By G. Connor Salter, Crosswalk.com
Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson (March 22, 1930 – June 8, 2023) was one of America’s best-known religious leaders. Some remember him for his inspiring 700 Club messages. Others remember him for his political activism. Not a few remember him for his controversial statements about topics ranging from politics to earthquakes to the last days. Each group agrees that he was prominent, someone to pay attention to if they wanted to understand where American evangelical Christianity was at the moment.
Let’s look at how Robertson became a key figure in American Christian culture.
Key Events in Pat Robertson’s Life
Robertson was born in Lexington, Virginia, to Gladys and Absalom Willis Robertson. His father was a prominent Democratic Party senator with over 20 years of experience.
In 1952, while studying law at Yale University, Robertson met his wife, Dede.
In 1956, Robertson became a Christian and moved his family to a commune in New York.
In 1959, Robertson received his master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary.
In 1960, Robertson used his money and donations from various Christians to purchase a TV station in Portsmouth, Virginia. The first program of what came to be called the Christian Broadcasting Network premiered in 1961. It currently broadcasts programs across the world in over 70 languages.
In 1976, Robertson hosted the first episode of CBN’s most famous program, The 700 Club. He continued to host the show until 2001, reappearing as a guest on various occasions.
In 1978, Robertson founded Regent University, a private Christian college in Virginia, and Operation Blessing, a nonprofit aiding those in need and providing disaster relief.
In 1986, Robertson unsuccessfully campaigned to be the Republication Party’s presidential candidate for the 1988 election.
In 1989, Robertson started the Christian Coalition of America, a nonprofit aiming to promote conservative Christian causes and get Christian voters involved and informed about candidates. It describes itself as “one of the largest conservative grassroots political organizations in America.”
In 2001, Robertson stepped down as the regular host of The 700 Club. He continued to appear on CBN programs, providing commentary on political and news events.
How Did Pat Robertson Change How Evangelical Christians See Politics?
While Robertson’s campaign for the 1988 presidency was unsuccessful, how he performed his campaign changed how many evangelical Christians connect with political candidates.
Dan Graves summarizes the campaign:
“For a few weeks in 1987, it looked as if a conservative Christian could give secular politicians a real battle for the American presidency. Televangelist Pat Robertson, the host of the 700 Club and creator of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), won three early caucuses including victories in Michigan and South Carolina and had gathered more campaign funds than most rivals.
Like many evangelicals, Robertson wanted to see Christian values brought into the American political arena. Recent court decisions had left conservatives feeling America was no longer their country. Prayer had been banned from schools; the ten commandments removed from educational establishments; abortion legalized; pornography permitted; and many other social, economic and international trends contrary to the faith were granted governmental support at taxpayers' expense. Those taxpayers included many persons of Robertson's persuasion.
CBN's 700 Club had 12 million viewers. Those who tuned in saw a man who spoke articulately of national and international issues, finances and Christian values. His newscasts presented an alternative to the mainstream media. Inspirational stories were reenacted before cameras for watching millions. Belief in God's power to answer prayer with miracles was strong. Robertson also ‘prophesied,’ but the predictions were unimpressive. Faith healing was part of his show. He would pray rather generically for ‘someone out there’ with a neck, back, heart or other problem and claim that the person would be healed. Listeners wrote in saying they were healed at the moment he prayed.
His was a devoted audience. The question was, could Pat Robertson put together a coalition sufficient to challenge for the presidency? His three early wins suggested he might. Effective on September 29, 1987, he resigned from his ministries to pursue the presidency with all of his vigor. He also resigned his credentials as an ordained minister.
Robertson had politics in his blood and background. His father had been a senator and he himself had worked in various political capacities. Yet he had a ‘God-shaped vacuum’ in his life. His prayerful mother and a Baptist missionary led him to Christ. ‘I believed Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world and my sins, too, and it was like a light went on!’ He had been contemplating suicide but now found new direction and joy.
As we know, Robertson did not win the nomination. George Bush (the father) did. Robertson stumbled badly when allegations surfaced that he had used his senator father's influence as a young man to evade dangerous military service. After that his presidency faded. He was soon back at CBN. Nonetheless, his bid for presidency was valuable. It gave conservative Christians a chance to air their values in the public arena. Many who otherwise felt disenfranchised in the United States obtained a sense that someone out there spoke for them after all.
After Robertson returned to CBN he built it into The Family Channel and secularized it. He later sold The Family Channel and it’s parent, International Family Entertainment, for over one and a half billion dollars. The buyer was media magnate, Rupert Murdock. Years after his bid for the presidency, Robertson hurt his image by making a number of radical public statements, including one which seemed to call for the assassination of Venezuela's president.
- Christian Century Oct 21, 1987.
- Current Biography. Bronx, New York, H. W. Wilson Co., 1987.
- Gross, Ernie. This Day in Religion. New York, New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1990.
Last updated May, 2007.”
