Across six decades in front of the camera, Pat Robertson brought his Pentecostal sensibilities and conservative politics into millions of living rooms as the pioneer of Christian television and the leader of the Christian Coalition.
The outspoken broadcaster died Thursday at age 93 in Virginia Beach, Virginia, home to his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and Regent University. Robertson signed off as host of CBN’s flagship program The 700 Club in 2021 at age 91, though he continued to appear on monthly Q&A segments.
During his TV career, the one-time Republican presidential candidate hopeful interviewed five US presidents and dozens of global leaders; prayed for millions of viewers; offered political predictions; and stirred controversy with his off-the-cuff commentary characterizing disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and the 9/11 attacks as God’s judgment.
Although his controversial remarks garnered a lot of attention in his later years, Robertson was also among the most influential evangelicals of the 20th century, with an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to do whatever he sensed was God’s will.
“Robertson has shaped three major religious developments: the charismatic renewal, Christian TV, and evangelical politics,” CT wrote in a 1996 profile of Robertson. “Together, these developments helped transform evangelicalism from a small, defended backwater to the leading force in American Christianity.”
Before CBN became the broadcasting powerhouse it is today—with a $300 million annual budget and a reach across 174 countries—it was a defunct Virginia television station and a call from God.
There was no successful model for Christian TV when Robertson bought a run-down facility in Portsmouth, Virginia, and launched WYAH-TV (named for Yahweh) in 1961. It aired three hours of programming each night from a single black-and-white camera. Those early years were exhausting, dizzying, and haphazard, but to the Pentecostal businessman, the station felt like a miracle.
CBN’s first telethon launched the “700 Club” in 1963, recruiting 700 viewers to pledge $10 a month to cover the station’s expenses; the show that took its name came three years later.
Robertson kept the station growing with more fundraising, more talent—evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker joined in ‘65—and new technology. The Praise the Lord (PTL) Network and Trinity Broadcasting Network followed.
Robertson became among the first TV executives to invest in satellite, allowing CBN to broadcast its annual telethon across 18 cities and launch a 24-hour cable network by 1977. Within a decade, CBN was in 9 million homes.
As CT reported in 1982, “CBN began replacing pulpits and King James English with Johnny Carson-style sofas and soap-opera vernacular. Its anchor show, The 700 Club, assumed an upbeat, magazine format, complete with news spots from Washington, D.C. Other programs resemble familiar TV Guide lineups, with a top-quality soap opera, early morning news and chatter, a miniseries on pornography, Wall Street analyses, and entertainment for children.”
While Robertson comfortably made his home on the CBN set, talking prayer and politics with charismatic flair, he had become a different sort of person than he was growing up a Southern Baptist in Lexington, Virginia, restless and largely uninterested in evangelistic faith.
Robertson was born Marion Gordon Robertson in 1930 and was nicknamed “Pat” for how his brother would pat his chubby cheeks. His father, A. Willis Robertson, was a US senator, and Pat Robertson enjoyed an elite education at Washington and Lee University and Yale Law School. He served two years in the Korean War.
After failing the bar exam and quitting a business job in New York, he set out to become a minister, a decision that confused his devout mother back home in Virginia. She connected him with a Dutch missionary named Cornelius Vanderbreggen. Robertson went to dinner with Vanderbreggen in Philadelphia and cringed when he shared a gospel tract with their waiter and read the Bible at the table.
But secretly, Robertson had been studying Scripture and began to sense God speaking to him through it. He made a confession of faith to Vanderbreggen that he later saw as his own conversion “from swinger to saint.” In that moment, he said, he transitioned from religious assent to the existence of God to a saving relationship with his heavenly Father.
He surprised his wife, Dede, with his convert’s zeal—he poured their expensive scotch down the drain; left her pregnant with their second child while he attended a month-long InterVarsity conference; and eventually sold their furniture and moved their family of five into one and a half rooms in a shared apartment in Brooklyn, inspired by Luke 12:33’s command to “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” His first job in ministry was at Bayside Community Church on Long Island.
In his late 20s, Robertson attended Biblical Seminary in Manhattan, joining a group of devoted believers who prayed, fasted, and dedicated themselves to seeking God while ministering among the poor. He went on prayer retreats with classmates who included Eugene Peterson. Robertson and the “Christian Soldiers” preached on street corners when Billy Graham came to the city in 1957. They met with Guideposts editor Ruth Stafford Peale and prayed in tongues for revival, inspiring two seminal books from the charismatic renewal, They Speak with Other Tongues and The Cross and the Switchblade.
“I had now walked into the Book of Acts and was no longer a spectator but an active participant in the works of a miracle-making God,” Robertson said.
Robertson left New York for his Virginia hometown after graduating in 1959. In Lexington, he had the opportunity to preach 15-minute radio segments and learned of a TV station for sale five hours away in Portsmouth. When his family moved down, he didn’t even have a TV set, “just $70 and a vision of establishing the first Christian television network in the United States,” his biography reads. He preached at local churches to get by before the network got running; some would give him a $5 honorarium, and one paid him in a 70-pound bag of soybeans.
