Pat Robertson, Influential Religious Conservative, Dies at 93

Pat Robertson, the television evangelist who formed the Christian Broadcasting Network and once sought the Republican presidential nomination, has died. He was 93.

(Bloomberg) — Pat Robertson, the television evangelist who formed the Christian Broadcasting Network and once sought the Republican presidential nomination, has died. He was 93.

He died on Thursday at his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, according to the website of the Christian Broadcasting Network, which he founded in 1960.

Robertson’s television ministry gained a national platform in 1977, when he began using a satellite to deliver his religious programming to local cable operators. The move put him in the pantheon of cable TV pioneers and showcased his talent in raising contributions from viewers.

His long-running 700 Club television program served as a vehicle to raise money and attempt to influence US social and political thought. The show, which debuted in 1966, brought Robertson to the fore of Christianity’s charismatic movement. He crafted a long-term contract to keep the program airing through several subsequent sales of CBN’s Family Channel.

The sale of the channel to Fox Kids Worldwide Inc. in 1997 created sizable nest eggs for CBN, Robertson and Regent University, the religious school he founded in 1978 in Virginia Beach.

Robertson become a leader of the growing Christian conservative movement, denouncing abortion and homosexuality and deploring efforts to remove references to God in schools and other public places. In 1989, he founded the Christian Coalition, a lobbying group for religious and conservative issues. He stepped down as its leader in 2001.

Presidential Bid

Robertson announced in 1986 that he would seek the Republican nomination for the presidency two years later if 3 million registered voters signed petitions to support him. A year later, with 3.3 million signatures, he resigned as a Southern Baptist minister to launch his campaign.

He stunned the Republican establishment with his second-place showing in the kickoff Iowa caucuses, coming in ahead of George H.W. Bush, the sitting vice president, and behind only Senator Robert Dole.

Party regulars were uncomfortable with his religious claims of faith healing and his political platform, which called for the abolition of Social Security as a government program. A string of primary defeats after his Iowa showing quickly ended the Robertson boomlet, and Bush won the nomination and the presidency.

In his later years, Robertson remained in the news with provocative comments in which he blamed victims of various natural and man-made disasters for their own woes. A few days after the 9/11 terror attacks, Robertson invited televangelist Jerry Falwell on the 700 Club and agreed with Falwell’s comment that “the pagans, the abortionists, the feminists, the gays and lesbians helped make this happen.” Falwell died in 2007.

In 2005 Robertson linked the “wholesale slaughter of unborn children” to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and killed more than 1,800 people. The Haiti earthquake that local officials said killed an estimated 300,000 people in 2010 occurred because the nation had been “cursed” after it “swore a pact with the devil,” Robertson said.

Marion Gordon Robertson was born on March 22, 1930, in Lexington, Virginia, to Absalom Robertson and the former Gladys Churchill, who were cousins, according to historian David Edwin Harrell Jr., who wrote a biography of Robertson.

When Robertson was 2, his father, a onetime state senator, was elected to the US House, serving 14 years before being appointed to a vacant Senate seat.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, in 1950. After a brief stint in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, he entered Yale Law School.

Distracted Student

Robertson was a mediocre law student who preferred the distractions of women, whiskey and poker, according to his biographers. At the start of his final year, he married Adelia “Dede” Elmer, a Yale nursing student, when she was pregnant with their first child, Timothy.

After earning a law degree in 1955, Robertson failed the New York bar examination and soon afterward became a born-again Christian. He enrolled in the Biblical Seminary of New York, later renamed New York Theological Seminary.

During a visit to Lexington, his mother put him in touch with a hometown friend who had preached on a weak-signaled television station in Portsmouth, Virginia, which Robertson bought for $37,000.

He found a job at a church in nearby Norfolk and became an ordained Southern Baptist minister to support his family while he sought donations for his fledgling TV station. 

Robertson formed the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960 and went on the air the next year. The 700 Club was born when Robertson hosted a telethon to ask 700 viewers to pledge $10 a month to cover the station’s $7,000 monthly budget. The show gained viewers as Robertson bought time on television stations in other cities and made the program available to cable TV operators. 

Family Entertainment

To gain a wider audience, Robertson decided in 1981 to eliminate all religious programs except for the 700 Club from the cable network. He substituted family entertainment with a mix of reruns and original programming and changed the name from CBN Satellite Network to CBN Cable Network — The Family Entertainer. By 1987, the format’s success enabled him to charge cable operators for the programming.

Robertson returned to CBN as chief executive officer in May 1988 after his presidential bid. Donations had dropped precipitously in his absence and about 600 employees lost their jobs.

CBN’s nonprofit status was imperiled by the growing profitability of its cable channel, which adopted the “The Family Channel” name in 1989. To resolve the problem, the channel was sold in early 1990 to a Robertson-led group and John Malone’s Tele-Communications Inc.

The company went public as International Family Entertainment Inc. in 1992, with Robertson’s son, Timothy, as chief executive officer. Five years later, it was sold for $1.9 billion to Fox Kids Worldwide, a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

The contract required Fox Family to continue running The 700 Club, an obligation that passed to Walt Disney Co. in 2001 when it purchased Fox Family Worldwide for $5.2 billion.

Robertson and his wife had four children: Timothy, Elizabeth, Ann and Gordon, who succeeded his father as chief executive officer at CBN.

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