Opinion

What the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker can teach us today

Tammy Faye Bakker and her then-husband, television evangelist Jim Bakker, talk to their TV audience iat their PTL ministry near Fort Mill, S.C., in this Aug. 20, 1986 file photo. (AP Photo/Lou Krasky, file)

Tammy Faye Bakker and her then-husband, television evangelist Jim Bakker, talk to their TV audience at their PTL ministry near Fort Mill, S.C., in this Aug. 20, 1986, file photo. (AP Photo/Lou Krasky, file)

(RNS) — During the 1970s and 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker built one of the largest evangelical empires in recent American history.

By 1986, PTL (Praise the Lord or People That Love to its supporters, Pass the Loot to its critics) had a private satellite network that reached into 14 million American homes; a 2,300-acre theme park, Heritage USA; and annual revenues of $129 million.

Three years later Jim Bakker was on his way to prison, convicted of fraud in the wake of a widely publicized sex scandal.

In both its rise and fall, PTL helps to explain why religion remains such a persistent part of American life and how deep and sincere faith can be entangled with money, sex and celebrity on a Hollywood scale. It’s a story as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.

Jim came from a working-class family in Muskegon, Mich., and Tammy grew up in International Falls, Minn., in a house without indoor plumbing, the eldest of eight. They dropped out of Bible college to get married in 1961 and then hit the road as traveling Pentecostal healing evangelists, mostly in the Bible Belt.

In 1965 Pat Robertson invited them to start a kids’ show on his tiny UHF station in Portsmouth, Va., based on a puppet act that was part of their ministry (Tammy was brilliant with those puppets).

A series of innovations followed. The first was the Christian talk show, modeled after “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson; Bakker and Robertson called the show “The 700 Club.”

“The Tonight Show” was the height of cultural cool, the opposite of most Christian television at the time. As Bakker later told it, he and Tammy would unwind after revival meetings by watching Carson in the trailer they pulled behind their car and wonder why Christian television could not be just as good.

In 1974 the Bakkers launched the PTL network in Charlotte, N.C., broadcasting from a former furniture store with half a dozen employees. PTL’s second innovation under Bakker was the satellite network, launched in 1978, a year before ESPN.

While the three major networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — hesitated to embrace satellite technology, PTL and a handful of other entrepreneurs jumped in. The satellite network beamed Christian programming into millions of homes 24 hours a day, making Jim and Tammy stars and opening up enormous fundraising potential. PTL programs were eventually seen in 40 nations.

The Bakkers’ signature television show, initially called “The PTL Club,” was a form of reality TV before the term was invented. It was broadcast live with a studio audience five days a week, with little scripting. In one episode they brought a camel on the show to promote their Christmas program. As Jim described how magnificent the camel was, it peed a river across the set, all on live television. Viewers came to think of Jim and Tammy as part of their extended family.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker enjoy a night on the town on Oct. 24, 1987, as they arrive at the Beverly Theatre to see the show “The Gospel Truth.” (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

As the money flowed in, Jim dreamed of something even bigger. His third innovation at PTL was creating a Christian Disneyland in the rolling hills south of Charlotte.

Heritage USA was unlike anyplace else in America, with a 500-room luxury hotel, a state-of-the-art television studio and a $13 million water park. Bakker’s followers loved Heritage USA, and in 1986, 6 million people visited the park. There was something for everyone, from morning to midnight. But building Heritage USA cost more than even television money could support.

In the meantime, Jim and Tammy embraced the prosperity gospel, a message that fit the 1980s perfectly. “God wants you to be happy, God wants you to be rich, God wants you to prosper,” Jim Bakker wrote in “Eight Keys to Success” in 1980.

The Bakkers lived in luxury, using PTL money to buy a 10,000-square-foot home near Charlotte, a Florida beach condo, vacation homes in Palm Springs and Gatlinburg, Tenn., and expensive cars, boats, clothes and jewelry. On one occasion, in 1984, Bakker chartered a Gulfstream jet for $101,786 to fly to California and back rather than fly commercial.

Then it all fell to pieces.

