What Pat Robertson Teaches Us
Once marginal and reviled, evangelical Christians became a vital political bloc in the 1980s thanks to resolute organizing.
In the late seventies, evangelical Christians got no respect. The rest of America thought they were ignorant and eccentric at best, a perception consistently reflected in public polling from the period. Their ranks were swelling due to a mid-century revival in charismatic Christianity and the dawn of televangelism, but they had no place in American mainstream culture, no direct representation in the corridors of power, no seat at the table. That is, until Pat Robertson came along and made one for them.
Robertson came from political stock. His father Absalom Willis Robertson was a US congressman and senator for the state of Virginia for three decades. The younger Robertson showed an early interest in and aptitude for politics. He fought in the Korean War, attended law school, and was by all appearances following in his father’s footsteps when he had a religious awakening and instead became a born-again evangelical Christian. But his political acumen never diminished, and he never stopped believing that the political sphere was the locus of meaningful change — including the work of bringing God’s kingdom to Earth.
Christian television producer Terry Heaton, who worked closely with Pat Robertson on his show The 700 Club, describes him as “a political animal that happens to be a Christian evangelist, broadcaster and television personality.” In his new book The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, Heaton examines Pat Robertson’s legacy. When it came to saving souls, Robertson was no more inspired than other televangelists like Billy Graham, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Oral Roberts. Robertson’s crucial intervention was the transformation of evangelicals from a populous but marginalized and atomized group into a discrete political constituency with significant purchase in the public sphere.
The formation of the evangelical bloc imparts valuable lessons, even for people with completely different political priorities. Robertson had faith that a formidable political constituency could be created out of the raw material of ordinary people, without the permission of the political or media establishment. Though we agree on little else, socialists share that faith.
Moving the Overton Window
Pat Robertson started the Christian Broadcasting Network and its flagship program The 700 Club in the 1960s. At the beginning, the network was a religious variety show comprised of sermons and prayers, live hymns and gospel music, and aggressive fundraising telethons. It wasn’t overtly or even covertly political. But Robertson always personally believed in the necessity of carrying out God’s plan through political means, and in the late 1970s, he saw an opportunity to realize his vision of political mobilization.
Robertson was uncommonly attentive to current affairs, and realized earlier than most that the center wasn’t holding. The post-Watergate decay in the legitimacy of authority, the fraying trust in the objectivity of Vietnam-era news media, the fluctuating commitments of the two major political parties, and the countercultural exhortation to “question everything” had caused a paradigm shift throughout society, not just on the Left. Robertson intuited — correctly, it turned out — that there was an unprecedented amount of wiggle room in American politics. Though the powers that be might not respond well to this or that message, their conception of what was politically acceptable didn’t line up with the public’s the way it used to. He reasoned that someone trying to push the envelope could get away with a lot more than in previous decades.
From the late seventies to the mid-eighties, the Christian Broadcasting Network grew increasingly political. But what it offered wasn’t ordinary political discourse: Robertson intentionally crossed the line separating legitimate and illegitimate political opinions, at least as they were understood by mainstream influencers and authorities. Importantly, he did so in ways that were strategic and appealing to his target audience, even when his opinions appalled the gatekeepers of mainstream culture. Heaton recounts this anecdote from the early eighties, emblematic of The 700 Club’s risky political commentary:
Pat told Ben Kinchlow and Danuta Soderman during one off-the-cuff, unscripted conversation on the air live that only Christians and Jews were qualified to hold public office in the United States. Many people — including NBC News — pointed to this moment as evidence that Pat was far outside what journalist Daniel C. Hallin calls the “sphere of legitimate debate,” but Pat was speaking directly to his constituency and didn’t care how his critics would interpret it. To those who believe the US was built on Judeo-Christian principles, it’s easy to accept a statement that only Jews and Christians would be qualified to run it, but this concept is foreign to those who believe the Founding Fathers were more open and tolerant. More often than not, this was the case with statements that might seem outrageous to others, especially liberals.
