Many people dislike Pat Robertson--so much so that they miss his significance. Few would list him with "major religious figures of the twentieth century"--people like Karl Barth, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham. But he belongs on that list. As much as anybody, he has put his stamp on American Christianity as it approaches the third millennium.
Just to get the negatives on the table, let's acknowledge the Geraldo factor. Robertson has spent 35 years in front of television cameras. He is a talk-show host, prone to colorful, shoot-from-the-hip glibness. Let's also acknowledge the Jim Bakker factor: he is a religious talk-show host, which gives many secularists (and some religious people) the shivers. Like much TV religion, Robertson's 700 Club offers populist, Pentecostal faith. He receives, on the air, with eyes clenched shut, messages from the Lord that someone's respiratory illness is being healed. He asks for money; and he is not just raising money to help the sick and needy around the world, he is trying to fund a flying hospital.
Robertson is also extremely conservative politically. He lobs shells against gay rights and abortion; he backed the contras in Nicaragua and the white government in South Africa; he fought to get Jesse Helms reelected. He even made friends and business deals with Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Such conservatism has its enemies, and besides, many Americans remain extremely uncomfortable mixing politics and faith.
Yet you don't have to be popular to be important. Robertson has shaped three major religious developments: the charismatic renewal, Christian tv, and evangelical politics. The charismatic renewal, of which Robertson is a founding member, modernized and broadened Pentecostalism, giving evangelicalism a renewed vitality. Robertson played a leading role in developing religious television, which has deeply (some would say insidiously) affected the church. Most recently, Robertson has led evangelical Christians into political re-engagement. Together, these developments helped transform evangelicalism from a small, defended backwater to the leading force in American Christianity.
All of these developments remain ambivalent, unsettled, and unsettling. That is all the more reason why attention should be paid. To study Robertson is to think concretely about popular religion in America today. To an uncanny degree, Robertson mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of modern evangelicalism.
Robertson is a founding figure in the charismatic renewal, which invigorated and popularized modern evangelicalism. You cannot comprehend Robertson, or modern American Christianity, without taking into account the charismatic movement. It shaped Pat Robertson, and Robertson shaped it.
As a young man, Pat Robertson seemed an unlikely candidate for the renewal's fervent piety. He was well-educated (Phi Beta Kappa at Washington and Lee, Yale Law), sophisticated (his father was a U.S. senator), and a middle-of-the-road church member (raised a Baptist). By his own account, Robertson grew up resisting his mother's deep faith and living the kind of semi-dissolute life that U.S. senators' sons are sometimes reputed to enjoy.
A tour of duty in the United States Marine Corps failed to settle him down. He went to law school but lost interest; married a Catholic nurse named Dede shortly before she gave birth to their son Tim; failed the bar exam; and then entered business in New York. He experienced such restlessness he decided to quit and become a minister. His mother, told of his decision, said he didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about and arranged a meeting with a mystical Dutch evangelist, Cornelius Vanderbreggen. Through Vanderbreggen Robertson was joyfully converted to Christianity. He went home to his startled wife and poured their entire liquor supply down the drain.
Soon she was more than startled: he left her seven months pregnant with a second child, going off to a month-long InterVarsity conference where he would pray and study the Bible. A note came from Dede: "Please come back. I need you desperately." After consulting his Bible he replied, "I can't leave. God will take care of you."
Some years later he would receive a strong mental impression that God wanted him to consider Luke 12:33. Looking it up, he discovered Jesus' instructions to sell all and give to the poor. Dede came home to find all the furniture gone and the family sharing a friend's house in a Brooklyn slum.
In Robertson's fascinating autobiography, "Shout It from the Housetops," such extremes come across not as rigidity but as an absolutely impassioned search for intimacy with God. At his conversion, all other ambitions went out the window. Attending Biblical Seminary in New York City, Robertson became part of a small, devoted prayer group convinced that ordinary church life was utterly unsatisfactory, that they must experience the miraculous presence of God. They had few guides; they seem to have had only glancing contact with Pentecostalism, then mainly a lower-class phenomenon. Week-long fasts and all-night prayer meetings became common.
"We just wanted God . . . with great hunger and desperation," Robertson remembers. "Frankly, I've never since seen as many people who were that dedicated to seeking a walk with the Lord."
They sought more than personal illumination; they wanted revival. When Billy Graham came to Manhattan in 1957, they handed out tracts and preached on street corners, hungering for the movement of the Holy Spirit that would transform New York. "I'm sure if we prayed that hard in the South, the whole South would have burst into flame," Robertson says, remembering the city's resistance. Hearing a report of revival in the Hebrides Islands, one of their members spoke for them all: "Without revival, there's nothing. There's no hope."
