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Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 00:27 GMT 01:27 UK


Pat Robertson: God's new banker?

Television preachers, to the British way of thinking, should look and sound like the late Derek Nimmo. There is a particular dislike for the archetypal American televangelist: confident, tanned, and asking for the viewers to send money in.

Which may go some way to explain the remarkably strong reaction to the deal struck with Pat Robertson, leader of the US Christian Coalition and failed presidental candidate, and the Bank of Scotland.

[ image: Pat Robertson: 'Traditional values']
Pat Robertson: 'Traditional values'
The bank is setting up a telephone banking service with a company owned by Mr Robertson. The new service is expected to appeal to some of his followers either through his Christian Broadcasting Network or through the Christian Coalition, a fiercely anti-abortion political grouping he set up on the coattails of his unsuccessful run in the 1988 presidential election.

A widely-known character in America, Mr Robertson is proving to be hugely controversial here. Not least since he said that Scotland was a "dark land" where homosexuals ruled the roost.

"In Scotland, you can't believe how strong the homosexuals are. It's just simply unbelievable," he told his viewers.

Scotland's religious past was no more, he said. "I don't think it exists any more. And what could happen? It could go right back to the darkness very easily."

'Need to pray'

The problem was spread across Europe, he told viewers, where the "big word is tolerance". "It used to be called Christendom and the Church of Scotland was so noted for their piety. The Edinburgh University was a great cultural centre of theology. I don't know, we need to pray for them..."

[ image: His 700 Club has millions of viewers]
His 700 Club has millions of viewers
The words were hardly the first controversial he has uttered - newspapers have repeated many of the quotations attributed to him, including one which was in a Christian Coalition letter which he signed but did not write and had not, he says, read very carefully.

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women, It is about a socialist anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians," the letter read.

A wide range of other alleged statements are catalogued for anyone to find on the Internet.

The broadcast came after mounting criticism in Scotland for the Bank of Scotland's deal, including organisations and individuals moving their accounts. Some people also defaced Bank of Scotland banknotes in protest.

The bank played down the role Mr Robertson would be playing, and lawyers acting for him were reported as warning newspapers not to refer to him as a bigot, a racist or an anti-Semite. He wrote in the Independent last week that his views and beliefs had been distorted "beyond recognition".

"For those in Britain who know little or nothing about me, let me say that I abhor bigots and bigotry. I denounce racists and racism. I condemn those who are intolerant and resort to violence." However, he added: "I do not apologise for advocating and arguing for what I consider traditional values. To some they may seem conservative or outdated, to me they are the basis of what I believe."

He also attacked the British media for being cynical, sloppy and vicious.

New ammunition

Yet the new comments could well give those opposing the deal the necessary ammunition to increase the pressure on the bank to think again.

While the whole affair may give the bank's public relations department a headache (they flew several Scottish journalists over to meet the man himself), Mr Robertson is unlikely to be worried about it, being a very old hand at public exposure and controversy.

[ image: Bank of Scotland under pressure]
Bank of Scotland under pressure
The British instinctively do not like American televangelists, being more used to the soft sell of Church of England vicars saying prayers on Songs of Praise.

But Mr Robertson has had no such hindrance at home, claiming a massive audience of 55 million which in 1997 sent him $167m in donations.

But even that is small fry compared to the $1.82bn he garnered from Rupert Murdoch, who bought a spin-off family channel from him, most of which Robertson says went into a charitable trust.

He reportedly told The Observer's Gregory Palast that the $50m cost of setting up the telephone bank was "just a small investment". Anyone doubting the business sense of Mr Robertson (he dropped his title "Rev" in 1988) should bear this in mind. He is also on the board of the British retailer Laura Ashley.

He claimed in Sunday Business last month: "I came down here (to Virginia) with $70, a trailer, wife and three children and no job, to claim a television station for the Lord. I did not even own a television set much less a television station." He put it on the air a couple of years later, in 1961, costing $37,000.

Polished professional

The 69-year-old Southerner, who looks like he could well be the mythical Songs of Praise vicar, has now been broadcasting for 40 years, and is a polished professional.

Despite this, he blames some of his more controversial statements on what he calls "malapropisms". "I speak from the heart so often, and many times these statements need clarification and if brought out of context can be misunderstood," he said.

[ image: Elizabeth Dole also expected to come under pressure]
Elizabeth Dole also expected to come under pressure
The Christian Coalition is due another phase in the limelight with the forthcoming presidential election. Whether this will help or hinder the Republicans, though, is not clear, for while the coalition urged Bob Dole to embrace its values, President Clinton stayed in office by taking the centre ground.

Republican hopefuls George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole are both looking unlikely to make the outlawing of abortion the main plank of their election. But the coalition and Mr Robertson are sure to try and persuade them.

But there are enough problems for the Bank of Scotland to think about now, including the mounting number of public bodies which say they are considering moving their accounts.

The sight of consumers flexing their muscles is a rare one. But whether they are right or wrong to do so, three words - an ocean and a decade away from Mr Robertson's Virginia television station - might spring to the minds of his new Scottish partners.

"Barclays" and "South Africa".

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