Television preacher and longtime far-right political activist Pat Robertson abruptly announced last month that he will no longer host “The 700 Club,” the flagship program of his Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
Robertson is 91 and has had health issues, so his decision to step down as host and hand the job to his son Gordon isn’t terribly surprising. But it naturally led to attempts to assess Robertson’s career and his impact on American politics, religion and culture.
“Pat Robertson contributed greatly to some of the worst trends in American Christianity over the last 40 years,” the Rev. David P. Gushee, distinguished professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, told Religion News Service. “These included the fusion of conservative white Protestantism with the Republican Party, the use and abuse of supernaturalist Christianity to offer spurious and unhelpful interpretations of historical events and the development of a conservative Christian media empire that made money and gained power in the process of making everyday Christians less thoughtful contributors to American life.”
Americans United took a special interest in Robertson’s announcement because we’ve had a relationship with him that spans several decades. During the 1990s, when Robertson’s political unit, the Christian Coalition, was the nation’s most powerful Religious Right organization, Americans United was its constant foil. In 1996, I penned a book critical of Robertson titled The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition.
AU was especially appalled that the group, which essentially functioned as an arm of the Republican Party, was abusing its tax-exempt status. The Coalition was infamous for producing slanted “voter guides” that made conservative candidates look like saints and liberal ones like sinners. Millions of these were distributed in fundamentalist churches during election years in a scheme of dubious legality.
But AU had been keeping a close eye on Robertson before the Christian Coalition was formed. Many people associate the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s with the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Indeed, while Falwell was adept at grabbing headlines and boosting his public profile, others were working on the same issues – Robertson among them.
Robertson founded CBN in 1960. For its first two decades, the ministry was not especially political and tended to focus on entertainment as a vehicle for proselytism. But in the late 1970s, Robertson began dabbling in politics. In 1978, he supported George Conoly Phillips, who made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate in Virginia.
One year later, Robertson told Sojourners magazine that he’d like to be president someday. In April 1980 he appeared at a “Washington for Jesus” rally, one of the first mass gatherings of the Religious Right in the modern era, and declared, “We have enough votes to run the country. And when people say, ‘We’ve had enough,’ we are going to take over.”
In 1981, Robertson formed a Christian nationalist group called the Freedom Council, an entity he propped up with money from CBN. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the organization was intended to launch Robertson’s presidential bid, which came to fruition on Oct. 1, 1987, when he announced he would seek the Republican nomination.
A year earlier, Robertson had vowed he would run if three million people signed a petition asking him to. With the signatures in hand, he unveiled his race for the White House. For good measure, Robertson assured his backers that God had told him to run.
As Robertson remarked to The Washington Post, “I had everything you could ask for, but God had something else for me to do. I heard the Lord saying, ‘I have something else for you to do. I want you to run for president of the United States.’”
The Almighty’s ways can be inscrutable, however. While Robertson did well in the early caucus state of Iowa, taking second place behind U.S. Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush, the eventual nominee, his momentum was short lived. Robertson took a distant fifth in the New Hampshire primary, and after a poor showing on Super Tuesday (March 8, 1988), Robertson was effectively out of the race – a mere five months after he launched his bid.
Robertson’s White House run was plagued with gaffes, controversial statements and allegations of violations of campaign finance law. But Robertson managed to make the best of it. He took the three million signatures he had gathered before the run and used them in 1990 to form a new political group, the Christian Coalition.
Led by Ralph Reed, a young GOP operative from Georgia, the Christian Coalition enjoyed great success for a decade, with its grassroots troops capturing control of several state-level Republican Parties. (Robertson cut his ties to the group in 2000. By then, Reed had moved on. The organization, which once had a budget in the millions, still exists but is a shadow of what it used to be with a budget of about $760,000.)
Robertson believed the organization could play a role in electing people to public office, from statehouses all the way up to the presidency. Having failed at his own run for the White House, Robertson was clearly interested in being a kingmaker himself. In 1997, Robertson gave a speech urging conservative Christians to rally early around one candidate – in this case, George W. Bush – rather than be divided. He spoke fondly of political machines of old such as New York’s Tammany Hall and said the Christian Coalition should become a decisive force within the GOP politics, expressing his desire to have the organization select “the next President of the United States.”
The speech was nakedly partisan, and Robertson knew it. He made it clear at the outset that he was “sort of speaking in the family,” and he admonished any reporters in the room to “please shoot yourself. Leave. Do something.”
