by Grant Wacker
Grant Wacker is associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 15, 1989, p. 1053. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
A review of Charles E. Shepard’s book recounting the rise and fall of Jim Bakker and PTL. The book is surprisingly objective though it fails to probe very deeply into the meaning of the PTL phenomenon.
Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry, by Charles E. Shepard. Atlantic Monthly Press, 635 pp., $22.95.
"Jim and Tammy are a tad flamboyant."
-- Jim Bakker, May 1987
[PTL is] probably the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity." -- Jerry Falwell, October 1987
"We were so caught up in God’s work that we forgot about God." -- Richard Dortsch, March 1988
I should lay my cards on the table. I never cared much for Jim Bakker. His antics seemed to make a mockery of Christianity in general and of the Pentecostal tradition in particular. When he was tried in Charlotte, North Carolina, in August on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy, I judged him guilty long before the jury had, and when Judge Bob Potter gave him 45 years in prison and a half-million-dollar fine, my instinctive reaction was, good, he deserved it.
But after plowing through Charles E. Shepard’s Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry, I am no longer so sure that I properly appreciated the magnitude of Bakker’s accomplishments. Not that winning appreciation for Bakker was Shepard’s design. Indeed, as an investigative reporter for the Charlotte Observer, Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize last year for doggedly tracking down the evidence that eventually toppled the PTL empire. If there are any surprises in the book, they are only that the saga of sexual and financial chicanery goes back almost to the beginning of the PTL in the late 1970s, and that fundamental habits of greed, deception and manipulation trace back farther than that.
Born in 1940 in Muskegon, Michigan, Bakker was reared in a working-class family marked by hard work, little affection, and fervent Pentecostal religion. He dropped out of North Central Bible College after one and a half years to marry Tammy LaValley. The latter had grown up in International Falls, Minnesota, the oldest of eight children in a family so poor that they lacked an indoor bathroom. After several years of honing his skills on the evangelistic circuit in the South, Bakker was ordained by the Assemblies of God in 1964. Two years later the couple wound up with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network in Virginia Beach, where they launched the "700 Club" as a Johnny Carson -- style Christian talk show. But the CBN corral seems to have been too small for all concerned, so the Bakkers moved on to Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcast Network in Los Angeles in 1972. When that venue also proved confining, they moved to Charlotte, starting PTL in 1974. By the time it all came tumbling down, the PTL
Inspirational Network and Heritage Village in nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina, boasted 600,000 regular supporters, an annual income of $129 million, and physical assets approaching $100 million. What happened?
Bakker’s repeated sexual indiscretions with men, as well as his now-notorious "encounter" with Jessica Hahn, were of course part of the story. Shepard deals with those matters forthrightly but relatively briefly. While such circumspection is commendable, Shepard fails to see, I think, that it was the sexual more than the financial irregularities that decisively discredited Bakker among his Pentecostal and evangelical constituency.
Be that as it may, Shepard gives considerably more attention to the endlessly imaginative methods Bakker concocted for bilking the faithful. The one that proved most lucrative and, ultimately, contributed most to Bakker’s undoing was the Lifetime Partnership program, launched in 1983. The exact terms varied month to month, but the basic principle remained constant. For a substantial sum -- usually $1 ,000 -- contributors were guaranteed several nights lodging in the posh Heritage Grand Hotel or Heritage Towers (the latter was never built) , as well as other perks, each year for the rest of their lives. "New projects pay for old," became the watchword. And it worked. All told, some 114,000 followers paid nearly $170 million for the Lifetime partnerships -- a figure several times more than was needed to put up the hotels, and numbers far more than the hotels ever could have accommodated.
Besides the Big Swindle on the Partnerships, there were countless "little" indiscretions that regularly turned up among the PTL top brass. As Jim and Tammy pleaded with the faithful to give their all, Jim and Tammy did their best to spend their all: $25,000 for a face lift for Jim; $8,500 for an anniversary bash at a Charlotte restaurant; $10,000 for a shopping spree in New York; $100,000 for a whim-of-the-moment chartered flight to California; and on and on, all from PTL coffers. When it was over the IRS would claim that between 1981 and 1989 the Bakkers had received some $9 million in excess compensation from the tax-exempt organization.
