exercises in compound storytelling

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Robert Boston: The Most Dangerous Man in America?

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Robert Boston's 1996 book The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition has the feel of a book written in haste to address an immediate need, and looking back fourteen years I have a hard time imagining what that immediate need was. Boston's stated purpose was this:

This book has been an attempt to explain not only how this deplorable state of affairs came about but why it must not allowed to continue. Robertson's views are extreme, dangerous and, frankly, often bizarre. That such a figure is taken seriously on the political landscape is a tragedy. (p. 239)
The deplorable state of affairs is of course Robertson's influence over national politics circa 1996, with the possibility that a Robertson-approved candidate would among other things stack the Supreme Court with justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and tear down the wall of separation between church and state. For Boston and his organization, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, this scary scenario would include "the group's agenda -- promandatory religion in public schools, provoucher, proreligious majoritarianism, procensorship, antipublic schools, antireproductive freedom."

This is a tough little book, especially for someone who saw these issues from the other side, but who also considered Pat Robertson something of a peripheral figure. I'm accustomed to hearing alarmist rhetoric and unjustified claims regarding religious issues in public schools, funding of religious schools, and abortion, just not from Boston's perspective. To be honest, Boston partly succeeds in making his case that Robertson is "often bizarre;" I can't say he convinced me that Robertson is extreme or necessarily dangerous. This is an unevenly sourced and edited book, and the author lets his adjectives get away from him when his arguments are weak.

I swear this would be a better book if his editor had just cut out the chapters where he overworks terms like "ultraconservative," "extreme," and of course "right-wing."

Here's the outline:
  1. Beginnings: a short biography of Pat Robertson up to about 1988
  2. President Pat?: the story of Robertson's run for the Presidency in 1988
  3. The Two Faces of the Christian Coalition: Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, the iron fist and velvet glove, or whatever, of the Christian Coalition
  4. The Christian Coalition -- On the Road to Victory?: The inroads the Christian Coalition made in the Republican Party 1988-1996
  5. Pat Robertson's New World Order: a brief dissection of Robertson's book The New World Order
  6. The World According to Pat Robertson: Robertson and the term "Christian Nation," Robertson and world politics, Robertson and other religions
  7. Big Business: how Robertson became a multimillionaire, including his relationships with various Third World dictators
  8. The American Center for Law and Justice: Pat Robertson's Legal "SWAT Team:" Who is Jay Sekulow, and how much does the ACLJ annoy and frighten the ACLU?
  9. Closing Thoughts: Why Americans United cares about the Christian Coalition, and why they think you should too.
Most of this book made no impact on me whatsoever: I still consider Pat Robertson a fringe figure, can't believe anyone takes him seriously, etc. I just don't think Boston makes his case. Because I've heard so much of what he says about the various right-leaning groups, and because he makes his case so poorly, I don't find him convincing. I almost consider Boston and Robertson two peas in a pod: they both tell overstated fear stories, present characterizations as facts, appeal to an idealized future or past, etc. to raise money to combat the fear story and create or defend the idealized past/future. They're both ideological ambulance chasers as far as I'm concerned.They both expect to be taken at their word, or on the basis of too little evidence, typically from too few sources of dubious reputation. If I had a dollar for every time Boston cited his own organization or publication as authoritative I'd have made a tidy sum reading this book.

However, I found two accusations in this book to be damning: that Robertson is anti-Semitic, and that his financial dealings are at best suspect. Let me deal with the second of these first.

Boston accuses Robertson of playing fast and loose with money from the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), in particular selling the Family Channel first to himself and his son and then to an outside investor, pocketing millions of dollars as a result. He accuses him of advertising products on The 700 Club that profited himself personally. He accuses him of dealing with African dictators Mobutu of Zaire, Serrano of Guatemala, and Chiluba of Zambia in a way that is at best suspect. I believe some of what Boston says is overstated, but not by much: Robertson's dealings in Africa via his African Development Company, and later, Freedom Gold, are a matter of public record.

The accusation of Antisemitism bothers me more than these accusations usually do. What Boston is saying here isn't the usual religious disagreement; he cites articles by Michael Lind, Jacob Heilbrunn, and Ephraim Radner tracing sections of Robertson's book The New World Order to primary sources that are definitely anti-Semitic of the old-school Protocols of the Elders of Zion variety. Because I don't trust Boston to source and quote accurately I'm going to have to get a copy of Robertson's book and the articles by Lind, Heilbrunn, and Radner and see what the fuss is about. I suspect, as Boston says, that Robertson worked with a ghost writer, but I have to agree that when he published a ghostwritten book under his name he is responsible for its content, theme, etc.

Much of the rest of the book is nit-picky schoolyard he-said he-said stuff. At best I think Boston is afraid of Robertson and has let it cloud his judgment. I don't think the involvement of Christians, even media figures like Robertson, in the political process is a sign of an impending theocracy, or that any of the actual Constitutional guarantees Boston misrepresents are under any real threat. And frankly I think the intervening fourteen years has proven Robertson and his ilk to be ineffective at turning political victories into policy changes, making Boston's alarmist rhetoric seem a bit dated. He just doesn't seem to have taken the self-interest of the established parties into account.

This book goes on the history of the Christian Right reading list, but it's definitely B-list material. Most of Boston's arguments have been made more cohesive and less alarmist by later authors.
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