Over forty-six years of electronic ministry, this icon of evangelicalism has done a lot of praying, and he says it has paid a multitude of dividends. He declares with utmost confidence that God speaks to and through him, has diverted hurricanes at his urging, and has healed thousands of the sick and lame in answer to his pleas. He claims to have had personal encounters with Satan and the demons at his command, and in January 2007 he told his national audience that God had personally warned him of a major terrorist attack, “perhaps nuclear,” that would occur before year’s end. Given this track record, it would be easy to dismiss Robertson as a caricature. But that would be a mistake.
Since Jerry Falwell’s death, Robertson is the most visible evangelical leader in America. A recent public opinion survey conducted by Christian pollsters the Barna Group found that Robertson was the only religious figure besides Billy Graham—who has retired from preaching—known to at least half the population. Perhaps of most import for the nation and the world, he has pioneered a unique marriage between theology and politics. This is a man who ran for president because, he said, God told him to, but that brief campaign twenty years ago would be merely a footnote in American political history were it not for the potent legacy it spawned...
Robertson was the son of a Senator who became a Marine who went to law school but failed the bar who became a businessman until he had a conversion experience and decided God wanted him in the business of broadcasting. He bought a bankrupt TV station in Portsmouth, Virginia:
Worst of all, in September 1961 just as Robertson’s fledgling TV station was preparing for its first broadcast, Hampton Roads was threatened with devastation by Hurricane Esther, a category-4 storm pushing northwest across the Atlantic. Nearly 15,000 residents were evacuated from the Norfolk area, where the National Weather Service predicted the hurricane would make landfall, but Robertson refused to leave. From a ballroom at the top of the Monticello Hotel in downtown Norfolk, he prayed that God would divert the hurricane and spare the station. The storm slowed and turned northward, skirting the Virginia coast and eventually making landfall on Nantucket Island and the coast of Maine. Robertson claimed credit for the miracle—and now says he has prayed away several other hurricanes from Hampton Roads in the years since. “For the past 45 years or so,” he wrote in Miracles Can Be Yours Today, published in 2006, “God has set an invisible shield around our area.”
On October 1, 1961, just days after the storm had passed, Robertson’s WYAH—as in “Yahweh”—went on the air, with the evangelist praying in front of a cardboard cross. Such humble beginnings notwithstanding, God wanted only the best for WYAH, which would expand into the goliath Christian Broadcast Network. Robertson wrote that the Almighty had told him, “Pat, I want you to have an RCA transmitter”—the most expensive FM transmitter then on the market at $19,000. In the beginning, pricey and divine demands like these strained Robertson’s budget to the breaking point. Expenses continued to skyrocket, and the future of the station seemed constantly imperiled. In 1962, Robertson came up with a solution for his financial woes by holding a telethon. The goal was to find 700 viewers who were willing to each pledge $10 a month, enough to cover the station’s expenses. Robertson dubbed this group The 700 Club.
The story chronicles the rise and fall of Jim Bakker, who along with his then wife Tammy helped make the CBN profitable. It also talks to Gerard Thomas Straub, the one-time successful soap opera producer who became an associate of Robertson's and helped turn CBN into a successful and professional machine, until he too had a fall-out with Robertson:
At the show, he advanced quickly, soon becoming a 700 Club producer and a Robertson confidant. The two men developed what Straub later described as almost a father–son relationship. “But it didn’t take long to discover that their faith was different from mine,” Straub told me. He grew particularly uncomfortable with Robertson’s claims of miracle cures for everything from acne, goiter, and varicose veins to arthritis, diabetes, and brain tumors. To this day, Robertson holds hands with his co-host, scrunches his eyes shut, and delivers “words of knowledge” to his viewers—accounts of people being healed as they watch the show. Even “a little shaggy dog” was being healed, he announced on one show in 2006.
“Not a soul in the place ever questioned what was happening,” Straub wrote later in his book Salvation for Sale. “I just assumed that someday I would understand. I was wrong.” Most people felt that everything was justified by Robertson’s apocalyptic theology. From the beginning of his ministry, Robertson has made plain that he expects to live to see the Second Coming of Jesus, and he is preparing for Christ’s final battle with the Antichrist, a demon-possessed man who will have ruled as a worldwide dictator for at least three and a half years. Robertson says lust, homosexuality, drunkenness, gluttony, and witchcraft can be expressions of demonic activity and believes that Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx were demon-possessed. At various times during the 1970s, he warned that Ouija boards, visits to fortune-tellers, and playing Dungeons and Dragons were potential sources of demonic possession. “It was dark, ominous,” Straub told me. “They saw evil everywhere.” And Robertson emphasizes that he does not regard such evil as mere metaphor for human failings. He believes, for example, that a wave of depression that he once experienced in a motel near Seattle was much more than self-doubt. “I realized I was under demonic attack,” he wrote. “I immediately took control over it and said, ‘Satan, in the name of Jesus, I cast you forth.’ The minute I said that, my mind was free and my despair was gone.”
Equally important to Robertson’s vision of the end-time is the nation of Israel. He sees Israel’s establishment in 1948 as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy—an event that set the clock ticking toward the creation of Christ’s kingdom—and took it as a sign from God that Israel’s Six-Day War began on the same day in 1967 that CBN broke ground on its new headquarters in Portsmouth. “In my thinking, the ministry of CBN was an end-times ministry,” he wrote. “Like John the Baptist, we had been called to proclaim the end of the old age and to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus Christ and the new age.” For Robertson the pact was sealed at a dedication ceremony for the new building when his old friend Harald Bredesen channeled God in a “word of prophecy,” intoning into the mike: “I have chosen you to usher in the coming of my Son.”
In order to prepare for the imminent Second Coming—which Robertson believes will occur on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem according to biblical prophecy—he acquired METV (Middle East Television), a station then based in southern Lebanon that could broadcast into Israel. Straub was given marching orders to be ready to televise Christ’s return. CBN executives drew up a detailed plan to broadcast the event to every nation and in all languages. Straub wrote: “We even discussed how Jesus’ radiance might be too bright for the cameras and how we would have to make adjustments for that problem. Can you imagine telling Jesus, ‘Hey, Lord, please tone down your luminosity; we’re having a problem with contrast. You’re causing the picture to flare.’”
There is much more - just as frightening and troubling - about his questionable charitable operations, his politics, and his opening of a "law school" that eventually became a feeder for George Bush's Justice Department and Administration. It is, as I said, a fascinating story of one man who has given Christianity a very bad name.