For Sale to the Highest Bidder: The Trail of Tammy’s Tears

In 1977 Rev. Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye founded what became an evangelical Christian media known as PTL (Praise the Lord). The PTL Club broadcast featured leading televangelists such as Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard and Carlton Pearson throughout the 1980s, and provided a social facelift to conservative Pentecostalism. No longer the religion of the economically deprived and socially alienated, PTL sought to present Pentecostals as a financially prosperous and socially influential.

The Bakkers even built a theme park, Heritage USA, in South Carolina that not only became one of the premier vacation spots in the nation, it also provided America with the image of the late Jerry Falwell sliding down a water slide while wearing his Sunday best. Unfortunately for their many devoted viewers, the Bakkers’ media reign came to an end in exactly a decade. In 1987 revelations of financial misappropriation and illicit sexual affairs led to the demise of the network, dissolution of the Bakker’s marriage, and landed Jim Bakker in jail for embezzlement.

Well, today an Atlanta venture capitalist hopes to sell over 15,000 hours of PTL footage as he prepares to put over four-tractor trailer loads of film on the auction block.

The footage has been reportedly appraised at $8 million. And while I am certain that reels of film displaying Jim’s snake-oil sales pitches and Tammy Faye’s mascara trail of tears may not be high on the budget agenda of many during these trying economic times, these tapes should not be easily dismissed.

This footage constitutes the valuable primary source material for scholars and researchers interested this important American religious phenomenon. In some ways, media empires such as PTL helped to hasten the dislodging of the American religious mainline by offering the mass public a spiritual alternative. And by catering their theological message and aesthetic symbols to the unregulated excesses of the Reagan 80s, this footage can give us insight into the ways this otherwise ill-regarded world of religious broadcasting served as an ideological cog in the larger conservative machine of American faith and politics. Remember, before we witnessed the failures of Enron, AIG and Freddie Mac, there was the PTL Network.

I suspect this footage may have more to teach us about the contradictions of our own society than some may suspect.

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