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Religion Last Updated: Mar 3rd, 2006 - 01:20:26

Pat Robertson: Raked over the coals while raking in the dough
By Bill Berkowitz
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Mar 3, 2006, 01:18

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While the Rev. Pat Robertson was recently raked over the coals for suggesting that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke was an act of retribution by God for the transfer of land in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, the reverend's charitable organization, Operation Blessing, was raking in wads of faith-based money from the Bush administration.

On "The 700 Club" -- Robertson's primary venue -- the reverend pointed out that the Old Testament "makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, quote, 'divide my land.' . . . I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU (European Union), the United Nations or United States of America. God said, 'This land belongs to me, you better leave it alone.'"

Robertson's feelings that Sharon's illness was payback from God -- a sentiment that was seemingly shared by another ayatollah of acrimony, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- prompted Israeli officials not only to immediately criticize their longtime comrade but, perhaps more significantly to Robertson's economic portfolio, they cancelled his $50-million contract to build a new Christian heritage center in the Galilee. The project, which itself hasn't been canceled, is geared toward attracting U.S. Christian tourists to Israel.

As is Robertson's wont, before he apologized, he claimed he had been misquoted by the liberal press:

"It is just remarkable how we get misquoted. You know you try to be rational in what you have to say but last night I was given editorials from the New York Times, Washington Post, the [Los Angeles] Times and assorted liberal newspapers that were just scathing in their denunciation of yours truly, and it was just amazing, based on what? False information. Things that I didn't say." (Recent news reports have Israeli officials reconsidering Robertson's participation since the reverend had "apologized," albeit in his typical non-apologetic way.)

Reaction to Robertson's remarks about Sharon came from all points on the political and religious spectrum, including the Bush administration and others who have shared a good chunk of Robertson's religious and political perspective over the years:

"We, as the State of Israel, cannot accept what he said and we will not do any business with him [Robertson] or with anyone else who agrees with his view," said Ido Hartuv, adviser to tourism minister Abraham Hirshson who is one of Sharon's closest allies.

The comment by Robertson, who four years ago received the Israel Friendship Award, was "vivid evidence of why Jews ought to treat Christian Zionism with equal measures of gratitude and wariness," wrote Samuel Freedman in the Jerusalem Post.

Ray Hanania, a commentator writing for the website of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, pointed out that "Israelis know that Robertson and the Christian fundamentalists are a double-edged scimitar." Hanania also called Robertson "a Christian ayatollah."

"The Bible clearly reveals God to be a God of justice and righteousness as well as a God of forgiveness and mercy. Does God judge? Yes. However, whether or not a particular event is God's judgment is something that the Apostle Paul has told us is 'past finding out.' No one 'hath known the mind of the Lord,'" said Dr. Richard Land, president of The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "Even if one agreed with Pat Robertson's position that the Israelis do not have the right to grant part of the Holy Land to the Palestinians," Land pointed out, "it would be well beyond Rev. Robertson's competence to discern that these tragic events were in any way, shape or form the result of God's judgment on any individuals. I am almost as shocked by Pat Robertson's arrogance as I am by his insensitivity."

Broadcast daily in most U.S. TV markets via the ABC Family and Trinity Broadcasting networks, Robertson's "700 Club" was seen daily by an average of over 800,000 viewers during the last quarter of 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"More than 380,000 CBN 'partners' who donate a minimum of $20 per month . . . are the bedrock of CBN, which attracted more than $132 million in donations in 2004," the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Thriving Through Faith-Based Grants

Despite near universal condemnation, back in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where Robertson's operations are headquartered, it was business as usual. Especially for Operation Blessing, whose mission is to "demonstrate God's love by alleviating human need and suffering in the United States and around the world."

In January 2001, when President Bush announced his Faith-Based Initiative by issuing an executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Organizations, and one that instructed the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Education and Housing and Urban Development to set up Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives within their agencies, the Rev. Robertson -- along with his buddy the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- criticized the president's project.

"I really don't know what to do," Robertson told viewers of his "700 Club." "But this thing could be a real Pandora's Box. And what seems to be such a great initiative can rise up to bite the organizations as well as the federal government. And I'm a little concerned about it, frankly."

