"The Eyes of Tammy Faye": When the GOP Got in Bed with the Christian RightBreaking News
tags: Christianity, popular culture, religious right, evangelicals, television
The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role, is the latest in a burgeoning cultural project: the ongoing attempt to reexamine and reclaim the legacies of women who were wronged in recent history. Monica Lewinsky. Britney Spears. Marcia Clark. Podcasts (like Slow Burn and You’re Wrong About), documentaries (Framing Britney Spears), and based-on-a-true-story TV dramas reframe the stories that sensation-seeking media and late-night comedians pitched to the American public as a clown show, a train wreck, a lady who’s in trouble and worthy only of our gawking.
In this way, Tammy Faye Messner, formerly Tammy Faye Bakker, was ahead of her time. In 2000, she was the subject of a documentary, also called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, that aimed to reintroduce audiences to a woman they’d previously encountered as either a scandal or a punchline. (Technically, the new film is a lightly fictionalized adaptation of the older documentary.) It’s a weird, campy, wonderful little film. Sock puppets introduce various sections of the story; RuPaul narrates.
At the documentary’s center is Tammy Faye herself, one-half of an infamous televangelist couple who saw their reputations and empire fall after Faye’s then-husband, Jim Bakker, was convicted of mail and wire fraud. Allegations of improper financial dealings had dogged the Bakkers for years, but they came to a head in 1987 when allegations that Jim raped a young woman named Jessica Hahn and then used ministry funds to pay for her silence became public.
The allegations sent shock waves through not just the conservative Christian community but also the country at large. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the pair had been at the head of the PTL Network, a massively popular TV network that aired, among other programming, the Bakkers’ own daily variety shows. PTL stood for both “Praise the Lord” and “People That Love,” though some joked it meant “pass the loot”: Its broadcasts were friendly and inspiring, filled with music and celebration and encouragement directed toward at-home viewers. They were also filled with pleas for donations from their “partners,” Jim’s affectionate but calculated term for viewers who gave money. For a long time, that formula bore fruit; the Bakkers’ constant telethons raised many millions of dollars and garnered an audience of 20 million viewers.
The Bakkers also leveraged their PTL platform to launch many other projects, the most famous of which may be Heritage USA, a kind of Christian Disneyland that in the ’80s was one of America’s most popular vacation destinations. The park featured, among other things, a 12-acre waterpark and a recreation of the Upper Room (where Jesus had his last supper before his crucifixion). At the time, the park was 10 times larger than California’s Disneyland and 20 times larger than Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, according to Religion & Politics. The Bakkers envisioned it as a pilgrimage site.
When the allegations became public in 1987, fellow televangelist Jerry Falwell took over the Bakkers’ empire after Jim stepped down. Falwell was the founder of both the Moral Majority (with Pat Robertson) and Liberty University, and an architect of the then-new alliance between conservative Christians and the Republican Party. At the time, Falwell broadcasted his own sermons via the Liberty Broadcasting Network, which he claimed reached about 3 million people — a paltry number compared to PTL’s 20 million. It seems he saw an opportunity and offered to help Jim by taking over PTL briefly in March 1987.
The Bakkers always maintained that they believed Falwell’s control of PTL was temporary, but within a month, Falwell had barred Jim from returning as the organization’s head. He declared that the Bakkers’ lavish lifestyle and other illicit behavior (including allegations that Jim had made sexual advances toward men) made the couple unfit to return, and called Jim “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” Soon, the Bakkers were a joke, with Tammy Faye’s makeup, campy performances, penchant for excess, and supposed airheadedness often taking the brunt of it.