Before he was an icon of the religious right — and a lightning rod for critics — Marion Gordon Robertson, better known as “Pat,” was steeped in politics. In fact, he could hardly have avoided that fate, having been a son of the late U.S. Sen. A. Willis Robertson, who represented Virginia in the upper chamber for 20 years.
But Mr. Robertson, 83, who was honored Friday evening by the Faith and Freedom Coalition at its Washington gathering, carved out a unique political legacy of his own as a pioneer of Christian broadcasting, as an educator and as a standard-bearer for newly energized Christian conservative voters. The group, founded by onetime Robertson associate Ralph Reed, presented the Virginia Beach-based Mr. Robertson its first Winston Churchill Lifetime Achievement Award at the gala dinner Friday evening at a downtown hotel.
It has been a long journey for Mr. Robertson, chronologically and ideologically.
“Pat was very active in the national Young Democrats, and he organized for Adlai Stevenson in 1952,” said University of Virginia analyst Larry J. Sabato, director of the school’s Center for Politics, both in Charlottesville. Mr. Robertson “had a long political involvement as a young person. He was drenched in politics because of the home in which he grew up,” Mr. Sabato said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Robertson said he is “honored to be associated with Winston Churchill, one of the great leaders of World War II,” adding that Churchill’s “contribution to freedom is monumental and an inspiration to us all. I trust that we can live up to the noble ideals for which he is famous.”
Faith and Freedom Coalition Executive Director Gary Marx, a 2001 graduate of the political management program at the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, founded by the broadcaster and 1988 presidential candidate, said Mr. Robertson blazed the trail in making religious conservatives an effective, election-influencing force in the American political mainstream.
Mr. Robertson’s founding of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Regent University, the Christian Coalition and the American Center for Law and Justice created, Mr. Marx said, “four beacon organizations that had such an impact on the conservative movement and the evangelical movement broadly. It’s rare to find one leader that’s been the linchpin in four major organizations like that.”
Moving the needle
Even some of Mr. Robertson’s harshest critics acknowledge his role in moving the political needle.
“In the mid-1990s, the Christian Coalition was growing like topsy. It had a huge budget and was the undisputed leader of the religious right in America,” said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who authored a 1996 book on Mr. Robertson titled “The Most Dangerous Man in America?”
“Serious political scholars of the 1990s will look back at the political machine he created and acknowledge it played an important role in fueling the rise of the religious right in the period,” Mr. Boston said.
Mr. Sabato said the Christian Coalition’s innovation of spreadsheet-type pamphlets with grades of candidates’ positions on various issues was a vote-getting game-changer: “No question voting scorecards had a major, major impact in 1994 when Republicans took over the House and Senate. Everybody on both sides agrees with that.”
Such political influence may have seemed a distant dream for the young Pat Robertson, who, on his patrobertson.com website conceded different interests in his undergraduate days at Washington and Lee University.
“Although I worked hard at my studies, my real major centered around lovely young ladies who attended the nearby girls schools …,” he wrote. “I joined the [Sigma Alpha Epsilon] fraternity my freshman year and quickly received what seemed a postgraduate course in wild partying.”
But a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Korean War and failure to pass the bar exam after graduating from Yale Law School changed Mr. Robertson’s life and career path. He experienced a religious conversion, earned a master’s of divinity degree from what is now New York Theological Seminary and began his ministry.
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.”