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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The Israeli government has taken the unusual step of cutting all ties with an American preacher, the television evangelist Pat Robertson. The move came after Robertson's comments last week about the massive stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who remains gravely ill. Robertson suggested that the stroke was punishment by God. This is the latest in a string of pronouncements that have left Robertson isolated from many other conservative Christians. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports that it's a striking change of fortune for a man who not too long ago was a serious candidate for president of the United States.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

It's not that Pat Robertson dislikes Ariel Sharon. In fact, he told his television viewers he's even prayed with the Israeli leader, but Robertson said Sharon made a mistake when he pulled out of the Gaza Strip and he's paying the price.

Mr. PAT ROBERTSON (Television Evangelist): Here he's at the point of death. He was dividing God's land and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or the United States of America. God says, `This land belongs to me. You better leave it alone.'

HAGERTY: Today, Robertson apologized but the damage was done for some Christian leaders.

Mr. RICHARD LAND (Southern Baptist Convention): I was appalled.

HAGERTY: That's Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention. Besides the insensitivity, he says, this is bad theology. St. Paul himself said that God's judgments are unsearchable. So when Robertson connects Sharon's stroke with God's actions...

Mr. LAND: ...he's way beyond his theological pay grade. That's assuming the prerogatives of God and it betrays both an appalling spiritual ignorance and an appalling spiritual arrogance.

HAGERTY: Tough words for an evangelical leader who has long fought on the same side as Robertson in the culture wars. Through his spokesman, Robertson declined repeated requests for an interview.

Now not so long ago Pat Robertson was swimming in the conservative evangelical mainstream. When he ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1988, he energized evangelicals who had never entered politics but were deeply concerned about the country's moral direction. In speeches like this one, candidate Robertson offered a vision of moral that is Christian certainty.

Mr. ROBERTSON: ...and that is as a people we believe that our freedoms, our liberties and our wealth were a gift of Almighty God...

Unidentified Man: Amen.

Mr. ROBERTSON: ...and we must re-establish our faith in God as the number one priority.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...for God and country, Pat Robertson today. For God and country...

HAGERTY: This was a softer, gentler Robertson and his campaign caught fire. He pulled second in the Iowa caucuses, beating out then Vice President George Bush.

Mr. ROBERT BOSTON (Americans United for Separation of Church and State): When he was running for president in 1988, he had a staff, he had handlers, he had people who could pull him back when he went out too far on the limb.

HAGERTY: Robert Boston is spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He says eventually Robertson's prior statements caught up with him, his predictions that the Soviet Union would invade Israel, for example, and that Jesus would soon return. His campaign crumbled in the Southern primaries, but the softer tone continued into the 1990s when Robertson founded the Christian Coalition, a grassroots machine that would change the course of American politics. Boston says even then Robertson held back, choosing a baby-faced sophisticated Ralph Reed to be the voice of the movement.

Mr. BOSTON: Ralph Reed is long gone. He resigned from the Christian Coalition in September of 1997. So almost for the past 10 years there really hasn't been anybody to tell Pat Robertson, `Be quiet. You're not helping us. You've gone too far.'

HAGERTY: Robertson's main outlet became his television program, "The 700 Club." The show became a showcase for his particular take on Pentecostalism, a tradition that believes that God speaks directly to people and influences events. Robertson began warning his listeners that God was unhappy with the cultural drift. On June 8, 1998, for example, he warned that a gay pride celebration in Orlando would invite terrorist bombs, earthquakes, tornadoes and even a meteor.

Mr. ROBERTSON: And I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you.

HAGERTY: That prediction became fodder for late-night television jokes. Christian leaders grew increasingly embarrassed. Soon Robertson would drive most of his allies away with his comments two days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Homosexuality, the ban on school prayer, abortion and other social ills, he seemed to imply, invited the attacks.

Mr. ROBERTSON: We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government and then we say, `Why does this happen?' Well, why it's happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us.

HAGERTY: Since then, the tempo has increased. Here he is last August with this comment about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Mr. ROBERTSON: You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.

HAGERTY: Three months later, more dire predictions for the town of Dover, Pennsylvania, which voted out a school board that had favored introducing intelligent design into science class.

Mr. ROBERTSON: I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected him from your city.

Mr. MICHAEL CROMARTIE (Ethics and Public Policy Center): I don't know a conservative Christian leader--Protestant, Catholic or Jewish--who has not run out of patience with Mr. Robertson's comments.

HAGERTY: That's Michael Cromartie who directs the evangelical studies project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He says Robertson gives a bad name to evangelicals by presenting a wrathful God of judgment, not mercy. He points to the comments Robertson made after 9/11.

Mr. CROMARTIE: It is really dangerous when religious leaders come out and try to tell us exactly what God is up to. This is inappropriate theologically. It's inappropriate personally. It's inappropriate as a Christian leader. No, what you want to do is fall on your face and say, `God, have mercy on us and help those suffering people who just lost their families.'

HAGERTY: Cromartie says Robertson is also damaging America's image abroad, especially among those in the Muslim world who fear a US crusade to Christianize the world. Critic Robert Boston says US policy-makers are so careful to keep religion out of foreign policy.

Mr. BOSTON: But their efforts are undercut when people like Pat Robertson make comments about Islam that are inflammatory or link our public policy to the spread of Christianity and imply that that is something that is a national goal for the United States overseas.

HAGERTY: Some view Robertson as a tragic case whose odd comments have destroyed any impact he may have had. Rob Boston disagrees. He says the 75-year-old preacher's real legacy is that he helped create a movement that changed American politics.

Mr. BOSTON: What people will remember him for is the architect of a political movement. And after Pat Robertson's gone, there are still going to be people active in the political system who learned their lessons from his organizations and his writings.

HAGERTY: A legacy that makes liberals shudder and conservatives rejoice.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's a quick recap of the other major story we're following on the program today.

Senators on the Judiciary Committee wrapped up their questioning of Judge Samuel Alito. He's President Bush's choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. Today, Judge Alito praised O'Connor, saying that he would try to emulate her dedication and her integrity. Democrats continue their attacks on Alito's record. Senator Edward Kennedy said the average guy has a hard time in getting a fair shake in Judge Alito's courtroom. Republicans bemoaned the tone of the four days of hearings. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah accused the Democrats of focusing on what he called phony issues.

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