Tammy Faye

In modern American, where television is an immensely popular and effective means of transmitting ideas, it is only natural that religion would progress to the airwaves. The Protestant subculture had a history of using religious entertainment as a means for spreading their message. Dwight Moody created and mastered the theatrical urban revival complete with songs and stories often performed in an auditorium or tent. Televangelism grew out of this tradition which attempted to evangelize the world by exploiting secular culture.

Early evangelics such as Oral Roberts and Billy Graham mark the transition of the religious campaign to the new medium. “Television was at first, and still is, used in much the same way as the land lines: as a device for taking the crusade meeting to those who cannot come to it” (Bruce 34). Fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Pentecostals attempting to spread their message have dominated America religious television. The late seventies and early eighties was marked by the entrance of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their Pentecostal PTL movement to televangelism.

Tammy Faye LeValley was born in 1942 in International Falls, Minnesota. One of eight children born into a life of poverty, her family lived in a “hillbilly” shack in which there was no indoor bath. Tammy Faye came from a deeply religious background in the Central Assemblies of God church. Her conservative, Pentecostal faith restricted her from such things as the movies and wearing make-up. In her house there was “never enough money, never enough praying, never enough spiritual torment to satisfy the demands of her faith” (James 55).

Tammy left home and attended North Central Bible College, a Pentecostal outpost in Minneapolis. She began to rebel against church bans on such things as dancing and makeup. “Deprived all her life of cosmetics, she now began wearing them in her sleep and would eventually become famous as the most gaudily made up performer of her day” (James 56). While at North Central Tammy met Jim Bakker and left school to get married. Together Jim and Tammy went on the road, following the footsteps of early evangelicalism with their crusade for Jesus. They got their first big break from Pat Robertson who let them perform their puppet show on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Soon Tammy and Jim’s popularity would grow, getting so large that their empire included not only their own satellite network but virtually their own town: Heritage, USA. Their evangelical empire would not last long, however. It would come crashing down around them with rumors of illicit affairs and financial corruption creating a scandal that has marred the face of televangelism.

Yet to the faithful followers of televangelism “we find that far from eroding the faith of the core audience, scandals have produced an increase in commitment as the faithful rally round” (Bruce 211). While many people dismiss the story of Tammy Faye as an extravagance, and consider televangelism as a scam on the whole, this is obviously not the case for all. By understanding the message brought by Tammy and Jim, the audience that responded to this message, and the scandal that ensued much can be learned about the growth of televangelism in America.

Televangelism is most often regarded as the manifestation of fundamentalism. (Bruce 67). Yet the particular doctrinal issues of most televangelist are not easily determined. Tammy and Jim, along with televangelists in general “do not talk a lot about what they believe beyond asserting the authority of the Bible and the need to be Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½born again'” (Bruce 69). While usually described as a Pentecostal teaching, Tammy and Jim’s PTL (Praise the Lord) network can be seen as growing from the concerns of evangelicals and fundamentalists, as well as Pentecostals. “A television ministry became a way to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission- to go into the world and spread the good news of his atonement and the need for individuals to Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½get right with God'” (James xiii).

Tammy was the model Pentecostal filling the PTL show with enthusiastic hallelujahs and tearful pleas for donations. And the money did pour in. To some it is hard to imagine why people who did not have much would give so generously to these people on their TV. By giving, however, Pentecostals and fundamentals were simply fulfilling their duty of Christian service. Evangelizing was a very important aspect of conservative Protestantism. The consequence of being born again was that your primary duty as a Christian became spreading the Word. “Thus the highest Christian service is giving money to the Lord via his servant the televangelist” (Bruce 93).

In this way a Tammy and Jim were able to create a unique relationship to the audience which is a primary feature of televangelism. People who watched Tammy on television and then responded to her call for support found themselves partner to a project. “Together with the televangelist and his staff, they are cofounders and co producers- not just of a television program, but of a much broader ministry” (Hadden 130).

