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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Important questions hover over new PTL President Dortch, who may face action by the Assemblies of God for his part in the Bakker scandal. According to Roper, Dortch was more deeply involved than Bakker in arranging the payments to Hahn. Falwell offered no enlightenment last week on whether the $265,000 hush money had come from contributions to PTL ministries, but he said an audit committee would go to work on it. That word came at a PTL headquarters press conference, at which Falwell handed out financial reports showing that PTL revenues exceeded expenses by $19.8 million in the year ending last May. He also said he had arranged a $50 million loan from unspecified sources in Britain.

In addition, Falwell said Founders Jim and Tammy would continue "indefinitely" to receive their salaries, though he said he did not know the amount. In recent years, says the Observer, the couple has amassed $700,000 worth of real estate and luxury cars, including a $404,000 home now up for sale in Palm Desert, Calif. Last week they were in residence at a borrowed Palm Springs mansion, while Tammy continued outpatient treatment at the Betty Ford Center for addiction to prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The loss of their ministry, said Tammy, has hit them very hard. "Jim and I are both very sad," she said. "We're hurting."

At PTL worship services and TV shows, it was almost business as usual last week, even though Dortch turned out to be an awkward, stiff emcee who will have a rough time holding the Bakker audience. In his first outing at the 2,000-member Heritage Village Church after Bakker's departure, Dortch said, "We'll all have to dig a little deeper."

As the Falwell era at PTL began, the latest episode of the Oral Roberts story neared its conclusion. It was on Bakker's show that Roberts said he needed only $1.3 million to reach his death-preventing money goal by the end of March. That apparently inspired a gift for precisely that amount last week from Collins, owner of two Florida dog-racing tracks with $50 million last year in gambling proceeds. Evangelicals consider gambling a sin, and the racetrack connection upset some old-time Roberts supporters.

Collins remarked to reporters that Roberts "doesn't have to commit hara- kiri now" but allowed that he could probably make do with some "psychiatric treatment." Even though the gift met the divinely ordained total that Roberts had announced, he continued his fast in the Prayer Tower and asked his flock for more cash. Roberts' performance caused Swaggart to lament, "The gospel of Jesus Christ has never sunk to such a level."

The biggest of the big-time Christian TV entrepreneurs, Pat Robertson, was uninvolved in the Bakker scandal. Nonetheless, after the incident became public, a survey for Robertson noted a slight dip in his standing as a potential candidate. In polls he has been running at a flat 6% to 8%, trailing George Bush, Robert Dole and Jack Kemp. The gospel TV controversy does nothing to help Robertson, and appears quite likely to increase nationwide skepticism about Christian telecasters and weaken Robertson's appeal.

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