.
Here, Obama channels quite well the righteous indignation liberals ought to feel over Pat Robertson — or any other Christian nationalist — suggesting that their own bigoted stances give them an inside track to heaven. These days, I think progressive faith leaders such as the Rev. William Barber — or the faith leaders opposed to the construction of “Cop City” in Atlanta — also make this point effectively. And I’ve personally tried to channel some of that indignation by spotlighting religious institutions that are alleged to have engaged in rampant abuse of parishioners.
It’s the literal hypocrisy for me.
Obama knew Robertson had a toxic tongue that was used to sow hate under the guise of religiosity. He made this abundantly clear with his 2006 remarks.
But it’s also abundantly clear that the issue of Christian nationalism isn’t dead just because Pat Robertson is.