Those images, and the demise of the Bakkers' PTL (Praise the Lord) Network, defined televangelism for many Americans, and they continue to haunt Christian broadcasting to this day.
At the National Religious Broadcasters convention in February, representatives from the Christian television industry gathered to discuss how to repair some of the damage done in past years to Christian networks, and how to restore the audience's faith in Christian programming.
The broadcasters just might want to take a look at "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," a powerful, funny, and revealing new documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. The film produces two complexly related but entirely genuine reactions: "Anyone who missed PTL missed the best television of the past decade." And, "Tammy Faye Bakker is a truly inspiring human being."
Narrated by drag queen icon RuPaul, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is a look at an extraordinary woman who has faced obstacles that would break all but the very strongest of us. Yet she emerged proud, smiling, her faith unshaken--and her eyelashes intact.
The film doesn't try to clear Tammy's name, or Jim's. In 1989, Bakker was found guilty on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy, and was sentenced to 45 years in jail and fined $500,000. He was released after serving five years. There's nothing new offered here to exonerate him.
What we do find is the little-known history of a young, devoutly Christian couple who single-handedly took a tiny Christian television network that "could barely broadcast down the street" and transformed it into a top-rated station, with shows syndicated around the country, creating the world's first Christian broadcasting network.
We see Jim Bakker develop the first successful Christian TV talk show, the "700 Club," before being shoved aside and forced to start from scratch in California with the Trinity Broadcasting Network, only to be dealt the same injustice again. By the time they started the first Christian satellite broadcast network, PTL, in 1974, the Bakkers were more wary and worldly wise, but were brought down a third time, by their own greed and ambition, but also, according to "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," by Jerry Falwell and by journalists more interested in tearing someone down for a story than presenting the facts.
"The PTL was all about loving everyone--gay, straight, black or white, and for this they paid dearly," says Bailey, whose previous documentary with Barbato, "Party Monster," about a Manhattan club kid, made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and later won an Emmy. "It became clear to me in hindsight that the real story of PTL had not been told, and that even those who knew what really happened just weren't being listened to."
Jim Bakker never denied having a brief sexual liaison with Jessica Hahn, or later giving her hush money when she threatened to take the affair public. But the film shows that accusations that he funneled huge sums out of the network to finance an extravagant lifestyle are unfair. The Bakkers, the film argues, lived no more extravagantly than other Christian leaders--including Falwell, whom the film depicts as a coldly calculating Judas who stole the PTL right out of the Bakkers' hands.
The film opens by introducing us to Tammy Faye's present life. She has become a hermit in a small, middle-class California desert community, surrounded by her doll collection and memories. Her second husband, Roe Messner, is also in prison for fraud related to the PTL scandal (he was chief architect for Heritage USA). Tammy reads aloud a poem about the seclusion and despair that fill her days. But she's not sulking. Her resilient attitude leads one interview subject to remark, "The woman is amazing. After Armageddon, it will be the cockroaches, Cher, and Tammy Faye Bakker."
Tammy Faye plays to the camera marvelously, speaking to the lens as if it were her closest friend--indeed her only friend, sharing melancholy, intimate moments amid an otherwise fun-filled, albeit somewhat psychotic, celebrity shopping excursion. She comes across as a woman of immeasurable energy who, had she not been the wife of a televangelist, would almost certainly be a celebrity in her own right. Even her brief drug addiction, we learn, resulted from the extreme pace of her work schedule. The moment she realized she had a problem with a prescription drug, she says, she shifted her addiction to Diet Coke.
Tammy Faye has been a survivor from birth. Raised in poverty, she was "born with a perfect manicure," says a family member. Throughout her life, she has taken unpopular positions and stood by them, even risking her wealth and popularity after years of building PTL. She reached out to people with AIDS, particularly gay men, literally holding them in her arms, and invited them into her church at a time when such compassion was rare among Christians. She accepted the gay community, she says, because she had been misjudged by others so often that she refuses to commit the same injustice.
"There are many similarities between Tammy and me," notes RuPaul, a longtime admirer of Tammy Faye. "We both overcame adversity, but also reinvented ourselves through cosmetology. She may have been the butt of a few jokes, but I challenge anyone to go through the public humiliation, government scrutiny, and have every friend that you've ever had to turn their back on you, and still come out with your faith unchanged."
"It was amazing and inspiring to see her hold her head up with everyone turning their back on her," says Bailey. "Years after the scandal, and after her divorce and remarriage, we managed to track her down. The way she lit up the room was incredible. I kept thinking 'We have to do something with this woman.'"
If the National Religious Broadcasters are listening now, here's a hint on how to improve ratings: Bring back Tammy Faye.