Many of Robertson’s ventures follow this pattern of him hearing a call from God and launching a project in response.
“I wanted to be part of God’s plan, and his plan is for world evangelization and to bring millions to the kingdom, and he’s let me be part of it,” Robertson said.
He said God spoke to him over lunch (half a cantaloupe and cottage cheese) to build a school for his glory, and in 1977 he bought 70 acres in Virginia Beach for CBN University, later Regent. Seventy-seven students enrolled in its first year.
The next year at Christmas, he said God spoke to him to “proclaim a simple message of salvation” as he would send his Spirit all over the world and millions would respond. He launched what would become CBN International. Today, 90 percent of the network’s viewers come from outside of the US.
Reading the promise of blessing in Isaiah 58 led him to found the humanitarian charity Operation Blessing in 1978; the ministry has gone on to aid people in 90 countries and territories.
And it was also with God’s call in mind that Robertson entered the political arena. He returned to the Bedford-Stuyvesant brownstone where he had once lived in New York to declare his presidential candidacy in 1987.
Even before his run, Christian viewers recognized Robertson’s interest in politics, some with excitement and some with caution. He’d joked that the Senate, where his father served decades as a conservative southern Democrat, would be a demotion, but the presidency would be a “lateral move” from his post at CBN.
Christianity Today wrote about the early buzz around Robertson’s presidential ambitions in ‘85:
He is intensely interested in educating Christians about public affairs and stirring their enthusiasm for political involvement. He believes America faces a crossroads where family values and faith in God could lose out to statism and hedonism. Running for President will not guarantee Robertson a term in the White House, but it will almost certainly mean that the presidential candidates in 1988 will not be able to dismiss moral issues that matter to Christians.
In the early ’80s, Robertson began dedicating the first half hour of The 700 Club to public affairs, having become increasingly concerned about secularism and threats to religious freedom, like restrictions on prayer in schools. He saw the show’s content shift as a response to government overreach. “It isn’t that we’re getting into politics,” he said. “They’re getting into religion.”
Robertson said he viewed the presidency as a way to continue his calling to serve. Despite a second-place finish in the early Iowa caucuses, he lost on Super Tuesday and dropped out, endorsing George H. W. Bush. After the race, he wrote in The Plan that he saw a deeper purpose in his failed White House run.
Could it be that the reason for my candidacy has been fulfilled in the activation of tens of thousands of evangelical Christians into government? For the first time in recent history, patriotic, pro-family Christians learned the simple techniques of effective party-organizing and successful campaigning. Their presence as an active force in American politics may result ultimately in at least one of America’s major political parties taking on a profoundly Christian outlook in its platforms and party structure.
He built on that momentum by launching the Christian Coalition, which rallied evangelical voters and distributed voting guides to churches starting in 1989. The following year, he also founded a “pro-family, pro-liberty, and pro-life” law firm, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
Part of a larger Religious Right movement, the coalition saw that some conservative evangelicals agreed with its conservative positions but remained reticent to declare a Christian stance on issues that didn’t have a clear biblical mandate. It also fought for a decade with the federal government over its nonpartisan guides and eventually lost its tax-exempt status.
Robertson saw himself as an evangelical with a charismatic gift and ecumenical outlook, once saying, “As far as the majesty of worship, I’m an Episcopalian; as far as a belief in the sovereignty of God, I’m Presbyterian; in terms of holiness, I’m a Methodist … in terms of the priesthood of believers and baptism, I’m a Baptist; in terms of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I’m a Pentecostal, so I’m a little bit of all of them.”
Fellow Christians frequently challenged (or rolled their eyes at) some of the declarations Robertson made on air over the years, as he commented on current events and answered viewers’ questions. He called for the US to assassinate Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He defended divorcing a wife with Alzheimer’s. He predicted Donald Trump’s victory and didn’t accept Trump’s 2020 defeat until a week after Joe Biden was declared the winner.
“Pat Robertson was part of a tradition of Christian evangelicals who had a shrewd sense of media as a tool for reaching audiences,” said Michael Longinow, professor of digital journalism and media at Biola University. “His tendency to bring off-the-cuff statements that were incendiary also follows a tradition—albeit tragic—of Christian evangelicals who mingled the gospel with political perspective.”
Love or hate Robertson, his reach is hard to ignore. The 700 Club airs in 97 percent of TV markets in the US and is among the longest-running shows in history.
On his website, Robertson listed “starting companies/financial transactions” as one of his hobbies, and his success in that arena goes beyond CBN. He founded International Family Entertainment Inc., the parent company of the Family Channel, which was sold in 1997 for $1.9 billion. Balancing his financial success and call, Robertson said, “I realized God did not want me to be a billionaire investor. He wanted me as a humble servant who depended on Him and wanted to walk in His ways.”
Robertson’s wife of 67 years, Dede, died in 2022. He is survived by two sons, two daughters, 14 grandchildren, and 23 great-grandchildren. His son Gordon Robertson is CEO of CBN and the host and executive producer of The 700 Club.