RELIGION
06/30/2010 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

10 Minutes With...David Edwin Harrell

NEWS FEATURE
By Adelle M. Banks

(RNS) Three years ago, Auburn University scholar emeritus David Edwin Harrell asked religious broadcaster Pat Robertson if he'd open his files to him for a future book. Robertson surprised Harrell by telling him to have at it.

Harrell's new biography, "Pat Robertson: A Life and Legacy," covers the successes and failures of one of the nation's best-known--and most controversial--evangelical figures.

Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your book chronicles Robertson's life from a senator's son and a Marine to a religious broadcaster and a presidential candidate. What did you find out about him that people may not know?

A: He's part of some pretty conservative movements, but within those movements he always imagined himself to be a kind of pragmatic middle-of-the-road player. Most people would not look at him that way.

Q: You write about how Robertson is a well-respected broadcaster and university founder, yet critics consider him "an inconsequential buffoon." How did he end up living that kind of a dichotomy?

A: He brings some of that on himself, obviously, because he, like many public figures, does shoot from the hip and says some things he shouldn't say.

Q: Robertson once claimed that his protein shakes helped him leg-press more than 1,000 pounds, and people ridiculed him. Was that protein-shake business an example of a venture that didn't go quite the way he planned?

A: I have a section in the book on his business misadventures. That was a relatively small one in terms of losses. As a businessman, he was very much a risk-taker. He made one gigantically successful gamble and that is his cable television network (The Family Channel), which he sold for $1.9 billion. Regarding his gaffes, which have made him so much a subject of caricature, when he gets heated on his program, he sort of feels like he's just talking to his family and so he says exactly what he believes. The problem is that his critics are listening as well.

Q: How was his Christian Broadcasting Network different from other religious broadcasters?

A: He always intended to build his network (with) high quality religious programming sandwiched with other secular family-type shows that would draw larger audiences. Other broadcasters, by and large, intended to build essentially religious networks.

Q. Robertson's known for his annual prophecies on everything from the stock market to the Middle East. Is that one of those things that non-Christians just would not understand?

A: That's the classic example, his yearly prophecies. Particularly in his early years, he was much less guarded in making those predictions. When he makes them now they will be quite guarded.

Q: He's eased up on those a bit?

A: I think he has because nothing strikes fear in the hearts of the leaders around CBN than Robertson when he is not speaking carefully.

Q: How did the Christian Coalition reflect Robertson's approach to religion and politics?

A: He came out of the 1988 Republican primary with a list of more than 2 million people that supported him and he had this concept of organizing these people. Both he and (executive director) Ralph Reed from the beginning of the Christian Coalition were in it to influence Republican politics, not just to be advocating single issues, including something as central as pro-life.

Q: Robertson also started the American Center for Law and Justice, known for its cases before the Supreme Court. Why did he think it was important to start a law firm?

A: He doesn't want to sit around and debate and have a think tank about separation of church and state, the constitution and what it means. He wants a litigator, and when he finds (Jay) Sekulow ... that was a marriage made in heaven.

Q: You have also written a biography of Oral Roberts and a book about the charismatic movement. Are you an outsider looking in, or do you have personal connections to the movement?

A: I am very decidedly an outsider looking in. It's a rather remarkable thing that I am the person these people have opened up to and allowed to write about them. They have, through experience, come to believe I will tell the story but that I'm not out to ridicule them or to caricature them.

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