The Bakkers’ prevarications grew more grandiose and more illegal as they stretched to finance larger and larger projects. Their supporters were not the only victims. While during times of financial distress Jim, Tammy Faye, and other high-level PTL employees still took home extravagant bonuses, the vast majority who worked for the organization scrimped and saved—if they managed to keep their jobs. As Wigger writes, “From November 1985 through February 1986, PTL laid off 283 people, an annual savings of $3,613,780. [Jim] Bakker’s total compensation for 1985 and 1986, as calculated by the IRS, was $3,946,229.”
Those two matter-of-fact sentences illustrate one of the great strengths of Wigger’s style. He does not over-editorialize. The facts about the Bakkers are often outlandish enough, and throughout the book he lets them speak for themselves. Wigger’s commitment to laying off the cheap shot in no way diminishes the reader’s sense of Jim and Tammy Faye’s deep and abiding flaws. But it does mean that the Bakkers emerge from the book not as moral monsters but rather as flesh-and-blood human beings, complete with some real gifts and winsome traits. More than just a comedy of ethical errors, theirs is a story laced with tragedy.
It is, moreover, a cautionary tale. Alert readers will find in Wigger’s book an invitation not to gawk at Jim and Tammy Faye’s sensational sins, but rather to engage in serious introspection. American evangelicals have long conceived of themselves as embattled, and the Bakkers were no exception. They spun a powerful narrative about how the press, the Internal Revenue Service, and other respectable institutions were arrayed against them and their ministry. It was a narrative that resonated with their viewers and that almost without fail worked to replenish PTL’s coffers. Yet it was divorced from reality. Far from righteous prophets crying into a secular wilderness, the Bakkers were in seemingly every imaginable way conformed to the materialistic, self-aggrandizing spirit of their day. If the mantra “greed is good” never rolled off their lips, it nevertheless emanated from their lives.
Few evangelicals, then or now, have sanctified hedonism with such reckless abandon, and yet it would be all too easy to dismiss the Bakkers as mere aberration. Their erstwhile teachings on the “abundant life” retain gospel status in many prosperity churches, even as evangelicals of all different stripes remain locked in hot pursuit of the ever-more-elusive American Dream. If Christ pronounces “Woe to you who are rich,” then at least in their material aspirations, most American believers tend to favor culture. Yet the sense of embattlement persists, especially among white evangelicals, even in the wake of a half century in which they have enjoyed unprecedented access to the halls of power. This frame of mind can be a godsend during times of persecution. But as the Bakkers’ story underscores, it can also be morally dangerous, functioning to distort the truth and justify all kinds of worldliness. Let the reader beware.