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Pat Robertson, conservative evangelist and Christian Coalition founder, dies at 93

Robertson was one of the most prominent and influential Christian broadcasters and entrepreneurs in the U.S., equal parts religious leader and culture warrior. 
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Pat Robertson, the conservative evangelist and media mogul who galvanized the modern Christian right, cultivated a massive national following and regularly drew criticism for his incendiary political statements, died Thursday, according to his official broadcasting network.

He was 93.

The Christian Broadcasting Network, the organization he founded, did not immediately announce Robertson's cause of death. "Pat Robertson dedicated his life to preaching the Gospel, helping those in need, and educating the next generation," the company said.

He was one of the most prominent and influential Christian broadcasters and entrepreneurs in the United States — equal parts religious leader and culture warrior. 

Pat Robertson
Television evangelist and conservative political activist Pat Robertson speaks to a meeting of the Christian Coalition in Washington in 1994. Wally McNamee / Corbis via Getty Images file

In a way, Robertson was also a business visionary. He converted a small Virginia television station into a religious broadcasting powerhouse, marrying fiery ideology with 20th-century entertainment technology. He inspired other conservative Christians to take to the airwaves, too.

He created the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), home to the talk show “The 700 Club,” and founded the Christian Coalition, a group that helped mobilize American evangelicals into a conservative political bloc and one of the cornerstones of the modern Republican Party.

Robertson reached the pinnacle of his national celebrity in the 1980s, when social conservatism was ascendant. He ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, a contest ultimately won by George H.W. Bush. But he would remain a kingmaker in the GOP for decades to come, marshaling conservative Christians behind George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Pat Robertson waves to supporters Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 9, 1988.
Pat Robertson waves to supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1988. Peter Southwick / AP

In his career, Robertson frequently attracted intense scrutiny for his political views and inflammatory public comments, earning a reputation as a right-wing provocateur.

Early in his 1988 presidential bid, he was criticized for appearing to exaggerate his military service record. In interviews at the time, Marine veterans claimed that Robertson, the son of a politician, used political influence to avoid hard combat duty. Robertson denied the allegations.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Roberson and fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell were harshly condemned for appearing to put blame on abortion doctors, feminists, gay people and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Robertson came under fire in 2010 for falsely claiming that the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti that year was caused by enslaved Black people who made a “pact with the Devil” in the 18th century as they fought for liberation from French colonizers.

Marion Gordon Robertson was born March 22, 1930, in Lexington, Virginia. His father, Absalom Willis Robertson, served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

The younger Robertson graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1950. He became a reservist in the U.S. Marine Corps and eventually went into active duty, serving for roughly two years during the Korean War. He earned a law degree from Yale University in 1955.

In the years that followed, Robertson experienced a transformative religious awakening. He studied at New York Theological Seminary and graduated in 1959, then became an ordained Southern Baptist minister in 1961.

The same year, Robertson purchased a bankrupt UHF television station in Portsmouth, Virginia, which he rechristened the Christian Broadcasting Network. The channel went live on the air Oct. 1, 1961, when he was 31.

Five years later, CBN started production on “The 700 Club,” a show that became synonymous with the channel, a mainstay of American television and one of the signature Christian-themed shows on the air.

“The 700 Club” was revolutionary for its time. In a departure from traditional Christian TV, the show embraced a talk-show format normally associated with secular entertainment. (The show was originally hosted by the popular televangelist Jim Bakker, who departed CBN in 1972.)

Pat Robertson in the control room for his 700 Club TV show.
Pat Robertson in the control room for his 700 Club TV show. Wally McNamee / Corbis via Getty Images

Robertson grew CBN into a powerful entity and a go-to destination for politicians courting religious conservatives. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump appeared as guests, according to the network.

CBN's footprint expanded with CBN University, a private Christian institution that opened its doors to students in 1978. Twelve years later, the school’s name was changed to Regent University.

Robertson went deeper into the political fray in the 1980s. He sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, running against establishment figures, the senior Bush and Bob Dole, the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 1996. 

The evangelist focused his campaign on social issues at the heart of the modern conservative movement. He vocally opposed abortion rights, supported school prayer and stood against progressive culture writ large.

Robertson’s bid got off to an unexpectedly strong start with a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. But his campaign soon flamed out, and he won just four statewide nominating contests before dropping out of the race. 

Bush ultimately clinched the nomination and won the presidency. Robertson had endorsed his candidacy and spoke at the party convention in August.

The six Republican presidential candidates, Alexander Haig, Vice President George Bush, Pierre du Pont, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole and Pat Robertson after their first joint debate on Firing Line in Houston.
The six Republican presidential candidates, Alexander Haig, Vice President George Bush, Pierre du Pont, Jack Kemp, Bob Dole and Pat Robertson after their first joint debate on Firing Line in Houston.Bettmann Archive

Robertson continued to make his mark on Republican politics and the American political scene. The year after his failed presidential bid, he launched the Christian Coalition, a political advocacy group that advanced his aims and helped lead Republicans to a takeover of Congress in 1994.

He left the Christian Coalition in 2002. Five years later, he stepped down as chief executive of CBN and handed the position over to his son Gordon Robertson. The elder Robertson continued to host “The 700 Club” until 2021.

In recent years, Robertson remained one of the defining faces of the Christian right, beloved by conservative audiences. He prayed for Trump’s win in the 2016 election and said people who opposed his candidacy were “revolting against what God’s plan is for America.”

He made occasional breaks from the conservative party line on certain issues. He called for an end to mandatory prison sentences for marijuana possession convictions, for example, and stated that “we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol.”

Pat Robertson, and his wife Adelia "Dede" Elmer Robertson at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992.
Pat Robertson and his wife, Adelia "Dede" Elmer Robertson, at the Republican National Convention in Houston in 1992. NewsBase / via AP A

In the wake of Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Robertson appeared to break with much of the conservative movement and reportedly chastised the ex-president for living in an “alternate reality.” He implored Trump to “move on.”

Robertson’s wife, Dede Robertson, died last April at 94.