NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Pat Robertson has united tens of millions of evangelical Christians through the power of television and nudged them in a much more conservative direction with the personal touch of a grassroots minister.
Perhaps its greatest impact has been the marriage of evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party, to an extent once unimaginable.
“The culture wars fought today by just about every national Republican candidate – that’s partly a product of Robertson,” said veteran political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. .
Robertson died Thursday at the age of 93.
Robertson’s reach exploded with the cable boom of the late 1970s. He galvanized many viewers into a political force when he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1988.
The following year, he created the very influential Christian Coalition. He sought to “influence and impact the trajectory of the Republican Party and make it a pro-life, pro-family party,” said Ralph Reed, who led the coalition in the 1990s and now chairs the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
The Christian Coalition helped fuel the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, which saw the GOP take control of the US House and Senate after the 1992 election of President Bill Clinton.
The son of a United States senator and a graduate of Yale Law School, Robertson made political statements that appalled many, especially in his later years, blaming various liberal movements for the 9/11 attacks. He claimed to have participated in the prayer to keep a hurricane away from his base in Virginia.
“Even the Pentecostals, and I know a lot of them, they usually won’t go that far,” said Grant Wacker, professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke Divinity School.
When he ran for president, Robertson pioneered the now-common strategy of courting Iowa’s network of evangelical Christian churches. He finished second in the Iowa caucuses, ahead of Vice President George HW Bush.
Robertson then endorsed Bush, who won the presidency. The pursuit of Iowa evangelicals is now a ritual for Republican hopefuls, including those seeking the White House in 2024.
Reed cited former Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Tim Scott as examples of high-ranking Republicans who are evangelical Christians.
“It’s easy to forget when you live it every day, but there wouldn’t have been a single explicit evangelical on any of these levels 40 years ago in the Republican Party,” Reed said.
Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network began broadcasting in 1961 after buying a bankrupt UHF television station in Portsmouth, Virginia. His long-running show “The 700 Club” began production in 1966.
Robertson paired evangelism with popular reruns of family television shows, which was effective in attracting viewers so he could promote “The 700 Club,” a news and talk show that also featured ordinary people talking about finding Jesus Christ.
He didn’t rely solely on fundraising like other televangelists. Robertson aired popular secular shows and ran commercials, said David John Marley, author of the 2007 book “Pat Robertson: An American Life.”
“He’s the one who made televangelism a real business,” Marley said.
Robertson had a soft-spoken style, speaking into the camera as if he were a pastor speaking one-on-one and not a preacher from behind a pulpit.
When viewers first started watching cable TV in the late 1970s, “there were only 10 channels and one of them was Pat,” Reed said.
His calling was similar to that of evangelist Billy Graham, who died in 2018 after a career that had a huge impact on American religion and politics, said Wacker, of Duke Divinity School.
“He really showed a lot of pastors and other Christians across this country just how much of an impact the media can have – to reach beyond the four walls of their churches,” said Troy A. Miller, president and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters.
When he ran for president in 1988, Robertson’s masterstroke was to insist that 3 million followers sign petitions before he decided to run, Robertson’s biographer said, Jeffrey K. Hadden, at the AP. The tactic gave Robertson an army.
“He asked people to pledge to work for him, pray for him, and give him money,” Hadden told the AP in 1988.
While working on the book as a graduate student at George Washington University in the late 1990s, Marley had unrestricted access to Robertson’s presidential campaign archives and saw a campaign plagued by conflict. internal.
“But he put a lot of effort into his presidential campaign,” Marley said, adding that Robertson had worked for at least two years to lay the groundwork for his presidential run.
Robertson relished his role as a “kingmaker” and liaison between key Republican leaders such as Ronald Reagan and evangelical Christians.
“It ended with George W. Bush being able to have this conversation on his own,” Marley said.
When interviewing Robertson in 1998, Marley said he viewed the preacher as someone who was as comfortable with his failures as he was with his accomplishments.
“I saw someone who was absolutely at peace with themselves,” Marley said.
Smith reported from Pittsburgh and Bharath from Los Angeles. Associated Press reporters Holly Meyer in Nashville and David Bauder in New York contributed.