Pat Robertson’s influence over conservative culture spanned decades

Rev. Pat Robertson, controversial founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Christian Coalition, is dead at 93. | Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Pat Robertson was a cartoonish figure. He was also one of the most powerful men in conservative America.

Televangelist Pat Robertson, who died on June 8 at the age of 93, occupied the cultural landscape as an incredibly influential, doomsaying extremist. The one-time Southern Baptist minister’s career in television spanned six decades, enabling him to espouse religious dogma layered in bigotry to millions of viewers on his long-running daily show, The 700 Club.

The man who turned his media empire, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), into a vast, powerful political machine did so by going after every perceivable “enemy” of the church, from feminists and queer people to Palestinians and Haitian earthquake victims.

Through the CBN and The 700 Club, Robertson created the blueprint for decades of increasingly extreme right-wing media. Alongside other right-wing public figures and media personalities of the late 20th century, such as Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, and Rush Limbaugh, he helped codify the language and rhetoric of that extreme, even as he later seemed to occasionally decry the culture he helped create.

As Tara Burton detailed for Vox in 2017, Robertson’s CBN was and arguably still is a powerhouse of religion and politics. Created by Robertson in 1961, the network became known for religious programming, which it eventually merged with news programming. At the height of its influence during the ’80s and ’90s, the CBN seamlessly presented political propaganda as religious doctrine to its millions of viewers. As we left behind the civil rights era and the feminist and countercultural movements, conservative anxiety expressed itself using televangelism as its mouthpiece.

So often, the dark things that lurked in white evangelical America’s collective subconscious first swam to the surface on The 700 Club. It platformed the views of anti-feminists like Edwin Louis Cole, who argued that Christian men should be masculine authorities over their wives and children; Cole’s 1982 book Maximized Manhood included a foreword written by 700 Club co-host Ben Kinchlow.

Most controversial of all were the views of Robertson himself. As Burton observes, his adherence to premillennial dispensationalism — the evangelical view that God has a preordained, structured timeline for the end of the world — led him to drop awful dictums, including blaming hurricanes on gay people and tornadoes on a lack of prayer. He frequently described himself as a prophet.

All of this made him something of a laughing stock as a public figure, yet he also voiced political positions which, though viewed as extreme in the ’80s, seem almost commonplace today. Like many evangelical Christian leaders of the ’80s and ’90s, he believed in a “bias in the Government against families,” argued that welfare had created a “permanent underclass,” and worried that foreign powers were encroaching on American autonomy. Unlike most Christian leaders, Robertson had a platform to broadcast those views directly to millions of Americans.

It’s hard for modern audiences to comprehend just how huge televangelism was. An outgrowth of the Christian revivalist movement spearheaded by Billy Graham, it was one of the most popular media formats of the late ’70s and ’80s. Flamboyant pastors like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and his then-wife Tammy Faye Messner, Falwell, and Robertson were household names among evangelical Americans who tuned in weekly or nightly for their shows.

A 1985 Nielsen survey commissioned by the CBN found that a staggering 60 million Americans, or “more than 50 percent of all Americans with a television set,” watched at least one televangelical show per month. Topping the long list of televangelist programming, with 16 million monthly viewers, was Robertson’s 700 Club. By 1987, televangelism was a massive industry, raking in $2 billion annually, mainly from viewer donations. According to the book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the CBN reportedly earned over $50 million a year during this era, though exact numbers are murky.

That gave Robertson tremendous clout. During the Reagan era, the White House invited Robertson to receive briefings from Oliver North, then serving as deputy director of political-military affairs for the National Security Council, and Reagan gave interviews directly to The 700 Club and other televangelist shows. In 1988, on the back of all that goodwill, Robertson ran for president. Despite an early strong showing in caucuses and primaries, Robertson withdrew and endorsed George H.W. Bush.

