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PTL and the history of American evangelicalism

Over the course of fourteen years, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker built their local TV broadcast into an empire, making them two of the most recognizable televangelists in the United States. But their empire quickly fell when revelations of a sex scandal and massive financial mismanagement came to light.

In the following excerpt from PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire author John Wigger demonstrates the relationship between the power of religion and American culture by tracing the rise and fall of the PTL.

On a crisp Carolina morning in January 1987, Jim Bakker stood before a crowd of supporters and prepared to break ground on the Crystal Palace Ministry Center. It was his biggest project to date as head of PTL, the tel­evision and theme park empire that he and his wife, Tammy Faye, had launched in 1974 in Charlotte, North Carolina. PTL was an acronym for Praise the Lord or People That Love. Critics rendered it Pass the Loot or Pay the Lady, an allusion to Tammy Faye, famous for her outrageous makeup. The date, 2 January, was no accident. It was Bakker’s birthday and the day he usually chose to launch major projects. Intended as a replica of London’s famed nineteenth- century Crystal Palace, Bakker’s version called for a glass structure 916 feet long and 420 feet wide. The complex would enclose 1.25 million square feet, including a 30,000- seat auditorium and a 5,000- seat television studio, at a cost of $100 million. It would be the larg­est church in the world.

At the time Bakker’s confidence did not strike many observers as entirely unwarranted. He had started PTL thirteen years earlier with half a dozen employees and some makeshift television equipment in a former furniture store. By 1986 PTL had grown into a worldwide ministry with 2,500 employees, revenues of $129 million a year, and a 2,300- acre theme park and ministry center called Heritage USA. During 1986 six million people visited Heritage USA, making it the third- most visited attraction in the United States, after Disneyland and Disney World. PTL’s satellite net­work included more than 1,300 cable systems and reached into fourteen million homes in the United States. The ministry’s programs were seen in as many as forty nations around the world, making Bakker an international celebrity and opening up enormous fundraising potential.

When Bakker broke ground on the Crystal Palace center, Heritage USA already had a five- hundred- room hotel, the Heritage Grand Hotel, with another five- hundred- room hotel, the Heritage Grand Towers, nearing completion alongside it. The complex had one of the largest waterparks in America, a state-of-the-art television studio, half a dozen restaurants, a miniature railroad to shuttle visitors around the park, an enclosed shop­ping mall attached to the Heritage Grand, a petting zoo, horseback rid­ing trails, paddleboats, tennis courts, miniature golf, a home for unwed mothers, a home for disabled children known as Kevin’s House, and sev­eral condominium and housing developments. Plans called for adding a thirty-one story glass condominium tower to the Crystal Palace complex, an eighteen- hole golf course lined by $1 billion in condominiums, a village called Old Jerusalem with its own two- hundred- room hotel, and a variety of other lodging, including bunkhouses, country mansions, and campgrounds. Heritage USA was as much an all-inclusive community as it was a theme park. Bakker hoped that it would eventually have thirty thousand full-time residents. He assured his audience that the best was yet to come.

 PTL and the Bakkers became a national symbol of the excesses of the 1980s and the greed of televangelists in particular.

Two and a half months later, on 19 March 1987, Jim Bakker resigned in disgrace from PTL after his December 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. Hahn described Bakker forc­ing himself on her in an article in Playboy, while he claimed that she was a professional who knew “all the tricks of the trade.” In the wake of the Hahn revelation, stories appeared about Bakker’s involvement in gay rela­tionships and visits to prostitutes, sometimes wearing a blond wig as a disguise. A decade later, in 1996, Bakker revealed that he had been sexually abused from age eleven until he was in high school by an adult man from his church, leaving him with a confused sexual identity and a deep sense of guilt and inferiority. The memories became “ghosts” that “swarmed through my thoughts” at vulnerable moments.

The 1987 scandal was initially about sex, but it soon turned to money after it was discovered that PTL had paid Hahn and her representatives $265,000 in hush money. When he resigned, Bakker turned the ministry over to fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell. He and his team quickly discovered that PTL was $65 million in debt and bleeding money at a rate of $2 million a month. That summer workers boarded up the unfinished Towers Hotel, which never opened. Falwell and his entire staff left PTL in October 1987, less than seven months after he took charge of the ministry. When he took over, Falwell praised PTL as “one of the major miracle ministries of this century. I doubt there’s ever been anything like it in the 2,000 year history of the church.” When he left he declared that Bakker had turned PTL into a “scab and cancer on the face of Christianity,” a disaster unparalleled in the last 2,000 years.

Two years later, in 1989, Bakker went on trial for wire and mail fraud, accused of overselling “lifetime partnerships” to Heritage USA and misus­ing the money donated for its construction. The trial unfolded in a circus- like atmosphere before US District Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Potter. A witness collapsed on the stand and Bakker himself had a psychological breakdown, crawling under his lawyer’s couch as federal marshals came to get him. He was convicted and initially sentenced to forty-five years in prison, serving nearly five years before his release. For millions who watched the scandal unfold in the press and on television, PTL and the Bakkers became a national symbol of the excesses of the 1980s and the greed of televangelists in particular.

In both its rise and fall, PTL demonstrates the power of religion to connect with American culture. The creation of PTL and Heritage USA followed a well-established trajectory in American evangelicalism as it evolved from field preaching, to camp meetings, to big tent revivals, to radio and television.

Featured image credit: sky christ blue jesus by AleBricio. Public domain via Pixabay.

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