Pat Robertson, evangelical and Christian political trailblazer, dies at 93

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Rev. Pat Robertson, an influential and often inflammatory voice of conservative Christianity who ran for president in 1988 and helped organize the political strength of evangelicals, has died. He was 93.

His death was announced Thursday by the Christian Broadcasting Network, but no cause was given.

The son of a U.S. senator, Robertson initially made his name in broadcasting, as the host of “The 700 Club,” which became the flagship of his Christian Broadcasting Network. The televangelist's influence was at his height in the 1980s and 1990s when a religious tint helped shift the Republican Party to the right, and Americans two centuries removed from the nation’s Founding Fathers found themselves battling over the separation of church and state.

In 1988, Robertson sought the presidency, running in the Republican primaries. “Although a political amateur, he entered the campaign pledging to ride to the rescue of a nation in moral drift,” the Los Angeles Times wrote later that year.

Unexpectedly, he finished second in the Iowa caucuses behind Sen. Bob Dole and ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush, the eventual nominee. Robertson’s campaign faded after that, but he ended up with the third-most votes in the GOP primaries. He was rewarded with a prime speaking spot at that summer’s Republican National Convention.

Robertson’s presidential campaign, wrote historian Scott Culpepper in 2021, “both demonstrated the continuing political clout of conservative American evangelicals and shaped the future course of conservative evangelical political activism. Lessons learned from the Robertson campaign, possibly from its failures as much or more than its successes, enabled conservative evangelicals to determine critical changes they would need to make if their effective political influence was to continue. Most importantly, Robertson’s campaign cemented the alliance between conservative evangelical activists and the Republican Party.”

Supporters saw Robertson as a lamp in the darkness, an unrepentant force for biblical values in an increasingly secular society, as well as someone who helped those on what came to be called the “Religious Right” gain political power.

“Christians really became mobilized,” wrote William Martin of Robertson’s 1988 campaign in “With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America.” “They had a cause now, they had a champion who was speaking to their pain, speaking to their hearts and was willing to speak out loud.”

Foes saw him as someone who was trying to foist his own morality and intolerance on society at large. And there were times he simply came off as bizarre, as when he claimed to have prayed Hurricane Gloria away from his Virginia Beach headquarters in September 1985. His penchant for making prophesies that mostly failed to come true also drew him ridicule; these traits only accelerated as he got older.

Looking through his decades of pronouncements, it would be hard to find a group he didn’t defame at one point or other.

He remained the host of “The 700 Club” until October 2021, when he retired as his network celebrated its 60th anniversary.

“After decades,” Christianity Today wrote of his retirement, “of offering Christian viewers his commentary on natural disasters, 9/11, AIDS, pot, divorce, diplomacy, plastic surgery, homosexuality, Islam, secular colleges, the end of the world, critical race theory, and a range of other moral issues, Pat Robertson has signed off as host of ‘The 700 Club.’”

Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson was born March 22, 1930, in Lexington, Va. His father was Virginia political leader A. Willis Robertson, who served in the House from 1933 to 1945 and then in the U.S. Senate from 1946 to 1966, and was a foe of any and all civil rights legislation. The Robertson lineage included two American presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison.

At the age of 18, Robertson joined the Marine Corps, serving in Korea during the Korean War. After graduating from Washington and Lee University, and working on the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee during the summer, he attended Yale Law School, where he finished near the top of his class.

He also married Dede Elmer, whom he met at Yale; their marriage lasted until her death in April 2022.

But Robertson failed to pass the New York bar exam, which left him feeling unmoored. “I had tried pleasure, philosophy, a profession — nothing satisfied. I lived with a nagging feeling I just didn't belong anywhere. Life was empty,” he wrote in his 1972 book “Shout It From The Housetops.”

A traveling minister named Cornelius Vanderbreggen — some characterize him as a mystic — offered Robertson a path forward, a personal connection with Jesus Christ, that Robertson accepted. “It was as if I had walked through a curtain, which had separated me from God,” Robertson later wrote.

Robertson enrolled in the New York Theological Seminary. After a stint ministering from a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, he purchased a bankrupt TV station in Portsmouth, Va., in 1960. The Christian Broadcasting Network was launched there in October 1961. Robertson would say later he started out with $70.

“The 700 Club“ was born in 1966 as a daily TV program. Robertson initially alternated hosting duties with the Rev. Jim Bakker, who would later be caught up in multiple scandals. During the 1970s, the show was syndicated nationally and then internationally, expanding the reach of Robertson’s message. He also founded CBN University and Operation Blessing, a humanitarian organization.

News broadcasts were added to “The 700 Club“ in 1980, adding a political element. The show’s sets evolved as well, making it look something like a network talk show. It didn’t hurt Robertson that his persona in some ways echoed that of the nation’s most popular political figure. “Like Ronald Reagan,” author Bruce Bawer wrote in “Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity,” “he’s a man with a worldly, privileged past who has acquired an aw-shucks, folksy persona that appeals to middle Americans.”