Robertson had a ground-level view of evangelicals’ reality, having been a movement preacher for decades and witnessed countless sermons and congregational proceedings. He understood how evangelicals saw and experienced the world, including their perception of the Christian heritage and biblical mission of the United States, which were obscure to the rest of the nation. He inferred that even if he was scolded by NBC News, it wouldn’t matter: his political messaging would resonate with the people who counted, his constituency in the making.
God’s Own Party
An evangelical joke says that there are three people the devil doesn’t want in hell: Billy Graham, because he would get everybody saved; Oral Roberts, because he would get everybody healed, and Pat Robertson, because he’d raise the money for air conditioning. At the height of their success, CBN took in nearly $300 million in donations per year.
Robertson may have been an extraordinary fundraiser, but his faith was sincere. He was a true believer, and one of his truest beliefs was that seizing state power for Christians was key to fulfilling God’s plan for humankind.
After a few years of testing the waters — with no significant consequences and record-high donations — he became fully committed to the idea of CBN becoming a political propaganda network. Interspersed with reports of modern-day miracles and spectacular donation drives, The 700 Club adopted more political rhetoric. It also created a program called CBN News, whose tagline was, “TV Journalism with a Different Spirit.”
A precursor to Fox News, CBN News made its primary objectives the demonization of the Democratic Party and the elevation of the GOP. There was nothing inevitable about that alignment: Until recently the Democratic Party had been the primary representative of poor whites in the Bible Belt, and many evangelicals still voted Democrat, if they voted at all. Robertson’s father had been a Democratic Party politician, and Robertson himself would surely have been a Democrat had he run for office as planned.
But as Heaton recalls, Robertson understood that propaganda is most powerful when it involves clear protagonists and antagonists. He thus endeavored, Heaton explains, to “paint a black-and-white, dystopian view of America,” a simple and easily digestible story in which good was battling evil everywhere you looked. Pairing each side to a political party was necessary to preserve the legibility of the narrative. The Republican Party was more closely aligned with conservative Christians on social issues: keeping prayer in schools, opposing homosexuality and abortion, and rejecting non-creationist scientific teachings.
But Republicans also had a pro-corporate, pro-austerity, anti-tax, anti-social fiscal agenda. To preserve the polarized narrative and strengthen the effectiveness of his propaganda, Robertson realized he needed to bring evangelicals up to speed. CBN News and The 700 Club started pushing the message that true Christianity opposed big government and taxes, and supported privatization and deregulation wherever possible. Though hardly supported by biblical teachings, Robertson and his team found a way to promote these views. Heaton offers this example:
Personal income was one of the major themes of the ministry of CBN. The idea that God wants His people to prosper in all ways — and especially financially — is based on an interpretation of certain scriptures, including John’s letter to Gaius… “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Since Christians are God’s beloved, this appears to be a message straight from God to believers and is open to interpretation as wealth.
In the seventies, evangelicals had no rigid political identity one way or the other. Over the course of the early eighties, due in no small part to CBN’s agitation, there was an overwhelming, demonstrable shift of evangelicals toward the GOP. Evangelicals came to speak of Ronald Reagan as if he were “on a level with the righteous kings of old Israel.” As they grew into their political identity — and the GOP started to favorably take notice — Robertson began advocating for the creation of a shadow government. “We must begin to find and train Christian people,” Heaton recalls Robertson saying in 1983, “so that they can be placed in every position that matters, because the country is on the verge of collapse.”
Heeding the Call
Robertson loved Reagan but he hated his vice president, George H. W. Bush. The ideological party reshuffling of the seventies and eighties wasn’t yet complete, and Bush was a testament to lingering ambiguity: he was soft on social issues, including being openly pro-choice. Creating an evangelical presence in government required a well-articulated political identity, which in turn relied on narrative simplicity. In that context, according to Robertson, Bush was an obstacle to God’s plan.
Robertson went on the air 1984 and announced that Christians’ task in the political arena was “pulverizing the ungodly.… We’re going to see God’s people lifted up. But in order for them to be lifted up, in a sense, the wicked need to be removed from the land.” It was a call to arms, an explicit message to Christians that they were needed in politics. A few months later, with Reagan newly reelected, a headline in the Saturday Evening Post read: “CBN’s Pat Robertson: White House Next?” Soon, CBN began diverting huge sums of money earned through religious telethons to its newly established political lobbying group, the Freedom Council — a practice for which it was later punished by the IRS.
