I want to stress that I’m not one of those nouveau Jim and Tammy Faye fans who started following them after they became internationally recognized punch lines. I was a fan for years. Many a weekday, when I was supposed to be writing, I’d tune in to the PTL Club, and when it got to a good part, I’d yell to my wife, “Come here! You’ve got to see these people!” And she’d come look at the TV, and there would be Jim, smiling with all the sincerity of a man selling time-sharing condos in Zaire; or there would be Tammy Faye, her eyeballs gushing liquefied mascara and looking like two holes in the side of the Exxon Valdez. My wife, who is actually a religious person, would look at them, then at me, and say, “How can you stand them?”
Stand them? I loved them. I loved their looks; I loved their banter; I loved their melodramatic pitches for money; I loved their water slide. I loved the time in 1987 when they were celebrating Jim’s birthday on the show, and Tammy, barely able to contain herself, announced that, for his very special present, she was giving him—a pair of giraffes. The truly amazing thing was the reaction of the audience—the loyal PTL followers who made the whole Jim-and-Tammy life-style possible. They did not leap to their feet and shout, “Wait a minute here. Are you saying that you’re going to take our hard-earned money, which you obtained from us for the ostensible purpose of operating a Christian ministry engaged in doing the Lord’s work, and you’re going to spend this money on giraffes?” No sir, the audience reacted as though Tammy had just announced an end to world hunger. They applauded like maniacs. Giraffes! What a cute idea! That Tammy Faye!
Why did people respond to the Bakkers this way? How could such a grasping, shallow and flagrantly self-absorbed couple manage to acquire such a large and fervent following? One widely accepted answer, of course, is that the followers had the same average intelligence as margarine. But I don’t think that’s the whole answer. I think the Bakkers were successful because they personalized a very appealing, very convenient moral philosophy that nourished in the ’80s, a philosophy that can be summarized as follows: You can’t do good unto others unless you feel good about yourself, and you can’t feel good about yourself unless you have a lot of neat stuff.
And the Bakkers did. Maybe they didn’t have as much as other major stuff-acquiring ’80s figures, such as Ivan Boesky or Carl Icahn, but the Bakkers, because they had acquired their stuff for high spiritual purposes, seemed able to enjoy it more than anybody this side of Donald Trump. Their message seemed to be, Hey, if you’re doing the Lord’s work, the Lord wants you to be comfortable. He wants you to have nice clothes and antique cars and luxury residences with gold-plated bathroom fixtures and an air-conditioned doghouse. And yes, if you are a faithful laborer in His vineyards, the Lord frankly sees nothing wrong with getting a couple of giraffes. The Lord wants you to have fun! That was how Jim and Tammy felt, and they gave their followers a way to feel righteous and be entertained. Watching the PTL Club was like watching a mutant version of Wheel of Fortune, where Pat Sajak and Vanna White won all the prizes.
Of course, the Bakkers lost most of their neat stuff when the scandal broke. But even then they exemplified another characteristic ’80s trait: shamelessness. This is, after all, the decade in which the armed forces awarded 7,000 troops a total of 8, 612 medals for invading Grenada; in which Ed Meese proclaimed himself vindicated because he committed no indictable offense; in which Richard Nixon emerged as a Distinguished Elder Statesman and Spiro Agnew claimed he should get a tax deduction for bribe money he was forced to return.
And so when the stories came out about Jessica Hahn, the hush money, the shady PTL finances and all the rest, Jim and Tammy did not slink off in disgrace; no, they drew themselves up to their full height and they blamed other people. “I think that what has been done to Jim and Tammy Bakker is immoral at the highest degree of immorality,” said Jim, who would know.
Now they’ve started up another ministry, in Orlando. They’re broadcasting from a nearly deserted shopping mall called—no kidding—Shoppers World. It’s a small operation so far, but who knows? Maybe some day they’ll be back in the big leagues, a major ministry once again, rising above their attackers like, I don’t know, giraffes. I’ll definitely be watching.