The supporters of Tammy and Jim did not seem to mind when the money they were sending to the ministry went into the new project of heritage USA. Heritage can be seen as a Disneyland for conservative Protestants complete with shopping mall and “in the spirit of televangelism, a gigantic set” (Wadler 84). Followers flocked to the evangelic outpost, donating money to become time-share owners in the Heritage Hotel.

Meanwhile, unknown to all, Tammy and Jim were becoming rich from the proceeds they were receiving. Tammy was an avid shopper, greatly enjoying the new prosperity. Clearly her childhood hungers had shaped Tammy for television evangelism. She avidly supported the fundamentalist doctrine that was against eq2ual rights for women. Tammy always taught that it was the woman’s job to make the man happy and keep him excited. “I think a woman ought to be sexy for her husband, she would say” (People Weekly 87).

Tammy was evidently happy with her place in the ministry. Jim and her often went on vacations, and she spent her money on things such as fur coats and an air-conditioned doghouse. The newfound wealth of Tammy came from the product that she was selling: Jesus Christ. As already noted people gave freely when the felt that their money could help a project that supported their religious cause.

One might wonder why one would keep giving to an organization that was so clearly making others rich. Tammy’s success marks a change in conservative Protestant views. Televangelism stripped away the believe in aestheticism, and replaced it with American drive for material wealth. “Although the Bakkers are a little extrem, they do illustrate the deep desire among many fundamentalists and Pentecostals to demonstrate their arrival in the mainstream of American like by acquiring the possessions previously denied to their class” (Bruce 76). Wealth became endorsed as proof that God was giving his approval.

Furthermore, it was not simply a matter of money now being acceptable. Tammy, with her excessive makeup and leopard skin print clothing, signified another revision of fundamentalist values. Personal adornment was now approved of. It was okay to make yourself attractive, to wear makeup or nice clothes. This too was a sign of success, of really making it in this world, and most of all it also was a symbol of God’s blessing in this world.

In this light it becomes clear why the integral part of televangelism, fund-raising, was so successful. Although the general American public is usually most suspicious of this aspect of televangelism, followers saw giving as their duty. Moreover, they firmly believe that God works on a system of reciprocity. Thus the more you give, the more that will return to you. So when Tammy and Jim went on a vacation the audience applauded. They too may be able to attain the same prominence.

Televangelism was promoting a theology that corresponded to the attitudes of consumerist America. PTL is just one example of the televangelist support of the Gospel of Prosperity. According to this view “God wants you to be financially prosperous and content” (Hadden 131). It is no wonder than that the donations poured in to televangelic pastors. In all religious traditions the pastor is considered an exemplary role model of their particular virtues. “In the case of televangelism, the wealth of the pastor is not only defended as necessary to the proper fulfillment of his functions but as proper acknowledgement of the pastor’s position as the representative of God” (Bruce 76). The Bakker family’s success helped to assure those with back-grounds in poor Pentecostal churches that they had no need to feel guilty about enjoying the material rewards of this world.

Just as Moodey years before had become a Horatio Alger story of inspiration, Tammy and Jim occupied the same place to their followers. The televangelist message of success was one that is in general eagerly received by Americans. Just as the east European Jews discovered in their migration to this country, abundance was a flourishing concept in the America mind. “The Bakkers were successful because they personalized a very appealing, very convenient moral philosophy that flourished in the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½80s: You can’t do good unto others unless you feel good about yourself” (Barry 70). Tammy with all her eccentrics embodied the ability to be extravagant and religious to her viewers. Jim and Tammy “gave their followers a way to feel righteous and be entertained” (Barry 71).

At the height of PTL’s triumph in the evangelic subculture, a scandal would erupt that would cause the fall of Tammy and Jim from prominence. Jim Bakker was accused of sexual misconduct, and the other accusations would follow. It was discovered that the Bakkers had made an estimated 1.3 million in just the last year, much due to the over-selling of property at Heritage, USA. There were allegations that the Bakker’s had misappropriated “PTL resources for their own personal use and the payment of judge salaries and bonuses” (Hadden 11). It was these allegations that seemed the far more serious charge than that of their sexual conduct.

