Jim and Tammy Faye (Image Source)
It was thirty years ago that the tremendous house of cards that Jim Bakker had constructed out of TV ministry, millions in donations, and a Christian theme park, collapsed. It was a tremendous and precipitous fall, and when the dust settled, the ministry was gone, Jim was behind bars, and Tammy divorced him, ending their more thirty year marriage.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. With the end of Part 1, the Bakkers and PTL was just beginning to get huge. It was the late ’70s, and America was primed for some religiosity. The 1960s, that decade of hippies, an ever-burgeoning American middle class, and the collapse of Jim Crow was simultaneously a decade of assasinations, political unrest and a rise in crime. Then the 70s rolled in, bringing with it the continuing failure of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and an economic crisis.
People were ready for a come-to-Jesus moment, and the Bakkers, savvy to be one of the first to take advantage of the brand new technology of Cable television, were ready to lead the altar call. As stated in the previous post, I got the info on the Bakkers from the wonderful book, “PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire” by John Wigger. Do check it out for more. Now, on with the story.
- Not too long after HBO and CNN launched, JIm began putting into action plans to get into the Cable game:
In his monthly newsletter for May 1977, only six months after Ted Turner’s Atlanta station began satellite service, Bakker informed his supporters that PTL had “signed a contract to purchase a Satellite Ground Station.” That July Bakker wrote to supporters that sixty “Christian broadcasters have already agreed to supply programming for this Satellite Network.” By January 1978 the satellite ground station was nearly complete, and in May 1978 PTL began transmitting programming twenty-four hours a day on an RCA satellite. The dedication of the satellite system included live reports from Guatemala, where a Latin American version of the PTL Club was already on the air, and Seoul, Korea, home of the world’s largest church, pastored by Paul Yonggi Cho. It took several years before every station had a satellite link … but there was little doubt that satellite would define the network’s future.
There was nothing else like the PTL Club on television. The daily show was the centerpiece of PTL’s programming through the 1970s, broadcast live and recorded on tape five days a week from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in front of a studio audience. By the end of the decade, PTL’s audience had grown into the millions.
Image and caption from PTL.
- The PTL Club had a wide range of guests:
Astronaut James Irwin also appeared on the show and then in an interview in Action [a PTL magazine], describing his experience aboard Apollo 15 that led him “to put Christ first in my life.” Fifty thousand miles out in space he sensed a “deep change taking place inside of me as I felt the undeniable nearness of God.” Walking on the moon was a spiritual experience for Irwin, who later wrote, “I can’t imagine a holier place.”
Little Richard appeared on the show in April 1978. At the time, the show’s voiceover introduction described it as “the world’s most unusual talk/variety show,” which the combination of Jim Bakker and Little Richard sitting next to each other seemed to confirm.
Like so many other black and southern musicians, Richard began singing in church. He was also at times flamboyantly gay, and his sexual appetite seemed insatiable. While touring, he held orgies that were the stuff of legend, even by rock ‘n’ roll standards.
Richard opened his appearance on the PTL Club with the staid gospel song “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do).” He refused to do any of his rock ‘n’ roll hits. “That’s dead, let it stay dead.” Instead he wanted to talk about how God had delivered him from alcohol, drugs, and a gay lifestyle. “Any man that participates in homosexuality don’t know Jesus. I don’t care who he is,” declared Richard. His testimony sounded genuine and he looked comfortable talking about his faith, at times quoting the Bible from memory.
During his interview with Bakker, [Larry] Flynt displayed a mixture of bravado and candidness that one might have expected from the king of porn. When Bakker asked what it meant to be born again, Flynt replied, “It means just that. But it means more than just becoming a new person. I’ve also set a new standard of morality for myself. I’ve obtained a higher level of consciousness, and a relationship with God.” Jesus, Flynt said, was a “renegade rabbi with a police record.” He was “not a religious person. He had no religion. He had a philosophy of unconditional love.” “Anytime I get mistreated, whether it’s by a Christian or non-Christian, I just pray for them. And I think that this love, it’s not just total love, but unconditional love… . We have to be able to love our enemies,” Flynt added.
Image and caption from PTL.
- But Jim Bakker had plans far beyond TV, saying God was leading him to build. By the late 70s they had already moved their headquarters from a rented former furniture store to 25 acres of land and a mansion on Charlotte’s south side. Bakker wasted no time building a series of new facilities built on the land. He would christen the new digs first Heritage Village, and then, Heritage USA.
- The reckless spending that would eventually lead to PTL’s downfall in the 80’s was already in practice in the 70s. Sadly, it was a feature of the ministry, not a bug:
In his first autobiography, written in 1976, Bakker tells the story of how, during the early days at the furniture store, PTL had fallen $70,000 in debt to the station that aired it. The station manager gave Bakker thirty days to pay up, an impossible deadline given that the show only brought in $20,000 a month. Then, as Bakker tells it, God spoke to him: “Give him what he asks, the Lord said, and I’ll do the miracle for you.” That Friday Bakker instructed his vice president, Jim Moss, to write a check for $20,000, even though they were broke and Monday deposits rarely exceeded $7,000. Since it was already Friday, Bakker had no time for a special appeal to his audience. Moss, who had run a successful business before joining PTL, was deeply conflicted about taking a dubious check to Jim Thrash, the station manager. But in the end his sense of business ethics gave way to the imperative of faith. That Monday $30,000 arrived in the mail, enough to cover the check. So the next Friday Bakker told Moss to write another $20,000 check, saying, “God told me to do it again.” Moss protested that they were still broke but sent the check anyway. That Monday, “it happened again! Contributions totaling more than $20,000 came in.” Here was real faith in action.
