Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson (1930- ), minister, televangelist, and political activist, was born in Lexington, Virginia to politician A. Willis Robertson, a nominal Southern Baptist and his devout wife. As young “Pat” grew up his father–a Democrat, fiscal conservative, and ardent segregationist–steadily moved up the political ladder, going from the Virginia State Senate to the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1946, to the U.S. Senate. In 1949 he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Washington and Lee College with highest honors and an officer’s commission into the United States Marine Corps. From 1950 to 1952 during the Korean War he served as a second lieutenant in Japan and Korea but saw no combat duty.
After his discharge from the Marines he enrolled at Yale Law School. Robertson graduated in 1955 and amid a series of short, but unsatisfying attempts at law and in business he underwent a conversion experience. He subsequently decided to enter the ministry and in 1956 enrolled at the Biblical Seminary in New York City. There he came into contact with leaders of the new charismatic movement and in 1957 Robertson experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Robertson spent the next few years working with minority churches in the New York slums.
In 1960, with his father’s help he returned to Virginia and was able to cobble together a deal to purchase a shuttered UHF television station in Portsmouth, Virginia. While Robertson worked to pull the ramshackle TV studio together, he obtained ordination as a Southern Baptist minister and worked in children’s ministry at a local church. In October 1961 Robertson’s “Christian Broadcasting Network” (CBN) finally hit the airwaves with a slate of rough programs broadcast a few hours a day. Within a few years Robertson managed to steer the station away from the brink of financial disaster aided particularly by children’s programs put on by Jim and Tammy Bakker and a successful fundraising gambit seeking to raise $10 a month from 700 supporters-the namesake of CBN’s 1966 talk/news show, “The 700 Club.”
By the 1970s Robertson had added several TV and FM radio stations to his stable and had begun syndicated distribution of the 700 Club. A savvy student of new technological trends, Robertson utilized satellite technology and cable broadcasting to distribute his programs all across the country. In 1979 he moved his headquarters to Virginia Beach and shortly thereafter established his own full-blown graduate school, CBN University (later re-named Regent University). By the late 1980s the 700 Club was beaming into more than 200 television stations; CBN had a budget in excess of $200 million dollars a year and operated a full-functioning cable broadcast channel of its own. Meanwhile, Robertson had become increasingly active in the politics of the Religious Right, playing a key role in the “Washington for Jesus” rally in 1980.
In 1986 he announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, but after an initial strong showing in the 1988 primaries his candidacy foundered on the antipathy of mainstream GOP leadership and the body blow of the late 1980s televangelist scandals. Although he retired from the active political arena, Robertson exerted even stronger clout within the Religious Right during the 1990s with his founding of the Christian Coalition. However, Robertson’s triumph was short-lived, hamstrung by the resignation of Robertson’s handpicked leader, Ralph Reed, and GOP strategist Karl Rove’s efforts to freeze evangelicals out of the 2000 nomination process. Robertson has been the center of much controversy since the 1990s for statements about various national and world political events and for questionable dealings such as the enormously profitable Family Channel deal with Rupert Murdoch in 1997; and, involvement with corrupt governments in Africa over diamond investments and the diversion of CBN’s enormously successful relief arm–Operation Blessing–in the interest of various business endeavors.
For further reading see David John Marley, Pat Robertson: An American Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Pat Robertson: A Personal, Political and Religious Portrait (Harper & Row, 1987).