Throwback Thursday: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Fall From Grace
Eighteen years ago, Jim Bakker was found to have siphoned off $3.7 million from his ministry for, among other things, his-and-hers Rolls-Royces.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
While reality TV's Duggar family is learning lessons about having a show that extols Christian values when dark secrets surface, in the ’80s, minister Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye, took a steep tumble down from the mountaintop when Jim was found to have siphoned off $3.7 million from his ministry for, among other things, his-and-hers Rolls-Royces.
The PTL Club (the initials stood for Praise the Lord), the televangelical talk show Jim and Tammy Faye had hosted since 1974, grew into a full network that was carried on 1,300 cable systems with 12 million subscribers, brought in $128 million annually and launched its own satellite. In 1978, they opened the 2,300-acre religious theme park, residential complex and water park Heritage USA in South Carolina. Within eight years, it was attracting 6 million annual visitors and had become America’s third-most-popular attraction behind Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
Their empire’s financial underpinning came from selling more than $158 million worth of "lifetime memberships" at $1,000 a pop that entitled buyers to a three-night annual stay at a Heritage hotel. While twice the amount needed to build sufficient hotels to house the believers was raised, not enough were constructed.
The nail in the coffin for Bakker came when it was revealed that PTL funds had been used to pay $279,000 to church secretary Jessica Hahn to buy her silence regarding a sexual encounter with Bakker in 1980. In 1988, Bakker was indicted on 24 federal charges, convicted on all of them and sentenced to 45 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. The sentence was reduced to eight years, and he was released in 1994. Jim and Tammy Faye, whose indulgence in mascara was so legendary it earned its own SNL sketch, were divorced in 1992.
Tammy Faye subsequently became an icon in the gay world and was the subject of the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which was nominated for the 2000 Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize. Unlike many of her evangelical peers, she never condemned homosexuals, saying in 2007: "When we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that." Says RuPaul, who narrated The Eyes of Tammy Faye: "Tammy was a kind-hearted person. A couple years ago I had a dream where she told me to 'Focus on a person’s innocence, not on their guilt.' It’s the best advice I ever got."
Tammy Faye died of cancer at 65 in 2007. Jim, now 75, hosts the televised Jim Bakker Show from Branson, Mo., which focuses on the upcoming apocalypse and selling survival gear. (His office answering machine instructs callers to "press 3 for prayer requests.") He reportedly still owes the IRS about $6 million.