The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Evangelical Empire
- ISBN: 9780199379712
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: August 2017
No scandal can stop Jim Bakker from selling things on TV. Bakker’s newest venture runs out of Branson, Missouri, where he, his second wife Lori, and a panel of friends and experts film daily broadcasts. A typical hour-long program features obscure references to biblical passages, unadulterated praise for Donald Trump, harsh criticisms of the left, and aggressive advertising of emergency food buckets that promise to feed the faithful for a year during the impending apocalypse (a $650 value). The last time Bakker had a daily TV show, he was the head of the PTL (Praise the Lord) media empire, which came crashing down thirty years ago in the wake of sensational revelations of financial mismanagement and sexual assault. After serving less than five years of his sentence for fraud and conspiracy, Jim Bakker is back on his feet—sustained by the support of forgiving followers and buckets of dehydrated food.
John Wigger’s new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire, is a thorough and meticulously researched account of the Bakkers’ lives and ministry before the scandal. Wigger has assembled an impressive array of sources to tell the captivating tale: interviews, trial transcripts, financial records, yearbook photos, PTL broadcasts, biographies, and press archives. What emerges is a complex, though never apologetic, portrait of the televangelist power couple. From humble beginnings to lavish extravagance, Jim and Tammy Faye became the quintessential poster children for prosperity in the 1980s. As Wigger explains, the Bakkers, like other Pentecostals of this era, believed that God would financially provide for those who labored for the gospel. In practice, this meant that the ministry would “ignore the normal financial controls that businesses and banks had to follow because God would never fail to supply their need” (65). It also meant that constant fundraising became part of the theology—the more PTL’s viewers gave through telethons and monthly contributions, the more God was supposed to bless them in return.
For a while, the model seemed to work. The Bakkers hosted the most popular Christian talk show on television, using a satellite network that allowed round-the-clock transmission to millions of households. With contributions from faithful viewers, PTL also offered an alternative to secular entertainment by building Heritage USA, a South Carolina theme park that Wigger dubs “a Christian Disneyland.” It was Jim Bakker’s aggressive fundraising for Heritage USA’s continued expansion that eventually landed him in jail. Between 1984 and 1987, Bakker sold more lifetime memberships (a $1,000 contribution that entitled supporters to an annual stay at the resort) than he could accommodate, while lining his own pockets with millions in bonuses.
Then there was the sex. When, in the midst of revelations about financial irregularities, Jim Bakker stepped down as head of PTL in 1987, church secretary Jessica Hahn accused him of drugging and raping her in a Florida hotel room in 1980. The $279,000 hush money that PTL paid Hahn for her silence seemed to corroborate her story. There was more. Several of Jim Bakker’s male employees accused him of unwelcome advances and sexual assault. Although Bakker denied all allegations, Wigger concludes that these stories “painted a picture of Bakker as not just bisexual, but also a sexual predator, taking advantage of employees who depended on him for their livelihood” (284). While we will never know the “truth” of Bakker’s sexuality or the extent of his abuses, we do know that the Bakkers’ marriage was far from the happy image they projected. Wigger addresses the allegations of affairs on both sides. Tammy Faye, overshadowed by Jim’s popularity and drowning in her own insecurities, turned to prescription medication for fulfillment and men who were not her husband for companionship. No amount of material blessings seemed to fix the Bakkers’ interpersonal problems; corporate success did not amount to marital bliss. Their divorce became final in 1992.
Wigger is to be commended for using restraint and scholarly distancing in telling the story of excess, hypocrisy, and corruption that characterized much of the Bakkers’ ministry. A sensitive storyteller, Wigger is not interested in simply supplying a litany of Jim Bakker’s offenses. Instead, the historian takes on the much more difficult task of understanding the way power, celebrity, and "God-wants-you-rich theology" lead to disaster (66). Wigger carefully plots how Bakker’s charisma, openness, and ingenuity connected him and Tammy Faye with audiences in the United States and across the globe. Simultaneously, Bakker’s ambition was also his demise: a thirst for continued expansion and a misguided faith in God-sanctioned luxury led to exaggeration, lying, and eventually fraud. Unchecked power and internal organizational secrecy allowed Bakker to get away with sexual assault and harassment. By telling the story of Bakker’s downfall with nuance, Wigger is able to extend due credit to Bakker’s sales skills, if not to his theological prowess or moral compass.
Wigger’s broad argument for the significance of this story is that “in both its rise and fall, PTL demonstrates the power of religion to connect with American culture” (3). Wigger places the Bakkers in a long line of religious entrepreneurs who have been able to implement innovative technologies to reach unprecedented numbers of adherents. The satellite-transmitted daily talk shows captivated millions of viewers. The Bakkers’ message of God’s eternal love and worldly blessings gave hope to a generation. Heritage USA supplied a Christian alternative to vice-ridden secular entertainment. It was a sanctified center for guilt-free consumption, and American Christians bought in.
Wigger is less clear on how PTL’s fall exemplifies the power of religion to connect with culture. What, precisely, did the scandal do to religion in America? Wigger cites polling data that shows that by 1988, the majority of Americans questioned the credibility of televangelists—a shift that was no doubt connected to evangelical scandals (300). Yet the mechanisms by which public trust in religious piety wanes are never fully explored. What did the Bakkers’ fall ultimately mean for American religion or for the culture of consumption that prosperity’s reign on Christian TV inspired? Given the redemptive spin that Bakker was able to place on his comeback, it appears that the fall did not have as many repercussions as his critics would have liked.
These questions will continue to linger, and for good reason. Taking on scandal as a subject of study is complicated. It is tempting to dismiss PTL and the Bakkers as the worst exemplars of Christian hypocrisy. The more productive venture is to explicate the complexity of the Bakkers’ motivations, to explain the gradual escalation of their ambition, and to narrate the story of grace found and lost. Wigger does this admirably and with good humor. Several passages stand out as delightfully funny—a rare feature in historical writing. As Jim Bakker continues to sell his apocalyptic gruel by exploiting Americans’ fears, understanding the culture that he helped create and in which he still operates has never been more important.
Suzanna Krivulskaya is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame.Suzanna KrivulskayaDate Of Review:October 26, 2017