Evangelical leaders said Friday that they were embarrassed and incensed by televangelist Pat Robertson's assertion that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had suffered a massive stroke, was stricken by God as punishment for ceding the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank to Palestinians last summer.
Officials of conservative Christian churches and organizations suggested that Robertson was losing religious and political influence as a result of his remarks on Sharon and other recent controversial comments.
"I'm appalled that Pat Robertson would make such statements. He ought to know better," said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination.
"The arrogance of the statement shocks me almost as much as the insensitivity of it," Land said in an interview.
The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, said that Robertson no more spoke for evangelicals than "Dr. Phil," the television show host, spoke for psychologists.
The concerns voiced by evangelical leaders Friday came as the White House sharply criticized the televangelist's remarks as "wholly inappropriate and offensive."
The harsh criticism of Robertson spotlights what many see as his growing isolation from mainstream American evangelicalism.
Last August, Robertson called for the assassination of leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Then, in November the televangelist warned the town of Dover, Pa., that it risked God's wrath because voters had recalled conservative school board members who favored teaching "intelligent design," whose proponents believe organisms are too complex to have developed independently. Critics charge that the concept is an attempt to put theology in public school science classes.
On Thursday, Robertson, in a reference to Sharon's decision last year to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Palestinian territories, quoted the prophet Joel to his "700 Club" television audience and said that "God has enmity against those who divide my land."
After calling Sharon "a delightful person" with whom he had prayed, Robertson added: "But 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 European Union, the United Nations, or the United States of America. God says: 'This land belongs to me. You'd better leave it alone.' "
On Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network website Friday, spokeswoman Angell Watts said that Robertson was simply reminding viewers of what he said the Bible had to say.
She also blamed the controversy on People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that issued a transcript of Robertson's remarks. She said the group had "a clear left-wing political agenda" and had taken his comments out of context. Based on a review by The Times of video of Robertson supplied by People for the American Way, the transcript was accurate.
Watts did not return phone calls requesting further comment.
Some conservative Christians have become strong supporters of Israel in part because they believe that a fully restored Jewish nation in the Holy Land is a precursor to the second coming of Christ.
Jewish leaders and liberal Christians also decried Robertson's remarks, but their criticism was not unexpected. The searing criticism from evangelicals was unusual.
Land, who sat next to Robertson at a Washington event last year honoring Sharon, said that Robertson spoke for "an ever diminishing number of evangelicals, and with each episode like this the rate of diminishment accelerates."
Land said Robertson might have isolated himself from anyone but yes men. "When you're the head of your own organization, if you don't cultivate people telling you what you don't want to hear, sometimes you don't hear it," Land said.
The Rev. Kevin Mannoia, chaplain at Azusa Pacific University and past president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, was among those who suggested that Robertson's comments could have been a misguided effort to restore his once powerful standing as a religious and political voice in America by creating new controversy.
"I wonder whether, consciously or subconsciously, this is an effort on the part of an individual who has significant influence in the church and the country and recognized that influence is waning," Mannoia said.
"He continues to try to maintain that influence by increasingly controversial statements -- perhaps statements out of desperation, perhaps statements out of [wanting] more attention," he said.
In 1988, Robertson ran unsuccessfully in the GOP presidential primaries. The following year, he founded the politically potent Christian Coalition, which campaigned for "family values."
Haggard said that for whatever reason, Robertson "does not seem to be weighing his words." He said that Sharon's illness could be medically explained.