RELIGION

Hellfire, brimstone-and a TV scandal

BOB LEVIN April 6 1987
RELIGION

Hellfire, brimstone-and a TV scandal

BOB LEVIN April 6 1987

Hellfire, brimstone-and a TV scandal

RELIGION

When viewers last left Rev. Jim Bakker, whose PTL ministry stands for Praise The Lord and People That Love, the televangelist revealed that he had loved too well. Two weeks ago Bakker, whose roller-coaster relationship with his wife, Tammy, had turned his South Carolina-based cable show into a kind of Christian soap opera, admitted that he had been blackmailed over an extramarital encounter with the then-21-year-old church secretary. Shamed, the 47-year-old Bakker resigned as head of PTL, a $129-million empire which includes not only the cable-TV network but a gospel-theme amusement park. But that was only the beginning. Last week Bakker said that the sex story was part of a “diabolical plot” by a “well-known individual” to take over PTL. And Bakker’s lawyer charged that TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart had set off a sensational scandal with all the makings of a mini-series: sex, drugs, money, powergrabbing and even charges of a coverup.

Of course, in the singular world of television evangelism, where glitter and glamor meet fire and brimstone, a certain amount of controversy is understandable—and good for ratings. But the current scandal, dubbed Pearlygate by the U.S. media, quickly degenerated into an unholy war among preachers of prime-time religion. Swaggart denied that he had attempted a hostile takeover of the 500,000-member PTL. But he added that Bakker’s offences had become “a cancer that had to be excised from the body of Christ.” Rushing to Bakker’s defence was Oklahoma evangelist Oral Roberts, who created his own uproar recently by declaring that God had commanded him to raise $8 million by March 31 or be “called home.” Roberts, who reached his goal with the aid of a $1.3-million cheque from a Florida dog-track owner, accused Swaggart of being “holier than thou.” And he praised Bakker as a “prophet of God” in a televised endorsement that was abruptly blacked out when lightning struck a TV transmission antenna.

Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority founder who stepped in to head PTL at Bakker’s request, appealed to televangelists to stop their civil war so that “Satan will not have a field day.” Another TV evangelist, undeclared Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson, tried mightily to distance himself from his former protégés; with determined optimism, Robertson said that the uproar was the “prelude to an accelerating revival” among U.S. Christians. And, in the inevitable crowning of any major American sex scandal, a

Penthouse spokesman announced that the magazine was preparing to make an unspecified offer to Bakker’s onetime lover, Jessica Hahn of Long Island, N.Y., to pose nude. “If she’s good enough for Jimmy Bakker,” the spokesman said, “she’s good enough for the rest of the world.”

For Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the scandal is the low point of a tumultuous career. The couple, members of the strict Assemblies of God church, travelled the revival circuit before making it to television in 1965

as hosts of a puppet show on Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Eventually, the Bakkers branched out on their own with The Jim and Tammy Show, a daily one-hour session of talk and song that begat an evangelical empire. The PTL network now

reaches at least 15-million homes in the United States and Canada. Heritage U.S.A., the socalled Christian Disneyland in Fort Mill, S.C., attracts six million visitors annually to its water park and nightly passion play. And Tammy, whose masklike makeup has become a trademark, runs a lucrative cosmetics business. Along the way, the Bakkers have accumulated at least $910,000 in real estate and cars, been investigated by the federal government for misallocating viewer donations —an investigation that was eventually dropped—and suffered through a near-breakup of their marriage.

But their troubles increased in early March, when Tammy tearfully announced that she was suffering from drug dependency. She is reportedly being treated at the Betty Ford addiction centre in Palm Springs, Calif. Her husband’s bombshell disclosure followed three weeks later. According to the Charlotte, N.C., Observer, whose investigation forced Bakker’s admission, the preacher’s indiscretion occurred on a speaking trip to Clearwa-

ter Beach, Fla., in December, 1980. There, the newspaper said, fellow evangelist John Wesley Fletcher introduced him to Hahn.

Four years later Paul Roper, a California businessman who was representing Hahn, threatened to sue over that one-night stand in a Florida motel room. According to Roper, the incident occurred because Hahn had succumbed to drugged wine. Declared Roper: “Jessica says she had sex with Bakker after her wine was drugged and she was incapable of firmly resisting.” But Roper said that he had no proof that someone had tampered with Hahn’s drink.

PTL lawyers eventually gave Roper a $115,000 settlement, and the Observer reported that Hahn also received monthly payments of between $800 and $1,200. Still, Hahn denied that she blackmailed Bakker and claimed that she received only “a few dollars” of the initial settlement. She told reporters that she was “deeply concerned” that churchgoers understand that the scandal “has no reflection upon the Lord.”

Swaggart’s precise role in the case is still not clear. A cousin of rock ’n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis, Swaggart is an Assemblies of God minister whose Baton Rouge, La.-based show is the topranked weekly religious program in America. He is a hardline hellfire preacher who is not noted for tolerance: he once said that Roman Catholic traditions are “doctrines of the devil.” Bakker’s lawyer, Roy Grutman, said that Swaggart targeted Bakker after Bakker removed him from the PTL network because of his “condemnatory, un-Christian-like, personal at-

tacks on other churches.” Grutman admitted that Swaggart was not involved in blackmailing Bakker. But Swaggart himself said that last August he informed church leaders of sex-scandal rumors about Bakker and pleaded with them “to distance the Assemblies of God from PTL.”

After a meeting at their Springfield, Mo., headquarters last week, Assemblies of God leaders said that they were collecting evidence on the Bakker case to determine whether the preacher should be dismissed. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Falwell assumed his new post as chairman of the PTL board. At his first meeting, the board unanimously ratified longtime PTL minister Rev. Richard Dortch as the new PTL president and decided that the Bakkers should stay on PTL’S payroll—as long as they do not remain active in its ministry. Falwell also distributed a financial statement that showed current PTL liabilities of $42.1 million, with other long-term debt listed at $28.2 million. He added that the board will consider taking out a $50-million loan to consolidate its debts. How Bakker will handle his fall from grace remains uncertain, PTL’S Fred Gross, a psychologist, gave an excruciatingly detailed account of how a sobbing Bakker confessed his carnal sin. “He was shaking so violently I had to hold him,” said Gross. “He was so distraught and out of control that he was racked with pain and guilt from his head to his toes.” As for Tammy, she has weathered trying times before. In a soon-to-be-released book titled Christian Wives, which quotes the spouses of six TV preach-

ers, Tammy says that during a long depression after the birth of her first child, she decided to seek professional help. But, she adds, “just as I picked up the telephone book and got the psychiatrist’s name, the Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Tammy, let me be your psychiatrist.’ ”

The electronic church as a whole will need similar faith and fortitude to recover from its crisis. Although it has long suffered the slings and arrows of skeptics, the Bakker affair has landed it squarely in that latter-day place of public ridicule, tabloid heaven. Nor could newspapers make enough of the fact that Jerry Collins, the man whose contribution put Oral Roberts’s fund drive over the top, suggested that Roberts needs “psychiatric treatment.” The question now is whether evangelical Christians will begin to tire of their leaders’ soap-opera styles and bickering. For them, and fascinated observers across the United States and Canada, the only way to find out is to stay tuned.

BOB LEVIN

with

LARRY BLACK

in New

York and

IAN AUSTEN

in Washington