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Controversial televangelist Pat Robertson has died at age 93

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The controversial televangelist Pat Robertson has died at the age of 93. Robertson was an architect of the religious right, a pioneer in Christian broadcasting and, briefly, a politician. NPR's Sarah McCammon looks back at Robertson's life.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: For generations of conservative Christians, Pat Robertson was a familiar face on TV, shaping their understanding of both domestic politics and international affairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE 700 CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: From CBN, it's "The 700 Club."

MCCAMMON: Robertson, who was also an ordained pastor, founded the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia in the early 1960s, holding telethons to pay the network's bills. The most well-known program was the hugely popular and long-running news and talk show "The 700 Club." In this 1978 episode, Robertson and a co-host took viewers on a trip through Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE 700 CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Join Pat Robertson and Ben Kinchlow with highlights of the sights...

MCCAMMON: CBN's programs would eventually spread around the world. That success spurred Robertson to found a Christian college in the late 1970s, now known as Regent University in Virginia Beach, but his largest influence was on U.S. politics. He was the son of a prominent Virginia U.S. senator, and Robertson spent his career promoting right-wing causes and politicians from Presidents Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. In 1988, he pursued his own presidential ambitions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome to Dartmouth. They're all here, and one of them may be the next president of the United States.

MCCAMMON: Robertson ran for the Republican presidential nomination as both a social and fiscal conservative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT ROBERTSON: But the Democrats just want to spend us into oblivion, and we've got to balance the budget or...

MCCAMMON: The campaign was unsuccessful, but it helped elevate Robertson's profile among politically engaged white evangelicals. He launched the Christian Coalition to mobilize those voters and hired Ralph Reed in 1989 to be the first executive director. Reed says Robertson created an organization that succeeded in recruiting and training a generation of conservative Christian political leaders whose influence is widespread today.

RALPH REED: Christian Coalition really transformed the Republican Party and, with it, American politics. It helped to turn the Republican Party irreversibly into a socially conservative, pro-life party that was populated increasingly by evangelical Christians.

MCCAMMON: As a leader of the religious right, Robertson also developed a reputation for making racist and homophobic remarks. And a warning - the clips you're about to hear contain offensive language.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ROBERTSON: Ladies and gentlemen, your liberties are in danger because - read the Bible about Sodom and Gomorrah.

You might get AIDS in Kenya. The people have AIDS. You've got to be careful.

But I want to say it again and again and again. Islam is not a religion. It is a political system meant on - bent on world domination.

It is vindictive now. We're not talking about having rights from the poor, oppressed gays. We're talking about taking away the freedoms of everybody who disagrees with them.

MCCAMMON: In 1990, Robertson founded the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal advocacy group that became instrumental in right-wing causes, including efforts to restrict LGBTQ rights and abortion. The Reverend Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister and former conservative activist, worked closely with Robertson around that time. He says Robertson was a mentor, even though Schenck has since become a critic of the religious right.

ROB SCHENCK: He'll become one of the historic figures in American evangelical history. But the larger impact on the culture, on our country, certainly politically, has not been a helpful one and, I'm afraid, has been damaging.

MCCAMMON: Despite that, Schenck says he believes Robertson also deserves credit for his humanitarian work. In the late '70s, he founded Operation Blessing, which conducts disaster relief efforts around the world, such as helping earthquake victims in Turkey and Ukrainian refugees. In 2021, some 60 years after CBN's first broadcast, Robertson stepped down from hosting "The 700 Club," handing the reins to his son, Gordon. CBN says Pat Robertson died this morning surrounded by his family at home in Virginia Beach. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Norfolk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASEGO SONG, "YOU NEVER VISIT ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.