Pat Robertson

views updated May 29 2018

Pat Robertson

Marion G. "Pat" Robertson (born 1930) was a television evangelist who founded and led the Christian Broadcasting Network. In 1988 he ran for president, doing well in several primaries and caucuses and succeeding at getting his religious agenda into the arena of public discussion.

Pat Robertson was born on March 22, 1930, the son of A. Willis Robertson and Gladys Churchill Robertson, in Lexington, Virginia. His father was a congressman and later a senator, a staunch conservative known for his expertise in taxation and banking and for his die-hard segregationist views on issues of race. Robertson grew up largely in Lexington, finishing high school at the elite McCallie School in Chattanooga and then returning home to attend college at Washington and Lee University. Following military service in Korea he enrolled at Yale Law School, where he met Adelia "Dede" Elmer. They were married in August 1954.

Upon completion of law school Robertson took the New York Bar examination and failed it. He became a management trainee with the W.R. Grace Company and seemed destined for a career in international business; then he resigned and joined two law classmates in founding an electronics company. Leaving that business as well, in 1956 he enrolled at what is now New York Theological Seminary. Before graduating in 1959 he had become involved with a circle of fellow believers who were early participants in the neo-charismatic movement, many of them speaking in tongues. He remained in the largely noncharismatic Southern Baptist denomination, however, and was ordained a minister there in 1961. (He resigned his ordination in 1987 prior to announcing his candidacy for president.)

Launched CBN

Robertson's first experience in religious broadcasting came shortly after he had completed seminary when, during a visit to the family home in Lexington, he was asked to substitute for a vacationing minister on a daily 15-minute radio program. Soon thereafter he was informed by a minister-friend of his mother's of a bankrupt television station for sale at a bargain price in Portsmouth, Virginia. After extensive negotiating Robertson managed to buy the station and raise enough money to begin operations on WYAH-TV, the first television outlet for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Programming was launched on October 1, 1961. Radio broadcasting had been started in WXRI-FM two months earlier.

The shoestring operation slowly attracted viewers and financial contributions; among the early additions to the CBN staff were Jim and Tammy Bakker, whose initial responsibilities were in children's programming and who later left to start their own religious television operation. In 1963 the need to meet a $7,000-per-month budget with gifts from viewers led to a telethon in which 700 listeners were asked to pledge $10 per month each. These early supporters were called the "700 Club," a name that endured on CBN. By 1965 CBN was operating in the black, poised for a meteoric rise in support that reached some $240 million per year by the late 1980s.

Auxiliary enterprises were added as CBN grew. CBN University was established in 1978; it was followed in the 1980s by several other organizations, including a political education society known as the Freedom Council and a legal-assistance project for fundamentalist Christian causes called the National Legal Foundation. Various other counseling, benevolent, and outreach programs were developed in the United States and abroad.

Presidential Campaign

Robertson's background as a son of a successful politician and his strong moral drive came to a head with his 1988 candidacy for the presidency. In 1986 he announced a campaign to secure three million signatures on petitions urging him to run, a set of signatures that amounted to an enormous mailing list for fund-raising and volunteer services for the campaign. Claiming to have exceeded that goal, he formally announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on October 1, 1987. His campaign embraced themes commonly voiced in conservative America, promoting, for example, fiscal conservatism, opposition to most abortions, moral conservativism on such issues as sexual conduct and pornography, and the return of religious observances to the public schools. For someone who had never previously run for public office, Robertson did very well in the various caucuses and primaries of the 1988 campaign, although he ultimately lost the nomination to George Bush.

During the presidential campaign some of the relatively unorthodox side of Robertson's theology came to light. The most prominent example involved his claim to have changed the course of a hurricane in 1985 by praying, on the air, "In the name of Jesus, we command you to stop where you are and move northeast, away from land, and away from harm." Indeed, Hurricane Gloria changed course and headed northeast, sparing the mainland. Later Robertson suggested that his apparent success in averting bad weather helped confirm his decision to run for president: "It was extremely important because I felt, interestingly enough, that if I couldn't move a hurricane, I could hardly move a nation."

Controversy continued to follow Robertson after his 1988 run for the presidency (he declined to run in 1992). In 1993, for example, he was criticized when CBN invested $2.8 million of its nonprofit, donor-given monies in a for-profit vitamin and skin care company in which Robertson also had a substantial personal investment. Robertson, however, was never seriously damaged by controversy, and CBN continued its diverse operations in good health. Furthermore, Robertson was largely resposible for galvanizing the right-wing Christian movement, particularly the Christian Coalition. This small but well-organized group of fundamentalist Christians continues to be a powerful force in American politics.

Further Reading

An early autobiography, Shout It from the Housetops (1972), provides a good summary of Robertson's outlook. A relatively sympathetic biography is David Edwin Harrell's Pat Robertson: A Personal, Religious, and Political Portrait (1987). One of several critical works is Salvation for Sale: An Insider's View of Pat Robertson (1988), written by Gerard Thomas Straub, a former high-ranking CBN employee.

Additional Sources

Pat Robertson, America's Date with Destiny, Thomas Nelson, 1986.

Pat Robertson, The End of the Age, Word Publishing, 1996. □