The apostle Paul considered himself the “chief of sinners,” but then again, he never met Jim Bakker.
The latter’s ministry got off to an innocent enough start. Jim and his wife, Tammy Faye, were young, no-name, itinerant Pentecostal evangelists when a puppet show they had developed for children garnered the attention of pioneering televangelist Pat Robertson. Robertson took a chance on the entrepreneurial couple, and they made the most of it, breaking out on their own and developing a signature Christian television talk show program, originally known as The PTL Club (the letters stood for “Praise the Lord”), that endeared them to millions of viewers across the country and world.
The Bakkers hailed from hardscrabble backgrounds. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s they built a Christian entertainment empire that won accolades from the likes of Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Until—as historian John Wigger declares in his riveting new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire—“it all fell apart.”
Sex and Greed
Drawing on a wide range of interviews, newspaper reports, and court documents, Wigger expertly documents the larger-than-life transgressions that eventually brought the Bakkers and PTL tumbling down. Where to begin a summary accounting? Perhaps with the sex? Jim Bakker’s December 1980 encounter with a young woman named Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room—one which she describes to this day as non-consensual, though she prefers not to call it rape—would prove central to his and PTL’s undoing. But as Wigger shows, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout Bakker’s time at the helm of PTL he had sex with at least six of his male employees. These, too, were exploitative relationships, in which Bakker deployed the power of his position to secure others’ silence. Tammy Faye was not abusive, but may well have had dalliances of her own, including with the musician Gary Paxton. While the two denied any sexual involvement, many in PTL’s inner circles assumed they had an affair.
Or perhaps it is best to begin with the greed? As the Bakkers’ ministry grew, so did their insatiable appetite for nice things. In 1982 they used PTL funds to purchase a $375,000 vacation condo in Florida, which they went on to furnish lavishly. As Wigger reports, “The drapes, bedspreads, and headboards cost $40,000 alone.” After a few days, Tammy Faye grew tired of the place, which struck her as “nothing but a hotel suite.” They wound up spending only a total of three weeks there.
Both the sex and the greed drove jaw-dropping levels of deceit. Jim went to extreme lengths to cover up the Jessica Hahn affair, a decision that fit into a much larger pattern of illicit lies. The Bakkers’ meteoric rise to Christian celebrity status was made possible by the faith and generosity of countless ordinary believers, who tuned into PTL’s television programs and donated to its telethons. Jim and Tammy Faye violated their trust early and often. In one August 1978 newsletter, Jim, seeking funds for his ambitious Heritage USA theme park, wrote, “Unless God performs a financial miracle, this could be the last letter you will receive from me. ... Tammy and I are giving every penny of our life’s savings to PTL.” But the truth was, as Wigger observes, “He wrote this at almost exactly the same time he bought [a $30,000] houseboat.” The kicker: He paid the required $6,000 down payment with PTL funds.