A Korean woman in their group said that praying in tongues was the key to revival. One by one they experienced this gift, finding extraordinary satisfaction and excitement. Robertson was among a group of three who described their experience to Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale, who related it to a "Guideposts" writer named John Sherrill. Sherrill investigated and ended up composing two books on the phenomenon, "They Speak with Other Tongues" and "The Cross and the Switchblade," which he ghostwrote for David Wilkerson. Both would have enormous impact in spreading the burgeoning charismatic renewal.
So, in a different way, would Robertson. Over a long, difficult summer after seminary graduation, he turned down several pastorates, applied to be a missionary in Israel, and considered staying in the Bedford Stuyvesant slums. Then he was told of a defunct television station in Portsmouth, Virginia. Robertson heard the Lord telling him to buy it for $37,000. He hardly had $37, and he knew nothing about television. On his first visit to the wrecked facility he had to climb in a broken window, tiptoe through shattered glass and smashed vacuum tubes, and scare off a large wharf rat. He managed to buy the station on a promise to pay, and in 1961 began to broadcast three hours of Christian television each night. From the start, he thought big, calling his single, shoestring station the Christian Broadcasting Network. Though the station's signal barely reached the city limits, Robertson dreamed of a network of stations up and down the east coast.
He had the only Christian television station in the world, with one black-and-white camera that, remembers Pentecostal historian Vinson Synan, "panned around the studio and made you dizzy. They were the laughingstock of Portsmouth." Trying to fill the hours of programming, Robertson featured anyone who could "walk and talk and stay saved," as current 700 Club cohost Ben Kinchlow puts it. Leftover time was filled with free travelogues.
Production was so haphazard that, as one early staffer put it, "We should be showing what goes on off camera rather than what's on the set--it's a lot more interesting." There was never enough money, especially as Robertson was continually inspired to buy new equipment, expand facilities, and take on employees. The staff were frequently in turmoil. Robertson wrote that he was sometimes so exhausted his television audience thought he was drugged.
Yet the business had the feeling--to Robertson, anyway--of miracle. Local ministers kept their distance; still, the station found an audience. Robertson's enthusiasm, his expectation and proclamation of every kind of miracle, his divine guidance and "practice of the presence of God"--in short, his barely restrained Pentecostalism--drew a small but enthusiastic following. Soon every growing charismatic ministry used WYAH (yes, he named it after God) as a platform.
The audience grew larger as Robertson, ever an entrepreneur, mastered changing broadcast technology and developed a programming style to fit the medium. In 1965 Jim and Tammy Bakker, young Assemblies of God evangelists, joined him. Their unabashed emotionalism helped the show. In one key telethon, Jim Bakker wept on camera after failing to meet financial goals, and money poured in.
More important was the spontaneous, interactive style of broadcasting that developed out of the station's fundraising telethons. These became on-the-air revival meetings, with ongoing reports of miracles (and pledges) phoned in. Oral Roberts and Kathryn Kuhlman had broadcast Pentecostal crusades, but Robertson's shows had a different flavor: men and women who sat in living-room chairs and talked in conversational tones about their encounters with the supernatural.
Michael Little, now president of CBN, notes, "When you do that year after year, 260 shows a year throughout the seventies and throughout the eighties, and you have audiences of 7 million people a month, that normalizes what might have been considered a fringe experience."
"TV has been key to the charismatic movement's spread since WWII," argues historian Synan. Undoubtedly, the 700 Club (it got its name from an early telethon appeal for 700 donors who would give $10 a month) helped make the charismatic renewal familiar to millions of Americans. It became an accepted part of evangelicalism--a renewing element rather than a frightening and divisive force.
At the same time, the 700 Club nudged Pentecostalism into a wider world. Historian David Harrell says that Robertson was interested in "broadcasting rather than narrowcasting. He made a quite conscious effort in the ministry to permeate society."
Pentecostalism can tend toward ever- increasing displays of holy fervor for an ever-narrowing audience. Robertson's determination to reach a wide audience pushed the opposite direction. So did his own education and background. He invited a wider variety of guests and eventually increased the breadth of subject matter to include what would have been almost unthinkably profane in the beginning--politics.
Robertson steered the charismatic renewal toward unity with traditional evangelicals. I asked Harrell, who has written biographical studies of Oral Roberts and of Robertson, whether he thought Robertson had grown less charismatic over the years. "What always surprises me," he said, "is how strongly the distinctive charismatic flavor is still there. From a political perspective, I always thought Robertson would cut off some of the sharper edges of the miraculous. He has never done that. It is still out front."
