For more than 10 years, the Reverend Jim Bakker – who frequently said: “God wants his people to go first class” – was at the helm of open of America’s fastest-growing Christian media empires, serving as high priest (along with his wife Tammy Faye) to millions of TV followers who responded to teary appeals for cash. In 1986 his salary and bonuses totalled $1.6 million
Bakker carved his global $129 million-a-year PTL empire from the heart of the US Bible Belt. His 2,300 acre ‘Heritage Village USA’ became the country’s third-most-popular amusement park. And on a religious-oriented talk show carried by nearly 200 TV stations, the Bakkers became pop icons to millions of born-again Americans.
Such was their reach that during the final days of the 1980 presidential campaign – while Jim Bakker’s money-raising tactics were under investigation by the Federal Communications Commission – Jimmy Carter summoned the boyish televangelist to pray with him aboard Air Force One.
Ronald Reagan invited Jim and Tammy to his first inaugural, and three years later lavished praise on Jim Bakker at the National Association of Religious Broadcasters’ convention in Washington. “The PTL TV network is carrying out a master plan for people that love,” said Reagan – an endorsement Bakker later beamed to his 13 million viewers.
At the same time, the Bakkers were revelling in an extravagant lifestyle more akin to Dynasty than Christian ministry. Tammy wore mink. Jim drove luxury imported cars. They cruised about in one of three black Cadillac limousines, bought a houseboat, a vintage $62,000 Rolls Royce, a Corvette, an $800 Gucci handbag and vacationed in $350-a-night hotel suites in Hawaii.
They built a heated and air-conditioned dog house for Tammy’s pooches, and for a 1981 Chritsmas bash for PTL executives at a Charlotte restaurant, Cafe Eugene, $9,000 worth of truffles was flown in from Belgium.
All of this was paid for by charitable contributions.
One symbol of Jim Bakker’s taste for luxury was the ocean-front condominium near Palm Beach that PTL bought for the Bakkers in 1982. The purchase came amid a desperate money-raising appeal, a layoff of 100 PTL employees and the Bakkers’ televised vow to be “good stewards of God’s money”.
PTL paid $390,000 for the condo and then spent another $202,000 in furnishings, including floor-to-ceiling mirrors that afforded the Bakkers a view of the ocean from every room.
The ministry spent $13,000 in travel for staff members such as James Taggart, PTL’s $120,000-a-year interior decorator, who supervised the project from the posh Boca Raton Hotel and Club nearby. The condo was sold after public protests in 1984.
These were among the $1.3 million of PTL expenditures for the Bakkers that were picked up by the IRS but there were more extravagances: The ministry bought five luxury homes for its top executives, including the Bakkers, on Lake Wylie in Tega Cay, South Carolina, at a total cost of $820,000 – the Bakkers’ home costing $340,000, plus another $73,000 in renovations. Tied to the dock was a 43-foot Drifter houseboat.
When they were riding high, Tammy Bakker’s tears rolled down like a mighty stream as Jim implored viewers for money to support the ministry. He portrayed PTL as always on the brink of financial disaster. It worked.
But backstage there was a darker side: In March 1987, Jim Bakker confessed to a 1980 sexual encounter with former church secretary Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room as well as payments of over $250,000 to silence her – and his empire came crashing down.
Following his resignation, Jerry Falwell took over the PTL ministry and a stream of revelations – of lust, greed and excess – shook the world of televangelism. The Bakkers retreated to their Palm Springs house, Tammy sought treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic for an addiction to prescription drugs, and Jim hunkered down to pray, plan a comeback and write a book.
Bakker was defrocked by the Assemblies of God (the denomination in which he was ordained) for adultery and “alleged bisexual activities”. Stories subsequently surfaced of Bakker’s private profanity, of a fondness for prostitutes, and of alleged homosexual acts.
Three months after taking control of PTL, Jerry Falwell placed the ministry – which was over $60 million in debt – in bankruptcy and turned financial records over to the US Department of Justice.
Behind Jim Bakker’s freewheeling, free-spending ways was an insecure tent preacher from small-town Michigan who surrounded himself with “yes men”, fired those who raised ethical questions and feared “enemies” were plotting to take his empire away.
His wife, Tamara Faye LaValley – the oldest of eight children who grew up in International Falls, Minnesota with an outdoor toilet – was equally plagued with self-doubt. She never wore lipstick until she married, then slept with it on.
Fans loved her style as she dolloped herself with diamonds, thick iridescent makeup that streaked as she wept, and wigs. She praised the Lord in leopard-spotted pantsuits and four-inch spike heels, pitching herself as a prototype for the modern Christian woman.
The couple met at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, dropped out to marry in 1961 and hit the road as itinerant preachers. In 1966, Jim was staging a children’s puppet show with Tammy at the fledgeling Christian Broadcast Network in Portsmouth, Virginia, and by 1974 he set up shop in a Charlotte furniture showroom to host a show for struggling Channel 36 and “The PTL Club” (for “Praise The Lord” or “People That Love”) was born.
In 1988, Bakker and former top PTL associate Richard Dortch were indicted on federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. The 24-count indictment, returned by a federal grand jury, charged that Bakker and Dortch had fraudulently oversubscribed at least $158 million worth of $1,000 “lifetime partnerships” that guaranteed contributors three nights lodging per year at Heritage USA to help maintain Bakker and Dortch’s “lavish and extravagant lifestyles”.
Dortch pleaded guilty to four fraud and conspiracy counts in a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against Bakker. In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted on all 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy. He ultimately served about 4½ years of an eight-year prison sentence and was released from prison in 1994.
The Bakkers had divorced two years earlier and both remarried.
Tammy Faye passed away in July 2007, aged 65. She had undergone surgery for colon cancer in 1996 and was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2004.