How Pat Robertson Shepherded His Flock Into Politics

Farewell to the senator's son who pioneered a TV genre, helped create the Christian right, ran for president, and earned the grudging respect of Abbie Hoffman


Marion "Pat" Robertson, one of the fathers of the modern religious right, has died at age 93. The televangelist was linked to the Republican Party for so long that many people are surprised to hear that the first presidential candidate he went out of his way to boost was Jimmy Carter.* But Robertson voted for Carter in the 1976 Democratic primary—the man was, after all, the born-again Christian in the race—and shortly before Election Day he traveled to Georgia to interview the candidate for his TV show, The 700 Club.

Yet the marriage showed signs of trouble from the start. Like a lot of Christian conservatives, Robertson was put off by Carter's decision to give an interview to Playboy (and by Carter's comment in that conversation that he had "committed adultery in my heart many times"). Some of Carter's foreign policy views were too dovish for Robertson too, though it took a while for that to become fully clear. And then there was the letter the evangelist sent the incoming president once the voting was over. After the ballots were counted, historian Rick Perlstein writes in his 2020 book Reaganland, Robertson

pored through the "Plum Book," the fat volume that listed federal jobs, in order to prepare a memo recommending some thirty-five "good Christians" for specific appointments. He dispatched a private plane to the president's hometown in Georgia to have it hand-delivered, along with his candidates' résumés, background-check information, and a cover letter reminding the president-elect that the American population of fifty million evangelicals had been "highly supportive" of his campaign, and pledging to "marshal this enormous reservoir of prayer and goodwill on your behalf" and to defend the president concerning "unpopular programs which are truly needed for the good of our country" but which his flock might otherwise oppose. Robertson did not get back so much as a thank-you note.

"We were talking to him, recommending people for his cabinet, and it turned out that his hands were tied," Robertson later told biographer David John Marley. "He was under the control of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission."

When the next election rolled around in 1980, Robertson backed Carter's Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. And while Reagan found ways to disappoint him in office too, Robertson stayed loyal, fending off suggestions that he run against the president in 1984. The Christian right was now firmly planted in the GOP.

But before that happened, in that interval after Carter's election, a man who was in many ways Pat Robertson's polar opposite made an astute observation about the evangelist's project. Abbie Hoffman had been one of the leaders of the '60s antiwar movement. Like Robertson, he had ambivalent feelings about the new president, who struck him as sensible on some issues but was still "a millionaire with a seat on the global power exchange known as the Trilateral Commission." (That's one thing that united the '70s left and right: None of them trusted the Trilateral Commission.) Hoffman wasn't a high-profile figure at that point—he couldn't be, since he had gone underground to escape some cocaine charges—but he showed up in disguise at Carter's inauguration, where he allegedly shouted "Why don'tcha gimme a pardon as your first act in office?" with all the confidence of a man sure that he could not be heard over the crowd. And while he was in that part of the country, the fugitive Yippie made his way down to Virginia Beach, where Robertson's media empire was based.

It was there that Hoffman and Robertson, a star of the fading New Left and a star of the emerging New Right, found themselves in the same room, though only one of them knew the other was there. Robertson was taping an episode of The 700 Club, and Hoffman had pseudonymously signed up to tour the studio and to sit in the audience. That visit, along with the other Robertson broadcasts Hoffman had been watching over the previous few months, convinced him that he was seeing "the counterrevolution to the sixties. They, like us, were armed with a cultural-political program and knew how to mix the two effectively. They had mastered television and modern organizing techniques. Unlike us, they had millions of dollars behind them." Hoffman wasn't happy about that. But he said it with a grudging respect.

Pat Robertson was a senator's son from Lexington, Virginia, born to the Old South Democrat A. Willis Robertson. In the '50s, after he found Jesus, the future televangelist lived a little while in a Bedford-Stuyvesant commune that his wife called "the filthiest, ugliest, most germ-infested place I've ever been in." (It was next door to a church, and the Robertsons were there to minister to the poor.) When Pat got word that a bankrupt TV station was up for sale in Portsmouth, Virginia, he moved back south, bought the place, and in '61 became a broadcaster. Like Jerry Falwell, who had launched his Old-Time Gospel Hour in the same state five years earlier, Robertson mixed his old-time religion with a more modern showbiz spirit. (Early articles about The 700 Club constantly compared it to The Tonight Show.) Like Falwell, Robertson found that his TV ministry was both highly popular and highly profitable. And like Falwell, Robertson gradually got drawn into politics.

