Heaven Only Knows

updated 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He is praying. He will know in September. In Pat Robertson's life, prayer counts. To the inner man, it has given peace—and the belief that he has a special place in God's plan. To the public Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of its 700 Club, prayer has provided a television audience estimated at 30 million and a corporate income of $190 million a year. Still, it is doubtful that Robertson, 56, has ever prayed about anything this important before—at least as important in this world. Pat Robertson is praying to find out whether he should run for President.

"The Bible says let the peace of God be an umpire in your heart," he says. "Obviously I've been in prayer that He will give my heart peace and that this is indeed the way to go...if I should go."

There is so much to gain. Marion G. "Pat" Robertson, according to some who know him, sees America as God's nation and himself as its prophet. Were he to run and win, which most political experts regard as improbable, but not impossible, he could be a new Elijah, turning the country back from the brink of moral collapse and onward to a great religious revival.

But then again there is much to lose. Robertson is, acquaintances agree, a thin-skinned man. If he runs, there are people who would like nothing more than to tear down not only his candidacy but his reputation and even his network, through which he believes he has helped to save 600,000 souls in the last six years. Those people will take his statements over the years—that he is a prophet; that God speaks to him directly and sometimes very specifically; that he has been able through the Lord to tame the wind and turn the hurricane—and they will inflict incalculable damage and pain. It is not something anyone would want to go through if it were not what God wanted.

So Robertson smiles and amends himself. He smiles almost constantly, and there is an engaging Virginia drawl to his tenor. "Of course," he says, "you might also maybe pray and say, 'God, if this is wrong, please, whatever You do, keep me from doing it. Put any roadblock in my path You can possibly find....' "

Until last May most Americans might not have cared very much what Pat Robertson was praying for. Despite his television success, Robertson's name was far less recognizable than, say, Jerry Falwell's. Then on May 27 the Michigan precinct delegate selection process changed all that. Not vitally important in itself, it was nonetheless the first confrontation among Republicans ambitious to succeed Ronald Reagan—a supposed face-off between Jack Kemp and George Bush. Instead, supported by $340,000 and an enthusiastic grass-roots organization run through fundamentalist churches, Robertson laid an ambush, edging Bush and badly beating Kemp. Now he is given an even chance to win the second stage of the selection process, to be held this week.

People have begun to talk seriously about the courtly Virginian. They have noted that his on-camera presence is almost as effective as Reagan's and that his religious operations have attracted a million regular contributors, second only, they say, to the Republican Party's itself. As he barnstorms the country, leaving churches-turned-political organizations in his wake, some conservatives have begun to hope that he might attract in even greater numbers the religious voters Reagan first mobilized. Says direct-mail expert Richard Viguerie, "Pat is going to strike a chord out there. He is going to bring a moral perspective to our problems. People are going to say, 'I can send a message that I want some religious principles applied to government.' "

Not everyone is thrilled by this prospect, "I don't want to say he's intolerant," snaps TV producer and First Amendment activist Norman Lear. "I want his statements to show that he's intolerant—and they do." Says Democratic National Committee spokesman Terry Michael, "There's nothing wrong with evangelicals in politics or preachers running for office, but there is something wrong with a candidate trying to shield his secular political opinions from criticism by claiming divine inspiration for both his candidacy and his beliefs."

Robertson, meanwhile, simply marvels at the support that is building. "It started out as a little trickle," he says. "But it has become an absolute torrent of people saying, 'Go for it.' Thousands and thousands of people all over the country, adding their voices, saying, 'Will you do it?' "

Prayer and politics are not strangers in Robertson's family. One ancestor was chaplain to the Jamestown colony; two others, William Henry Harrison and his great-grandson, Benjamin, were Presidents. A. Willis Robertson, Pat's father, was first a Congressman and then a respected U.S. Senator from Virginia. Robertson's mother, in comparison, seems to have had only limited interest in worldly achievement and the compromise it sometimes entails. The daughter of a fundamentalist minister, she "had a profound religious experience" in mid-life and became, in her son's words, "a powerful prayer warrior." Translated by a family acquaintance: "She was a religious maniac."

For almost three decades Pat seemed comfortably in his father's orbit. A friendly, confident boy known as "Senator" even before the elder Robertson rose to that office, he graduated from Chattanooga's exclusive McCallie School and made Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year at Washington and Lee. After studying economics in London and serving in Korea as a lieutenant in a Marine headquarters battalion, he worked briefly as a speech-writer for his father, then enrolled in Yale Law School.

There he was an average law student but a gifted merrymaker. ("Party?" snorts a contemporary. "You bet your babooie. Whiskey and women, he was out on the point there.") Religion played little role in his conversation; what seemed to fascinate him most, friends recall, was the prospect of financial success. "He always wanted to make money," remembers a classmate, "and he thought it was a good idea to make it tax-free if you could.... I guess that's what he ended up doing."