U.S. marshals escort former PTL leader Jim Bakker, center, from his attorney’s office to a waiting car on Aug. 31, 1989, in Charlotte, N.C. Bakker, who did not appear in court the day before, was taken under order to the State Correctional Institute at Butner, N.C., for psychiatric evaluation. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

In March 1987, Bakker abruptly resigned from PTL when his 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. In a Playboy article published that November, Hahn accused Bakker of what amounted to rape. Bakker replied that Hahn was a professional “who knew all the tricks of the trade.”

Soon stories began to circulate of Bakker’s involvement in gay affairs and visits to prostitutes.

The scandal was initially about sex, but it soon turned to money when it was discovered that PTL had paid Hahn and her representatives $265,000 in hush money.

Jerry Falwell took over the ministry but quickly discovered that it was $65 million in debt and losing $2 million a month. The ministry filed for bankruptcy a few months later. No one thought that Jim and Tammy were perfect — indeed, that was part of their charm — but the stream of revelations shocked just about everyone.

Two years later, in 1989, Bakker went on trial for wire and mail fraud. Outside the courthouse, a carnival atmosphere prevailed, reminiscent of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. A witness collapsed on the stand and Bakker had a psychological breakdown, crawling under his lawyer’s couch as federal marshals came to get him.

Bakker was convicted and sentenced to 45 years by U.S. District Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Potter, though he served less than five.

After the fall, Tammy became an icon in the gay community, the Judy Garland of televangelism. Jim now has a new television ministry selling survival food and supplies and backing right-wing political causes. He claims his support was key to Donald Trump’s election.

PTL demonstrates the power of religious innovation in America, where religious groups face few constraints on their creativity. Jim and Tammy were adept at identifying cultural trends and putting themselves at the center of the next big thing.

But the same freedom from oversight that allowed for PTL’s innovations ultimately led to its collapse under the weight of Jim Bakker’s deceptions. It’s a story full of human drama, with characters almost too improbable for a novel. Together they helped first to build one of the largest ministries in the recent past and then to bring it down.

(John Wigger is a history professor at the University of Missouri and the author of “PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire,” which will be published by Oxford University on Aug. 4. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)

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John Wigger

26 Comments

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  • “What the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker can teach us today”?
    Religion is a great refuge for grifters. In fact, Li’l Jimmy is grifting to this very day.
    Li’l DIVORCED JIMMY.

  • So no one is speaking about all that money people, poor people, sent in that was used for everything else but helping people. This is above and beyond the extravagance of Jim and Tammy’s personal life styles which go counter to EVERYTHING that Christ taught.

    If they both were just your average con artists, bilking millions from people it would be one thing. Even Madoff bilking billions does not compare to those who use God for ill gotten gains. That is the difference here. That is outright blasphemy to use God, Jesus, as the worm on the hook as they went fishing for wealth, power, prestige.

    If any of them had any decency they would be doing penance by feeding the poor, comforting the sick poor, and going down into those trenches of despair like Mother Theresa giving freely and accepting nothing as Jesus showed us, and God does for us.

  • As a conservative evangelical that disdains the “prosperity gospel” and televangelists that stray beyond a clear, succinct, and straightforward presentation of God’s Word, the PTL phenomenon always made me feel unclean after viewing any of their telecasts.

  • Falwell Pere royally screwed the Bakkers when he took over their businesses just one step ahead of the law. Until recent years when Jim has endorsed all sorts of right-wing causes and conspiracy theories in an effort to stay relevant, they had eschewed politics. After the divorce Tammy conducted herself honorably until her death and Jim layed low until his recent emergence as a right-wing pitchman.

  • Sandi, your comment here, is REALLY over the top! I believe that Jim and Tammy Fay began as humble, sincere Christian preachers. Then they became infected with the viruses of money and celebrity and were drawn away from their original Gospel message to both preach–and practice the prosperity gospel.

    Their fall was indeed a tragedy.

  • :In both its rise and fall, PTL helps to explain why religion remains such a persistent part of American life and how deep and sincere faith can be entangled with money, sex and celebrity on a Hollywood scale. It’s a story as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.”

    This writer did a decent job of writing a lengthy article, “tisk-tisking” the Bakkers for their excesses. What does their rise and fall teach us today? I was expecting that message to fill up at least about half of the rest of this article.

    I believe the major lesson is that Christian ministers like Jim and Tammy Fay can begin their ministry as humble, sincere Christian messengers and practitioners of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and then allow their tremendous success to infect them with the two big viruses of money and celebrity. The appeal of these two items can indeed, draw sincere ministers of the Gospel message to both preach–and practice a prosperity gospel.

