Tammy Faye: a fundamentalist of a different kind.
Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker were the first couple of televangelism. They ran the PTL Network and built a multimillion dollar religious empire than came crashing around their feet in scandal. In the crash they lost virtually everything they had. Jim Bakker went to prison and Tammy Faye lost her marriage. In recent years she remarried an associate of the ministry, Roe Messner. On Friday morning Tammy Faye Bakker died of cancer.
On Thursday night she appeared, via satellite, on the Larry King Show. I must say that anyone who saw any of that appearance would have been shocked and horrified at her condition. The cancer had spread throughout her body and she was a walking skeleton.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a strong critic of American fundamentalism. But for the record I will say that the major criticisms I have of fundamentalism today did not apply to the Bakkers. Although I do not share any of their beliefs in the supernatural, the Bakkers were the major exception to the rule. Where other televangelists and fundamentalist leaders were intolerant, bigoted, mean-spirited, cruel, vindictive and theocratic, the Bakkers never seemed to be any of those things.
I first started writing about the dangers of fundamentalism in the late 1970s, well before it developed into the creature it has become today. I followed all the major figures in American fundamentalism (and fundamentalism is largely an American phenomenon). Over the years I met many of the people I criticized: Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, for instance. I never had a chance to meet either Jim or Tammy Faye. So I only watched them from afar, but they were different. That is not to say I thought they were right, only that they were different.
While the other prominent fundamentalists were damning and condemning people systematically and viciously from the pulpit Tammy Faye and Jim avoided this. When AIDS struck and the others used it as an excuse to smear and degrade the gay community, the Bakkers talked about the disease, not about those inflicted with it. I cannot think of a major fundamentalist preacher who followed a similar tactic.
Nor were the Bakkers seeking political power over others. When the power-hungry forces of fundamentalism were storming the capitol seeking legislation to impose their will on the American people, the Bakkers were noticeably absent. If they had theocratic tendencies, they kept them well-hidden.
The world they had built for themselves came crashing down around them. Jim Bakker was caught in an affair with a church secretary, Jessica Hahn, who was, in my opinion, blackmailing him for cash to keep silent. She was no minor, but an adult who knew what she was doing. And since Bakker never spent much time attacking the peccadilloes of others, I took no comfort in his humiliation. That scandal was engineered by competing Assemblies of God evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, ever the hypocrite and theocrat that he was. Swaggart later was caught visiting prostitutes himself.
The federal government went after Bakker for over-selling time shares at his resort. When airlines over-book it is legal, but they claimed that for Bakker, this was fraudulent. I don’t remember them actually showing one person who was defrauded; that is, who didn’t get the time share they paid for until the government stepped in. My impression was that Bakker was being falsely victimized by the state because he was a high profile figure, and the bureaucrats love to prosecute the famous to put the fear of the government in the hearts of masses.
After Swaggart’s manipulation of events, Bakker turned to Jerry Falwell for help. He handed his empire to Falwell for safe keeping until he could clean up the mess he was in. But Falwell quickly stabbed Bakker in the back. Why Bakker thought Falwell could be trusted was something I never understood. After Falwell had control of the ministry, he openly attacked Bakker as “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” If the vile actions of Falwell and Swaggart weren’t enough, the IRS retroactively stripped the ministry of it’s tax exemption and then placed financial leans against the Bakkers for back taxes. If it isn’t one vampire, it’s the other.
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Video: This video shows some of the ways that Falwell was dishonest and vicious in his dealings with the Bakkers.
Tammy Faye broke with many fundamentalists though she kept her faith. She says that during her crisis she found support in an usual place. “When I went... when we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.” Tammy Faye explained that her relationship with the gay community began in earnest during the days immediately following the downfall of the Bakker ministry. “When my husband was in prison and I wasn’t getting any presents for Christmas, it was the gay community that gathered around me and saw that. They gave me beautiful bathrobes with my initials on; they gave beautiful leopard hangers and leopard shoe bags. And I had the most awesome Christmas I’ve ever had. ...they cared about me more than the Christians cared about me, and that says something to me right there.”
The New York Times reports that in response, Tammy Faye “began attending gay pride events, and in 1996, she became the co-host of a syndicated television talk show with Jim J. Bullock, an openly gay actor.” Tammy Faye says she attended at least a half dozen gay pride events, maybe ten in total. She said the response was: “Overwhelming love from everyone. Both ways. I love them and they love me. It’s just unbelievable. I’ve never felt such warmth in a group of people. That’s the truth.” She said that the gay communities “treat me like I’m family and that means more to me than anything could ever possibly mean.”
Bakker says she and her husband saw things differently than other Christians. She was the first Christian host “to have a gay man on my show. And so I think they remember that. They knew that we accepted them. Many of them watched PTL because they felt accepted by us and they were accepted by us. PTL loved everyone. We didn’t turn anyone away. And I think the gays appreciated that. We accepted the gay community when most religious elements did not.”
Her son, Jay Bakker, who pastors a church in New York City, said that during her last days, when it was well known Tammy Faye was dying, prominent Christian leaders were more concerned that Jay’s church was “gay affirming” than that his mother was dying. He said that no one was asking him about his mother or even asking if there was something they could do to help during those trying times. Instead they were only interested in telling him why they no longer wanted him to preach for them because he refused to reject homosexuals.
If more fundamentalists were like the Bakkers, the culture war would be a thing of the past. While I have no inclination toward their faith, I respect their decency. It is a tragedy that Tammy Faye suffered the way she did and died the way she did. And this non-believer is sorry she’s gone.
Clarification: the term "fundamentalist" has two meanings. One is a theological meaning based on the series of books The Fundamentals that appeared almost ninety years ago. The second meaning describes a temperament of intolerance. The second meaning came about because people who were fundamentalists, in the original sense of the word, were also intolerant. So when I use the word fundamentalist here it is the original sense of the world only.