Edited and with a coda written by Sam Thielman
PAT ROBERTSON DIED and all I can think about is Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
I haven't brought myself to read any obituaries for one of the leading late 20th century figures advocating to formalize Christian dominion over the United States. Others, particularly those who are Christians and familiar with the subtleties of how that effort proceeded, will have more informed things to say about the indisputably consequential life that Robertson lived. Chances are Sam will be moved to write something when he sees I'm filing on this. But I do know something about Robertson's role within the War on Terror.
Two days after 9/11, as a crater in Lower Manhattan smoldered and the air carried the stench of the incinerated dead, Robertson hosted Jerry Falwell on his show The 700 Club. They immediately set to work locating blame for the attacks on their domestic political adversaries. It was an early indicator of the id of a War on Terror that was just beginning to coalesce. To Robertson, Falwell, and their ilk, the attacks offered a bounty of opportunities to nativists and their prophets.
Falwell began by riffing on God "lift[ing] the curtain" of His protection because America had displeased Him. Now "the enemies of America [would] give us probably what we deserve." When Susan Sontag, about two weeks later, put 9/11 in the barest historical context, she was denounced for the rest of her life over suggesting that America had it coming, something she never, ever said and is a moral judgment that the "blowback" thesis—America's material exploitation of foreigners and their resources will have violent consequences—does not imply. Falwell, however, was free to let it rip. Unlike Sontag, he and Robertson had a politically mighty constituency behind him.
This is the relevant exchange. (I can't quite find a linkable transcript of the relevant portion to match what I took from the expensive/unlinkable news database Nexis, but this comes close, so I ask for your indulgence.)
FALWELL: The abortionists have to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen."
ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government. And so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do. And the top people, of course, is the court system.
It's irrelevant that they offered no material explanation for how gays and liberals were the real culprits for 9/11. What mattered instead was the signal they sent, that there didn't need to be a material explanation for the attacks—there just needed to be a pre-existing enemy, here at home, whose works bore a culpability for the 9/11 atrocity that was realer than the truth. Not only was there no need to reassess, as Sontag suggested, America's military and economic relationship with oppressive Arab and Muslim governments, Robertson and company saw in the War on Terror a new front for a culture war, which for them meant a religious war. This tendency on the right, as documented in my book REIGN OF TERROR, would inform the entire War on Terror, even as many of its advocates grew disenchanted with the actual wars that resulted.
Months later, on a February 2002 700 Club broadcast, Robertson called Muslim immigrants "missionaries, possibly, to spread the doctrine of Islam." Not a subtle man, he lamented that U.S. immigration policies were allegedly "skewed to the Middle East and away from Europe." Islam, Robertson opined, "is not a peaceful religion that wants to coexist. They want to coexist until they can control, dominate and then, if need be, destroy." The following year, Robertson, who believed himself to be following a true religion of peace, suggested that it would be a good thing if someone nuked the State Department.
BUT BACK TO TENNESSEE. By 2010, a growth in Muslim immigration, partly due to refugees from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, had taxed the capacity of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. When the mosque began an expansion, Fox News made it a cause celebre that summer—this was the same summer as the "Ground Zero Mosque" hysteria—and unknown assailants set the construction equipment on the expansion site on fire. Bomb threats would soon follow.
Robertson intervened. Obviously he didn't defend the mosque or its congregants' freedom of worship against acts of violence. "You mark my word," he said, "if they start bringing thousands and thousands of Muslims into that relatively rural area the next thing you know they're going to be taking over the city council."
Marking his word, 13 years later, the Murfreesboro City Council appears un-taken-over by Islam. But more important than that is Robertson's unfiltered nativism. An influx of immigrants, in a democratic society, should result in that community achieving basic political power. To Robertson, this wouldn't be America working as designed, but America, a real America, a Christian America, being usurped.
