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

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-- It quickly developed that the rival was the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, a fiery preacher from Baton Rouge, La., with a substantial U.S. television audience. Swaggart denied any interest in "stealing" PTL and said the Bakker scandal was a "cancer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ." Swaggart did admit, however, that he had passed along rumors about Bakker's illicit behavior to officials of the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination in which both are clergy. Swaggart says yet more scandals are brewing. "I believe they will come out. But they won't come from me."

-- A lesser-known TV preacher in New Orleans, Marvin Gorman, then sued Swaggart over another whistle-blowing incident. Gorman said Swaggart had lied by accusing him of repeated instances of adultery when, in fact, he was guilty ) of only one. That, said Gorman, was worth $90 million in damages. Responds Swaggart: "I think I'm more of a victim than anything else."

-- Oral Roberts was fasting in his Tulsa Prayer Tower, a 200-ft.-tall glass- and-steel spire on the Oral Roberts University campus, and still awaiting this week's life-threatening deadline, despite a surprise stay of execution -- a gift of $1.3 million from Jerry Collins, a short, gruff dog-track owner from Sarasota, Fla. ("It's very seldom I ever go to church," said the philanthropic Collins. "I help them all.") Roberts, feeling perkier after the donation, proclaimed Bakker a "prophet of God," who had been victimized by an "unholy trio of forces," presumably referring to Swaggart, the Assemblies of God and the press. Their attack, said Roberts, was "unlike any in the history of the world to come against the body of Christ."

-- Leaders of the 2.1 million-member Assemblies of God emerged from a caucus at Springfield, Mo., headquarters to pronounce that there had been no takeover plot and no blackmail, but an apparent "moral failure," which Bakker had covered up. The church investigation is continuing.

-- Jerry Falwell, the Lynchburg, Va., politician-pastor, TV personality and university head, was firmly in control of PTL, having taken over the organization at Bakker's behest. At an emergency meeting of the reconstituted PTL board at Heritage USA, Bakker's No. 1 aide, the Rev. Richard Dortch, was installed as president of the organization.

-- The very day of Dortch's ascension, the Charlotte Observer, which first broke the news of Bakker's dalliance, wrote that Dortch had helped negotiate a deal with Hahn. To buy her silence, the paper charged, PTL raised a package of $265,000 for Hahn and her advisers.

-- Pat Robertson, the engaging entrepreneur of the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, Va., denied that the furor over his fellow TV religionists would harm his hopes of becoming a Republican candidate for President of the U.S., although there was hearty debate about its effects on his campaign. Referring to Bakker, Robertson said, "I think the Lord is housecleaning a little bit. I'm glad to see it happen." Meanwhile, Robertson had other pressing business. He interrupted his campaign tours to give a deposition in his two libel suits, each for $35 million, against two politicians who said that his late father, Democratic Senator A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, had arranged to keep young Pat out of combat duty during the Korean War.

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