Of course, there is another way to describe what Bakker was doing: writing bad checks. The distinction for Bakker and his followers was that God had told him to do it. The checks were not bad because the Lord stood behind them.
- Augh… the poison of the Prosperity Gospel. To give dude a little credit, he later ‘fessed up to plagiarizing these messed up teachings from other Prosperity Pushers and using them to get what he wanted:
Bakker later admitted that he “got most of my sermon ideas from other preachers” without much reflection. “In much of my sermon preparation time, I simply picked out some motivational principles, then scanned through the Bible to find a verse or passage that supported what I wanted to say.” He was adept at sensing which ideas audiences were the most receptive to and building his message around those. In this case, “I simply pulled [verses] out of context” and used them “to justify my God-wants-you-rich theology.”
PTL had the perfect message for the me decade, a message that lent itself to evangelical fervor. PTL programs featured a steady stream of guests giving advice on how to love yourself, lose weight, improve your marriage, and reach your full potential, including Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Merlin Carothers.
Image and caption from PTL.
- Part of Bakker’s plans included education at all levels. The Bible college dropout founded a university… of sorts:
Announcements about Heritage University figured prominently in PTL promotional literature during the first half of 1978. The February 1978 edition of Action reported that the university would be “one of the first complexes … built” at Heritage USA and would eventually include classroom buildings, dorms, and a football stadium straddling the North Carolina–South Carolina border. By March, Bakker had hired an executive dean of the university, Dr. Brooks Sanders, previously the director of educational technology at Broome Community College in Binghamton, New York…. Sanders predicted that the school would be an accredited four-year university within five years. Someone at PTL convinced Charles Malik, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, to join the school’s Board of Regents. Malik visited the site that spring to review construction plans. In May Bakker claimed that he had already turned down ten thousand students who were anxious to enroll.
Nevertheless, Bakker’s enthusiasm for the school quickly waned. It opened in September 1978 with three hundred students in makeshift facilities. In January 1979 students were told to transfer if they wanted to earn a degree. Bakker was still calling the school “our college” in the fall of 1979, but by then PTL promotional literature and television spots referred to it only as the Heritage School of Evangelism and Communications. Two of the three original deans were also gone.
PTL’s grade school managed to open on September 6, 1978, with 21 teachers and 250 to 300 students, most of them children of PTL staffers. Delays in the construction of the TLC forced classes to initially meet under shade trees and in trolley cars and tents. Financial pressures forced the school to close in June 1980. The school lacked “appropriate facilities,” and PTL did not have the money to build them, according to Ed Stoeckel, PTL’s new general manager. Closing the school was part of an “overall reassessment of PTL’s priorities,” Stoeckel said.
Not for nothing, but long before PTL’s implosion, like waaaaay before then, that organization was a hot mess. Bakker had a lot of big dreams, but was very reckless with money. And anyone with the moral fortitude to stand up to him was soon sent packing.
Jessica Hahn in the 80s. (Image Source)
- Meanwhile, the Bakkers had some other problems to attend to… some major problems…
It was December 6, 1980, and [Jessica Hahn] had just flown from Long Island, New York, to Tampa, Florida. John Wesley Fletcher, a minister she knew from her home church, purchased the ticket so that she could come to Florida and babysit Jim Bakker’s daughter while Bakker and Fletcher did a telethon for WCLF, a local Christian station. She was twenty-one years old, and she watched Bakker everyday on television. He was her “idol,” and she could not wait to meet him. By the end of the day her world would be turned upside down and her life set on a course she could never have imagined.
Hahn later told her story of what happened at the hotel in great detail to Playboy and to reporter Art Harris, who published his story in Penthouse.
While Fletcher went down to get Bakker, Hahn says that she took a quick shower and then got dressed again. When the two men walked into the room Bakker was barefoot and sandy, wearing only an “itty bitty” white terrycloth bathing suit… Bakker complained that Tammy belittled him and that when it came to sex, “Tammy Faye is too big and cannot satisfy me.” What he needed, he told Hahn, was a woman to help him cope.
She told him that she was a virgin and asked why he did not “just hire somebody.” Bakker replied, “You can’t trust everybody.” He pulled her onto the bed and undressed her. She tried to push him away, saying, “You have to leave!” Bakker replied, “Jessica, by helping the shepherd, you’re helping the sheep.”
She was in pain and crying but Bakker just kept going for nearly an hour, moving from one position to another, as Hahn later remembered it. He “just did everything a man could do to a woman.” There was no kindness in it at all.
Gary Paxton, object of Tammy’s infatuation. (Image Source)
- It wasn’t just Jim, either. As the PTL grew, Tammy began to loathe the time Jim continually spent away from her and the kids. She also felt her role was diminishing. The puppets had long been phased out, and her musical numbers, a part of their ministry since the beginning, were all but dropped in favor of professional musicians. Tammy was ready to be wooed:
Confidence came in the form of a burned out rock ‘n’ roller turned Jesus People songwriter, singer, and producer, Gary Paxton. Paxton was best known for his hit songs “Alley Oop” (1960) and “Monster Mash” (1962). After more than a decade of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, … Paxton was saved after stumbling into a Nashville church while stoned. A bio on Paxton in Action noted that by then he had already “walked away from five wives and four fortunes.” Paxton soon became a regular at PTL, writing new theme songs for the PTL Club and the Tammy Faye Show.
Paxton soon began producing Tammy’s records at the Sound Stage recording studio in Nashville. He gave her the attention and support she craved. Though Tammy professed to be good friends with Paxton’s wife, Karen, she soon became infatuated with Gary. “She was in love with Gary, or thought she was, and she knew I knew it,” Karen later said.
Extramarital affairs, out of control spending, lies and deceit- the stage was set for the downfall. Join me in the next installment, where we’ll get the deets on how it all came apart.