Then, in 1987, Robertson announced he was officially running for president.
Bringing with him an organic, loyal, and ready-made base, Robertson started off strong in the Republican primary, besting his opponent George Bush in the Iowa caucuses. This immediately tugged Bush’s campaign to the right on social issues for the duration of the election. Robertson didn’t win, but he successfully used his campaign to speak to an even broader demographic of Christians, and to publicize core values and ideological litmus tests for conservative Christian voters. After years of subterranean rumblings, Robertson’s run dragged evangelicals into the sunlight of the political arena. His campaign fashioned them into a decisive voting bloc: first in the Republican primary and then — since they were paying attention and clearly weren’t going anywhere — in the general election.
The 1988 contest was a coming-out party for evangelicals as a political constituency. Robertson had given them permission to see themselves as political actors, and had forced the GOP to do the same. By 1989, newly elected President Bush had changed his tune on key social issues — for instance saying, “I do not favor advocating abortion in any way, shape or form.”
Meanwhile The 700 Club had transformed from a talk show to a “TV news magazine” where politics received as much airtime as religion — with the two combined whenever possible. Its hosts began openly encouraging young Christians to follow in Robertson’s footsteps, even after Robertson’s campaign had ended. Tens of thousands heeded the call. One of the show’s fans who eventually went into government was a young Sarah Palin, who professed belief in the “gifts of the spirit” and practiced an aggressive form of strategic prayer consistent with Robertson’s. The fact that moderate conservative John McCain felt compelled to select Palin as a running mate in 2008 demonstrates just how effective Robertson was at hauling evangelicals out of the margins and into the sphere of political legitimacy.
In his book The Plan, Robertson suggests that this was why he ran for president in the first place:
Could it be that the reason for my candidacy has been fulfilled in the activation of tens of thousands of evangelical Christians into government? This campaign taught them that they were citizens with as much right to express their beliefs as any strident activists who have been so vocal in support of their own radical agenda at every level of our government. For the first time in recent history, patriotic, pro-family Christians learned the simple techniques of effective party organizing and successful campaigning.
Seizing the Moment
Robertson has been railing against socialism since the Cold War and was instrumental in delivering a sizable section of the working class to the more unapologetically pro-capitalist of the two major parties. Even so, the story of his presidential bid holds similarities with Bernie Sanders’s 2016 run, the most significant political development for the American left in recent years. Both sought to bring new political constituencies into being via their candidacies, and despite losing their contests both were successful in this endeavor, substantially altering the terrain of electoral politics in the United States.
The parallels have little to do with personality — in affect and belief, Bernie Sanders and Pat Robertson are night and day. Instead, they stem from a simple and crucial fact of politics: constituencies are neither immutable nor mere accidents of history. Though made possible by underlying social conditions, they are brought into political existence by strategic political actors, the most successful of whom often take advantage of contradictions and legitimacy crises within the existing order.
When such a crisis presented itself in the 1970s, Robertson seized the opportunity to articulate a brand new politics that he knew would resonate with the base he understood so intimately —and thus, as he put it, “teach them that they are citizens.” Odd as it seems, socialists face a similar opportunity today. The American working class regards both major parties and mainstream media with mounting suspicion and disappointment, as conventional politicians’ approval ratings plummet, legacy media outlets beg to be trusted, and distance from the established order emerges as a primary criterion for public trust.
Once again there is a profound asymmetry between what the bipartisan ruling class and its sympathetic punditry accept as legitimate and what people experience on the ground. Questioning capitalism still remains generally impermissible — yet, as economic inequality skyrockets, many Americans experience overwork or inability to find work, decayed infrastructure and services, lack of access to basic needs, alienation and discouragement, and declining quality of life. That asymmetry is fertile ground for new politics. And if the Left doesn’t take advantage of it, the Right will.