More Than Big Hair and Money: Jim, Tammy Faye and the Media “Holy Wars” of the 80s

Photo courtesy Flickr user Peter K. Levy via Creative Commons

What inspired you to write PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire?

I was fascinated by how fast PTL grew and how quickly it fell apart. What I really wanted to know was how PTL’s rise and fall were connected. How does deep religious devotion become so entwined with money, sex, and celebrity on a Hollywood scale? A short synopsis might help:

Jim and Tammy started the PTL network with half a dozen employees in a former furniture store in 1974. By 1986 PTL had annual revenues of $129 million, 2500 employees, a 2300-acre theme park, Heritage USA, and a private satellite network that reached into fourteen million homes in the US. That year, six million people visited Heritage USA. Jim and Tammy lived in luxury, buying vacation homes, expensive cars and clothes, and traveling first class with an entourage. Then it all came crashing down. In March 1987 Bakker resigned in disgrace after his 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. Stories emerged about gay relationships and visits to prostitutes. By the end of the year, PTL was in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation. In 1989 Bakker was convicted of wire and mail fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

PTL helps to explain the persistent connections between religion and popular culture in American life, a connection that runs deeper than politics alone. PTL grew so quickly because of its embrace of consumer and celebrity culture, much of it through the prosperity gospel, but along the way the money and fame undermined the religious convictions of those at the top.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

It’s a big story with lots of characters and subplots. There were so many entertaining stories it was difficult to know when to stop. But at some point more becomes less. There were also parts of the story, like the Jessica Hahn affair, that I could not verify certain details about, and therefore left out.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

A lot of people only remember PTL for the scandal and subsequent “holy war” in the media. It is hard to forget Tammy’s makeup streaming down her face as she cried or the way the Bakkers flaunted their wealth. Bakker raised about $158 million between 1984 and 1987 from his “lifetime partners,” but still managed to leave the ministry teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when the scandal broke.

But there was more to it than just big hair and money. Before PTL could become a front-page scandal it had to have an outsized presence in American culture. That largely happened through innovation, including the Christian television talk show format, which Bakker pioneered with Pat Robertson at the Christian Broadcasting Network in the 1960s, PTL’s private satellite network, launched in 1978, a year before ESPN, and the theme park, Heritage USA. The Bakkers signature television show, the PTL Club, was broadcast live, five days a week, with little scripting. Tammy once did an episode on a merry-go-round. One cast member threw up in the dog costume he was wearing as they spun round and round, all on live television. At the time it all seemed fresh and, for many, exciting. The sex and financial shenanigans were only interesting because of the size of PTL’s cultural footprint.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I have written dense academic works, but this is aimed at a broader audience. It’s a story full of human drama. Many of the central characters—Jim and Tammy Bakker, Richard Dortch, David Taggart, John Wesley Fletcher, and of course Jessica Hahn—seem almost too improbable for a novel.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

All of the above! The story ranges from sincere faith to fraud, secret affairs, and the allure of television cameras. I interviewed dozens of people for the book, some of whom thought PTL was the best thing they had ever been involved with and others who thought it was the worst. Jim and Tammy were nothing if not provocative. They put themselves at the center of some of the biggest divides in American religion and culture, which meant that they had no shortage of supporters and critics on either side, particularly with regard to the prosperity gospel.

What alternative title would you give the book?

My working title was Pressed Down, Shaken Together, which comes from one of the favorite Bible verses of prosperity preachers at the time, including Jim Bakker. But my editor thought that it was too obscure for most readers and I’m sure she was right.

How do you feel about the cover?

It nicely evokes the look of 1980s television and captures some of Jim and Tammy’s appeal. PTL was all about images so there were any number of options. Too bad books can’t come with a dozen different covers to choose from.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

I love the writing style of Lawrence Wright and Hampton Sides. They are both masters at weaving nonfiction into a page-turner. Anything half as good would be fine with me.

What’s your next book?

I’m not sure yet. Hopefully something surprising that will make a good read.