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Book review: 'Rise and Fall' details saga of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker

Posted August 9

"PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire," by John Wigger, Oxford University Press, $34.95, 424 pages (nf)

Jim Bakker always wanted to be a symbol. His old high school teacher, Bill Harrison, remembered that he always “acted as though he had a mission” and Bakker himself told the yearbook staff that his goal was “to do the best possible in everything I do.” He succeeded, though not perhaps in the way he imagined.

To millions of Americans, Bakker and his wife, the memorably made-up Tammy Faye, came to embody American religion at its worst: grasping, showy, venal and above all hypocritical. To millions of others — enough that at its peak the couple were bringing in millions of dollars in donations a year — the Bakkers were literally heaven-sent, among the most famous Christian preachers in America.

The collapse of the Bakkers’ ministry empire PTL (the initials were intentionally ambiguous, meaning “Praise the Lord,” but obscure enough not to immediately turn off nonbelievers) was so lurid as to seem unreal: Jim Bakker grew maniacally focused upon building up a Christian theme park, a sort of Main Street Disney knock-off called Heritage, USA, spending millions of dollars to start construction on an endless chain of lodges, hotels and visitors centers that were never quite completed.

The Bakkers also hired a series of advisers, staffers and functionaries who, alternately, felt free to spend tens of thousands of ministry dollars for crocodile shoes and leather jackets, helped Jim keep two sets of account books to mislead outside observers, and even used PTL as a vehicle for picking up women.

In the meantime, Tammy Faye had at least one affair and became addicted to prescription drugs. Most famously, Jim and his colleague, a minister named John Wesley Fletcher, allegedly raped a young woman named Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room. In March 1987, Bakker’s scandals were uncovered at nearly the same time by journalists at the Charlotte Observer and investigators for Jimmy Swaggart, another evangelist who was convinced Bakker was corrupt. Bakker’s denomination revoked his ordination, he resigned leadership in PTL and ended up in prison for fraud. Tammy Faye left him to marry the contractor Jim had hired to build Heritage, USA. Humorist Dave Barry had it right when he called the Bakkers’ shameless excesses so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence.

And yet the story Wigger tells in this book is far more than simply scandal after scandal, though he chronicles them with precise and thorough detail — at times, his careful notation of Bakker’s various financial maneuvers and architectural ambitions approaches the levels of exhaustion IRS investigators must have felt — and, at times, with a deep sensitivity and grace.

Wigger’s larger story, though, is that of why Jim and Tammy Faye were the right people in the right place at the right time. They exploded over America’s television stations because they were among the first Christian evangelists to understand the potential of satellite television. They became famous because they were among the first American media personalities to grasp the possibilities of the talk show format. They had mass appeal because their version of Christianity encouraged emotion, spontaneity and authenticity at a moment when Americans hungered for that from the people they saw on screen. They believed God promised Americans material prosperity in an age when that was precisely what Americans wanted to hear.

In short, Jim and Tammy Faye were not simply religious figures — they were among our first modern celebrities. It turned out that Jim Bakker managed to become a symbol after all.

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