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Pat Robertson, the quintessential televangelist who died Thursday at 93, fused media, religion and politics into a potent force during a time when American political parties realigned.
He gave religious conservatives a powerful broadcasting platform, pushed Christians toward the Republican Party and spoke out against gay rights, feminism, abortion rights and anything else he thought might be likely to draw God’s wrath.
In natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and terrorist attacks like 9/11, Robertson saw punishment for moral decline.
Along with fellow conservative Christians like Jerry Falwell, Robertson defined a brand of morals-focused religious conservatism that became part of the identity of the Republican Party until the bombastic divorcee Donald Trump took over.
“He certainly represents a very critical era in modern politics,” Robert Jones, the author of the 2016 book “The End of White Christian America” and the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute, told me in a phone interview.
Robertson’s legacy includes the “melding of that religious world with the Republican Party,” Jones said.
Flight from Democrats
Born the son of a Democratic senator from Virginia, Robertson became a force in the GOP, helping to elect Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan.
His father, Sen. Absalom Willis Robertson, was among Democrats who stood firmly against civil rights legislation in the 1960s, when socially conservative Democrats, who controlled much of the South, were not uncommon.
Pat Robertson “was part of what I think you could honestly call the great White flight from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party,” Jones said, adding that the consolidation of White Christians into the GOP occurred in the 1980s, when Robertson was most powerful. He acted as “a key architect of building that road that led so many conservative White evangelicals out” of the Democratic Party after the civil rights era.
A power base that took decades to build
In 1966, the same year his father lost a Democratic Senate primary after opposing the Civil Rights Act, Pat Robertson created “The 700 Club” television program on his nascent Christian Broadcasting Network.
The network was founded in a local UHF television station in Portsmouth, Virginia, and supported by telethons rather than commercial advertisements. “The 700 Club” initially referred to contributors Robertson said could keep the network afloat with $10 monthly donations.
Now the network and show are available just about everywhere, on cable and broadcast television and online, and the donations helped Robertson build a media empire and found the religious Regent University in Virginia Beach.
An unsuccessful presidential campaign
Robertson’s personal political career was not as successful. He left his ministry in 1987 to run for president in the 1988 Republican presidential primary, challenging the ultimate nominee, Vice President George H.W. Bush.
He announced the campaign in Brooklyn, New York, and hecklers – in video you can watch on C-SPAN – shouted through the entire event as Robertson said one of his top concerns was the “breakup of the American family.” He pledged to cut down on divorces and teach more American kids to read.
The idea was that a network of millions of evangelical supporters around the country would help drive support and fundraising for his campaign.
It couldn’t get Robertson all the way, however. He placed second in the Iowa caucuses that year, above the eventual nominee Bush, but behind Sen. Robert Dole. According to a New York Times report on the end of his campaign, Robertson was unable to make his committed Christian following cross over into the mainstream; he won a number of delegates, but not nearly enough to have an impact at the Republican convention that year.
Ending his own candidacy hardly ended his influence. He went back to preaching every morning on “The 700 Club” and founded the Christian Coalition of America in 1989, built around what it saw as family values and which claimed some credit for the so-called “Republican Revolution” that put the GOP in charge of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades after the 1994 midterm election.
Trading family values for Trump’s results
Robertson ultimately backed Trump for president in 2016. After the vulgar “Access Hollywood” tape was leaked in October of that year, Robertson stayed with Trump, dismissing it as “macho talk.”
Jones sees 2016 as a key moment, as evangelicals essentially abandoned high moral ground in exchange for Trump.
“Earlier incarnations of the Christian right movement marched under the banner of family values,” Jones said. “That’s not a brand that fits very well with a Trump candidate.”
Rather, the turn toward Trump – who still has the support of most White evangelical Republican voters in polling – suggested something new for Robertson and religious conservative voters.
“At the end of the day, and later in his life, it was politics, ultimately, and not theology that drove his support,” Jones said.
The country is diversifying. The GOP is not
Citing data from PRRI surveys, Jones said there is a paradox in the power of religious conservative voters.
“Even if we rewind just back to the early 2000s, White evangelicals made up about a quarter of the country. That number in our latest data is down to 13.6%. So they’re shrinking.”
But in part because of the activist legacy of Robertson and others, Jones said, “This group still registers to vote and turns out to vote at rates higher than most other Americans.”
Jones notes that while the US as a whole is becoming more diverse, about 7 in 10 Republicans are White and Christian, and about a third of the GOP is White evangelical.
“That trajectory that Robertson and early Christian right activists set in the early ’80s, you can still see their fingerprints on the Republican Party today,” he said.
Perhaps the most Robertson-like candidate currently in the GOP primary race would be Mike Pence, the former vice president chosen as Trump’s running mate in 2016 in part because of his appeal to evangelical voters.
Other Republicans who specifically tried to appeal to evangelical voters have encountered a ceiling. Candidates like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in more recent elections have, like Robertson, found some success in Iowa during its early caucuses where White evangelicals make up a majority of participants, but failed to catch on with Republican voters nationwide.