In October, Pat Robertson, at the age of 91, announced he was retiring as the long-reigning host of The 700 Club after 54 years on the air. He told viewers on the 60th anniversary of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which Robertson founded and which hosts the program. His son Gordon will take over as host, adding to his responsibility of maintaining the CBN network, which the elder Robertson gave up in 2007. Pat Robertson still plans to make occasional appearances on CBN, but he will turn toward academic instruction at Regent University, the evangelical school he founded in 1977.
Few people have done more to mobilize conservative Christians in the political realm than Pat Robertson. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times highlighted that the number of white Americans who adopted the label “evangelical” during the Trump administration grew. The article’s author, political scientist Ryan Burge, argued that “evangelical” is perhaps less a theological identity now than a political one tied to the Republican Party. This evolution, from faith group to reliable voting bloc, took decades of organizing, media innovation, and politicking, all of which Robertson did. Along with his media empire, he made a 1988 presidential run and helped form the Christian Coalition. He also helped start the American Center for Law and Justice, an influential conservative Christian law firm and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., which is currently led by former President Donald Trump’s impeachment attorney, Jay Sekulow.
“The Trump presidency is, in many ways, a triumph of Robertson’s life and work,” said Leah Payne, an associate professor of theology at George Fox University and Portland Seminary who studies Pentecostalism. “He wasn’t alone, but he was one of the most prominent mass media moguls of the late twentieth century who said, ‘We are going to mobilize toward specific ends: abortion, heterosexual marriage, prayer in public schools’—the laundry list of all these things. He did a lot to get white charismatics and Pentecostals on the national political agenda.”
Robertson has long been caricatured by reporters and media pundits as a “crazy uncle” figure in American evangelicalism, albeit with some help from his past comments, ranging from the idiosyncratic to bizarre. But the caricature of Pat Robertson neglects the full picture of a savvy religious broadcasting pioneer, as well as political visionary who would ultimately help usher in a large and growing group of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians into the GOP fold.
Pat Robertson was the 29-year-old son of a conservative Democratic senator from Virginia when he bought a bankrupt television station in Portsmouth in 1960. Robertson had become a charismatic Christian a few years before, and he wanted to start a religious station and follow his call to “claim the airwaves.” His mission benefited from two developments at the time: the rising availability of mass media and the rapid growth of the charismatic Christian movement.
Charismatic Christianity emerged as a renewal movement within mainline Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational congregations during the 1960s and 1970s. Members began adopting practices from Pentecostalism, like speaking in tongues, divine healing, and prophecies. While Pentecostalism, an earlier movement, was usually associated with white and Black people from lower incomes, the charismatic renewal made inroads with Christians who were middle-class and suburban. Pat Robertson, an ordained Southern Baptist minister at the time, was an ideal representative for the U.S. charismatic movement.
Robertson had a wealthy Southern background and an elite education from Washington & Lee University and Yale Law School. When he launched The 700 Club in 1967, Robertson, with his faith and his education, could speak on a myriad of subjects with the divine authority of a small-town prophet. The show provided an eclectic combination of news, commentary, and prophecy. By interviewing U.S. presidents and celebrities, Robertson’s profile brought a certain respectability to Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement in the public eye.
“Rather than functioning like other TV preachers, now you have someone who was a savvy news and political commentator but was seeking to bring in a spiritual perspective and even prophecy, which of course got him both fame and ridicule,” said Michael Brown, a charismatic Christian leader and radio host. “Pat Robertson definitely crossed into another sphere of society with bringing together political commentary and biblical perspective as a charismatic, openly and unashamedly.”
In 1965, he hired two Assemblies of God youth ministers—Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—who would eventually foray into their own television ministry, theme park, and scandals to match their outsized personas. According to Ruth Murray Brown’s For A “Christian America”: A History of the Religious Right, it was Jim Bakker’s idea to have The 700 Club be a talk show, which differentiated it from televangelists who only broadcast church services. After the Bakkers’ departure from CBN to start their own network, Robertson continued providing news and commentary on The 700 Club. CBN grew throughout the 1970s and 80s, and Robertson became a pioneer in televangelism and setting up what was then called the “electronic church,” a term coined by critics at the time to describe the unique cohabitation of religious evangelism and media entrepreneurism.
By the 1980s, Pat Robertson was a nationally recognized figure, and he became more involved in politics. According to the late historian David Harrell’s biography, Robertson initially shied away from Jerry Falwell’s work with the Moral Majority, believing that Falwell’s leadership was “politically naïve.” In 1981, Robertson founded what was then the political arm of CBN, the Freedom Council, to lobby for conservative causes in Washington while mobilizing and educating Christians at the grassroots level on how to get involved in politics. Though Ronald Reagan’s presidency provided a lot of media attention and access to those in the religious right, it provided little in terms of substantial legislative goals on behalf of conservative Christians such as banning abortion. In 1987, Robertson resigned as a minister in order to run for president.
