With the twilight of the 1980s televangelists and the death of Jerry Falwell a few years back, Pat Robertson remains the most widely known (and often publicly reviled) personalities of the religious right. He says a lot of things. A lot. Some of them are simply traditional Christian conservative points of view. Others are riffs on Pentecostal/Charismatic tropes that outsiders find hard to understand or interpret. Others are just insane and insensitive.
Suffice it to say there are a lot of things over which Pat and I would disagree. I’m not going to address that insanity, but I do want to talk about the book I’ve just finished reading–David Edwin Harrell’s new biography Pat Robertson: A Life and Legacy. In many ways, Harrell is my kind of historian: his is a well-researched, superbly documented, academically thorough piece about a major 20th century American religious figure hailing from the Pentecostal/Charismatic world. For those of you who know my interests and my work, there should be no surprise at my affinity for Harrell.
Now nearing the end of his career, Harrell has also written a monograph of the Salvation-Healing revivals of the 1950s and 1960s as well as a full-length biography of Oral Roberts. This book on Robertson continues his research interests.
I learned a lot from Harrell’s life of Robertson, and in the process gained more of an appreciation for a man who often comes off as buffoonish and hateful. We remember here his claims to have leg-pressed 2,000 pounds and recent assertion that divorcing a spouse with advanced Alzheimer’s was A-OK. Make no mistake: Pat Robertson is not always a shining example of ideal Christianity or the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition.
Harrell’s claims are nonetheless intriguing:
…if one accepts Pentecostal/charismatic religion as a legitimate part of the Christian tradition, as it has increasingly been perceived in the past three decades, and if one accepts the conservative Republican agenda as a part of mainstream American politics, it is important to recognize that Robertson’s posture within those communities is basically centrist.
While I would be inclined to agree with Harrell’s statement insofar as religion is concerned, I continue to feel he is a bit too generous with his subject’s flaws and foibles. Yet what the author documents about Robertson’s life is compelling: the driven son of United States senator, educated at Yale Law, and a constituent member of the early Charismatic Movement, Robertson was a successful businessman and recognized the emergent potential for both religious broadcasting and cable television in their infancy. He was the founder of the humanitarian mission Operation Blessing and created Regent University, now a center for Renewal and Charismatic studies. He had an ecumenical spirit that allowed him to reach far beyond the enclave of Pentecostalism. Not to mention that he was a viable candidate for the United States Presidency in 1988.
Am I trying to say that his intelligence, success and “normality” overcomes the patently stupid things he has said and done? No. But I do feel it offers a counterbalance to the often one-sided perspective I have had in the past. Simply put, there are huge parts of Robertson’s life that I never knew before . His caricatures are of course well-deserved. But like all caricatures, they fixate upon only a small part of who a person is. A warning about narrowness of mind, I suspect, to us and Robertson alike.