Pat Robertson died today, June 8, in his home at the age of 93. He’s being lauded by his admirers as a man of God. He is also being denounced as an ignorant bigot who made Christianity look ridiculous.
What was Pat Robertson’s legacy? It is a fact that in the late 1970s, 90 percent of Americans self-identified as Christian. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2020 that percentage had fallen to 64 percent. It’s projected that in a few decades that percentage will fall below 50 percent. Younger Americans in particular are leaving Christianity and organized religion in general. (See Millennials Are Leaving Religion And Not Coming Back by Daniel Cox and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux at FiveThirtyEight,)
I do not claim that Pat Robertson was solely responsible for driving the young folks out of church, I do believe he played a part, however. He and others who have blended hyper-conservative social views with right-wing politics and called it “Christianity” all contributed.
Pat Robertson’s Legacy
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post interviewed historian Rick Perlstein about Pat Robertson today (see “How Pat Robertson created today’s Christian nationalist GOP“). One of the points Perlstein makes was that Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network created “a parallel world that conservatives and fundamentalists could live in.” In other words, the network created an information “bubble” that soaked regular viewers in an alternative reality worldview. In that bubble conservative Christians are under siege by demonic liberals. Robertson and his crew then got very good at finding pockets of anger to turn into voting issues.
By 1991 Robertson was pushing all manner of conspiratorial ideas. “In 1991, he published ‘The New World Order,’ an argument that liberal elites make up a ‘tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.'” said Perlstein. Those who go down that road are not able to compromise.
“Every time a riot breaks out at a school board meeting because the board wants to recognize that gay people exist, that’s Pat Robertson’s shadow,” Perlstein said.
Pat Robertson’s Quotes
It would take an encyclopedia to catalog all of Robertson’s absurd and hateful claims over the years, but here is a small sample:
“(T)he 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.” — from a fundraising letter sent to Christian Coalition members with Pat Robertson’s signature, 1992
“It may be a blessing in disguise… Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.” — remark on a 2010 earthquake in Haiti that destroyed the capital and killed tens of thousands of people.
“I would warn Orlando [Florida] that you’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you … It’ll bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.” — on Walt Disney World’s “gay days”
About Pat Robertson
Marion Gordon Robertson was born on March 22, 1930, in Lexington, Virginia. “Pat” is a family nickname. His father was A. (for Absolom) Willis Robertson, who was a U.S. Senator from Virginia for 20 years, 1946 to 1966. Robertson, a Democrat, is remembered today for his staunch opposition to civil rights and racial equality. The senior Robertson’s political career ended when he lost a primary in 1966 to a more liberal Democrat.
Pat Robertson graduated from Yale Law School in 1955 but failed to pass a bar exam. He later said he had not intended to practice law anyway. An encounter with an evangelist caused him to embrace evangelicalism as his calling. He enrolled in New York Theological Seminary and received a Master of Divinity degree in 1959. He was ordained as a minister of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1961.
In 1960 Robertson bought the license of a defunct UHF television station in Portsmouth, Virginia. This became the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which today reaches 174 countries with a $300 million annual budget. In 1977 he founded CBN University, a private Christian school that later would be renamed Regent University. To his credit, Pat Robertson also founded the humanitarian organization Operation Blessing in 1978. In short, as his New York Times obituary said today, Pat Robertson “built an entrepreneurial empire based on his Christian faith.”
Pat Robertson and Politics
The election of Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980 was a pivotal moment in America’s religious history. The story of how conservative political operatives like Paul Weyrich formed a coalition between the Republican Party and religious conservatives is complicated. I told some of that story in an earlier post, A Brief History of Christian Nationalism: Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. And it may seen odd that evangelicals would favor Reagan — who rarely attended church — over President Jimmy Carter, a devout evangelical who for years taught Sunday School. But Reagan offered access and attention to conservative priorities, such as allowing tax exemptions to segregated Christian schools. Carter did not. So the coalition was born and remains alive to this day.
Initially the most famous leader of the political-evangelical Right was Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. But Robertson’s platform at the Christian Broadcasting Network had made him hugely visible also, and soon enough he was serving on Reagan’s Victims of Crime Task Force. In 1988, with Reagan leaving office, Robertson unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for president. He finished in third place, after Vice President George H.W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole, which was respectable.
At about the same time as his presidential run, Robertson organized the Christian Coalition, a tax-exempt organization promoting various conservative and political causes. Between the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Christian Coalition, Robertson has remained a very loud public figure who presumes to speak for all Christians. And in doing so he’s made the United States an angrier and less democratic place than it used to be.
One does find a lot of young people who have had little other exposure to Christianity than what they see on television. Thanks to the success of conservative Christian broadcasting, what they see on television is a turnoff for many. With Pat Robertson gone, will some other religious demagogue step into his shoes?