A preacher eyes the White House

Fred Bruning December 16 1985

A preacher eyes the White House

Fred Bruning December 16 1985

A preacher eyes the White House


Fred Bruning

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the funny little guru with all those Rolls Royce automobiles, departed the United States abruptly last month after confessing that he had done some hocus-pocus with U. S. immigration laws. Resettled in the hinterlands of India, Rajneesh describes himself as a victim of religious persecution and vows never to return—good news for the folks in central Oregon who feel they endured quite enough of their former neighbor’s odd behavior.

With the Bhagwan out of the way, Americans can address an area of church-state relations apt to cause more trouble than a hundred swamis in floor-length frocks and shiny limousines. Rajneesh was a pest and perhaps a scoundrel but at least there was a limit to his ambitions. So far as we know, the guru did not ponder a career in politics nor view himself as the next leader of the Western world. Riches, fame, adulation and his own airline seemed enough to keep him happy. Let someone else run the country.

Others in the clergy are not so easily satisfied. Last year Rev. Jesse Jackson pursued the country’s highest office with a nostalgic appeal to minority Americans and stragglers from the 1960s. A smash on college campuses and late-night talk shows, Jackson failed to attract a broad cross-section of voters. He was black, of course, and that accounted for some difficulty, and he was a Democrat, which was the clincher. People were not in the market for a resuscitation of the Great Society. Like all other aspirants of his persuasion last year, Jackson never had a chance.

Still, his efforts made the idea of a preacher-president that much more credible. We already had seen Billy Graham hanging around the White House during Richard Nixon’s tenure, and Jerry Falwell has been known to whisper more than once in the ear of Ronald Reagan. Slowly but surely the clergy has been advancing on presidential turf, and now, in the person of M. G. (Pat) Robertson, we have the most formidable entry yet.

Robertson is an imposing presence, to be sure—a Baptist minister with a Yale law degree, his own cable television system and a knack for fund-raising that makes the United Way seem as if it has been operating lemonade stands all these years. One of Robert-

son’s enterprises, “Operation Blessing,” is said to have distributed $50 million in 1984. Of that amount $2 million went to guerrillas opposing the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, so, to some at least, this particular “Blessing” may have been mixed, indeed.

Evidently, Robertson, 55, senses his vocation should expand. No longer content to save souls via the Christian Broadcasting Network or to practise private diplomacy in Central America, Robertson says he has been discussing with his Savior the prospects of occupying the White House. Hard at prayer he is these days, and sometime soon we can expect the preacher to announce his intentions. Whether or not he runs, Robertson says, will depend on God’s will. Explains the minister: “It’s a question of service.”

Although he is the son of a former Democratic senator from Virginia, Robertson would seek office as a Re-

Slowly the clergy has been advancing on presidential turf and now we have the most formidable entry yet

publican. This must bring waves of acid indigestion to Vice-President George Bush, a skittish sort of moderate currently viewed as the GOP frontrunner who now must contend with Robertson’s audacious brand of conservatism. Whenever the opportunity arises, Robertson denounces “way-out liberals” and the treasonous educators who lead our children toward “Marxism, socialism and a communistic type of ideology.” He once predicted that God would destroy the Soviet Union through a series of natural disasters— punishment, apparently, for Moscow’s recalcitrant political views.

Robertson claims that he has an intense relationship with the Lord and warns that those who oppose him do so at their own peril. When television producer Norman Lear demanded equal time to counter Robertson’s commentary, he received a letter that said in part, “God himself will fight for me against you—and He will win.”

His rhetoric may sound familiar but Robertson is more than just another Pentecostal with a talent for packing the pews. He was Phi Beta Kappa as

an undergraduate, did a tour with the marines and even boxed for a while in Golden Gloves competition. He travels by executive jet and is even building himself a college. But it is as host of CBN’S The 700 Club that Robertson does his most impressive work. “He has a million regular donors, which is more than anyone else, except perhaps the Republican Party,” says Paul Weyrich, a conservative lobbyist.

While most GOP regulars are likely to back Bush in 1988, it is clear that Robertson cannot be dismissed. He has been setting up what looks suspiciously like a precinct-level political organization and said recently that if God gives him the go-ahead, he would proceed in the presidential quest with exceeding vigor: “I don’t do anything unless it is to win.”

The implications of Robertson entering the race are considerable. He speaks for a large constituency—CBN reaches 30 million households and grosses more than $200 million annually—and even as a longshot candidate could exert significant influence on Republican policy. But the real worry is that Robertson’s narrow view of international affairs and domestic concerns could be mistaken for divine inspiration, Republican style.

As Robertson’s popularity indicates, the religious right is on a roll. Recently, a group called the American Coalition for Traditional Values sponsored a two-day seminar in Washington with the theme “How to Win an Election.” Hundreds of politically involved fundamentalists attended and they sounded plenty determined. “We’re willing to pay the sacrifice to raise up the next generation of Christian... leaders for America,” said Rev. Tim LaHaye, chairman of the coalition.

Despite their allegiance to Traditional Values, fundamentalists seem entirely willing to shrink the distance between church and state—alarming for those Americans with a sentimental attachment to the U. S. Constitution. Concerned parties are well-advised in that case to watch Pat Robertson should the parson declare it is his holy mission to capture the White House. Yes, it might take a miracle for Robertson to win the nomination and then the presidency. But then a man who employs God as his campaign manager is not likely to expect anything less.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.