Why is it worth revisiting Tammy Faye Bakker and her fellow-televangelist husband nearly thirty-five years after their PLT (Praise the Lord) broadcasting network imploded?
Not only does the feature film offer stellar performances by Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield, it lets us see Tammy Faye as a human being–kind, compassionate, and devout in her faith in spite of any shortcomings. But there’s a third reason, one which has big ramifications in today’s world. The height of the Bakkers’ fame coincided with the rise of the religious right as a political faction.
Tammy Faye and her husband Jim Bakker were rock star televangelists in the 1970s-80s, right until their empire came crashing down in 1987 amid charges of financial fraud and a sex scandal involving Jim. At the time, I only knew the Bakkers through news reports and lampoons of Tammy Faye on Saturday Night Live and some of the late night shows, where she was caricatured for her big hair, fancy clothes, and mascara-drenched eyelashes. Jessica Chastain saw something more in the much-ridiculed woman after seeing the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye (released in 2000). She secured the rights to name her feature film after the documentary and spent more than ten years bringing it to the big screen.
1952, International Falls, Minnesota: Ten-year-old Tammy Faye wants to attend her mother’s church real bad, but the members don’t want her there because it would remind them that her mother is “a harlot”—divorced from Tammy’s father. (Never mind that her mom is remarried to a widower and Tammy is now the oldest of eight children.) One day Tammy Faye walks into the church, receives communion, and begins speaking in tongues. By eighteen, she’s an enthusiastic student at a Bible College in Minneapolis, where she falls in love with fellow student Jim Bakker. They quickly marry, leave school and embark on a travelling ministry where Jim preaches and Tammy sings and performs puppet shows for the children.
In Virginia Beach, a chance meeting with Pat Robertson of the fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network starts them on their climb to fame and fortune. They go to work for Robertson but eventually leave and start PLT Studios in Charlotte, NC, in 1974. Within five years, they’re huge and eventually reach over 13 million viewers. Their message is one of prosperity (‘God wants his people to be rich’), with constant appeals for donations. Along the way, Tammy Faye endures marital troubles and an addiction to prescription pills, but PLT continues to expand. They build a Christian theme park, Heritage USA, in South Carolina. At its peak it attracts six million visitors a year but ultimately leads to their financial downfall. Jerry Falwell, Sr. initially comes to Jim’s aid but turns on him after hearing rumors Jim was also involved in homosexual relationships.
What caught Jessica Chastain’s eye in the documentary was Tammy Faye’s compassion towards gay men as the AIDS crisis unfolded. Tammy Faye even interviewed–and championed–a gay pastor/AIDS survivor on her show, in direct conflict with prominent televangelists like Robertson and Falwell, who espoused anti-gay views.
“I refuse to label people,” Tammy Faye famously said. “We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt, and God didn’t make any junk.”
What caught my eye in the film–particularly in light of the draconian abortion bill recently signed into law in Texas–was Jerry Falwell, Sr. telling Jim Bakker how much Republicans were depending on the evangelical vote in the upcoming presidential election.
This wasn’t always the case when you examine the history. Evangelicals didn’t always vote as a pack. In a September 8 article in The Guardian, Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth professor, wrote about being invited to a gathering in 1990 to celebrate Reagan’s election to the presidency ten years earlier. A number of evangelical leaders were there, including Paul Weyrich, cofounder of The Heritage Foundation and “architect of the religious right.” He told Balmer he’d been trying to interest evangelicals in politics since the Goldwater campaign in 1964, but nothing moved them–not school prayer, not pornography, not equal rights for women, and not abortion. What mobilized them was an IRS action that advised Bob Jones University (SC) and other whites-only academies like Falwell’s Liberty University (VA), established in 1971, that they were going to rescind their tax-exempt status unless they changed their discrimination policies. This was a mandate begun under Nixon and implemented in 1976 before Jimmy Carter took office, but evangelical leaders set out to deny Carter a second term and used abortion as the rallying cry because it sounded better. Falwell backed Ronald Reagan, who spoke to thousands of evangelicals at rallies, decrying the IRS for its supposed vendetta against evangelical schools. Meanwhile, evangelicals and Catholics criticized Carter, who as Governor of Georgia and as President, had tried to reduce the incidence of abortion but refused to seek a constitutional amendment making it illegal. He believed in the separation of church and state, and as an evangelical himself, he believed in individual responsibility.
One further note. When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, W.A. Criswell was pleased. Not only was he the Southern Baptist Convention’s former President and pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, he was one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century. He said, “I have always felt that it was after a child was born, and had a life separate from the mother, that it became an individual person. And it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and the future should be allowed.”
I’ve lived in Texas for twenty-five years. The new abortion bill is meant to appeal to the religious right. It does not appeal to the majority. It does not appeal to many Texans and Americans much more conservative than myself. To deny an abortion to a woman more than six weeks pregnant (even a victim of rape or incest) when many women don’t yet know for a fact they’re pregnant–and to enable any American willing to tattletale to collect a $10,000 reward in court–is to invite more discord and divisiveness than already exists in the United States of America.
Tammy Faye was never charged with a crime, but she went through additional hardships. Her second husband, a church builder and former associate, was briefly imprisoned for bankruptcy fraud, and she battled colon cancer for many years before dying too young at sixty-five. In the interim, she appeared on TV shows that poked fun at her former self and wrote two memoirs, but she continued to embrace and be embraced by the gay community.
Jim Bakker was sentenced to forty-five years in prison. His crimes included diverting church money to fund his and Tammy’s lavish lifestyle; paying over $200,000 in hush money to a church secretary, Jessica Hahn, 21 (she accused him of sexual assault); bilking followers out of $158 million by offering lifetimes vacations at Heritage USA while knowing he couldn’t provide them. Jim was released on parole after serving only five years. He returned to Christian Broadcasting in 2003 with “The Jim Bakker Show,” out of Missouri. Today he preaches a survivalist ministry, selling gear and freeze-dried food for the end of days.
For Tammy Faye and Jim, compassion and forgiveness are in the air. Why not the same for women facing the difficult decision of abortion?