    This was truly a tragedy.

  • Jim and Tammy Faye were and are just run of the mill Evangelical preachers, big box church in place of the old circus tent of yesteryear. Holy rollers, ordinary grifters, and the Travelers (or gypsies) all have more in common than you think. That’s why I think of the old Cher anthem “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” as the Evangelical preacher theme song: “Preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of Dr. Good.” Jim Bakker just got caught giving women other than Tammy his “special” blessing. Other Televangelists haven’t been caught, yet.

  • Perhaps but we choose how we are going to sin. One does not fall into sin, beyond their control – that’s a line of bull. We are responsible for our temptations and the sin that follows.

  • Edward, I’m pleased to say that I never followed them. Worse yet, Baker is back on television trying to sound credible. The man has no shame.

  • We don’t pity sin, Sable. We rejoice when our brothers and sisters accept Jesus’s forgiveness and offer to help them overcome their sin.
    James 1: 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

  • I have to speak to Tammy Faye, who’s life and heart made a great change after it all fell apart at PTL. She became an icon in the gay community because she humbled herself, asked forgiveness, and gave nothing but kindness and love to gay people in the remaining years of her life. After she became a pariah in Christian circles, the gay community took her in.

    I met her at OutWrite Books in Atlanta a number of years ago, which was the local gay community bookstore and coffee shop. From young men off the streets, to drag queens, to older gay couples – she hugged everyone and spoke kindly to all. We loved her because she knew what total rejection was like after the fall of PTL. She often said that God used the rejection she received to show her what she had done to gay people in her life was wrong, and it broke her heart.

    She wore her heart on her sleeve, she didn’t care what people thought about her any more, and she returned kindness to those who expressed hate toward her. In spite of her terminal cancer, she carried on to the end, smiling through her tears. I have nothing but kind things to say about her.

    While I am not Christian, she became in the last years of her life a wonderful example of her Christian faith. She never gave up on her Christian faith and she wanted people to become Christians, but she was also pro-gay and pro-anyone who had been rejected.

    On a side note, Jim and Tammy’s son grew up and became s self-described “punk” minister to marginalized people groups, and is pro-gay like his mom.

  • I’m not sure he is a well qualified expositor of the Word, but he has done his “penance,” if I may use that word, and if truly repentant, as well as ready to sit under the authority of a qualified auditor, I see no biblical bar to his returning to the ministry, though certain limitations might be placed on him initially. Cheers.

  • They, without doubt will NOT be in heaven with those they deceived, God will not recognize them! !

  • In the absence of true repentance, you are correct, and that is what I substantially said. But if they genuinely repent and come before Him in that state, His Word specifically declares that He will recognize them. While they yet breathe, they have hope. Nothing is final until the last breath in this world is drawn.

  • Thank you for adding this, as it’s an important part of the story. The evangelical community made bank on exploiting homophobia at the heart of the AIDS crisis. It was then that I learned how horrible people can be. Tammy Faye’s subsequent humility and repentance toward those she and her husband had harmed – and our embrace of her – is a story of true redemption.

  • Only the ignorant could not see through this great scheme. It was always the money? Thank You.

  • What an amazing story. Rags to riches, the fall from grace, the humiliation, the divorce, with one turning her life around and the other continuing on essentially the same path.

    Jim appears to be just a conman, but Tammy is a far more interesting and complex figure. The story of their marriage is enthralling but is apparently a doomed union between a conman and his chief victim.

    Their life is more than just a warning about pious fraud, or sin and repentance. I hope that John Wigger’s book does this subject justice.

  • All of this is funny since I had a job that had me meeting daily with televangelists and mega church ministers, all of whom were out for a buck, religion meant nothing to them unless they could money out of them. Bakker wanted to buy a second set up of something I sold, but he had not paid for the first, so I refused. He only owned me 60K$. He said he would pray about it and when God told him to pay, he would. I never got it.

  • don’t be so simple with your analysis. I knew them both and they were as crooked as a hound’s hind leg.

  • Then they need to pay all the money back to all the people they deceived. That is true repentance. They have no intention of doing this. The Bakker group believes that only a needed confession saves them with Jesus forever. Boy, are they ever deceived.

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