When we think of the Religious Right, that phenomenon of the 1980s and ’90s, the person that comes first to mind is Jerry Falwell, the face and voice of the Moral Majority. But the Reverend Pat Robertson, who died yesterday at age 93, belongs right next to him, although the two were never chums and could not have been more different.
Falwell was a Snopesean striver from the wrong side of Lynchburg, Virginia, a graduate of an obscure Missouri Bible college who bested his social betters by building the town’s biggest church and its only university. Robertson was the well-bred son of a Democratic senator from Virginia, schooled at Washington and Lee and a graduate of Yale Law School. Politics was the family business.
Falwell abjured politics until a trio of conservative Republican operatives picked him to lead an organization they named the Moral Majority. The purpose was to win over the born-again Southern Christians, mostly Fundamentalist Baptists, who had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Robertson, after going into business in New York, entered politics when he served as chairman of Adlai Stevenson’s second presidential campaign on Long Island.
The biggest difference between the two men was religion. Both were “born-again” Baptists. But for Robertson, what mattered most was his subsequent Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit”—something anathema to Fundamentalists like Falwell—that endowed him, he believed, with the powers of revelation and prophecy. This experience changed his politics as well as his style of Christianity. Indeed, it was his penchant for revealing and prophesying that made Robertson unique among the figures of the Religious Right.
It was also what fueled his career as a religious broadcaster, beginning in 1960. On his daily 700 Club program, the signature segment was a sequence during which Pat, his eyes squeezed tight for inward gazing, announced that he could see a man’s ulcers healing, a crippled child’s leg straightening. He never named names or places.
Pat never quite asserted that God was working these miracles through him, as Oral Roberts did. But he did claim extraordinary spiritual powers. In the 1970s, when I shared the stage with him at the University of North Carolina, he told the students he had recently preached Jesus to a polyglot crowd on the main quay in Shanghai, and that each listener heard him in his or her native tongue. It was Pentecost all over again. And in 1985 he famously boasted that he had diverted Hurricane Gloria away from his broadcast headquarters in Virginia Beach—and toward the towers of New York City.
Like all the era’s television evangelists, Robertson relied on mailing lists—members of his 700 Club—for support. In 1978 he used these and local Pentecostal churches to establish a network of political action groups, called Freedom Councils, in precincts around the country. A decade later, the councils were repurposed as the grassroots organization behind his failed quest for the Republican nomination for president. That bid ended in scandal amid charges that he lied about seeing combat as a Marine in Korea, plus revelations that he (like Falwell, who used church money to help establish the Moral Majority) had been using funds from his broadcast to support his Freedom Councils. Eventually, the councils morphed into the Christian Coalition, which was later absorbed into the Republican party’s web of political operations.
Of all the hats that Robertson wore—businessman, politician, televangelist—the one he preferred was religious broadcaster. And rightly so. In the ’80s he survived “Gospelgate,” a series of scandals that brought down competitors like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Oral Roberts, and Jimmy Swaggart. He went on to create his own cable channel, the Christian Broadcasting Network, which carried his Spirit-infused blend of news and evangelism into Latin America and other places where Pentecostalism was on the rise. On camera and in a series of newsletters, Pat variously offered advice to the World Bank, forecast market futures, and predicted the end of the world, exercising a private gnosis only he could grasp.
Again like Falwell, Robertson moved into higher education with the founding of Regent University, a patchwork of professional schools anchored by one school for television broadcasting. Peering into the future—all the way through the end of the world, in fact—Pat predicted that Regent would endure beyond the Second Coming, when Jesus would need well-trained Christians to help him rule the world.
Pat Robertson accomplished one thing that his televangelist competitors failed to do. He built successful businesses for his children to run. Pat himself stayed on air well beyond the age when most television personalities retire. He always smiled when he talked, even if he was describing the torment of the damned. Eyes closed, he saw what no one else could see. Unlike St. Paul, his faith was never the kind that peers through a glass darkly. We pray he has come to see the Light.
Kenneth L. Woodward, former religion editor of Newsweek, is the author of Getting Religion: Faith, Culture and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Emergence of Trump.
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