Yet he has decisively steered the movement toward a broader Christian identity. During the mid-1970s, "shepherding" became the hottest trend in the charismatic renewal. It was an attempt to impose disciplined standards on the sometimes shallow enthusiasm that marked the movement. Promoted by a number of Christian leaders in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, area, "shepherding" imposed a strict hierarchy on all members, with everyone subject to a "shepherd." Before long, "shepherds" dictated friendships, personal spending, even marriage plans. Robertson reacted violently. His long-time friend Bob Slosser, now a professor of journalism at Regent University, remembers Robertson coming back from an unfruitful confrontation. "He said, if that's what is known as the charismatic movement, I don't want to be identified with it."
Robertson banned anyone associated with shepherding from appearing on the 700 Club, a powerful blow at that time. At the same time, he began referring to himself as a "Spirit-filled evangelical" rather than a charismatic. "We wanted the soundness of the evangelical movement, scripturally and theologically," Slosser says.
Today, Robertson and his staff at the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) stiffen when the term charismatic is used. Robertson stresses that Regent University, the graduate school he founded in 1978, is an evangelical, not a charismatic, institution. It is not just a semantic stipulation. The leaders Robertson has hired to run his numerous organizations are a religiously varied lot, who do not all share his charismatic theology.
Robertson has also opened himself to Roman Catholics--so much so that he signed a controversial statement of common cause between evangelical and Catholic believers, hired a devout Roman Catholic to head his public-interest law organization (the ACLJ), and allows the Catholic Mass to be celebrated daily on the Regent campus for its sizable group of Roman Catholic students.
Robertson defines a broader, wider form of Pentecostalism that blurs almost imperceptibly into evangelicalism. Of course, some regret this as a loss. "I feel with all my heart that Pat is going to return to the simplicity of walking in the impossible," says John Gimenez, a Virginia Beach pastor who has known Robertson for many years.
Apparently Robertson feels some ambivalence, too. The week of September 24, 1995, he sponsored Seven Days Ablaze, an old-fashioned tent revival on the lawn in front of CBN headquarters. It featured some of the hottest (and most extreme) of Pentecostal preachers, such as Benny Hinn, Mario Murillo, T. L. Osborn, and T. D. Jakes. Many Pentecostals were delighted, thinking that Robertson had reawakened his zeal. Non-Pentecostals were dismayed. Vinson Synan says the atmosphere was like Oral Roberts meetings from the 1940s, such that a preacher could read from a telephone book and people would shout.
Why didn't Robertson balance his invitations? Michael Little says there was no strategic plan. He did say, however, that they felt they needed preachers who could do well in a tent. Pentecostals were the only evangelists who came to mind.
It is surely one of Pentecostalism's strengths that it remains comfortable in a tent. Synan commented that Robertson's huge potential audience around the globe, that of Asia and South America and Africa, understands a tent revival, finding no barriers in Pentecostal ecstasy.
Robertson has helped to shape the charismatic movement as a wide, ecumenical, and comfortable phenomenon; as such he has helped pull Pentecostalism closer to the mainstream of American life. Still, the movement contains a wilder strain, which gives it much of its attractive power but is almost inherently disturbing to middle-class expectations. In Robertson and in his work you still find that ambivalence. The huge tent that housed Seven Days Ablaze continues to stand at the Virginia Beach campus, next door to a first-class luxury hotel, and across a swath of grass from the large satellite uplinks of cbn.
Robertson's longing for revival led him to a series of broadcast innovations that created religious TV as we know it. The 380-acre Virginia Beach campus housing CBN and other Robertson enterprises is a spacious, manicured park cut out of piney forests. An Esquire magazine hit piece described it as "across from a strip mall," which is true but conveys an utterly inaccurate image. The strip mall is in the middle distance. These colonial Virginia brick buildings speak of tradition and elegance, as do the scores of fine Persian carpets that grace their floors. Future generations of Regent University students will be led to think of Robertson as a sober elder statesman rather than the daredevil entrepreneur he is in fact.
Most of Robertson's television innovations can be traced to that early, charismatic longing for revival. He cared, that is, about transforming large numbers of people, and was never happy operating in a religious ghetto. From the beginning, Robertson had an ambitious vision. He acquired several radio stations and even purchased a TV station in Bogota, Colombia.
Growth by acquisition proved too slow, however. In the early seventies, Robertson began to buy TV time on commercial stations across the country and to build local franchises to provide telephone counseling and other followup. So long as donations came in, he learned he could multiply potential viewers at a meteoric clip.
The logistics of shipping bulky video-tape from one station to the next was troublesome, though, handling local telephone responses was tricky, and buying air time expensive. Robertson looked for a better way and discovered it in satellite technology. In 1977 he became one of the very first (only Ted Turner and HBO were ahead of him) to invest massively. That year he broadcast his annual telethon simultaneously in 18 cities and launched a 24-hour cable network. Audiences were small in the beginning--according to David Harrell, CBN reached 1.5 million homes by cable in 1978-but would mushroom to almost 9 million homes ten years later.
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