When General Efraín Ríos Montt assumed dictatorial control over Guatemala after a coup in March 1982, he was able to bolster his murderous rule by calling on a special group of friends, the leaders of the American religious right. Guatemala is a predominately Roman Catholic country, but Ríos Montt converted to evangelical Christianity in 1978, becoming an adherent of the Church of the Word, a California-based sect.
American evangelicals were naturally excited that so prominent a born-again believer was now in power. They hoped Ríos Montt would open up his country for their missionary zeal and allow them to spread their version of the gospel to the unwashed masses of Guatemala. Within a week of the coup, Pat Robertson, speaking on The 700 Club, the flagship television program of his Christian Broadcasting Network, made a fervent intercession with his deity: “God, we pray for Ríos Montt, your servant, Lord, that you would cover him.”
Robertson, the TV preacher and one-time presidential hopeful who died on Thursday, is most often remembered as a toxic cultural warrior who was instrumental in making the religious right a powerhouse in the Republican Party. He was notorious for blaming sundry disasters, ranging from hurricanes to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on the sinfulness of fellow Americans. God, Robertson kept insisting, was punishing Americans for engaging in abortion, divorce, gay sex, and secular humanism—among other smite-worthy offenses to the Almighty.
Less attention is given to Robertson’s foreign policy views, although he always had a global vision. To gauge the full extent of Robertson’s ideology—the poisonous authoritarianism that he believed in with his full heart and soul—it’s necessary to understand what he wanted not just for the United States but also for nations such as South Africa, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Israel, and Guatemala.
In his initial prayer for Ríos Montt, Robertson said, “Lord, we thank that your spirit is moving in Guatemala.” If one wanted to use religious language, the truth would be that, far from displaying a divine spirit, Ríos Montt’s rule turned Guatemala into Hell on earth. As The New York Times noted in its obituary for the dictator, Ríos Montt was “determined to crush the Guatemalan insurgency” and
intensified the scorched-earth campaign that had been waged by his predecessor, Gen. Romeo Lucas García. In his first five months in power, according to Amnesty International, soldiers killed more than 10,000 peasants. Thousands more disappeared. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes, many seeking refuge across the border in Mexico. Nearly all victims were indigenous people of Mayan extraction.
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In 2013, a Guatemalan court convicted Ríos Montt of crimes against humanity and genocide, with particular reference to his leadership of the campaign to exterminate the Ixil ethnic group. The conviction was later overturned, but Ríos Montt was being retried on these charges when he died.
Ríos Montt’s regime was one of the most ferocious violators of human rights the world has seen since World War II. Yet, when the killing fields of Guatemala were at their bloodiest, Ríos Montt had no more vocal supporter in the United States than Pat Robertson. Speaking on The 700 Club in support of Ríos Montt’s counterinsurgency program, Robertson intoned, “He who wields the sword does not wield it in vain.” This is only slightly more elegant than Ríos Montt’s blunt statement of faith: “If you are with us, we’ll feed you. If not, we’ll kill you.”
As Donna Eberwine reported in The Nation in 1983, “Robertson took up Ríos Montt’s cause on his 700 Club, making numerous appeals for prayers and financial support for the regime. One broadcast resulted in a flood of letters to the White House demanding U.S. military aid for Guatemala.”
In her 2020 book To Bring the Good News to All Nations, Trinity University historian Lauren Frances Turek observes that evangelicals like Robertson had a worldview that led them to credulously accept Ríos Montt’s false claim that leftist guerrilla were committing most of the violence. Turek notes, “Had U.S. evangelicals consulted the Mayan and Catholic refugees who fled across the border into Mexico to escape army violence, they might have heard a different, more realistic perspective on the situation. Instead, they and the Reagan administration backed Ríos Montt, aiding and abetting genocidal state violence in the process.”
Robertson’s embrace of a genocidal dictator in Guatemala was no accident or outlier but rather an organic outgrowth of his authoritarian worldview. As Nikolas Kozloff noted in Counterpunch in 2005, “Since the 1970s Robertson has loyally served hawkish U.S. foreign policy objectives in Latin America and played a particularly pernicious role in the region.”