It's easier, in 2023, to put into words what animated Robertson in his zero-sum conception of political power. It was a beta test of what we now call the Great Replacement conspiracy theory. The War on Terror provided all the opportunity necessary to instill hysteria over a non-dominant role for the American herrenvolk. Pat Robertson was not a man to miss an opportunity.
Robertson died rich and powerful. He was a lever to move America in a dark and less free direction. Yet God chose Pride Month to whisk Robertson into whatever eternally awaits him. Robertson's own logic suggests we should view that as divine will.
SAM—FOREVER WARS' CHRISTIAN CONTINGENT—HERE. It is hard to imagine a more American figure than Pat Robertson. Like a character out of a Mark Twain story, he played flawlessly to the stereotype of a sincere-if-baffled yokel whose muscular faith was his greatest strength. He joined with a great mass of undeserving, shameless, and privileged people whose lives are spent swindling people and consolidating their power among this country’s car dealerships, its churches, and its television networks. If you found yourself confronted for the first time with his placid countenance; pained, passionate delivery; and Virginia drawl, you would get the immediate and intentional impression of an old country preacher telling only the simple truth, with no thought to the wider world.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Robertson was an heir to power and a remarkable wielder of it. His father, Absalom Willis Robertson, was a U.S. Senator from Virginia and typified the segregationist Southern Democrats of the mid-20th Century. He was a signatory to the Southern Manifesto, a document demanding the reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, and encouraged the “massive resistance” anti-immigration campaign as part of his fellow Virginia Democrat Harry F. Byrd’s “Byrd Organization,” which opposed extending basic civil rights to Black people on the grounds that the exercise of such rights would result in miscegenation.
The younger Robertson was ordained Southern Baptist, but his ambitions were not theological. Instead, he sought to surpass his career legislator father politically. According to The Evangelicals by Frances Fitzgerald, Robertson had initially wanted to start a career in business and perhaps move from there to politics. But his grades at Yale were mediocre, his first business went under quickly, (as Absalom had told him it would) and he failed the bar exam. Instead, he got ordained, used his then-uncommon “charismatic” theology to amass a following of independent ministers across the U.S., simultaneously befriending high rollers in the Southern Baptist convention like fellow minister Paige Patterson (whose SBC presidency imploded spectacularly after decades of covering up systemic sexual misconduct and abuse) who would have looked down on the charismatics. And he had one very successful venture to his name: He had purchased a television station in 1960. There he began The 700 Club, a show dedicated to begging for money and named for the 70 people who agreed to send him $10 a month, which was about $100 in today's money. By the 1980’s, he was using the current-events focus of the show to raise funds for an enterprise that would eventually fund a campaign for president.
Like so many before him and after him, Robertson's attempt to bridge theological gaps between bickering Christians—Robertson had tried to bring together independent charismatics and more orthodox Southern Baptists, who prized their enmity—proved his electoral undoing. He won several states during the 1988 Republican presidential primary but he also performed surprisingly poorly among evangelicals. After that failure, he moved behind the scenes, founding the Christian Coalition with Ralph Reed and serving as president of the Council on National Policy, both hard-right organizations friendly with the worst racist organizers in American life and committed to the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, especially in schools and through homeschooling. He distributed “voter guides” to Christian churches emphasizing the worthiness of right-wing candidates, vocally backed the white government in South Africa and the Contras in Nicaragua, and campaigned for Jesse Helms.
Robertson was widely referred to as a “televangelist,” but this is a significant category error. Robertson was a media mogul. As The 700 Club expanded, he founded a cable network called the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), later The Family Channel, that specialized in reruns of lily-white sitcoms from The Andy Griffith Show or Flipper and imports like Rin Tin Tin: K9 Cop. CBN offered them as counterprogramming to earthier fare broadcast on national networks. Shows like Married With Children and Murphy Brown were red meat to culture warriors like Robertson, who specialized in punishingly lengthy telethons sandwiched between children’s programming on his network. Both mogul and on-air talent, Robertson grew enormously wealthy from them.
