Profile: A corporate messiah: Pat Robertson's ambitions in business and politics know no earthly limits, Rupert Cornwell reports

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The Independent Online
YE CANNOT serve God and Mammon, according to the Scriptures. But when Jesus uttered those words, he could not have imagined the coming of an individual like the Reverend Pat Robertson.

Americans know him as the supreme televangelist, as leader of the politically ever more influential religious right, and as a former (and quite possibly future) presidential candidate.

What they tend to overlook, however, is that Robertson is also a visionary corporate executive, who controls a media empire that is worth dollars 500m (pounds 280m) and growing every day. Unlike Billy Graham, Robertson the preacher has made no serious forays across the Atlantic so far. But that is not true of his alter ego, the business tycoon.

The pounds 40m offer by International Family Entertainment, his cable company, for TVS Entertainment, the dispossessed South of England ITV franchise-holder, represents not merely his first bridgehead in Britain - it is also the latest chapter in one of the more extraordinary business careers this century.

If successful, IFE hopes to launch a European version of the Family Channel, its popular US secular service. TVS, with its back-catalogue of dramas and shows (Ruth Rendell Mysteries and Hill Street Blues), studios in Maidstone and an expected pounds 15m cash mountain by the end of the year, would give him the platform he needs.

IFE representatives are talking about getting the Family Channel on air via cable in Britain before Christmas. Conscious that British viewers may not be ready for Bible-thumping, they stress that the channel only carries religious programmes if paid for by evangelical groups and that the bulk of the fare is wholesome family entertainment with no link to the church.

Their sensitivity highlights the different facets of their boss. In truth, he is three persons in one, an American amalgam in which preacher, politician and hard-nosed entrepreneur cannot be disentangled. Religion fires his politics, which is financed by his business, which in turn promotes his ministry - not for nothing has he been called a communicator to match Ronald Reagan and a businessman to rival Ross Perot.

Like the Texan tycoon, he is a fervent believer in cutting the budget deficit. A former member of the Federal Reserve Board once said of Robertson the 1988 presidential candidate: 'I can swallow all that religious stuff, when I see his understanding of economics.' Other admirers see him as a real Southern gentleman.

Yet only this year, the same 'gentleman' used a fund-raising letter to followers in Iowa to rant about a proposed women's rights amendment in the state, which, he thundered, 'encourages women to leave their husbands, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians'. If the contrasts sound baffling, they are. But then Pat Robertson's life has been full of them.

He was born into an old Southern family in Virginia 62 years ago. His father, Absalom Willis Robertson, was a venerable member of the Southern caucus on Capitol Hill for more than 30 years. He pointed his son, over whom he had huge influence, in the direction of Wall Street.

The young Pat studied law at Yale but flunked the New York bar exam - one of his few failures in life. He then went to work for W R Grace and subsequently became a partner in an audio components company. But something was missing - at one point, he wrote much later, he was so depressed that he actually contemplated suicide. However, the gap was soon to be filled - by God.

His mother, a militant Christian, was responsible. She arranged a dinner for Pat with a friend who was a Baptist missionary. For her son, it was the encounter on the road to Damascus. The very next day, he burst out laughing in his office at the realisation that he 'had been saved'.

By 1959, he had secured a divinity degree, and in 1961 he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister in Norfolk, Virginia. Then the clergyman metamorphosed into the bold and gifted businessman that is also Pat Robertson.

That year, using only dollars 70 of his own money and dollars 37,000 lent by backers, he bought a run-down television and radio station in Virginia, and the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) was born.

Robertson was one of the first to harness the power of religion with the power of electronic technology. But in those early days money was short, and he asked 700 loyal listeners to subscribe dollars 10 a month to meet the infant CBN's dollars 7,000 monthly budget. Thus began the 700 Club, a pioneering talk show blending music, chat and religion, which Robertson still hosts.

He was quick to recognise the potential of satellite technology as his network grew. In 1977, he set up the CBN Cable Network, embracing 210 television and radio outlets across the country. It offered not only religious programmes but also popular westerns and other wholesome fare. To underline the contrast with the sex and violence proliferating on the 'big three' established broadcast networks, CBN Cable was rechristened 'The Family Channel'.

The venture was so successful, however, that it put CBN's tax-exempt status as a charity at risk. To get round the problem, Robertson formed International Family Entertainment, which bought the Family Channel for dollars 250m.

In early 1992, IFE was floated off as a public corporation. The move attracted criticism: Jeffrey Hadden, a sociology professor at Virginia University and keen student of Robertson's televangelist career, has accused him of operating 'at the edge of ethics', using a basically religious organisation, built on donations from the faithful, to make a huge personal fortune.

A few months later, Robertson flirted with an even more audacious move - the rescue of the venerable wire service United Press International. His dollars 6m offer for UPI last spring generated a whirlwind of speculation: was Pat Robertson moving into the mainstream news business, or was he seeking a cheap means of spreading the gospel further? However, the deal came to nothing. The Mammon in Robertson soon realised UPI's financial problems were even worse than he suspected.

The attempted TVS deal sees him back in pursuit of what has been his core business. But is politics not now his core business?

Pat Robertson the politician is a living symbol of how religious conservatism in the US shifted its allegiance in the Eighties from the Democrats to the Republicans, becoming a key ingredient in the great Reagan coalition. By 1986, Robertson had decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination himself, on an anti-Communist, anti-welfare and anti-deficit platform.

In the event, he fared surprisingly well, notwithstanding a revelation by the Wall Street Journal that he had falsified his wedding anniversary to conceal the fact that his wife Adelia was seven months pregnant when they married. But George Bush swept the Southern primaries on 'Super Tuesday' in March 1988, and Robertson withdrew from the race.

Nevertheless, his political influence is stronger than ever. Despite the contretemps with the Journal, Robertson has avoided the truly lurid scandals that felled the rival televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Almost unnoticed, his Christian Coalition has all but taken control of local Republican organisations in several states. As President Bush's fortunes plunged, so his need grew for fired-up zealots from the religious right to get out the vote this November. Thus the triumph of the right at August's Republican convention, and the harshly conservative platform it approved. Pat Robertson's fingerprints were all over the document.

It is all a decidedly mixed blessing for George Bush. Pat Robertson and other leaders of the 'God squad' can bring out the activists, but - as every poll confirms - the moderate voters vital for the President's re-election are abandoning the party in droves.

But that is unlikely to concern Robertson greatly. Like the rest of the Republican right, he is deeply suspicious of Mr Bush's lack of gut conservative conviction. If the party has to be destroyed in his attempts to remake it, he will argue: so be it.

Few would rule out the prospect of a second Robertson run at the White House in 1996. He would be only 66, and his energy puts even the hyperactive Bush to shame.

But if so, it will only be with the Almighty's blessing. 'He has this profound sense of God's direction in everything he does,' argues Prof Hadden. 'But as with all successful religious figures, it grows difficult to separate the voice of God from the voice of opportunity.'

(Photograph omitted)