Robertson was particularly concerned that the president's initiative might open government coffers to such groups as the Nation of Islam, Church of Scientology and Hare Krishnas.

"You know I hate to find myself on the side of the Anti-Defamation League and others, but this is, this gets to be a real problem," Robertson said. "I mean, the Moonies have been proscribed, if I can use that, for brainwashing techniques, sleep deprivation and all the rest of it that goes along with their unusual proselytizing. The Hare Krishnas much the same thing. And it seems appalling to me that we're going to go for somebody like that, or the Church of Scientology, which was involved in an incredible campaign against the IRS."

In an interview with the Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, Robertson said that "if the government gets into the faith-based initiative too much, they're going to dominate what the people of faith think. And one of the things they want to impose is on hiring practices. They want to force people to be hired by religious organizations who don't share the fundamental tenets of those religious groups."

Robertson changed his tune the following year, when in October 2002, Tommy Thompson, then the head of the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a $500,000 Compassion Capital Fund grant to Robertson's Operation Blessing International.

Five years later, "the federal government has become a major source of money for Operation Blessing�. In two years, the group's annual revenue from government grants has ballooned from $108,000 to $14.4 million," The Virginian-Pilot's Bill Sizemore recently reported.

According to Sizemore, "Operation Blessing says it adheres carefully to federal guidelines designed to safeguard church-state separation and uses the grants for humanitarian relief, not evangelism."

Through the faith-based initiative, "the biggest chunk of federal aid" Operation Blessing receives comes from surplus nonfat dry milk distributed by the Department of Agriculture. According to Sizemore, "Nonfat dry milk is what's left over when manufacturers remove the fat from milk to make butter, ice cream and other products. The government buys the powder to prop up milk prices under a Depression-era price support system and stores it in warehouses and man-made caves around the country.

"When the government's stockpile of dry milk hit a record 1.3 billion pounds in 2003, it began giving millions of pounds to religious groups. Operation Blessing has received $22.7 million worth in two years. The powder can be used for baking, but much of it is traded to manufacturers for ready-to-eat puddings, soups and other products that are then distributed by Operation Blessing trucks."

Operation Blessing has also received "smaller grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development to cover freight costs for humanitarian relief shipments to Guatemala and Romania. It is also part of a consortium of eight organizations that recently received a USAID grant for HIV/AIDS treatment, care and prevention in 14 countries, mostly in Africa."

According to its website, Operation Blessing International was founded in 1978 by Robertson "to help struggling individuals and families by matching their needs for items such as clothing, appliances, and vehicles with donated items from viewers of The 700 Club." In 1986, Operation Blessing International Relief and Development Corporation (OBI) was formed as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to handle international relief projects. In 1993, all Operation Blessing activities were transferred to OBI.

(For an extensive profile of Operation Blessing see my October 2002 WorkingForChange piece, entitled "Pat Robertson counts his ble$$ings: HHS awards faith-based grant to reverend's controversial charity"

Where once Robertson was concerned about government intrusion into his activities, these days the organization "read[s] and sign[s] off on a 15-page set of guidelines published by the government, [which] say [that] federal money must not be used for 'inherently religious activities,'" the Virginian-Pilot's Bill Sizemore pointed out. Religious "activities must be separated, in time or location, from government-funded activities, and recipients of services must not be required to participate in them."

While the Bush administration has failed to come up with a comprehensive faith-based legislative package since the initiative's inception, it has managed to engineer legislation that allows religious organizations that receive government grants to bypass civil rights laws, and hire only those whose religion and sexual orientation are compatible with the organization's mission.

Operation Blessing's paid staff of 40 does not contain any non-Christians. "We're a Christian faith-based organization," Deborah Bensen, Operation Blessing's director of media and government relations, told Sizemore. "We hire people that are able to help support our mission."

There's no question that the Rev. Robertson will continue to draw fire over the Sharon pronouncement, and there's no question that there are more where that came from. The Rev. Robertson appears to be "apologizing" all the way to the bank.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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