But not in the conventional way. A year after graduation, Robertson was a financial analyst with W.R. Grace & Co. and, loyal to his Democratic heritage, Staten Island Chairman of the Adlai Stevenson for President Committee. He had married the former Adelia (Dede) Elmer, a graduate nursing student he had met while at Yale. Yet all was not well. "I was so burdened with the futility of life," he later wrote, "that at one point I had actually contemplated suicide." There was, he decided, "...a God-shaped vacuum in my life."

At first he had tried to fill it by reading the Bible and by donating to a local church after all-night poker games. He began carefully studying the proselytizing literature sent by his mother, which until that point he had guiltily tossed aside. He was finally converted by a missionary friend of his family over dinner in a swank Philadelphia restaurant. The next day, he has written, "...sitting at my desk in my office, I leaned back in my chair and burst out laughing. I had been saved!"

Emphatically so. The brand of Christianity Robertson adopted over the next years was far from the relatively easygoing Southern Baptist faith he had been raised in. He became a charismatic, a believer in a God hard at work making miracles, and a practitioner of the Gifts of Pentecost: speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy. And Robertson would never be merely a follower. When a friend, in a religious trance, spoke the words, "You shall go forth and minister to thousands, yes, to tens of thousands, and the blessing of the Lord shall be upon you," Pat knew what he meant. "Even though his face was turned to heaven," he wrote, "I knew the words were for me."

But how to fulfill them? Robertson had completed the masters program at the New York Theological Seminary. Heeding a Bible verse, he had sold all his young family's worldly possessions to join a bare-bones church in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto, surviving often on a diet of soybeans. Now, in 1959, he received another calling: God wanted him to claim, in His name, a defunct television station in Portsmouth, Va.

A. Willis Robertson, whose own father had been a pastor, had supported his son's swing to the spiritual. But the idea of Pat passing among his Virginia constituents with $70 in his pocket and talking grandly of using it to found a "Christian Broadcasting Network," troubled the Senator. "He was sure it would be a failure," says Pat. "He felt sure I would embarrass him in his home state."

But in the next decade, through a series of brilliant financial, marketing and fund-raising decisions, Robertson made CBN a reality. He became the first evangelist to found his own TV station, to create a religious cable network, to make use of satellite hookups and to take on commercial sponsors. He was one of the first to make religious TV "interactive," providing 4,500 counselors at 1-800 numbers to minister to troubled viewers and add their names to his mailing lists. To sell CBN in mainstream markets, he supplemented religious fare with "wholesome" but popular series such as Wagon Train, Dobie Gillis and Flipper.

For every success, Robertson was careful to share credit. With him, he said, was the Lord, speaking through Bible verses, through friends and sometimes directly in English and with a knowledge of brand names. "Pat," says the Deity distinctly in Robertson's 1972 autobiography, Shout It From the Housetops, "I want you to have an RCA transmitter."

Whoever provided the inspiration, CBN is now the nation's fifth-largest cable network. With its profits, Robertson has established a sprawling, neo-Georgian complex in Virginia Beach, Va., housing his studios, CBN University (for graduate students, 700 currently enrolled), CBN Law School and Operation Blessing, a charity he claims has distributed some $52 million in goods and services to the needy.

By the early 1980s he had also established a political profile. The ideological heart of CBN is the 700 Club, an omnibus program featuring much faith healing and witnessing while presenting its host as commentator and spokesman, a sort of combination Carson, Koppel and Sevareid. Like his colleagues on the religious right, Robertson was vehement on social issues such as abortion ("Three [Supreme Court justices] have on their hands the blood of 17 million aborted babies...."), public education ("attempting...to take children away from parents and educate them in a philosophy that is amoral, anti-Christian and humanistic....")and women's rights ("Now this may be unpalatable to some of us...but...the ultimate authority needs to be the husband").

But Robertson's style, no matter how hard his line, was invariably pleasant and smiling. And he was articulate on a broader range of issues than most of his fundamentalist brethren. Admittedly there were embarrassments. In the early 1980s, CBN put out an economic newsletter called Pat Robertson's Perspective, which advised against long-term investments in worldly goods because a war in the Middle East would lead to Armageddon sometime in 1982. At about the same time, Robertson was taped at a gospel businessmen's fellowship in full cry: "Satan be gone!... A hernia has been healed. If you're wearing a truss you can take it off. It's gone! Several people are being healed of hemorrhoids and varicose veins.... People with flat feet, God is doing just great things to you...." Still, when Jerry Falwell got tired of taking the press's heat in 1985, he could turn to a reporter and complain, "Pat Robertson is at least as political as I am, maybe a little more. But he is far more subtle." And then the subtlety gave way to ambition.

The Word of Faith World Outreach Church in Dallas is new, huge and decorated à la Lourdes: Affixed to the face of its massive balcony, like trophies, are dozens of crutches, walkers, trusses, braces and canes. But Pat Robertson is not here today to mend the halt or the blind. Rather, as part of a dizzying series of appearances since he declared interest in a possible candidacy in the spring of '85, he has flown here in CBN's BAC One-Eleven jet (formerly owned by Kenny Rogers) to give a July 5 homily harking back to Independence Hall in 1776. Robertson's identification with the Founding Fathers is intense; his message—one he takes almost everywhere—is that they, like he, believed that religion should be government's guide. "That state shall be separate from the church," he declares, "...is not in our Constitution."

