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GLOBAL| September 2003


Pat Robertson's Right-Wing Gold Mine
The little-known tale of the evangelist and the dictator

Ms. Fall 2003

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Charles Taylor, the freshly exiled president of Liberia, has a rap sheet that would have been the envy of Genghis Khan: Accused embezzler. Ruthless warlord blamed for torture, killings, forced labor, extortion. Partial bankroller of al-Qaeda. Indicted by a U.N. war crimes tribunal for arming Sierra Leoneon rebels who specialize in mass rape and in hacking off the limbs of civilians.

With his small West African country devastated by near-constant civil war since he began his bloody march to power 14 years ago, Taylor in recent months faced a rising chorus of calls from world leaders, including President George W. Bush, to step down.

Where's a guy like that going to find a friend?

Well, here's one place: the set of The 700 Club, the daily TV talk show presided over by Pat Robertson.

Robertson

Christian Broadcasting Network's Pat Robertson (AP Photo)

The Liberian dictator and the American televangelist have emerged as one of the oddest couples of the year, a pairing some critics are calling a testament to the gospel of greed. And it's not the only such coupling for Robertson.

But first, the setting: The 700 Club is taped in a state-of-the-art studio in the palatial, cross-shaped headquarters of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), nestled amid magnolias and crepe myrtles in suburban Virginia Beach, Va. The telecast reaches 1 million households with Robertson's trademark blend of faith healing, fundraising and fundamentalism.

Robertson is perhaps best-known in recent years for teaming up with Jerry Falwell to blame feminists and gays for the Sept. 11 attacks. Falwell is just one in a succession of hard-right guests, from Bill Bennett to Phyllis Schlafly, given a platform on The 700 Club.

This summer, Robertson launched a "prayer offensive," seeking divine intervention to turn the Supreme Court rightward-- an effort he hopes will culminate in a recriminalization of abortion. He's suggested prayers be directed to getting three of the judges, two of them presumably John Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to resign.

But even with the energy expended on that effort, he still had time to prop up Liberia. "The United States State Department has tried as hard as it can to destabilize Liberia," Robertson complained on his June 26 show. "They only wanted to destroy the sitting president and his government."

Robertson returned to the issue again and again. On July 7, he asserted that the United States had no business forcing the "duly elected" Taylor from power. On July 9, he recommended sending U.S. troops to protect the Taylor regime from the rebels trying to overthrow it. "We sent our troops to

Kosovo to back up a Muslim group," he said. "In this case, we're looking at Muslim rebels trying to overthrow a Christian nation... If we can go out and defend Muslims, it looks to me like we can defend Christians."

Taylor's checkered past notwithstanding, Robertson saw the Liberian dictator as a bulwark of Christianity standing against the encroaching hordes of Islam. And Taylor had played his part to the hilt. At a three-day CBN-sponsored "Liberia for Jesus" rally in February 2002, Taylor was the star attraction, lying prostrate on the red-carpeted stage of Samuel Doe Stadium in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and exhorting the crowd to come to Christ. "I cannot help you," he told his long-suffering people. "All help comes from God."

The spectacle was duly covered on The 700 Club. But there's one thing Robertson didn't tell his viewers: He and Taylor were more than brothers in Christ.

In 1999, Taylor signed a mineral development agreement with Freedom Gold Ltd., a for-profit company chartered in the Cayman Islands, granting it exploration and mining rights in the Bukon Jedeh region of southeastern Liberia, which is believed to have substantial gold reserves. Robertson is the company's president and sole director. If and when Freedom Gold begins to turn a profit, the Liberian government is guaranteed a 10 percent equity interest in the company.

The evangelist certainly didn't hide his Liberian business interests in a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell in June 2002. "May I respectfully inquire as a taxpayer of the United States and one with significant financial investments in Liberia," he wrote, "why the State Department of the United States of America is determined to bring down the President of Liberia?"