(“Pat Robertson’s Presidential Bid” by Dan GRAVES, MSL, was first published on Chrisitanity.com on May 03, 2010)
As Graves shows, the campaign was a game-changer. Republican candidates had already established a rapport connection to evangelical Christians during Ronald Reagan’s 1979 presidential campaign, but Robertson solidified that connection.
His tactics for reaching out to evangelicals also provided a model for later conservative candidates seeking evangelical support. Robertson used his media platform to announce he wouldn’t run for president until three million people signed a petition that they would support him and volunteer for his campaign. He also lobbied for churches to support his campaign—particularly in Iowa, where he finished second in the state caucuses behind George H.W. Bush.
While Robertson did not run for office again, he used his platform to support many political candidates, frequently conservative ones associated with the Christian right movement. He also founded or contributed to various Christian right organizations, including the Christian Coalition and the Council for National Policy.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Robertson’s activism wasn’t entirely limited to the Republican party or Christian right causes. In 2008, he appeared with Al Sharpton in a video to support environmental action to fight climate change. While he founded Regent University and the school developed a reputation as a Christian right haven, Harvard faculty member Harvey Cox noted in a 1995 article for The Atlantic that he found students and staff welcoming him during a visit despite being a liberal theologian.
What Made Pat Robertson Controversial?
Robertson garnered criticism throughout his career for statements on television or in his books.
Sometimes, Robertson made factually inaccurate statements—such as claiming in 2014 that tourists visiting Kenya could contract AIDS from towels.
He often compared other religions or such as comparing non-Christians to termites in 1986, calling Islam inherently violent on multiple occasions during the 2000s, and calling Hinduism “demonic” in 1995. He sometimes extended this language to Christian groups, as in 1991 when he said on The 700 Club, “You're supposed to be nice to Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists. . . Nonsense. I don't have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.”
His commentary on political situations sometimes included calling for American authorities to assassinate people—such as Venezuelan politicians Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro.
Robertson also frequently made statements attributing tragic events to God’s judgment. Sometimes he cited individual situations as being caused by sinful behavior—such as claiming in 2006 that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was God’s judgment for giving territory to Palestine. Other times, he suggested national sins had caused large-scale disasters. Most notably, Robertson and 700 Club guest Jerry Falwell claimed that God had allowed the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a judgment against “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union and the People For the American Way.” In 2010, Robertson claimed that an earthquake in Haiti was God’s judgment against Haitians making a deal with the Devil at the 1791 start of the Haitian Revolution.
Robertson frequently referenced the end times, either predicting the last days or connecting events to end-times theories. In 1982, he announced to 700 Club viewers, “I guarantee you by the fall of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world.” Several critics noted his book New World Order, which described various groups allegedly involved in a conspiracy with Satan to bring about an end-of-days world war, built on various conspiracy theories found in anti-Semitic propaganda. In 2022, he stated on a 700 Club appearance that God was compelling Russian president Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine to set off a conflict culminating in a battle in Israel.
Various news agencies also questioned Robertson’s financial situation—such as reports in 1999 that Operation Blessing relief planes were used to transport diamond mining equipment and denying in 2009 that he bet on horse racing despite owning a racehorse. He also denied claims from the late 1990s through the 2010s that he made gold mining deals with Liberian president Charles Taylor, who stated at a 2010 war crimes trial that Robertson offered to convince the George W. Bush administration to support Taylor.
More generally, Robertson and his contemporaries, such as Falwell and Tim LaHaye, were criticized for creating a culture war vision for Christian political engagement. Writers like Jon Ward and Kyle Meyaard-Schaap have argued that the 1980s culture wars generated a vision where any group not explicitly connected to Christian right activism (such as environmentalists) was seen as evil. While Robertson took a more nuanced view than some of his contemporaries by occasionally supporting more liberal causes, he is regarded as an important force behind the culture war model.
Whether readers agree with the criticisms of Robertson’s ministry and behavior, his situation provides some important reminders. Christian leaders are called to live to a higher standard (James 3:1), and the New Testament makes no promises that leaders will find it easy to meet those standards. In fact, it warns that all believers will experience temptation. Recent pastor scandals and investigations into denominations for mishandling funds or reports of misconduct have underscored this point. The temptation to hide mistakes, to avoid confessing mistakes, or to give opinions without considering the wise thing to say, is quite common in the church.
10 Books by Pat Robertson
Roberson wrote over a dozen books, ranging from the novel The End of the Age to political commentary books like Courting Disaster. Here are 10 of his best-known books, most about how to live the Christian life.
1. Shout It from the Housetops: The Autobiography of Pat Robertson with Jamie Buckingham
2. My Prayer for You
3. The Shepherd King: The Life of David
4. Beyond Reason: How Miracles Can Change Your Life
5. Six Steps to Spiritual Revival: God’s Awesome Power in Your Life
6. Bring It On: Tough Questions, Candid Answers
7. Miracles Can Be Yours Today
8. Ten Laws for Success: Keys to Win in Work, Family, and Finance
9. I Have Walked With the Living God
10. The Power of the Holy Spirit in You: Understanding the Miraculous Power of God
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Win McNamee/Staff
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
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