By Steve Wolfgang
Marion G. “Pat” Robertson is probably best known now for his political aspirations as a candidate for the Presidency in 1988. In many ways, that is his natural habitat. Born March 22, 1930, the son of a former U.S. Senator from Virginia, A. Willis Robertson, Pat seemed to be on a programmed political success track: Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Washington and Lee University in his home town of Lexington, VA; Golden Gloves boxer; Marine Corps officer during the Korean War; graduate of Yale Law School; partner in a New York electronics firm.
But there were problems: he had failed his bar exam after law school, and his life seemed, according to his own testimony, “empty.” After a “conversion experience, ” however, he gave up what seemed a promising business career and entered Biblical Theological Seminary in Manhattan, working as a counselor during the Billy Graham campaign of 1957. Although a Baptist, Robertson preached in a Methodist church, and later became an early convert to the Neo-Pentecostal, or Charismatic, movement which was beginning to make inroads into more traditional non-Pentecostal denominations.
Often given to hyper literal interpretation of Scripture, Robertson, to his wife’s dismay, read Luke 12:33 and shortly thereafter sold virtually all their possessions, donating the proceeds to the poor. After a period as a church worker in a black ghetto in Brooklyn, Robertson found himself back in his native Virginia with an old DeSoto, $70 in cash, and intentions of taking over a small, defunct TV station “for Jesus.” With one camera and a weak UHF signal, station WYAH went on-air in 1961. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Robertson was the first of the religious broadcasters to use a talk-show format, to sign up commercial sponsors, and the first to build an entire religious network, using an entertainment format. Last year, his 24-hour CBN network, carried by 7,353 cable systems with 30 million subscribers, was the fifth largest cable-TV operation of any kind (not far behind first-place ESPN, with 36.9 million subscribers). His 700 Club runs twice daily on CBN (though Robertson has taken leave from the show to campaign), and appears on a paying basis ($20 million) on commercial stations in 185 cities, reaching a claimed 4.4 million people daily.
The cable system grossed $176 million in 1986, IRS records show $129 million in donations for 1985. In 1986, CBN passed American Airlines as the nation’s leading WATS-line user, keeping the “prayer lines” (and the money lines) open. CBN University includes the former Oral Roberts University Law School. All of this has allowed Robertson, like the other “televangelists,” to live quite comfortably (in this case, in a ministry-owned $420,000 house).
Though Robertson is becoming known as a politician – it is probably a mistake to discount his chances politically – he is undoubtedly the single biggest example of the growth of “Pray TV.”
Pat Robertson, Shout It From the Housetops (1972); Newsweek, February 17, 1986. Ed Harrell is at work on a biography of Pat Robertson.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, p. 384
June 18, 1987