Still, Shepard leaves little doubt that sex and money were but symptoms of the disease, fevers in the organism. The heart of the problem was Bakker himself. Arrogant, devious, mendacious, boyish and charming on-camera, rude and distant off-camera, Bakker surrounded himself with lieutenants who had been successful in the outside world but who became strangely compliant when they walked into Bakker’s own rather small shadow. Yet there was more. Bakker knew how to milk the assumptions of his Pentecostal constituency for all they were worth -- and then some. When challenged, he became God’s prophet with God’s mandate for the hour. Doubting Jim Bakker became equivalent to doubting God. Tearfully pleading for money for foreign missions projects (whose legitimacy no true-blue Pentecostal would dare question) became a ticket for more swimming pools and tennis courts at Heritage Village. And of course Bakker mastered the art of blaming others for anything that went wrong. When, following the Jessica Hahn expose in the spring of 1987, he was finally forced to resign from PTL, Bakker typically explained: "I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate."
While Bakker himself is by far the most important figure in Shepard’s drama, there are many other players. Some come across as bad guys, some as good guys, and more than a few as well-meaning idealists who somehow got themselves mired in the muck and just did not know how to get out. Pre-eminent among the first, and possibly more powerful than Bakker himself at the end, was Richard Dortsch. One of the 13 executive presbyters of the Assemblies of God, and in 1985 a top contender for general superintendent of that denomination, the silver-haired, silken-voiced Dortsch gave PTL credibility in the eyes of Assemblies of God leaders who were still not too sure about the propriety of watching TV, much less of waterslides. But Dortsch proved such a master at dissembling, both on and off camera, that "Dortsching" soon became a euphemism for skillful dishonesty.
On the other side of the ledger was the response of the denominational officials in Springfield, Missouri. Admittedly, they had been slow to acknowledge the manifestations of wrongdoing at PTL, which had been none too obscure since the early ‘80s. But once confronted with hard evidence, they responded swiftly, firmly and openly. And then there were the ordinary folk -- "the ladies who read the letters" -- who kept the place running with fierce loyalty and often at considerable personal sacrifice, even as the Bakkers and Dortsches and Taggert brothers found ever new ways to lavish the Lord’s money on themselves.
Shepard’s sorry tale is briskly told and vividly written. And given what must have been enormous temptations to get even after years of trench warfare between the Observer and PTL, the book is surprisingly objective -- although hardly impartial. Even so, a couple of problems merit noting. The first is that the volume is much longer than it needs to be. Shepard provides more detail about who-said-what-to-whom than, as the Bartles and Jaymes commercial has it, "decent folks need to know." Second, the book is just what the subtitle says it is about: the rise and fall of Jim Bakker and PTL. Shepard hardly can be faulted for writing on that precisely defined topic and nothing else. Yet one wishes that he had hazarded more extended reflections on what the Bakker saga tells us about the role of the prophet figure in the era of the satellite dish. Further, at the beginning Shepard promises that one of the more important questions the study will illumine is why so many believed in Bakker "so ardently, so long." He tosses out a few tantalizers here and there: Bakker prospered from the same cultural forces that enabled Reagan to build a presidency on style without substance; Bakker’s "full gospel" constituency was determined to believe that revelations of malfeasance were fabricated by a conspiracy of liberal media elites. But that is about all we get.
Maybe that is all that Bakker deserves. But I doubt it. Which brings me back to the suspicion, voiced at the outset, that the enormousness, if not enormity, of the PTL enterprise compels a certain grudging respect. How a small-town boy with little more than a high-school education and next to no business skill could persuade hundreds of thousands of believers to fork over more than a half-billion dollars surely places Bakker among the heavyweight hucksters of all time.
And that is the key point. Bakker was a huckster, not a charlatan. The judge and jury said otherwise, I realize. Yet I wonder if they realized to what extent Bakker offered countless small-town Pentecostal and evangelical Christians a taste of glitz, a taste of the good life they themselves were never able to afford, or if they were, never able to enjoy without feeling both out of place and more than a bit guilty. True enough, toward the end things got badly mixed up. But if PTL became more a resort for saints than a hospital for sinners, it would not be the first time -- nor the last -- that perfectionist Christians found out that the road to perfection is pitted with perils.