Jeffrey Hadden, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, has studied and written about Robertson and other television evangelists for eight years and entertained the preacher at his home. "Pat really sees God moving in history with a plan," he says, "and America as His chosen land for its fulfillment. He sees himself with an important role to play; he perceives he's a prophet calling people back to God. He thinks that that role may be manifest in the Presidency." There is an aspect of this view that concerns Hadden. "Deep in your heart," he says, "you wonder where would Pat Robertson go if he felt that God were leading him in directions that were in radical contradiction to the principles of American democracy."

Gary Jarmin, a conservative political consultant with the Christian Voice lobbying group, has no qualms about a marriage of church and state. But Jarmin, though he admires Robertson, favors Jack Kemp in '88. He thinks Robertson will backfire on his own constituency. "The conservative Christian community has overcome a lot of stereotyping...as wackos beating people over the head with 40-pound Bibles. If Pat becomes crucified by the press—if they take it out of context, whether he's praying away hurricanes, healing people in prayer, speaking in tongues—people will say, 'Oh gosh.' He may be portrayed as an extremist and a kook—and we could all be portrayed likewise."

Among those who know him best, Pat Robertson is universally praised. Of course, those who know him best are themselves born-again Christians. Nonetheless their portrayal seems heartfelt. They find him very, very bright, occasionally impatient, but also loyal and charming—"charismatic" in the secular sense. But the quality those around him mention most often—and the one of which Robertson is undoubtedly proudest—is his steadfast integrity. "The man is honest," says Ben Kinchlow, the reverend's 700 Club co-host. "He will stop himself in the middle of a phrase to correct one mistake."

It is this very forthrightness that could pose a problem for Robertson as he moves into the subtle arena of politics. How will he square his idiosyncratic, sometimes radical beliefs with those of the electorate he hopes to woo? This is the blue-smoke-and-mirrors side of politics, the bargain-and-compromise side—the side that must have seemed most alien to his mother and the side Robertson seems to have rejected when he embraced the absolutes of charismatic practice.

And yet he is trying. Sitting in the elegant living room of the $400,000 neo-Georgian home that CBN built for him as a chancery, Robertson sips an iced tea and calmly explains a few misconceptions. When he refers to himself as a "prophet," he says, he means only to describe himself as a "spokesman." The voice of God he sometimes hears is just "a still, small voice...that Moses heard and Elijah heard and others...just a quiet voice saying, 'This is the way. Walk ye in it.' " The idea that he might make presidential decisions, as he once did business choices, solely on the basis of what that voice told him, is misguided, says Robertson. "The stakes are bigger," he explains. "It's one thing to plug in a 10,000-watt transmitter at a particular price, and it's something else when you're dealing with 236 million Americans plus 280 million Soviets. The Bible says, 'Take the council of wise men.' And in [the Presidency] you'd need everything going for you you could get. My plans," he concludes, "are not...a flaming crusade, but just some intelligent things that would draw our country together, put [it] on a course for a better way of life, ensure stability of our families, ensure jobs and ensure the domestic security of this nation."

Perhaps this moderate, unobjectionable tone is the one Robertson feels he must assume to be a viable candidate. Yet he holds strong opinions that cannot be homogenized, and his honesty makes him speak out. Last June for example, Robertson told the Washington Post editorial board that by his reading of the Constitution, "a Supreme Court ruling is not the law," and Congress should "ignore a Supreme Court ruling if it so chooses." It was a curious notion, confounding to legal scholars of the right and the left. "It is surprising," observed Harvard's Laurence Tribe, "to find a conservative taking so radical and ultimately lawless a position."

Thus, with potential controversy distantly rumbling do the days before Pat Robertson's decision pass. Says his wife, Dede, "I don't think any woman who really loved her husband would be happy about him running for President, but if this is what the Lord wants him to do, I won't stand in his way." But Robertson is still undecided, still looking for portents. Last September, he believes, he received one. Hurricane Gloria was headed in from the South Atlantic on a path that would have brought her crashing onto Virginia Beach. Robertson, on the 700 Club, commanded the storm, in Jesus' name, to relent and go elsewhere. Coincidentally or not, Gloria complied. veering north and spending her dwindling fury on hapless Long Island. Recently a CBN reporter asked Robertson whether that incident had affected his presidential aspirations. Yes, he answered. "I felt...that if I couldn't move a hurricane, I could hardly move a nation. I know that's a strange thing for anybody to say, and there's hardly anybody else who would feel the same way, but it was very important to the faith of many people." If Gloria had disobeyed, he was asked, would he then have given up on a presidential run? "Absolutely," he replied.

But Gloria did obey. And Robertson returned to his consultations, his deliberations, his prayer. Will he run for President? He will know in September. Believers and skeptics alike are hoping he receives the right answer.

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