(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.
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.
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)