Americans United obtained a recording of the talk and turned it over to the media. The spate of stories that followed embarrassed Robertson, but in the end, his scheme worked. Bush won the support of Christian conservatives and took office (with a little help from the U.S. Supreme Court).
While all of this was going on, Robertson continued to hold court on “The 700 Club” and publish books, where he outlined his extreme views. His 1991 book The New World Order was especially controversial. It recycled wild tales of international bankers and sinister cabals secretly engineering historical events and world financial markets. Several critics labeled the book a thinly veiled antisemitic screed.
AU worked to hold Robertson accountable for these extreme statements, and I collected many of them in my 1996 book. Not surprisingly, we were especially interested in Robertson’s frequent attacks on separation of church and state, a concept he insisted was not part of the Constitution.
A sampling of these attacks includes:
October 1981: During a special series of CBN broadcasts titled “Seven Days Ablaze,” Robertson asserted that church-state separation was foisted on the country by “unelected tyrants” on the courts and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. Their goal, he asserted, was to “bring the United States into line with the Constitution, not of the United States, but of the USSR.”
August 1982: Testifying in favor of a school prayer amendment before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Robertson remarked, “We often hear of the constitutionally mandated ‘separation of church and state.’ Of course, as you know, that phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. … We do find this phrase in the constitution of another nation, however: ‘The state shall be separate from the church, and the church from the school.’ Those words are not in the Constitution of the United States but that of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”
October 1984: Robertson told his “700 Club” audience, “There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that sanctifies the separation of church and state.”
January 1986: In an interview with a conservative magazine, Robertson said, “It’s amazing that the Constitution of the United States says nothing about the separation of church and state. That phrase does appear in the Soviet constitution. … People in the educational establishment have attempted to impose the Soviet strictures on the United States and have done so very successfully, even though they are not part of our Constitution.”
April 1986: During a “700 Club” episode Robertson ranted, “The First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof – nothing about a wall of separation, nothing about separation of church and state! Merely Congress can’t set up a national religion. End of story.”
November 1993: Speaking at a rally in Greenville, S.C., Robertson asserted, “The radical left … has kept us in submission because they have talked about separation of church and state. There is no such thing in the Constitution. It’s a lie of the left, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
January 1995: Asked about church-state separation in public schools during a “700 Club” segment, Robertson lashed out, “That was never in the Constitution! However much the liberals laugh at me for saying it, they know good and well it was never in the Constitution. Such language only appeared in the constitution of the communist Soviet Union.” (Remarkably, this outburst occurred just months after the Christian Coalition issued a booklet titled Ten Myths about Pat Robertson and Religious Conservatives that had the temerity to assert, “Robertson repeatedly has stated his belief in the separation of church and state…”)
It’s worth noting that other Robertson units, notably the Christian Coalition and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Christian nationalist legal group founded by Robertson, also attacked church-state separation. The Maryland branch of the Christian Coalition in 1994 advertised a book in its newsletter that promised to “forever demolish the myth of separation of church and state.” The ACLJ in 1992 issued a newsletter headlined “TEAR DOWN THIS WALL” that compared the church-state wall to the Berlin Wall.
Robertson didn’t limit his wrath to church-state separation. He spent years blasting LGBTQ rights, public education, feminism, non-Christian faiths and even mainstream Christianity.
Robertson simply hated America’s public schools. According to his creative retelling, public schools were fonts of secular humanism. In his 1993 book The Turning Tide, Robertson endorsed private school voucher programs and blithely responded to the claim that these schemes might harm public education by writing, “So what?”
In a later book, Answers to 200 of Life’s Most Probing Questions, Robertson wrote, “The humanism that is being taught in our schools, media, and intellectual circles will ultimately lead people to the Antichrist, because he will be the consummate figure of humanism.”
On homosexuality, Robertson was clear: “It is a pathology,” he said on “The 700 Club” in March 1990. “It is a sickness, and it needs to be treated. … Many of those people involved with Adolf Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals. The two things seem to go together.”
In June 1998, Robertson warned officials in Orlando, Fla., not to fly gay pride flags to celebrate an LGBTQ-themed event at Disney World. Doing so, he said, might “bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.” (Robertson’s god was always up for a good smiting. In November 2005 after the residents of Dover, Pa., had voted out school board members who supported teaching creationism in public schools, Robertson warned, “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God. You just rejected him from your city. And don’t wonder why he hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. And I’m not saying they will. But if they do, just remember you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, then don’t ask for his help ’cause he might not be there.”)
