The star of the PTL show says it stands for ‘Praise the Lord,’ but critics suggest it’s ‘Pass the Loot’
His strategy to conquer the world for Christ begins, says the Rev. James Bakker, with his “air troops.” Then “ground troops move in to follow up.” Jim Bakker’s Christian soldiering is metaphorical, of course. The channel his air troops vault over is not, say, the English but the TV variety. His The PTL Club has, in just four years, emerged as the hottest show in religious broadcasting. The initials stand for “Praise the Lord” and “People that Love”—or, according to critics of its fund-raising fixation, “Pass the Loot.”
The program, which originates two hours daily from Charlotte, N.C., pulls as many as 20 million viewers on 190 station affiliates that carry tape excerpts over what Bakker grandly calls the PTL Network. Even before it began satellite transmissions this month, PTL had been serving all 50 states and 19 foreign countries.
Bakker, 38, doesn’t just stand up there and preach, but uses a talk show format instead. He is even dubbed the Johnny Carson of Christendom and, with his Ed McMahon (the Rev. Henry Harrison), interviews born-again celebrity guests like Ruth Carter Stapleton, Dean Jones, Chuck Colson, Anita Bryant and George Foreman. Considering Bakker’s performance, Jack Paar might be more analogous than Carson—the impassioned evangelist often breaks into tears midshow. The Doc Severinsen of PTL is Jim’s wife, Tammy Faye, a 4’10½” organist, gospel belter and puppeteer. Their two children, Tammy Sue, 8, and Jamie Charles, 2, also make frequent appearances.
Behind the scenes are a staff of 400, plus volunteers monitoring 60 phones, like a PBS station at pledge time. The mail runs 10,000 letters per day, and envelopes requesting prayers are carried to a chapel where PTL followers pray in shifts around the clock. By Bakker’s reckoning such efforts saved some 30,000 souls last year.
The son of a Michigan tool-and-die maker, Bakker recalls the near tragedy during high school that set him on his ministry: He accidentally backed his car over a child. The youngster recovered, but Bakker never forgot the compassion shown him by the victim’s parents. Jim married Tammy Faye in 1959, while attending Minneapolis’ North Central Bible College, and they then toured the evangelist circuits. “I used to get home from services late at night,” he recalls, “and found the TV talk shows such a contrast to where I’d just come from. So I said, ‘Why can’t we have something uplifting on a talk show for a change?’ ”
Today PTL activities emanate from a 25-acre Heritage Village, modeled on Colonial Williamsburg. It and Bakker’s TV ministry are funded by contributions of $2 million a month. As to the “Pass the Loot” charge that came from the local press, Bakker published a full audit. It turned out that he and his wife draw only about $40,000 annually, including housing and car allowance. Jim does not apologize for PTL’s nonstop dunning. “Why shouldn’t people who love God be successful?” Indeed, Bakker is building a “Total Living Center” with conference facilities, a hotel, a retirement village and a theological college. This, he says, “is the beginning of the last great revival. When I was a young preacher, I said to God, ‘Give me more to do.’ Now I feel like the jet is taking off, and I’m just hanging on.”