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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Enter Norman Roy Grutman, a New York City lawyer who, incredibly, had represented Penthouse magazine against Falwell when the evangelist sued to prevent distribution of an issue containing an interview with him. In an additional twist, Grutman had also once been Falwell's lawyer in a libel case against Hustler. Now working for Bakker, Grutman declared that an unnamed evangelist had mounted an unfriendly "takeover" bid for PTL and threatened that if this preacher did not back off, "we're going to be compelled to show that there is smellier laundry in his hamper than the laundry he thought was in Rev. Bakker's." A mysterious allusion to people living in "glass churches" suggested that Grutman was slyly fingering Televangelist Robert Schuller of Garden Grove, Calif., and Crystal Cathedral fame. Grutman eventually confirmed that the mysterious plotter was not Schuller but Jimmy Swaggart.

Denying that there was any plot or that he coveted control of PTL, Swaggart said that in early March he and Ankerberg, along with Falwell and other televangelists, decided to send a letter to Bakker asking him to tell the truth and repent. Swaggart later wrote Ankerberg a letter asking that his name be kept off the letter. Apparently that letter leaked to Bakker, who interpreted it as a "takeover" bid by his rival.

Swaggart, in Los Angeles last week to launch a revival meeting, quickly challenged Grutman to reveal any dirty linen the lawyer might have "to the whole world." Grutman produced an article in Spin magazine reporting former employees' sometimes vague accusations that Swaggart had spent lavish sums on his family and had used donations for causes other than their original purposes.

Joining the attacks was Bakker's friend Oral Roberts, who warned without mentioning Swaggart by name that "Satan has put something in your heart that you're better than anybody else." At a Tennessee nightclub Swaggart's cousin, Rock 'n' Roller Jerry Lee Lewis, leaped to the defense: "Jimmy Swaggart don't have to lie about nothing." After some tensions, Falwell agreed that Swaggart had "no designs" on PTL.

But there were plenty of questions left about PTL's new administration. For starters, Falwell is a Baptist Fundamentalist opposed to the Pentecostal experiences that are central to many PTL supporters. Since a majority of Falwell's new board members are also non-Pentecostal, one tongues-speaking preacher in South Carolina launched a crusade to get Falwell out of PTL, calling his appointment an "abomination."

Like Falwell, the members of PTL's new board are no strangers to controversy. James Watt resigned as Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary after offending several minority groups, and was recently fired by a Native American tribe that claimed his work as its lawyer was inept. Evangelist Bailey Smith, while president of the Southern Baptist Convention, gained brief notoriety by declaring, "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." Retired Televangelist Rex Humbard was once rebuked by the Securities and Exchange Commission for selling unregistered securities, and was taken to task in the press for spending too much of his ministry's money on his family.

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