After several news reports, Robertson has sought on the CBN.org website to distance himself from Taylor: "I regret that my sentiments in support of the suffering Liberian people were misinterpreted by The Washington Post as unqualified support for Charles Taylor, a man who I have never met, and about whose actions a decade ago I have no firsthand knowledge."

IT'S UNCLEAR WHETHER ROBERTSON ever heard back from Powell. But Robertson did get an earful from one of his longtime critics, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Taylor is one of the most brutal dictators in Africa, and it is appalling to me that Robertson would enter into a partnership with him merely to make money," Lynn said. "Now Robertson is using his tax-exempt Christian broadcast ministry to lobby the U.S. government to keep his crony in power. This is astounding."

But to veteran Robertson-watchers, this is deja vu. A decade ago, the evangelist befriended another notorious African dictator, President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now Congo). A onetime darling of the West during the Cold War, Mobutu had become an international pariah by the 1990s, reviled for looting his country's treasury and committing human rights abuses. That didn't stop Robertson from speaking out on his behalf and calling for an end to U.S. sanctions against his regime. In 1994 The 700 Club carried frequent reports on the humanitarian work being done in Zaire by Operation Blessing, Robertson's international relief organization. Typically, the reports were accompanied by appeals for donations.

What Robertson didn't tell viewers was that he also owned a for-profit company, African Development Co., which, with Mobutu's blessing, was doing exploratory mining for diamonds in Zaire.

Also unreported-- until two pilots came forward with the story in 1997-- was the fact that Operation Blessing's tax-exempt cargo planes were used almost exclusively for Roberton's diamond-mining operation, not for humanitarian purposes. A subsequent investigation by Virginia authorities turned up evidence for charging Operation Blessing with violations of the state's charitable solicitation law. But the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, who had received a $35,000 campaign contribution from Robertson, declined to prosecute. Robertson reimbursed Operation Blessing for the use of the planes, and the charity agreed to tighten its financial controls.

In the end, Robertson's diamond-mining venture was a big bust. Estimates of his losses ranged as high as $ 10 million. And his gold-digging gig in Liberia has been no gold mine either. In his agreement with Taylor, Robertson pledged to spend $10 million to $15 million in the exploratory phase of the operation-- but so far there's been no income.

Now the whole venture is threatened by the advances of the anti-Taylor rebels. A Liberian newspaper reported in April that Freedom Gold had halted operations amid fears of an imminent rebel attack on a nearby town. In August, Taylor finally yielded to international pressure and stepped down, taking asylum in Nigeria.

But Robertson, ever the adventurous entrepreneur, remains undaunted. His far-flung business ventures embody the "prosperity gospel" school of evangelical Christianity that seeks to fuse doing good with doing well. He never tires of telling the story of how he showed up in Portsmouth, Va., in 1959 with $70 in his pocket and, acting on God's instructions, bought a down-at-the-heels TV station, which he parlayed into a media empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Playing down his aristocratic pedigree-- he's the son of a U.S. senator, is related to two U.S. presidents and has a law degree from Yale-- Robertson says his success is all the Lord's work. He calls it "God's law of reciprocity: God is the source of wealth. You give and God gives back. You give more and God gives back more."

That formula figures prominently in his TV fundraising appeals. If it worked for him, he implies, it can work for anyone. Pledge drives on The 700 Club feature frequent testimonials from viewers who say their financial circumstances improved dramatically once they became regular CBN donors. And the cash continues to roll in. CBN and Operation Blessing together reported nearly $150 million in contributions last year.

Even so, Robertson isn't above taking a little government largesse. Last fall, just a few months after he criticized President Bush's "faith-based initiative" as a "narcotic" that would make religious charities too dependent on the government, Operation Blessing was awarded a $500,000 grant under the program. Apparently, Robertson is now a convert. On the May 8 700 Club, he argued that charities like Operation Blessing should be allowed to participate in the program even if they practice religious discrimination in hiring. Such discrimination, he said, amounts to "nothing more than choosing steak over apple pie in a restaurant."