Robertson was fond of blaming single mothers for their gay sons and popular culture for single mothers. His solution was a two-part antidote of half boomer nostalgia TV and half racist politics as old as the Civil War in substance if not form. CBN was rebranded during six different sales. Today it belongs to the Walt Disney Company, where it is still contractually required to broadcast Robertson’s personal soapbox, The 700 Club, during specific dayparts. He hosted The 700 Club at several properties owned by Donald Trump during Trump’s insane presidency, and as a consequence had closer access to the most powerful man in the solar system than anyone in the mainstream press.
Robertson leaves behind a vast stain on American public life, in the form of an organization worth hundreds of millions of dollars and an open invitation to hustle for more on Disney-owned cable. Someday I hope it can be washed clean.
WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #2 is available in comic stores and digitally on Tuesday, June 13! A couple days ago, I received my comp copies in the mail, and I really can't wait for you to see this one.
An early draft of the series outline conceived of the spine of this issue as The Usual Suspects meets Watchmen #6. It's going to recontextualize a whole lot of our critically-acclaimed debut issue, as it's time to start seeing the world through the eyes of Amanda Waller as she attempts to save late-Cold-War America. Jesús Merino's art, assisted masterfully by inker Vicente Cifuentes and enhanced to perfection by color artist Michael Atiyeh, carries this book on its back—a trend you'll see continue, for sure, in the action-packed issue 3, which Jesús is proving in the pages he's sent over.
I'll say more about issue two next week, as yesterday co-writer Evan Narcisse and I recorded a really great interview for WVW whose toes I don't want to step on. But if you'd like to pick up the issue and talk with me about it directly, come out to JHU Comics in Manhattan from 3pm to 7pm ET on Wednesday, June 14.
Actually, speaking of? Would subscribers be interested in doing a Zoom call with me to talk WALLER VS. WILDSTORM? Would that be something that would reward subscribers and incentivize new ones? Email us at email@example.com if you're interested and I'll see if there's a critical mass to make this work. Maybe if it does, we'll do more of them, and about journalism rather than just comics.
DON'T MISS A REALLY GREAT piece of journalism by, unsurprisingly, Mike Giglio in The Intercept. Giglio has been covering Stewart Rhodes and the broader phenomenon of right-wing militias in the wake of January 6, and he calls attention to Rhodes' grab for living martyrdom.
As [Rhodes' ex-wife] watched his hearing, though, she wondered if that wasn’t what Rhodes wanted too. She’d expected him to express some conciliation — support, perhaps, for police affected by the riot at the Capitol. Instead, he attacked his trial as rigged and antagonized the judge who’d decide his fate. “A steep sentence here won’t help or deter people,” he said. “It will make people think this government is even more illegitimate than before.” He called himself “a political prisoner.”
Once again I call attention to how the U.S. has spent 20 years pissing its pants over the prospect that Radical Islamic Terrorists will pontificate from the courtroom about the righteousness of their cause. Rhodes got to do that—as is what I will be the first to recognize is his right—and the sun rose the next morning. As Mike writes, there's increasingly a powerful constituency on the right that's pulling a Support Our Troops move for insurrectionists. Needless to say, no such constituency exists for, say, those in Guantanamo charged before the military tribunals for the 9/11 conspiracy.
I'M GONNA BE REAL: I haven't had time to read my friend Zach Carter's long profile of economist Isabella Weber yet. But I bet that it's going to be typically excellent, so you should beat me to it.
THIS GUY IS PASSING ON at best second-hand information, but if he's right, the Pentagon is stockpiling intact spacecraft and, it would seem, bodies of extraterrestrial pilots. Cool stuff that I, certainly, am not going to be able to confirm. Stay for the allegation of a behind-the-scenes arms race by the great powers to weaponize alien technology. Very WALLER VS. WILDSTORM.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL reports that the Chinese are going to do in Cuba the sort of thing that the Americans do in areas surrounding China: establish a communications-collection outpost. The new Cold War coalesces on a map that reflects the legacy of the last one.