How Jim and Tammy Bakker's religious Ponzi scheme collapsed

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/January 7, 2018

By Greg Barnhisel

The late 1980s offered many great scandals, but for sheer carnivalesque spectacle, nothing beat the televangelists: Oral Roberts (that name!) citing divine extortion, demanded $7 million from his followers so God wouldn’t “call [him] home.” Jimmy Swaggart (Jerry Lee Lewis’ cousin) cruised rural Louisiana for prostitutes.

But Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker are certainly the most indelible of these holy hypocrites. The Bakkers turned their homespun “PTL Club” talk show into a cable TV institution, an intercontinental ministry, and “Heritage USA” into a sprawling Disneyland-esque resort and Christian theme park near Charlotte, NC.

And then, inevitably, they were felled by the old sins: lust and greed. Jim’s sordid tryst with a young woman named Jessica Hahn, and the resulting quarter-million dollars in hush money, surfaced in 1987. Reporters chasing this story then unearthed the Ponzi scheme financing Heritage USA. Bakker was convicted of fraud charges and, along with several of his lieutenants, served time in federal prison.

The story was delicious, a staple of Reagan-era tabloid television, and the Bakkers have become a time-capsule curiosity, something for an ‘80s Night.

But in his exhaustive, painstakingly researched “PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire,” John Wigger persuasively argues that the Bakker story is a prefiguration of where we are today. The Bakkers pioneered using cable TV and satellite networks to cultivate a niche but loyal audience. If most of the nation found them grotesque and comical, their flock loved them all the more for it and happily forgave their flaws.

In reconstructing the Bakkers’ welcoming, sometimes wacky, appeal, Mr. Wigger disentangles the distinct strands of evangelical Christianity whose differences cultural liberals often fail to appreciate. The Bakkers came from the charismatic Pentecostal tradition, which emphasizes a direct and emotional connection to God, including speaking in tongues. Mr. Wigger points out that this style of worship spread in the 1960s even to “Roman Catholics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.” News to me!

Pentecostalism eschewed the fire-and-brimstone austerity of Southern Baptists, embodied at the time by Jerry Falwell, and instead emphasized fellowship and the pleasures of living. On “PTL,” the Bakkers welcomed African-American guests and even talked frankly about (marital, to be sure) sex.

“Abundant life” theology and the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” supercharged the Bakkers’ ministry, and, Mr. Wigger suggests, greased Jim Bakker’s slide to disgrace. In this view, popularized by Norman Vincent Peale and epitomized today by Joel Osteen, believers can will themselves into affluence and happiness. Wealth, even ostentatious consumption, confirms God’s favor. “PTL,” broadcasting the prosperity gospel, “had the perfect message for the me decade,” Mr. Wigger concludes.

And the Bakkers embraced the lifestyle. The contributions Bakker extracted ostensibly for building Heritage USA went to Rolls Royces, diamond jewelry, and estates in Palm Springs, even as the “lifetime memberships” the donors received melted into air. Tammy Faye’s famously shoveled-on makeup underscored the Bakkers’ distance from the mundane world (even though, Mr. Wigger suggests, she used the makeup as a self-protective mask to conceal her unhappiness at Bakker’s serial and sexually polymorphous infidelities).

In the last widely circulated image of Bakker, he sobs while being led away, handcuffed, by U.S. marshals in 1989. But after he served his time, a harder-edged Bakker resurfaced. Last summer he threatened a Christian-led “civil war” if President Donald Trump is impeached.

Here, Mr. Wigger’s argument that the “PTL” saga augured our own time really hits home. A flamboyant, sexually incontinent scam artist, surrounded by venal enablers, rises to the top despite a clear public record of dishonesty, because his followers see their own desires manifested in him. It seems almost overdetermined that on one of their spending sprees the Bakkers bought an apartment in … Trump Tower. The saying goes that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. Unfortunately, history seems be running in reverse this time.

Greg Barnhisel is professor and chair of the Deptartment of English, Duquesne University.

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