Bakker, Jim (1940—), and Tammy Faye (1942—)

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Bakker, Jim (1940—), and Tammy Faye (1942—)

Husband and wife televangelist team Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker became a prominent part of American popular culture in the late 1980s when their vast PTL ministry was hit by scandal and accounts of fraud. The Bakker affair—and the activities of other TV preachers in the news at the time—inspired a popular reaction against TV preachers, and, fairly or unfairly, the Bakkers were seen as the embodiment of eighties materialist excess and Elmer Gantry-like religious hypocrisy. A country song by Ray Stevens summed up the popular feeling with the title "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His Television Show?"

Raised in Michigan, Jim Bakker received religious training at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. There he met fellow student Tammy Faye LaValley, who, like Bakker, was raised in the Pentecostal tradition. The two were married and traveled the country as itinerant evangelists until 1965, when they went to work for Virginia television preacher (and 1988 presidential candidate) Pat Robertson, on whose station Jim Bakker established The 700 Club. (Robertson continued this show after Bakker left.)

After leaving Robertson's operation in 1972, the Bakkers started a new TV program, The PTL Club, on the Trinity Broadcasting Network in California. In 1974, after a quarrel with the network, the Bakkers moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to broadcast the show on their own. Jim Bakker established a Christian theme park south of Charlotte called Heritage USA, which attracted fundamentalist Christians who came to pray and to enjoy themselves. There was a water slide as well as several shops selling Christian tapes, records, books, and action figures. The PTL Club was broadcast from Heritage USA to what became a large national audience.

"PTL" could stand for "Praise the Lord" or "People That Love": Bakker established many People That Love Centers where the poor could get free clothes, food, and furniture. To some of the Bakkers' detractors, however, "PTL" stood for "Pass the Loot," an allusion to the Bakkers' frequent and often lachrymose fund-raising appeals on the air and to their lavish lifestyle (including, it was later disclosed, an air-conditioned doghouse for their dog). Describing a visit he made in 1987, journalist P. J. O'Rourke said that being at Heritage USA "was like being in the First Church of Christ Hanging Out at the Mall."

In 1979, the Federal Communications Commission began an investigation of PTL for questionable fund-raising tactics. In 1982, the FCC decided to take no further action in the case, provided that PTL sold its single TV station. This did not stop PTL from broadcasting on cable TV or from buying TV time on other stations, so the FCC action had no significant effect on PTL's operations. In 1986, the year before everything fell apart, PTL was raising $10 million a month, according to a subsequent audit.

A virtual tsunami of scandal hit the PTL ministry in 1987. Thanks in part to the efforts of an anti-Bakker preacher named Jimmy Swaggart and of the Charlotte Observer newspaper (which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Bakker matter), a lurid scandal was uncovered at PTL. In 1980, Jim Bakker had a tryst with a church secretary named Jessica Hahn. PTL later gave money to Hahn in what looked like a payoff. In the wake of this revelation, Bakker turned PTL over to Jerry Falwell, a nationally known TV evangelist and political figure. Bakker later claimed that the handover was only meant to be temporary. Falwell denied this and took full control of PTL. PTL soon filed for bankruptcy; it ultimately was taken over by a group of Malaysian Christians.

This was only the beginning. The Pentecostal Assemblies of God, which had ordained Bakker, defrocked him. The IRS retroactively revoked PTL's tax exemption, ordering the payment of back taxes and penalties. In December of 1988, Jim Bakker was indicted by a federal grand jury on several counts of fraud and conspiracy. These charges centered around Bakker's promotion of an arrangement by which viewers who contributed a certain amount of money to PTL would be given "partnerships" entitling them to stay for free at Heritage USA. According to the prosecution, Bakker had lied to his TV viewers by understating the number of partnerships he had sold, that he had overbooked the hotels where the partners were supposed to stay during their visits, and that he had diverted partners' money into general PTL expenses (including the Hahn payoff) after promising that the money would be used to complete one of the hotels where the partners would stay. The jury convicted Bakker, who went to prison from 1989 to 1994. In a civil case brought by disgruntled partners, Bakker was found liable for common law fraud in 1990. Another civil jury, however, found in Bakker's favor in 1996 in a claim of securities fraud.

Meanwhile, Bakker foe Jimmy Swaggart was caught in a sex scandal, and evangelist Oral Roberts said that he would die unless his viewers sent him enough money.

While her husband was in prison, Tammy Faye tried to continue his ministry, but she finally divorced him and married Roe Messner, a contractor for church-building projects who had done much of the work at Heritage USA. She briefly had a talk show on the Fox network. Roe Messner was convicted of bankruptcy fraud in 1996.

—Eric Longley

Further Reading:

Albert, James A. Jim Bakker: Miscarriage of Justice? Chicago, Open Court, 1998.

Martz, Larry, and Ginny Carroll. Ministry of Greed. New York, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

O'Rourke, P. J. "Weekend Getaway: Heritage USA." Holidays in Hell. New York, Vintage Books, 1988, 91-98.

Shepard, Charles E. Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

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Bakker, Jim (1940—), and Tammy Faye (1942—)

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