By 1987, Robertson was convinced that pressure groups like the Moral Majority and alternative media like The 700 Club weren't enough: To wield power, he would have to make a bid for the White House himself. And so he entered the race for the Republican nomination. He was the most socially conservative candidate in the field, a man who unapologetically favored legal restrictions on porn, adultery, and gay sex. (He did back down from his notion that "the only way to solve the recession and national debt" was to embrace the biblical Jubilee and cancel everyone's debts every 50 years.) He finished second in Iowa—ahead of the eventual nominee, George H.W Bush—and he won the caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, and Washington state. In Michigan, the county conventions were so closely fought that Robertson's campaign manager nearly got into a fistfight with a pro-Bush legislator.

A quirky footnote to the race came after Robertson dropped out and endorsed Bush. At the GOP's national convention in New Orleans, some of those Robertson die-hards from Michigan—one of them fresh from a summer seminar at the Mises Institute—flirted with the idea of thumbing their nose at the Trilateralist atop the ticket and nominating a different candidate from the floor: Libertarian Party standard-bearer Ron Paul. Among the Libertarians, this potential alliance sparked a mix of enthusiasm and repulsion that foreshadowed the movement's future culture wars. Robertson himself dropped by the delegation to discourage the idea, and Paul eventually rejected a plan to slip him into the convention with a guest pass: He decided, American Libertarian's Greg Kaza reported, that this would be "a violation of property rights."

Robertson never ran for office again, but he and the Christian Coalition, a group he founded in 1987, maintained a strong influence on socially conservative voters for the remainder of the 20th century. Outside that milieu, he was most likely to make headlines when his more outlandish statements made it into the mainstream media. In 1992, for example, a fundraising letter issued under his name called feminism "a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." And his 1991 conspiracy tract The New World Order sparked a kerfuffle when some writers noted that he had cited some antisemitic sources, leading to a debate over whether this meant Robertson was quietly antisemitic himself. (As far as I can recall, none of those articles mentioned the book's much more direct statement about a different faith: "If anybody understood what Hindus really believe, there would be no doubt that they have no business administering government policies." It also claimed that one "Hindu holy man" was "possessed by one of a group of powerful demons.")

At the tail end of his life, Robertson's political commentary started getting more unpredictable. In 2010 he complained that "criminalizing possession of a few ounces of pot" is "costing us a fortune, and it's ruining young people." In 2012 he called explicitly for legalizing marijuana, declaring that "this war on drugs just hasn't succeeded." In 2013, when a viewer wrote to ask his views on transgender surgery, he responded, "I don't think there's any sin associated with that." In 2014, a viewer asked him if it was wrong for his pastor to watch a cable show that contains nudity. Robertson had warned in the '80s that "full frontal nudity" could be coming to television, but now he struck a more tolerant note: "The body is not essentially pornographic, and I think to make it so is a mistake….I don't know what your pastor's watching, what show it is. Maybe it's got some redeeming qualities."

And in the wake of George Floyd's death, Robertson issued harsh criticisms of police abuses, at one point declaring that the cop who killed Floyd should be put "under the jail." This reached a surreal peak during the protests of 2020, when President Donald Trump threatened to send in the troops and urged governors to act more forcefully against the disorder. Robertson's reaction: "You just don't do that, Mr. President—it isn't cool!"

I don't want to overstate Robertson's late-life hints of social liberalism. He remained harshly critical of gay marriage and the gay movement, and his cautiously tolerant comments about transgender people did not lead him to endorse the full trans liberation agenda. (In 2016 he declared the movement a "phony cause" and defended North Carolina's bathroom bill.) By this time, at any rate, he was less a power broker than a bellwether—not a man pushing his community in new directions so much as a reflection of how that community was evolving on its own.

In his heyday, as Hoffman said, Robertson and his cohort "mastered television and modern organizing techniques." And they won their share of victories—just look at the rubble where Roe v. Wade used to be. But they ultimately did more to assimilate evangelicals into the American mainstream than to remake the mainstream in the mold of evangelical Christianity. Under these preachers' influence, their flocks entered the fallen realm of politics, brought TV into their homes, and embraced enough ecumenicism to cooperate with Catholics and Mormons and whatever Trump is. A century ago, the stereotypical fundamentalist believed that movies and dancing were sins; today, his favorite politician is a twice-divorced TV star who once had a cameo in a Playboy video. Somewhere on the path from there to here, you'll find Pat Robertson.


* CORRECTION: This sentence originally referred to Robertson as Pentecostal. He would be better described as belonging to the closely related Charismatic movement. He was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.