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Televangelist Pat Robertson dies at 93

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

The controversial televangelist and former Republican politician Pat Robertson has died. He was 93 years old. Robertson founded the Christian Broadcasting Network and for decades hosted the network's flagship show, "The 700 Club." He used it for his ministry and to boost right-wing political causes. Here he is in 2017 with then-President Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT ROBERTSON: There seems to be a visceral hatred of you in the part of the left, and they won't quit.

KHALID: Robertson made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988 before going on to found the Christian Coalition. We're joined now by NPR's Sarah McCammon, who has covered his life and has a good sense of what this all means.

And let's start, Sarah, with who Pat Robertson was. What is he most known for?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, he started out as a pastor who became a pioneer in the religious right, as we've said. You know, he founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, or CBN, as it's known, as well as Regent University in Virginia Beach, an influential evangelical university. He ran for the GOP presidential nomination in '88, as you mentioned, and he used that, Asma, as a launching point for further political activism on behalf of right-wing causes. He had a reputation, we should say, for making racist and anti-gay remarks. And in the late '80s, he founded the Christian Coalition, which became one of the most important groups involved in organizing conservative Christians to vote for Republican politicians. According to CBN, Robertson died today surrounded by his family. He was 93.

KHALID: So how was it that Robertson became perhaps the trailblazer for the political activities of the Christian evangelical movement?

MCCAMMON: Well, it's important to understand he was the son of a prominent conservative U.S. senator, Absalom Willis Robertson, so Pat Robertson grew up with an awareness of politics and watching his father. I spoke this morning with Ralph Reed, who is today still a leader in the Christian right. Reid was the director of the Christian Coalition after Robertson founded it, and he said Robertson's father was an important influence. Reed also told me that Robertson, you know, was very skillful at building up the political muscle of the Christian right and at rallying voters around the kinds of issues that he cared about.

RALPH REED: It is undeniable, whatever one thinks of his politics - and I was, you know, fortunate and privileged to be at his side - that he transformed the Republican Party, and with it, American politics.

MCCAMMON: And, Asma, one of the key ways that Robertson did that was through broadcasting. You know, he harnessed the power of TV. His show, "The 700 Club," was almost like a mix of variety show and arguably a precursor to Fox News. It was entertaining, featured a mix of the news of the day and influential leaders in religion and politics. And in many ways, like Donald Trump, Pat Robertson knew how to entertain and how to hold an audience, and he used that very effectively as a political tool.

KHALID: So that's a really, I think, helpful sense of what Robertson's history was. But what do you see as his long-term legacy now going forward?

MCCAMMON: You know, I also talked this morning with the Reverend Rob Schenck. He's an evangelical pastor who for many years worked alongside Pat Robertson and other key white evangelical leaders. Schenck has since broken ranks with many of them and is now largely critical of the movement. But Pat Robertson was a mentor for him, and he noted, you know, that less talked about was the charitable work Robertson did through an organization called Operation Blessing, which deploys teams to help with emergencies like natural disasters. That said, Asma, Schenck says he's sad to say that he believes Robertson bears a lot of responsibility for the politicization of his faith and for the impact on the culture in a way that was largely damaging.

ROB SCHENCK: In fact, it was at Pat's 80 birthday party that I first encountered Donald Trump - other than in the media, in person - when he was Pat's guest of honor for that festive occasion. And it shocked me because I thought Donald Trump stood for everything opposite of what a Christian should support.

MCCAMMON: And that was, of course, more than a dozen years ago. So by all accounts, Robertson was responsible for much of the current state of politics, the power of the Christian right. And that's a legacy we're seeing today in many areas, not just in the rise of Trumpism, but in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Many of these political trends are arguably traceable to the work of Pat Robertson.

KHALID: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
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