There was hardly any right-wing despot or death squad he didn’t like. In the 1980s, Robertson even had an Afrikaans version of The 700 Club, broadcast out of Bophuthatswana, to bolster the morale of apartheid hard-liners. He raised money for the Contras in Nicaragua and the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (the Mozambican National Resistance, or Renamo), a militia set up by the white supremist government of Rhodesia to stir up civil war in Mozambique. As University of Buffalo historian Gene Zubovich noted, Renamo “caused 100,000 deaths and at least 1 million refugees” and was “likened to the Khmer Rouge” by the US State Department.
After Robertson’s death was announced, he was lauded by AIPAC, which tweeted: “AIPAC mourns the passing of Pat Robertson, who was a great friend of Israel and a pioneer in the modern Christian Zionist movement.” Robertson was indeed a “friend of Israel” in the special sense that he was aligned with right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but Robertson was no friend to Jews at large. As Michael Lind documented in a 1995 article for The New York Review of Books, Robertson’s writings were rife with barely concealed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
In his support for genocidal and racist regimes, the full contours of Robertson’s politics become apparent. He didn’t support these governments out of the “lesser evil” argument used by many apologists for American foreign policy—the view that they were “our sons of bitches.” Rather, he saw them as positive goods: as regimes to be emulated. Ríos Montt, Robertson once said, was “a man of humility, impeccable personal integrity, and a deep faith in Jesus Christ.”
Pat Robertson was a “man of God,” so it’s worth asking what sort of God he worshiped. In 2010, an earthquake struck Haiti and killed between 100,000 and 160,000 people. Robertson took to The 700 Club to blame the earthquake on a “pact to the Devil” that Haitians allegedly made when they overthrew French imperial rule in 1804. According to Robertson, Haitians, “got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”
In overthrowing French colonialism, the Haitians were also, of course, in revolt against slavery. Robertson’s fictive history is an allegory of the sin of disobedience. Like so much of his political comments, Robertson here shows that he viewed God as a cosmic tyrant, an abusive All-Father who sanctions hierarchy and unquestioning obedience to the status quo.
Other Christians, including many who survived Ríos Montt’s Guatemala, might say that Robertson worshipped not the God of the Gospels but also the God of patriarchal domination over women, the God of homophobic bullies, the God of the death squads, the God of apartheid, and the God of slave-owners.
But Robertson’s loudly professed piety had a paradoxical effect. Though his 1988 run for the presidency certainly helped push the Republican Party to the right, it ultimately made America more secular. While Robertson lost the presidential nomination to George H.W. Bush, the televangelist’s unexpectedly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses meant that all future Republican presidential aspirants would be even more subservient to Bible-thumpers. But Robertson and his fellow evangelicals, with their constant warnings against secular humanism, have only made godlessness much more attractive.
In 1988, according to a Gallup poll, just 7 percent of Americans said they had no religion (or in the term used by pollsters, are “nones). By 2022, that number had tripled to 21 percent. A 2021 Pew poll has an even starker figure, with 29 percent of Americans saying they have no religion. This trend towards no religion is most pronounced among the young. Christianity Today reported in 2022, “Among 18- to 25-year-olds, 49 percent of women are nones, compared to just 46 percent of men.” With Robertson as the public face of religion, more and more Americans are deciding that they’d rather stay the hell away from houses of worship.
In his book Milton’s God (1961), the contrarian poet and critic William Empson described the Christian deity, as depicted in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, as “the wickedest thing yet invented by the black heart of man.”
Writing about Empson’s views in The Massachusetts Review, the literary critic Roger Sale argued that “Empson is most persuasive when he insists that though…the story is a bad one for God, it is the only story that could challenge a mind as large, as worried, as magnanimous as Milton’s. The poem is so good because it is willing to make God seem so bad.”
It seems absurd to compare John Milton, one of the greatest of Protestants, with Pat Robertson, one of the worst of Protestants. Unlike Milton, Robertson did not have a large, worried, magnanimous mind. Robertson’s mind was as narrow and crude as could be. Still, extremes meet. Like Milton, Robertson was able to make God seem terrible. That is the late preacher’s lasting legacy.