Although dismissed by many media pundits (articulated most notably by conservative luminary William Buckley Jr., who said that Robertson “hasn’t a prayer, to use that word recklessly”), Robertson would come in second place in the primaries in Iowa (famously beating George H.W. Bush), Minnesota, and South Dakota. He would end in third place among the GOP contenders by the time the Republicans held their 1988 convention in New Orleans.
Robertson, whose success was acknowledged later by academics yet largely ignored by the press at the time, invigorated the GOP with conservative activists and white Pentecostal and charismatics. However, he hadn’t been able to unite conservative Christendom behind his presidential campaign. Falwell had endorsed George H.W. Bush prior to Robertson’s run (and decided to maintain his Bush endorsement), and Robertson wasn’t quite able to shake off the tongues-speaking, televangelist persona to attract those leery of Pentecostalism.
After his presidential run, Robertson decided to build on his grassroots support. He hired the young operative Ralph Reed and in 1989 established the Christian Coalition. The organization hired staff from various Protestant backgrounds and included Catholic outreach as part of its operation. Its goal was to train members at the grassroots level to join local government boards and Republican committees, along with printing and distributing “voter guides” in church parking lots and other open venues. It became a powerful entity in the Republican Party, and it worked to bolster the growing influence of the religious right. By the 1992 Republican presidential convention, an estimated 40 percent of the attending delegates were evangelicals.
Of Robertson, Payne said, “I think that he was a part of a sustained effort, as a charismatic, in shaping concrete policy issues. He could appeal to this growing segment of American Protestantism in ways that Falwell couldn’t, in ways that [Phyllis] Schlafly didn’t, and he did it in ways that would be authentic and recognizable to Pentecostals and charismatics.”
Despite the diversity of the Pentecostal movement, Robertson’s record on race is mixed. He brought on a Black co-host, the late Rev. Ben Kinchlow, who first appeared on The 700 Club in 1971, at a time when Black television hosts were still a rarity. Robertson also maintained close ties to the late Bishop J.O. Patterson, then-president of the largest Black Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ. And yet, in June of this year, Robertson called critical race theory a “monstrous evil.” He warned during the protests for racial justice in 2020 that the Black Lives Matter movement aimed to “destroy Christianity” and was “anti-God.” Even so, he has also sharply criticized police for the unfair treatment and killings of Black civilians, and he criticized former President Trump’s “law-and-order” response to protesters after George Floyd’s murder.
Pat Robertson’s influence on Republican politics is still evident through Trump, whom he supported throughout his presidency. Among the evangelicals most enthusiastic about Trump were Pentecostals and charismatics. His White House religious liaison, Paula White-Cain, is a charismatic prosperity-gospel televangelist. Trump’s White House hosted a gathering of charismatic worship leaders for prayer and a “faith briefing” in December 2019. The following month, in January 2020, the inaugural “Evangelicals for Trump” rally was held in a Hispanic, charismatic megachurch in Miami, Florida, El Rey Jesus, which included many charismatic preachers in attendance.
Pentecostals and charismatics have never received such overt acceptance from any U.S. president as they did from Trump. Payne said, “He was very hospitable towards them, he gave them Paula White as the White House liaison, and she did the inauguration prayer. He had them regularly in his sphere—even bringing many Pentecostal-charismatic celebrities to the Oval Office. I think that we can tie this, directly or indirectly, back to Pat Robertson.”
Robertson joined other Pentecostal and charismatic ministers and prophets in falsely predicting that Trump would win a second term. Some of those prophets, now proven wrong, have apologized, while others dug in their heels and further prophesized a return of Trump to the White House by a miraculous turn of events. For his part, Robertson conceded in December 2020 that Joe Biden won the presidential election, and told viewers that Trump lives in an “alternate reality” if he thinks the election was stolen. And of course, Robertson is certainly no stranger to getting prophecies wrong. After all, he predicted in 1976 that the world would end by 1982.
In addition to getting the presidential prophecy wrong, some conservative charismatic Christians must now wrestle with the narrative that Robertson and other religious leaders used to rally Christians to the Republican Party: the story that America was founded as a Christian nation. In many ways, that story has conflated theological belief with unbridled patriotism and nationalism. Some conservative Christians are grappling with that legacy of Christian nationalism, especially in light of the January 6 insurrection.
“I have tremendous respect for so much of what Pat Robertson has done over the years,” Brown, the charismatic Christian leader, said. “Nonetheless, I wish there had been more circumspection over the years before speaking certain prophecies, and I wish that clearer lines had been drawn between the Gospel and the American flag.”
Miguel Petrosky is an essayist, writer and journalist, whose work explores the intersections of religion, politics and culture. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.