It Has to Be Said.
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I Knew Pat Robertson and He Was a Bad Man

I Knew Pat Robertson and He Was a Bad Man

An Egomaniacal Monster Who Got Rich Hurting People.

One thing I do not regret is that I missed the “opportunity” to be the so-called big-time evangelical leader I could have been. I was good at speaking. We would never have run out of paranoid delusions with which to stir up the ever-fearful and willfully ignorant. But the idea of “passing up” a chance to become a cross between Pat Robertson, Elmer Gantry and Ralph Reed never bothered me.

After being introduced by Pat Robertson, I had delivered a rousing take-back-America speech to thousands of cheering religious broadcasters. And not long after, I would appear at a huge pro-life rally in Denver. Cal Thomas--once the vice president of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, who later became a Fox News Commentator--would introduce me as “the best speaker in America.” The “anointing” he said, was “clearly on this young man!” They were saying that I was a better speaker than my famous father.

At that moment the Schaeffers were evangelical royalty. When I was growing up in L’Abri, my parents’ religious community in Switzerland, it was not unusual to find myself seated across the dining room table from Billy Graham’s daughter or President Ford’s son, even Timothy Leary. The English actress Glynis Johns used to come for Sunday high tea. I figured it was normal. They were just a few of the thousands who made it through our doors. Only later did I realize that L’Abri attracted a weirdly eclectic group of people who otherwise would not be caught dead in the same room. My childhood was, to say the least, unusual.

When Gerald Ford died in January of 2007, I recalled that the day he had assumed the presidency, his daughter-in-law Gayle was babysitting my daughter Jessica as her job in the work-study program at L’Abri, where Mike Ford, the President’s son was a student.

Mom and Dad met with presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush Sr. and stayed in the White House several times. In the 1990s when my mother Edith---then in her eighties---heard that George W. Bush might run for the presidency, she exclaimed, “What? But Barbara asked me to pray especially for young George. She didn’t think he had what it took to do anything.”

Dad and I were mixing with a new set of people that had not known much, if anything, about my father. If they had even heard of Dad before he came on the pro-life scene in the mid-seventies, they probably hadn’t liked the sound of him. These people included Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, James Kennedy and all the rest of the televangelists radio hosts and other self-appointed “Christian leaders” who were bursting on the scene in the 1970s and early eighties.

Compared to Dad these slick media figures were upstarts. They were “not our sort of people,” Dad often said. What people like Robertson and Falwell got from Dad was some respectability.

Dad had a unique reputation for an intellectual approach to faith. And his well-deserved reputation for frugal ethical living, for not financially profiting from his ministry, for compassion, openness and intellectual integrity, was the opposite of the reputations of the new breed of evangelical leadership, with their perks, planes, and corner offices in gleaming new buildings and superficial glib messages. Empire builders like Robertson, Dobson and Falwell liked rubbing up against (or quoting) my father, for the same reason that popes liked to have photos taken with Mother Teresa.

What I slowly realized was that the religious right leaders we were helping to gain power were not “conservatives” at all in the old sense of the word. They were anti-American religious revolutionaries.

The secular pre Roe v. Wade right had been led by people like James Buckley and the old fashioned Republican anti-socialist conservatives left over from the Hoover era, or people like Senator Barry Goldwater who stood for the separation of church and state. The “lunatic fringe” old right was represented by groups like the John Birch Society. But even their paranoid activism had been directed at secular issues, such as stopping communism.

The new religious right was all about religiously-motivated “morality” which it used for nakedly political purposes. This was a throwback to an earlier and ugly time, for instance to the 1930s pro-fascist “Catholic” xenophobic hate-mongers like Father Charles Coughlin and his vicious anti-Roosevelt radio programs.

Father Coughlin would have understood Dobson, Falwell and Robertson perfectly: Begin a radio ministry, move steadily to the populist right, then identify the “enemy”---in Coughlin’s case socialism and Roosevelt, in the new religious right’s case the secular humanists and the Democrats. Then, rip off your priest’s collar---something Coughlin literally did---and talk about politics pure and simple, maybe even form an independent party if you can’t sufficiently manipulate the levers of established power.

The leaders of the new religious right were gleefully betting on American failure. If secular, democratic, diverse and pluralistic America survived, then wouldn’t that prove that we were wrong about God only wanting to bless “Christian America?” If, for instance, crime went down dramatically in New York City, for any other reason than a reformation and revival, wouldn’t that make the prophets of doom look silly? And if the economy was booming without anyone repenting, what did that mean?

Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and others would later use their power in ways that would have made my father throw up. Dad could hardly have imagined how they would help facilitate the instantly corrupted power-crazy new generation of evangelical pubic figures like Ralph Reed, who took money from the casino industry, while allegedly playing both sides against the middle in events related to the Abramoff Washington lobbyist scandal. And after 9/11 the public got a glimpse of the anti-American self-righteous venom that was always just under the surface of the evangelical right. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and others declared the attack on America was a punishment from God. And after the war in Iraq began some loony group of fundamentalists started picketing the funerals of killed soldiers and screaming at bereaved fathers and mothers that God was punishing “faggot America.” What they shouted openly was what the leaders of the religious right were usually too smart to state so bluntly, but it is what they had always said in private.

What began to bother me was that so many of our new “friends” on the religious right seemed to be rooting for one form of apocalypse or another. In the crudest form this was part of the evangelical fascination with the so-called end times. The worse things got, the sooner Jesus would come back. But there was another component. The worse everything got the more it proved that America needed saving, by us!

Long before Ralph Reed and the other bottom-feeders came on the scene, Dad got sick of “these idiots,” as he often called people like Dobson in private. They were “plastic,” Dad said, and “power-hungry.” They were, “Way too right wing, really nuts!” and, “They’re using our issue to build their empires.”

To my and Dad’s lasting discredit we didn’t go public with our real opinions of the religious right leaders we were in bed with. We believed there was too much at stake, both personally, as we caught the power-trip disease, and politically, as we got carried away by the needs of the pro-life movement. And however conflicted Dad and I were, like the other religious right leaders, we were on an ego-stroking roll. We kept our mouths shut.

It must have come as a shock to Dad to be plunged into the heart of the American evangelical scene circa 1970s and 1980s, and to suddenly see just who he was urging to take power in the name of returning America to our “Christian roots.” Who would be in charge? Pat Robertson? Jerry Falwell? Gary North? Dr. Dobson? Rousas Rushdoony? And what sort of fools would “our people” elect as President or for Congress, given that they had so easily been duped by the flakes and charlatans they were hailing (and lavishly funding) as their spiritual leaders?

The so-called evangelical leadership---Dobson, Robertson, Falwell and all the rest also played the pro-life community for suckers. While thousands of men and women in the crisis pregnancy movement gave of themselves with tremendous and sincere sacrifice (in order to help women and babies), their evangelical “leaders” did little more than cash in on fundraising opportunities and stir the pot so that they could keep their followers motivated. That way the evangelical leaders could represent themselves as power-brokers to the politicians willing to kowtow to them. 

To the extent that the Republican Party benefited from the pro-life movement, my efforts and those of my father contributed to making the Republican congressional majorities of the 1980s and 1990s possible. We also indirectly helped make the election of Reagan, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. possible.

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It Has to Be Said.
"It Has to Be Said." Podcast
Frank Schaeffer's Political and Social Commentary