Even as his erratic behavior was apparent — a 1988 New York Times profile reported that early in their marriage his wife suspected Robertson was schizophrenic — his empire expanded. By 1994, CBN claimed The 700 Club had generated over $600 million in total revenue. Per an Esquire profile, that empire also consisted of “the nonprofit CBN (1993 revenues, $140 million); Regent University (endowment, $154 million); International Family Entertainment, the for-profit holding company (1993 revenues, $208 million) that owns, among other things, the Family Channel, Mary Tyler Moore Entertainment, and the Ice Capades; and various other businesses, including the Founders Inn, a smoke-free, alcohol-free hotel and conference center that charges ninety dollars a night.” The CBN’s cable offshoot, The Family Channel, still exists today, owned by Disney under the name Freeform.

More explicitly political was the Christian Coalition, which Robertson founded in 1989 following his failed presidential run. Under Robertson, the Coalition became a hugely influential voter mobilization and right-wing lobby group. In 1994, the Coalition, as part of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” was crucial in helping return control of the House of Representatives to Republicans after decades of a Democratic majority. Though Robertson resigned in 2001, the Coalition continues to advocate for political platforms today.

Robertson was controversial for more than just his opinions. In the ’90s, he was accused of scamming loyal viewers out of millions of charity dollars that were earmarked for a Congolese refugee program but which were reportedly used instead to fund Robertson’s failed diamond-mining scheme. Though multiple investigations and a documentary explored these allegations, the charity, Operation Blessing, denied the claims. Prosecutors declined to bring charges against Robertson, and later released a report clearing him and the charity of intent to defraud.

If Robertson was slippery that way, it’s arguable that the media allowed him to be. As he aged and his profile faded, Robertson’s cultural impact was reduced to a litany of nonsensical, bigoted sound bytes. Who’s saying the “darnedest” things? Time asked in 2003, comparing — randomly but not so randomly — Jessica Simpson and Pat Robertson.

Perhaps because mainstream pundits viewed Robertson as an eccentric, the sheer breadth of his cultural footprint didn’t truly become apparent until the Trump years, when it became clear that his influence had barely waned at all. Robertson was a staunch supporter of Donald Trump’s presidency, arguing that he was ordained by God and using CBN’s platforms to deliver Trump’s messaging directly to viewers. In an echo of the Reagan presidency, Trump used CBN’s news show Faith Nation, which launched in 2017, as an unofficial propaganda arm.

Robertson himself continued to host The 700 Club until his retirement in 2021 at the age of 91. His son, Gordon Robertson, took over his spot as the show’s anchor. Current estimates place the CBN’s annual revenue at between $390 million and $560 million annually.

Even though, in a rare moment of clarity, Robertson said in 2022 that Trump lives in an “alternate reality” and should move on from his claims of election fraud, Robertson was perhaps somewhat responsible for helping to nurture that delusion. He understood, long before Trump did, the way media can shape viewers’ reality. “It takes a little while on TV, four or five minutes, to switch 40 percent of the totally negative people into, ‘let’s take a second look,’” he said in 1987.

In light of this long history, it’s hard to read some of his more recent opinions — moments in which he appeared to be thawing, or at least showing a more compassionate side — and know what to make of them.

In 2013, he declared that he believed trans identity is “very rare” but real, and that “it’s not for you to decide or to judge.” In 2019, he spoke out against the US withdrawal of troops from Syria and against Alabama’s “extreme” and “ill-considered” anti-abortion law. In 2020, he rebuked President Trump for his response to protests over the death of George Floyd, admonishing him for cracking down instead of standing in solidarity with the protesters. In 2021, he went on to sternly rebuke the police shooting of Daunte Wright.

The cynic might argue that these opinions, too, were merely opportunistic attention-getters. “Robertson has spent decades lying and obfuscating, throwing himself into the middle of discussions in which he wasn’t invited, to offer opinions that nobody wanted,” Erin Gloria Ryan wrote for the Daily Beast in 2017. “He’s weighed in on … [every] topic du jour, tragic or zeitgeist, that can help boost Pat Robertson Awareness. He’s thrown his fortunes in with warlords, hucksters, and profiteers.”

Whether Robertson’s aim all along was merely attention or the shaping of a culture, he certainly succeeded in both.