But as influential as he was within his faith community, Robertson’s impact was not necessarily felt at a national level. Sometimes, though, in an era before technology easily allowed for outrageous statements to go viral, he said things that drew widespread attention. In September 1985, for instance, he claimed that prayer had diverted a massive storm from his home turf.

Hurricane Gloria did not come ashore in Virginia Beach, making landfall much further north. Robertson later said he took it as a sign that he was fated to play a large role in America’s affairs. “I felt, interestingly enough, that if I couldn’t move a hurricane, I could hardly move a nation,” he said in September 1986.

In October 1987, Robertson launched his presidential campaign in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Introduced by former football star Rosey Grier as a band played the “Rocky” theme, Robertson offered a populist message. “I’m here today because I have a commitment to the cities of the United States of America and to the poor of this nation,” he told the crowd, as he worked to be heard above chanting protesters.

He added: “I believe that we can bring education, that we can bring hope, that we can bring opportunity, that we can bring blessing to all the people of this land.”

It didn't hurt that Robertson had a ready-made donor list consisting of the people who had been supporting his TV network.

Four months later, Robertson did stunningly well in the Iowa caucuses, finishing in second place, well ahead of Bush, the sitting vice president.

“Mr. Robertson's showing in the Republican contest threatened to be an embarrassment not only to Mr. Bush but perhaps, in the long run, to the Republican Party as well. Many national polls show that Mr. Robertson, who stands firmly on the right of the political spectrum on a variety of social issues, is one of the most unpopular political figures in America,” the New York Times wrote.

Robertson's loyalists took their fight to other states. "Robertson's relatively neophyte activists sought to win delegates to the national convention and push the GOP to write a platform that reflected their key concerns," historian Matthew Dallek wrote in his book "Birchers."

But Bush righted the ship after Iowa. Better organized nationally and more experienced politically, he was able to fend off not only Robertson but also Dole on his way to winning the presidency.

Robertson endorsed Bush when he dropped out of the race and ended up speaking on his behalf at both the 1988 and 1992 Republican National Conventions, though through his own lens.

“George Bush's vision for American, ladies and gentlemen, is one of faith in God, strong families, freedom, individual initiative, and free enterprise,” he said in the 1992 speech, in which he accused Democratic nominee Bill Clinton of having “a radical plan to destroy the traditional family and transfer many of its functions to the federal government.”

After the 1988 campaign, Robertson he returned to his broadcasting network. But, he also remained a force in politics through the Christian Coalition, which he founded in 1989 and which was led in its early years by Ralph Reed.

“The sense of adventure was irresistible, and the possibilities for success seemed almost limitless,” Reed said of the new organization.

The Christian Coalition sought to energize people of faith and get them involved in the political process. According to Martin in “With God on Our Side,” Reed would show his audiences “a 17-minute video presentation, ‘America at the Crossroads,’ in which Pat Robertson spoke alarmingly of the need for Christians to stop the nation’s slide into hell. Reed would then offer detailed instruction on how to participate in local politics.”

The organization was widely credited with helping Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich in his quest to win control of the House in 1994. Lessons learned in that election were also credited with helping George W, Bush win the presidency in 2000.

For his part, Robertson never flagged in his condemnation of liberals. “There is nothing ‘liberal‘ about them. They are elitist — convinced that they and their associates are the sole possessors of enlightenment and truth needed to lead all others,” he said in a speech at the University of Virginia in March 2000.

Firmly ensconced at his base in southeastern Virginia, Robertson never stopped addressing public issues, though he quite regularly found himself in controversies over his rhetoric. Some of those were when he went quite far out on a limb, as in 2005 when he called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. “It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war,” he reasoned.

He would often attribute natural disasters to the supposed moral failings of those who suffered them. Robertson blamed a 2010 earthquake in Haiti on divine retribution for that nation’s “pact with the devil” and connected 2005’s Hurricane Katrina to the issue of abortion. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, he said he agreed with the Rev. Jerry Falwell when Falwell placed blame for those attacks on "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.”

Divine retribution against the LGBTQ community was a long-running theme of his. In 1998, Robertson warned Disney World and the city of Orlando, Fla., that flying rainbow flags could lead to “earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor.”

"Pat Robertson just doesn't get it," responded Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, to that Orlando prediction. Lynn’s 2015 book “God and Government” included a quick listing of some of those Robertson had insulted over the years, including adherents of Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Roman Catholicism — and women. Robertson was particularly critical of feminism.

Regardless, Robertson retained a core audience until his 2021 retirement. Christianity Today noted at the time that his network aired in 174 countries and 70 languages.

He told his final “700 Club” audience: “After, I think, 54 years of hosting the program, I thank God for everyone that’s been involved, and I want to thank all of you.”