At this point the organizational structure of televangelism deserves mention. It is precisely the organizational form of the system that allows misconduct to run rampant. Televangelist ministries tend to be oligarchies, organizations governed by few. Individual entrepreneurs are a common place in America. In fact America has been known as the place that adamantly supports the rise of the individual in the market place. It is this system that has had the greatest influence on management of televangelism. “All the money, all the building projects, all the Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½yes men’ are doing the bidding of leaders accountable to no one but Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½God'” (Hadden 129). The Bakker tragedy, along with the other scandals that have marked televangelism, would have not been possible if the empires built by the leaders were not oligarchies.

The details of the Bakker scandal invaded the media and the public eye. Tammy Faye’s reputation certainly did not escape scrutiny. She admitted to having a problem with prescription drugs, was rumored to have had affairs, and clearly exploited the money that the PTL club received. Nevertheless, even as the majority of Americans found their suspicion of corruption proved true, the avid believers did not waiver in their faith. It should not be assumed that these followers were ignorant, most agreed that the Bakker’s had done wrong. Yet fundamentalism stressed that sins can and should be wrong. In “televangelism generally, we find that far from eroding the faith of the core audience, the scandals have produced an increase in commitment as the faithful rally round” (Bruce 211).

Moreover Tammy had never hidden her weaknesses from the public eye. Her on-air discussions often concerned issues such as her martial discord. The audience was drawn to her because she was a real person with real problems that they could relate to. In this light the scandal almost had a humanizing effect, making Tammy even more accessible. As stated by the Bakkers’ son, “Mother and Dad are real people. Bad things happen to real people. We’ll make the best of it” (qtd. by Schneider 79). Undoubtedly part of televangelism’s appeal is that it provides reassurance to the viewers.

Another consideration that must be made in understanding Tammy Faye and her impact in televangelism is who exactly these viewers are. While in theory the purpose of televangelism is spreading the to message to the non-believers who should in turn join a local church, statistics show that this is not usually the result. Many of the people that tune in to televangelists are already conservative Protestants who have their own church. They are loyal to the evangelic tradition, regardless of the actions of Tammy Faye Bakker. “Most evangelicals and fundamentalists appreciate the preaching of this or that evangelist but their primary loyalty is to a cluster of beliefs and practices and to local churches and associations as the arenas for acting out their faith” (Bruce 210).
America is the only country in which televangelism has become so immensely popular and commonplace. This is in part due to the fact that America has a large population of conservative Protestants interested in the evangelical subculture. Further America is a democratic society rooted in free enterprise, providing the ideal conditions for the growth of televangelic groups. The empire built by Tammy and Jim Bakker “represent the willingness of conservative Protestants to spend their money on funding this sort of activity” (James 235). Though televangelism is often ridiculed in the media, or simply dismissed by others, it clearly has become an increasing part of religious broadcasting. The life and ministry of Tammy Faye provides insight into the televangical phenomenon.

Since the fall of PTL, Tammy and Jim have divorced, and the now remarried Tammy Faye Messner has a documentary that was just released. The image of massacre-laden Tammy Faye, weeping and praying, has found it’s way into the American consciousness. A discussion of televangelism most certainly contains discussion on Tammy Faye, for her ministry reveals much about the nature of this subculture. “Although the Bakkers are a little extreme, they do illustrate the deep desire among many fundamentalists and Pentecostals to demonstrate their arrival in the mainstream of American life” (Bruce 77).


Bruce, Steve. Pray TV: Televangelism in America. Routledge, New York: 1990.

Hadden, James and Anson Shupe. Televangelism. Henry Holt and Company, New York: 1988.

James, Hunter. Smile Pretty and Say Jesus: the Last Great Days of PTL. University of Georgia Press, Atlanta: 1993.

Scheinder, Mary. The Bakkers. New York Times. April 15, 1994.

Wadler, Thomas. The Fall of PTL. Associated Press. January, 1993.

People Weekly. Associated Press. October, 1994

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