When the Rev. Pat Robertson endorsed former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the presidency, he created a schism among evangelical Republicans – one that may cost the GOP the White House next year.
Since Robertson, the founder of the influential 700 Club, stood with Giuliani at a joint press conference on Nov. 7, a major backlash has been under way in the evangelical community over the endorsement.
“It is my pleasure to announce my support for America's Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, a proven leader who is not afraid of what lies ahead and who will cast a hopeful vision for all Americans,” Robertson said during the news conference in Washington, D.C.
Robertson, himself a former presidential candidate who ran on a staunchly pro-family platform in 1988, has bewildered Christian conservatives by backing Giuliani, a staunch supporter of abortion and gay rights.
“This is the final straw. It is just bizarre,” Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, told Newsmax. Scheffler’s organization split from Robertson’s Christian Coalition just over a year ago.
“It’s going to hurt him,” Scheffler says. “For years and years he talked about what issues are important. This makes a mockery of it all. It is a complete betrayal to our movement. It’s a disgrace.”
Scheffler, who worked on Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign in Iowa, says he and many others in the evangelical movement feel betrayed.
While many leading Christians like Dr. James Dobson have remained silent and refrained from directly criticizing Robertson, they have made clear they will not support Giuliani, even if he wins the Republican nomination.
But dozens of grass-roots Christian leaders are fuming over Robertson’s move.
Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals and Civic Life Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says the Giuliani endorsement was “past Mr. Robertson being the pragmatic politician.”
Cromartie tells Newsmax: “He is not taken seriously. For the religious conservative movement, it has moved on. Mr. Robertson is important only as a curiosity to the mainstream media. I don’t know anybody in the evangelical [movement] who is sitting around saying ‘I am going to wait for what Pat does.’”
The backlash against Robertson started even as the first reports surfaced that he was backing a candidate at odds with core evangelical beliefs.
The blogs lit up.
“Pat Robertson has sold his soul for 30 pieces of silver,” said one blogger. “Shame on Pat Robertson,” wrote another.
The Web site RFFM.org blasted Robertson for sacrificing “many of the issues he claimed to fight for in his attempt to, once again, bask in the public limelight. Robertson seems willing to overlook all of these ‘flaws’ within the former New York Mayor’s political character, in order to do what?”
Robertson insisted his endorsement was aimed at a movement among some evangelicals to support a third-party candidate if Giuliani becomes the Republican nominee. But that rationale only deepened the ire of many.
Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, led a protest against Robertson at the headquarters of the Christian Broadcasting Network on Nov. 10.
“Mr. Roberson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani is a betrayal of the unborn children Pat Robertson is sworn to protect, and treachery of the highest order against the Gospel Mr. Robertson professes to believe,” Terry said in a statement.
Wiley Drake, former vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Robertson sold out the pro-family community. Drake encouraged people to call the Christian Broadcast Network “and let them know that until Pat Robertson repents and comes back to the Lord, we will not listen to The 700 Club and we will not make any donations to The 700 Club.”
This is not the first storm of controversy that has engulfed Robertson.
He raised hackles by declaring God may have caused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to have a stroke as punishment for giving up the Gaza Strip. Robertson had to apologize for saying that the United States should assassinate President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela for his anti-American views.
He has suggested that God sent Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans to punish the United States for its acceptance of abortion.
But with these controversies, Robertson kept his base – Christian evangelicals who saw him as one leader willing to take on the liberal media and unabashedly proclaim his fundamentalist religion.
The Giuliani endorsement, however, appears to be beyond the pale.
Others suggest that Robertson’s influence has waned dramatically in recent years.
“Someone has to matter to have a backlash," Dennis Goldford, Drake University political science professor, tells Newsmax. “I don’t see him as much of a factor anymore. He has receded to the point of making enough comments that are strange or bizarre, so outside of his particular strong support area nobody pays him much attention.”
Still, Goldford says outrage should be expected, especially from those who once believed in the purity of Robertson’s message.
“For purists, if you are not with them 100 percent of the time, you are their enemy,” he says. “It’s always been a problem.
“Politics had been immoral; there should be more attention to principle and values. So they got active and thought there ought to be less compromise. But politics is about compromise and negotiation.”
Still, Giuliani may benefit from the Robertson endorsement.
“For Giuliani, this is an unalloyed plus among Republicans,” Larry Sabato, one of the nation’s premier political scientists, tells Newsmax. Sabato, whose most recent book is “A More Perfect Constitution,” explains that the endorsement is “a symbol, a stamp of acceptability, a laying on of the hands in language that says, ‘he'll do.’”
Sabato says the headlines themselves accomplished Giuliani's goal.
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