‘The Eyes of Tammy Faye’ movie: Televangelist sex, drugs, and holy rollin’

By Rusty Wright

The 1980s PTL televangelist scandal became a global soap opera, complete with corporate intrigue, Jesus-praisin’ power struggles, big bucks, betrayal, sex, tears, and mascara…plenty of mascara.  The Eyes of Tammy Faye interprets Jim and Tammy Bakker’s saga for new generations, providing valuable life-lesson reminders.

Oscar® nominees Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge, The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help) play televangelist spouses Jim and Tammy in the Searchlight Pictures biopic now in US theaters and opening on various dates on four continents.

Dazzling PTL empire

A bit fuzzy on the PTL (“Praise the Lord”) universe?  A refresher:  Once upon a time, an enthusiastic, God-loving couple – the Bakkers – established a television ministry (PTL) which became an international satellite network with millions of viewers, millions in donations, plus a popular theme park (“Heritage USA”) with a hotel, water park, and campground.

By some standards, the operation was quite lavish.  The main hotel was five-star and opulent with exquisite decor.  The company chauffeured guests in a white limousine; executives used a private jet.  The Bakkers owned an air-conditioned doghouse (perhaps for hubby at times?).  The Charlotte Observer kept sniffing for corruption and ran critical stories.

Wag the dog

The Bakkers’ marriage suffered.  “We began to lead separate lives,” Tammy later reflected. “Jim was so busy raising money to build buildings, and he forgot his family.  And we were left in the dust….”

“The tail began to wag the dog,” Jim remembered of fundraising struggles.  Tammy used anti-anxiety drug Ativan to excess, hallucinated, and received drug-addiction treatment.

Jim had a sexual tryst with church secretary Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel.  PTL leaders laundered her hush money through the ministry’s builder, covering up the scandal.  Many of these top leaders enjoyed privilege, esteem, comfort and wealth from their roles in the successful ministry.

Global soap opera

Fearing imminent exposure, Jim in 1987 confessed publicly to his sexual indiscretion and handed PTL’s reins to Jerry Falwell, Sr.  The ensuing turmoil and legal morass saw Jim and his vice president serve prison sentences for fraud (overselling timeshares).  PTL’s builder and his wife divorced.  Tammy divorced Jim and married the builder.

Jessica Hahn had plastic surgery and posed nude for Playboy.  The Observer won a Pulitzer Prize.  Jim wrote a confessional book, I Was Wrong.  His VP confessed his ethical misconduct and began a ministry to leaders in crisis.  Tammy, who became an LGBTQ ally, died of cancer in 2007.

A pretty safe prayer

Disclosure: My interest in this narrative is both professional and personal.  I was a bit player in the PTL scandal, one of the good guys, seeking to facilitate mediation between Jim Bakker/PTL and Charlotte Observer owner Knight-Ridder.  One 1986 morning, my wife saw Jim excoriate on TV Knight-Ridder’s chairman, my longtime personal friend.  She suggested I help mediate this dispute.  I was reluctant to touch it.

We decided I should pray that if God wanted me involved, I would run into Bakker on an airplane.  That seemed to me a pretty safe prayer.

The next plane I boarded, there were Jim and Tammy.  Discussions ensued, plus a visit to Heritage USA and extended negotiations to host Jim at Knight-Ridder’s Miami headquarters.  At the last minute, he backed out, citing a need to spend time with his son.  Jim’s extramarital dalliance was not yet public.  In retrospect, there were clues that perhaps he and PTL feared Knight-Ridder knew of the scandal, prompting cancellation.

True-life morality tale

The entire episode reemphasizes to me the importance of transparency, truth, and integrity.  As Moses, the great Jewish lawgiver, famously counseled, “Be sure that your sin will find you out.” Redemption and rehabilitation surely are possible.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a touching, entertaining reminder of this true-life morality tale.  Jessica Chastain’s portrayal especially made me feel Tammy’s hopes and hurts, desires, disappointments and despair.

Rated PG-13 (USA) “for sexual content and drug abuse.”

More Articles Like This