TV's Unholy Row: The Scandal of Televangelism

A sex-and-money scandal tarnishes electronic evangelism

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Bettmann / CORBIS

October 03, 1989: PTL founder Jim Bakker (left), his son, Jamie, (center) and wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, greet supporters as they leave federal court in Charlotte

Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

-- St. Paul in Ephesians 4: 1-3

Evangelical Protestantism, America's great folk faith, is usually as plain and decent as a clapboard chapel, but on occasion it can turn as raucous and disorderly as a frontier camp meeting. Over the past two weeks sweet order has fled, seemingly overwhelmed by hot words and rackety confusion. Perhaps not since famed Pentecostalist Preacher Aimee Semple McPherson was accused of faking her own kidnaping in the Roaring Twenties has the nation witnessed a spectacle to compare with the lurid adultery-and-hush-money scandal that has forced a husband-and-wife team of televangelists, Jim and Tammy Bakker, to abandon their multimillion-dollar spiritual empire and seek luxurious refuge in Palm Springs, Calif.

By pure chance, the Bakker scandal -- involving sex, greed and ministerial rivalries -- has coincided with a controversy swirling about another televangelist. The Rev. Oral Roberts, operator of a TV ministry, university and medical center in Tulsa, had broadcast that God would "call Oral Roberts home" unless by March 31 believers came up with $4.5 million for missionary work. Many Christians, including some Roberts followers, were scandalized by what they perceived to be implicit spiritual blackmail. The Bakker-Roberts furor raised questions about the future of TV evangelism, a fast-growing, klieg-lighted mode of Christian proselytizing -- and fund raising. Counting radio, the gospel broadcasters' total receipts probably approach $2 billion a year. To critics as well as concerned believers, the industry often seems more concerned with bucks than Bibles, and with the personality cults more than the spirit of Christ. Captivated by the unholy row, newspaper-headline writers christened the improprieties Godscam, Godsgate, Heaven'sgate, Salvationgate, Pearlygate and Gospelgate.

The errant man of God has long been the butt of barroom jokes, a straying sheep of American novels (The Scarlet Letter, Elmer Gantry) and even of TV movies. Much like fictional characters, the gospel telecasters in the current imbroglio emerged during the week as role players in their own real-life soap opera. Among the participants and events:

-- Jim Bakker, a Pentecostal preacher with bases in Charlotte, N.C., and Fort Mill, S.C., appeared on his TV network to explain why he had relinquished the reins of his $129 million-a-year PTL (for Praise the Lord or People That Love) empire. It was not because he had confessed to one afternoon of sin in 1980 with Jessica Hahn, a comely New York secretary who was then 21, he insisted. Instead, flanked by his forgiving wife Tammy Faye, Bakker said he had resigned to stop a "diabolical plot" for a rival evangelist's takeover of his church, which includes not only the cable network but a glitzy theme park, Heritage USA.

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