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Robertson, Marion Gordon ("Pat")

ROBERTSON, Marion Gordon ("Pat")

(b. 22 March 1930 in Lexington, Virginia), clergyman, broadcasting executive, television personality, and political activist who founded the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in the early 1960s; host of CBN's flagship magazine program The 700 Club.

Robertson is the son of A. Willis Robertson, an anti–New Deal southern Democrat who represented Virginia in both houses of Congress for over thirty years. His mother, Gladys Churchill Willis, was a devout Christian and biblical literalist who counted two U.S. presidents among her ancestors. Robertson received the education of a southern gentleman, attending prep school at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and college at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He graduated from Washington and Lee with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1950, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. He then served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean conflict, after which he enrolled in Yale Law School, receiving his J.D. degree in 1955. In 1954 Robertson married Adelia ("Dede") Elmer; they have four children.

If the intellectual and spiritual crises of the conformist 1950s can be seen as a source of 1960s cultural radicalism, this analysis is as true of Robertson as it is of any Beat generation writer. As an eligible young man from a wealthy family, he enjoyed the advantages of the high life at Yale and in New York City society. At the same time, however, he found himself suffering the inner pain of what he called "a God-shaped vacuum" that was not relieved by hedonism. Robertson cites a meeting, arranged by his mother, with the Baptist missionary Cornelius Vanderbreggen in 1957 as the turning point in his personal conversion to Christianity. Robertson was working as a financial analyst for W. R. Grace and Company while studying to retake the New York State bar examination. In response to his "born-again" experience, Robertson sold his house in Staten Island, moved his family to a Brooklyn religious commune, and enrolled in the New York Theological Seminary. He received his master of divinity degree in 1959, and in 1961 he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.

Robertson described the event that led him from street-corner evangelism to the life of a broadcasting executive: "My mother had received a letter from an old friend who said there was a TV station for sale in Portsmouth, Virginia, and, 'Would Pat be interested in claiming it for the Lord?'" After a period of intense prayer and thought, Robertson left Brooklyn and went to Virginia to buy the station. He formed the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) as a non-stock, non-profit corporation on January 11, 1960. Renaming the station WYAH for Yahweh, the ancient Hebrew name of God, Robertson refused to sell commercial time, instead appealing directly to viewers for funds, following the model of the left-leaning Pacifica Foundation, which was financing its radio stations in California and New York this way.

During the early 1960s WYAH-TV survived on a shoestring. Its programming consisted of religious-oriented talk and music, along with whatever public-domain material (mostly travelogues) Robertson could find. A toll-free number superimposed on the screen allowed viewers to consult with telephone prayer counselors about their problems and to pledge funds to the television ministry if they wished to do so. In 1963, with the station in financial crisis, Robertson conducted a telethon asking for 700 viewers to each pledge $10 per month to keep it on the air. The goal was reached, and he later renamed his daily program The 700 Club in honor of the event.

By the end of the 1960s, Robertson had stabilized the operation with funds provided by investors. CBN bought three more television stations (including one in Lebanon that reached across the Middle East), as well as five more radio stations. In addition, affiliate agreements were made with scores of television and radio stations to carry The 700 Club and other CBN programs. In 1977 Robertson purchased access rights to RCA's Satcom II satellite, a crucial move that secured the success of CBN as a national communications company and established him as a true pioneer of the cable television revolution. Able to beam its signal to every cable system in the United States (and abroad), CBN quickly became one of the most-viewed cable channels in the United States, ranking with Ted Turner's WTBS Superstation and MTV in terms of household penetration and ratings. In a move that disturbed some of his religious followers, Robertson changed the name of the cable outlet to the Family Channel in 1981, introduced commercials, and turned it into a for-profit company. The Family Channel was sold in 1998, but CBN continues to exist as an umbrella for Robertson's television and radio interests.

Robertson's fundamentalist religious beliefs in "gifts of the spirit," such as faith healing and speaking in tongues, draw a combination of mockery and animus from his critics. The same is true of his populist views on subjects ranging from the teaching of natural selection, to the replacement of state welfare programs with religion-based charities. However, it should be noted that racial reconciliation, one of the overriding themes of the 1960s, became an important message in Robertson's television ministry. Ben Kinchlow, an African American who had once considered membership in Elijah Muhammed's Nation of Islam (or "Black Muslims"), was for many years Robertson's co-host on The 700 Club, and the friendship and conviviality of the two had a tangible effect on the many unreconstructed segregationists among Robertson's audience.

In 1987 Robertson announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination that was eventually won by George H. W. Bush. Attacked by moderates for his religious beliefs (such as his claim that a hurricane had spared the CBN transmitting station because of prayer) and for inconsistencies with his philosophy in his personal life (such as his revising the date of his marriage anniversary to conceal the birth of his first child), Robertson soon retreated to the role of a powerbroker in the Republican Party, which, as the founding president of the Christian Coalition, he institutionalized. His support was crucial in the Republican primary victories of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Robertson bristles at being called a "televangelist," which he regards as the equivalent of "calling a black person a 'nigger.'" Clearly his aims have been broader and his achievements more noteworthy than other television preachers whose scandals are conjured by the term. As is often the case with 1960s idealists of all political stripes, Robertson's subsequent career leaves those who have followed it arguing over whether he has successfully "changed the world" or "sold out to the establishment."

Robertson's autobiography, with Jamie Buckingham, Shout It from the Housetops (1972), gives an account of his life as a young man. Biographies include Gerard T. Straub, Salvation for Sale: An Insider's View of Pat Robertson's Ministry (1986); David E. Harrell, Pat Robertson: A Personal, Religious, and Political Portrait (1987); and John B. Donovan, Pat Robertson: The Authorized Biography (1988). In addition, the transcript of a two-hour videotaped interview conducted by the author in 2000 is held at the Syracuse University Library by the Center for the Study of Popular Television.

David Marc

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