When it came to feminism, Robertson was not exactly a fan. He stated repeatedly that women should submit to men and that husbands must run households. He had little faith in women’s intellectual ability and firmly believed that women just weren’t as smart as men. In November 1989, Robertson told his “700 Club” audience that women were too dense to grasp playing chess, and that’s why there had never been a female Grand Master. (At the time Robertson made the statement, there were two women Grand Masters.)
A 1992 fundraising letter that bore Robertson’s signature contained this gem: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Nor was Robertson fond of religions other than his own charismatic form of Christianity. In January 1991 he told his viewers, “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that and the other thing. Nonsense! I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist. I can love the people who hold false opinions, but I don’t have to be nice to them.”
Some non-Christian faiths, Robertson opined in July 1995, are actually run by demons. “Demons work behind the Hindu and other Oriental religions, as well as the teaching of mind control,” he said. (He also believed that demons might control major U.S. cities, singling out New York City, St. Louis and Detroit.)
Robertson predicted the end of the world, as well as world wars that never came to pass. He claimed the power to control hurricanes, said he could heal people of serious illness if they’d just watch him on TV. He asserted that conservative Christians in America are persecuted as badly as Jews were in Nazi Germany.
But all of these extreme statements pale in comparison to what Robertson said in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Virginia.
Just two days after the attacks, with the nation’s wounds still raw, Robertson invited Falwell to appear on “The 700 Club” where both men blamed the horrific assault not on the terrorists who actually planned and executed it, but on the American people.
“We have a court that has essentially stuck its finger in God’s eye and said we’re going to legislate you out of the schools,” Robertson said. “We’re going to take your commandments from off the courthouse steps in various states. We’re not going to let little children read the commandments of God. We’re not going to let the Bible be read, no prayer in our schools. We have insulted God at the highest levels of our government. And then we say, ‘Why does this happen?’ Well, why it’s happening is that God Almighty is lifting his protection from us.”
When Falwell opined that God has turned his back on the nation “to give us probably what we deserve,” Robertson replied, “Jerry, that’s my feeling.”
Falwell went on to blame the American Civil Liberties Union, legal abortion and federal judges for the attacks, as well as groups like People For the American Way and “all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
Nodding in agreement, Robertson replied, “Well, I totally concur.” He later insisted that the nation should “brush aside all these little yapping people who make so much noise about separation of church and state.”
Reaction was swift – and uniformly unfavorable. In Madison, Wisc., the State Journal editorialized, “Falwell and Robertson threw salt into the nation’s wounds last week. … It’s hard to know whether to laugh at these guys or to weep over their maliciously divisive comments at a time of national need. Instead of hearing words that might ease their pain, the families of those who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were told by Falwell and Robertson that their loved ones pretty much had it coming to them.”
In recent years, Robertson’s public profile shrank, but he would capture a headline from time to time by saying something outrageous. In January 2010, after more than 200,000 people were killed by an earthquake in Haiti, Robertson suggested that it happened because more than 200 years ago, the Haitians “got together and swore a pact to the devil.”
In July 2013, Robertson opined that he wished Facebook had a “vomit” button so he could click on it every time he saw a photo of two men kissing. In late October 2020, he confidently assured his viewers that God had told him that Donald Trump would be reelected. Robertson added that God had also told him that five years later, an asteroid would destroy the planet.
So, if we are assessing the man on the occasion of his retirement from CBN, please allow me, as a longtime observer of Robertson, to be blunt: Pat Robertson had something that few people get – a massive broadcasting company that reached a worldwide audience. He could have done a lot of good with that power; instead, he squandered it by frequently peddling hate against LGBTQ people, feminists, liberals, non-Christians, non-believers and others who did not measure up to his narrow vision of an officially “Christian America.” He was also infamous for his endorsement of the most reactionary forms of far-right politics and decades of extreme statements.
As Robertson steps down from “The 700 Club,” I’m sure he has convinced himself that he is leaving a legacy as a benign religious broadcaster and successful Christian businessman. Alas, it’s too late for that. Robertson spent years spewing invective and bile on television and liberally mixing far-right politics and fundamentalist Christianity into a toxic brew that became a festering sore on the body politic. His actions contributed greatly to the divisions we see in our country today.
That is the final legacy of Pat Robertson. It is an unfortunate one indeed.