The son of a senator, Robertson purchased a Virginia television station in 1960, marking the beginnings of the Christian Broadcasting Network, one of the most important elements of the burgeoning evangelical media that was to become so important in the latter part of the twentieth century.
When evangelicals also established the Christian Right at the end of the 1970s, Robertson played a relatively minor role, but the subsequent decline of its leading organization, the Moral Majority, and the impending end of the Reagan years brought him to prominence following his decision to pursue the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. While he was unsuccessful, an important effect of his campaign was the creation the following year of the Christian Coalition.
Concentrating much of its energies on opposition to abortion and homosexuality, the Coalition rapidly became a key component of the Republican Party and although it was to decline in the late 1990s (and Robertson to resign from its presidency in 2001), during the early years of the Clinton administration it was a central force in the resurgence of conservatism.
Shortly after the creation of the coalition, Robertson published a book in which he declared that in calling for a “New World Order,” President Bush was unknowingly carrying out the mission of a vast, global satanic conspiracy.
In arguing this, Robinson claimed that a conspiratorial elite could be traced back to the eighteenth century, when a secret society, the Illuminati, had plotted the French Revolution.
In the nineteenth century Illuminism had mutated into Marxism, while in the twentieth century the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia had been secretly funded by European financiers. In later years, he argued, much of the work of the conspiracy was carried out by such organizations as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission.
Initially little noticed outside the evangelical milieu, The New World Order began to attract attention following a front-page attack in a 1994 issue of the prestigious New York Review of Books. Authored by Michael Lind, a former conservative, it argued that Robertson’s work was not the usual brand of evangelical Protestant theology but originated instead in “the underground literature of far-right populism.”
He was supported by another former conservative, Jacob Heilbrunn, who convincingly demonstrated that Robertson had relied on material by the early-twentieth-century antisemitic conspiracist, Nesta Webster.
The New York Review’s attack drew angry replies from Robertson and other conservatives. Subsequently, Robertson blamed a research assistant for introducing Webster’s material into his work and he continued to deny any suggestion that he held antisemitic views.
A closer examination of both Robertson’s book and the writings of his critics shines a critical light on both sides of the argument. Robertson, while rightly pointing out his long record of support for Israel, had nonetheless produced a book that linked the Illuminati to the Rothschild family.
Conversely, Lind, who had suggested Robertson’s writings were “far more bizarre and sinister” than the conspiracist writings of the John Birch Society, missed both the Society’s praise for Robertson’s book and the strong links between what Robertson argued and what the Society had long believed.
Having itself drawn on Webster’s work, the Society had also been accused of antisemitism, and while both have denounced claims that conspiratorial forces are Jewish in origin, it is understandable that critics should take them to be antisemitic.
The situation is, however, more complicated, because conspiratorial claims that the hidden rulers of history are bankers, or Masons, or extraterrestrials might often be motivated by a racist view, but is not always necessarily so.
If Robertson has had the misfortune to have his conspiracy theory attacked more for what it did not say than what it did, he has also been accused of being a secret adherent of the New World Order, rather than an opponent.
In the 1980s, one conspiracy text with a considerable impact upon evangelicals was Constance Cumbey’s The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow, which, like Robertson’s later volume, saw the New Age movement as part of Satan’s attack on Christianity.
In a later book, A Planned Deception, Cumbey suggested that Robertson’s announcement that he intended to provide live coverage of the Second Coming fitted well with a supposed New Age plan to launch a false Christ figure upon the world.