Media soon figured into the mix, first with a low-power UHF television station and then a cable channel, both in Virginia’s Tidewater area. The Christian Broadcast Network, founded in 1960, was the nation’s first Christian-oriented television network. Today, according to the company, CBN is one of the world’s largest television ministries and produces programming seen in 90 nations and heard in 50 languages, including Russian, Arabic, Spanish, French and Chinese.
The fledgling broadcast ministry soon centered in Virginia Beach, and Mr. Robertson made an appeal on his daily television program to find 700 people willing to commit to monthly donations supporting the operation.
“The 700 Club” was the name given to the effort, and it eventually became the brand for the daily television program, which still reaches millions of homes via the ABC Family cable channel, which acquired CBN’s cable system contacts from Fox Kids Worldwide. A clause in the CBN-Fox Kids deal provided for perpetual access for the “700 Club” program.
In 1986, eyeing the end of the Reagan presidency, Mr. Robertson announced that he would seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 if 3 million volunteers signed up to help. He reached that number and announced his candidacy in September 1987.
Though not expected to seriously challenge Vice President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Robertson placed second in the Iowa caucuses, behind Sen. Bob Dole but ahead of the sitting vice president, stunning the political establishment much the way another preacher turned politico, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, did in the Hawkeye State 20 years later.
Speaking of that caucus upset, Mr. Sabato said, “No one expected Robertson to finish in second place. It was an extraordinary achievement and generated enormous attention for Robertson and the Christian Coalition.”
Although Mr. Robertson dropped out of the presidential contest soon thereafter, his influence in politics continued.
Mr. Robertson then concentrated on building Regent University, originally called CBN University, as a powerhouse school. Among its notable alumni are Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, former Assistant Secretary of Labor Lisa Kruska and Jay Sekulow, who is chief counsel for Mr. Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, a public-interest law firm that “focuses on constitutional and human rights law worldwide.”
He remains a distinctive voice in the political debate — secular and left-wing critics track his provocative observations on current events and issues obsessively — but also is able to forge some surprising links.
He has endorsed environmental causes and once appeared in a commercial with the liberal Rev. Al Sharpton in a lighthearted appeal to address the problem of climate change. Regent University this month announced a partnership with popular black pastor T.D. Jakes. The collaboration will increase opportunities for minority and international students studying at The Potter’s House, Mr. Jakes’ 30,000-member Dallas megachurch, while making Regent’s online programs available to Mr. Jakes’ church network.
Steve Strang, a longtime Christian journalist who is the founder and chief executive of Florida-based Charisma Media, said Mr. Robertson’s presence will be long felt in conservative religious circles.
Mr. Robertson, Mr. Strang said, is “unquestionably one of the most respected Christian leaders, and I am awed with what he has done with Regent University.”
Mr. Strang said critics “love to hate Pat Robertson and play up every gaffe he’s ever made, but the people who do it use him as a caricature to attack him within the whole Christian community,” although Christians willingly forgive Mr. Robertson’s misstatements.
Mr. Robertson will be long remembered, Mr. Strang predicted: “I think that Pat Robertson is going to go down as one of the greats of this generation, along with Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. I think people will be talking about Pat Robertson for years to come.”