A few days ago Debra Mason, the former publisher of this news service, responded to stories about Pat Robertson's comments on the Khashoggi Affair by posting the following on Facebook.
PLEASE STOP QUOTING PAT ROBERTSON. HE IS NOT NEWS. HE REPRESENTS NO MAJOR RELIGIOUS GROUP IN THE US. HE WILL ALWAYS SAY SOMETHING PREDICTABLY WACKY. FIND REAL EVANGELICALS, PLEASE. HE IS ONE OF THE REASONS THE REPRESENTATION OF EVANGELICALS IN THE NEWS IS SO OFF.
"Preach it!" seconded Terry Mattingly, boss of the GetReligion online journalism review.
With due respect to these gurus of religion coverage, I beg to differ. By virtue of his chairmanship of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Robertson remains a consequential figure on the religious right. The 700 Club, the CBN marquee show on which Robertson made his remarks, has an audience of one million. And while what he said in this case may have been morally appalling, it was not wacky.
So what exactly did he say?
“For those who are screaming blood for the Saudis — look, these people are key allies,” he declared on the show October 15, and told viewers to bear in mind that “we’ve got an arms deal that everybody wanted a piece of…it’ll be a lot of jobs, a lot of money come to our coffers. It’s not something you want to blow up willy-nilly.”
Then, the following day, he took a stand against sanctions against Saudi Arabia and posed a series of questions:“You’ve got one journalist — who knows? Was it an interrogation? Was he assassinated? Were there rogue elements? Who did it?"
That Robertson should have parroted what was, in fact, President Trump's lines du jour on Khashoggi's death is hardly surprising, given CBN's close relationship with the White House. Two weeks before the 2016 election, Robertson scored an exclusive interview with candidate Trump and David Brody, CBN's White House correspondent, has been a regular one-on-one interlocutor with the president for years.
In his assiduous cultivation of evangelicals, Donald Trump has long treated CBN as a major line of communication. The guy who runs it shouldn't be ignored.
As for whether media coverage of Robertson construes him as an avatar of evangelicalism in America, while that may have been true when he was chairing the Christian Coalition 20 years ago, today not so much. New York Magazine, for example, began its account of his Khashoggi remarks with the statement: "There’s nothing new about Christian right warhorse Pat Robertson saying offensively stupid things about politics that make you worry about his idea of Christianity."
No doubt, a number of reports on his Khashoggi remarks identified Robertson as an "evangelical leader." Is he out of step with or noticeably less influential than such other evangelical leaders as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Tony Perkins, and Robert Jeffress? I'd say not.
When it comes to shaping evangelical attitudes these days, there is no one more influential than Donald Trump. Whether that makes him an evangelical leader is an existential question I leave for others to answer.