NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson took a tiny television station in southeast Virginia and turned it into a global network that helped him launch a presidential bid and become one of the nation's most influential conservative Christians. But as the televangelist's network turns 50 on Saturday, he says he's getting out of the political endorsement game.
Robertson's decision marks a significant departure for the founder of the Christian Coalition, who was once a central figure in Republican politics. Robertson, 81, was frequently sought out by GOP candidates hoping to curry favor with religious conservatives. His news-and-talk show on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the "700 Club," is viewed by about 1 million people in the U.S. each day.
"I've personally backed off from direct political involvement," Robertson said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press this week. "I've been there, done that. The truth of the matter is politics is not going to change our world. It's really not going to make that much of a difference."
Robertson's influence has waned in recent years as he gave up control of the Christian Coalition and made a series of comments that many people considered bizarre or offensive.
He once said American agents should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and suggested the debilitating stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was divine retribution for his decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. He was slammed by the White House last year for saying Haiti was cursed a day after a devastating earthquake. Last month, he outraged many by suggesting a man whose wife has Alzheimer's Disease and was seeing another woman should divorce his wife.
He also caused a stir for saying the federal courts, pornography, abortion rights and church-state separation angered God, allowing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to occur.
The last person Robertson endorsed was former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a move that surprised many of his followers because of the Republican's support for gay rights and abortion rights.
"His influence has been waning for at least a decade now to the point where even many people in the movement I am sure will be glad to see him sidelined," said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "They just don't see him as reliable anymore on a lot of issues."
As for Robertson, he acknowledged he doesn't have the political influence he once did.
"When I was in charge of the Christian Coalition I was available to mobilize grass roots support for somebody," he said. "I don't have any army right now. It's just an opinion, and that isn't quite as good as it used to be."
Robertson said he would continue to comment on the news of the day and noted he likes Mitt Romney's politics. He said he considers the Mormon candidate "an outstanding Christian," but declined to say if he would be OK with a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the White House. Both Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman are Mormons seeking the GOP nomination, and many evangelicals are skeptical of the Mormon faith's claims to Christianity.
In hindsight, Robertson said, he would have phrased some of his more controversial pronouncements differently. But he also said he's appreciative of his forgiving audience.
Robertson said he still enjoys doing his show and has not decided how much longer he will stay on the air. His son Gordon — who also says he will not make political endorsements — already fills in for him on Fridays.
"I'm still strong and it seems like I'm doing all right, but I don't want to overstay my time," he said.
Robertson said looking back on his network's 50 years, which got its start as a tiny UHF station in Portsmouth, Va., and now occupies a sprawling campus in Virginia Beach, that he's most proud of the work it has done reaching people overseas. That will continue to be a focus of the network as it faces heavy competition in the U.S.
"When you talk about Africa, when you talk about Latin America, they're just now getting to the 1980s in their media choices. For us, we view that as tremendous opportunity," Gordon Robertson said.
Today, 90 percent of CBN's viewership is overseas, and some observers question the network's relevance in the U.S.
David Morgan, a professor of religion at Duke University, said CBN has little choice but to look overseas to grow because audiences outside the U.S. are less interested in politics.
"They care about an established institution, a brand that's been around for 50 years," Morgan said. "... Probably the younger Robertson knows this very well and it's a completely different game internationally. They can shed all the negativity, all the kind of kookiness that is associated with the senior Robertson."
Online: Christian Broadcasting Network www.cbn.com
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis