David John Marley. Pat Robertson: An American Life. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. x + 312 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7425-5295-1. Reviewed by Brooke Sherrard, for the Journal of Southern Religion.
As long as major figures affect history, biography will be a much-welcomed format. David Marley's biography of Pat Robertson illuminates the life of one such figure and demonstrates that Robertson has been a major player in the realms of evangelicalism, politics, and business. Media focus on his sometimes kooky exterior, Marley argues, often masks the workings of an effective power broker.

Much of the attention expended on figuring out the so-called rise of the Religious Right in the past few decades has gone to Jerry Falwell. Though an inheritor of a separatist fundamentalist tradition, Falwell changed his mind and became involved in politics. His version of evangelical politics predominated in the 1980s, when he formed the imposing-sounding Moral Majority and enjoyed access to President Ronald Reagan. But Falwell never ran for office. As the Moral Majority foundered, it was Robertson who shaped the next phase of evangelical political involvement with his serious run for the presidency in 1988.

As Marley shows, Robertson was in many ways primed for this role. For several decades he too had adopted the separatist mold of eschewing politics. Before that, however, he was immersed in a rarefied political world to which few ever gain access. Robertson grew up the son of influential U.S. Senator Absalom Willis Robertson of Virginia, with a mother who "constantly reminded him of his heritage" (2), telling him he was descended from English kings and related to two U.S. presidents. He majored in history at Washington and Lee University, where the young men were taught that "nobility obligates" (5), and later graduated from Yale Law School. After failing the bar exam, he took up a second career path as a minister.

"Marley contends that Robertson's impact on evangelicalism was his successful importation of charismatic tendencies into his ministry as an ordained Southern Baptist."  


Marley contends that Robertson's impact on evangelicalism was his successful importation of charismatic tendencies into his ministry as an ordained Southern Baptist. Robertson was first introduced to charismatic worship by a Korean student at seminary, and his ministry became associated with speaking in tongues and faith healings. The outcome, according to Robertson, was a fertile cross-denominationalism: "[A]s far as the majesty of worship, I'm an Episcopalian; as far as a belief in the sovereignty of God, I'm Presbyterian; in terms of holiness, I'm a Methodist . . . in terms of the priesthood of believers and baptism, I'm a Baptist; in terms of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I'm a Pentecostal" (quoted in Marley, 16). 

But in terms of politics, Robertson found himself to be a Republican. Formerly a conservative Southern Democrat, he eventually changed his party affiliation without too much change in his political outlook. Like many evangelicals, he was first energized and then disappointed by the candidacy of born-again Christian Jimmy Carter. Marley writes that the most important lesson Robertson learned from the Carter presidency was that "it was more important to agree with a candidate's political ideology than his religion" (51).

Carter had catapulted to the national stage through the Iowa caucuses. Robertson studied up on where the first caucuses and primaries would be and organized there early. A win at an early GOP straw poll in Iowa, and then a surprise second-place finish in that state's caucuses ahead of sitting vice president and eventual nominee George H. W. Bush, seemed to demonstrate that the "invisible army" that Robertson said would sweep him into office might be real. Along the way, Robertson worked to appeal to a wider audience, and even "resigned his ordination" (135) when polls showed that most Americans believed ministers should not run for president. However, after Iowa, Robertson's campaign tanked in southern states where he thought he would do even better. This led to what is perhaps Robertson's real impact on politics, his use of his political mailing list to start the Christian Coalition. This group focused on grassroots organizing, usually in the form of getting its supporters elected at every level of government.

Robertson also broke out of the televangelist mold in the area of business. Robertson strove to create quality business ventures with hopes of making them competitive with non-evangelical versions. For example, he founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, which became by 1987 America's fifth-largest cable network, and Regent University, meant to imitate the high educational standards and architecture of leading universities but not their secularism. Perhaps foremost among his ventures was the Family Channel, which he sold in the late 1990s for nearly $2 billion. Marley finds these financial dealings the most overtly problematic of Robertson's ventures, calling them "the biggest scandal in the story of Pat Robertson. Whatever one thinks of his religious or political views, the fact remains that he raised millions of dollars from his viewers, most of whom were elderly, and then took their money to create a business that was sold for almost $2 billion" (188). Marley also reports that Robertson used funds from a ministry called Operation Blessing to funnel a disproportionate amount of money to Iowa farmers when he was campaigning in that state and used a plane intended for the same ministry to make flights for his diamond mine operation in Zaire. 

While this is overall a balanced portrait of Robertson, Marley occasionally seems too trusting of his subject as a source. For example, Marley claims that the media treated minister candidates Robertson and Jesse Jackson totally differently in the 1988 presidential race. Whether or not this was the case, Marley's source for this contention is an interview with Robertson. One wonders if Robertson's views of the matter have more to do with his evangelicals-as-victims mentality, at other points so well elucidated by Marley, than with the media's actual treatment of the candidates.

This small criticism aside, Marley has done a fine job of researching the life of a major religious figure and showing the ways Robertson has striven to blur boundaries in all his areas of influence. And as Robertson's recent decision to endorse Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani on the basis of ideological rather than religious similarities shows, it is a story that is not yet finished.  

Brooke Sherrard
Doctoral Candidate in Religion
Florida State University


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