Jim Bakker’s confessional I Was Wrong is a remarkable work in many respects, not least of which is the skill with which it is written. His earlier autobiography, Move That Mountain (1976), was a ghostwritten potboiler. I Was Wrong acknowledges the help of Ken Abraham, “who used his skills to craft this book.” (The last of his many thanks is “to my best friend who never left me…Jesus!”) However it was crafted, the book is Bakker’s solemn effort to tell the story of his sudden rise to be one of the nation’s most successful televangelists, and the sudden downfall in which he lost his ministry, his freedom, his self-respect, and his wife.
For readers unfamiliar with the sad soap opera of Jim and Tammy Faye, here is a quick rundown. The diminutive pair—she is four feet eleven, he five feet eight—met at North Central Bible School, in Minneapolis. Both came from strict Pentecostal homes in which life centered on church services. Pentecostals are evangelicals who take their name from the biblical account of the seventh Sunday after Easter, when the Holy Ghost descended on the Apostles. They believe that the gifts of Pentecost, such as instant faith healing and the power to speak in tongues, remain in effect today. In her 1978 autobiography, I Gotta Be Me, Tammy tells how she was born again at age ten when she responded to an altar call. “I lay on the floor for hours and spoke in an unknown language…. I was walking with Jesus.”
Jim proposed on their third date. Tammy, then eighteen, giggled throughout the ceremony. Because the Bible School banned student marriages the young newlyweds left to hit the road as traveling soul savers. Jim preached. Tammy played the piano and accordion and sang. In an effort to reach children with the gospel, Jim and Tammy began using puppets. Tammy had a tiny voice for animating Susie Moppet and a deep voice for Allie Alligator. Sunday school meetings tripled in attendance. Word of their popularity reached Pat Robertson, who invited them to do a children’s show on his fledgling Christian television station in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Jim and Tammy Show was a huge success.
In I Gotta Be Me Tammy says Jim worked so hard on their show that he had a mental breakdown. For a month he stayed in bed, Bible in hand, muttering, “Please God, don’t let me lose my mind.” Once recovered, Jim persuaded Robertson to let him start a show modeled on Johnny Carson’s. It became CBN’s 700 Club. Jim was host of the show for years before Pat began taking over every other night. Rifts between the two widened. “I loved him [Pat] with a real deep love of the Lord,” Tammy writes. “But at times he would do certain things…. I built up a terrible, terrible resentment in my heart against him.”
Pentecostals frequently hear, sometimes even see, the Lord speak to them in mysterious ways. Jim and Tammy liked to open the Bible at random and read the first verse they saw. Several times the Bible opened on Ezekiel 12:1-6 (“Prepare thy staff for removing”), which they interpreted to mean that God was telling them to leave CBN. For a brief time in California they were associated with televangelists Jan and Paul Crouch. It was there they started the PTL Club, which people could join by sending money. The letters stand for Praise the Lord, but detractors were soon calling it Pass the Loot. Quarreling broke out, especially between Tammy and Jan, and Jim and Tammy were back on the road.
The pair resumed broadcasting on behalf of the PTL Club from a small studio in Charlotte, North Carolina. Featuring famous actors and entertainers as guests, it quickly became the most widely watched Christian show on television. Jim proved to be a brilliant performer, not only at chatting with guests and creating a friendly mood but also at increasing the steady flow of donations. He would weep about PTL’s needs, and thousands of elderly ladies (it was said) would turn to cat food so they could send their dollars to the Lord. Testimonials of instant healings poured in as Jim would get what Pentecostals call the “word of knowledge”—insights from the Holy Spirit that enabled him to describe specific ailments of listeners.
As PTL’s many bank accounts grew by the millions, Jim’s dreams grew more grandiose. He hired Roe Messner, a devout Pentecostal church builder, to construct Heritage USA, a huge Christian theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina. By 1986 PTL was reaching over twelve million households by way of its satellite network. That was the year that bad publicity blasted Jim’s empire.
The Charlotte Observer, long an enemy of PTL, disclosed that seven years earlier Jim had committed adultery with a sultry gospel groupie named Jessica Hahn, then the secretary of a Pentecostal church in New York. She claimed she had been a virgin until Jim raped her. To keep her quiet, Bakker’s co-pastor Richard Dortch paid her $250,000. Later payments of hush money, all from PTL donations, brought the total to $363,700. Televangelists were outraged. One of the more prominent, John Ankerberg, joined the attack by accusing Jim of frequent homosexual episodes. Jimmy Swaggart called PTL “a cancer on the body of Christ.”
The US Department of Justice began looking more seriously into how PTL handled its funds. A grand jury indicted Bakker on twenty-four counts of fraud and conspiracy. He was accused of bilking his followers out of $158 million, from which $3.7 million went to maintain his and Tammy’s opulent style of life. The Bakkers owned several expensive vacation houses. They had a fleet of high-priced cars. Half a million went to buy and decorate a condo in Florida. Childish extravagances came to light. Jim once sent a security guard to buy $100 worth of cinnamon buns just so he and Tammy could smell them in their hotel suite. Not a bun was eaten. When clothing and other personal items were moved from Bakker’s parsonage in Tega City, South Carolina (the house burned down in 1990), the move was made in a private jet that cost PTL $105,000.
Jim asked Jerry Falwell, the Baptist fundamentalist who ran The Old Time Gospel Hour from his church in Lynchburg, Virginia, to take temporary custody of PTL. It was a bizarre request because Falwell has no use for Pentecostal doctrines and once described speaking in tongues as similar to the stomach rumblings of someone who ate too much pizza. His Moral Majority was much more concerned than the Bakkers to support the right wing of the Republican party on such matters as abortion and pornography. By comparison, the Bakkers are largely nonpolitical religious entertainers. At first Jim trusted Falwell, but he soon became convinced that Falwell’s secret motive was to have PTL declared bankrupt so he could purchase its valuable network. The bankruptcy occurred, but not the takeover. Heritage USA and Bakker’s Inspirational Satellite Network are now owned by California evangelist Morris Cerullo.
Jim’s trial lasted almost three years. A panic attack in court, during which he curled up in his chair, sent him for a time to a mental hospital. After Bakker pleaded innocent, the jury found him guilty on all twenty-four counts. Judge Robert Potter, known as “Maximum Bob” for his harsh sentences, gave Jim forty-five years in prison and fined him half a million dollars.
Reverend Dortch, after a plea bargain of guilty, was given eight years and fined $200,000. “I could not believe that I participated…in doing what I knew was wrong,” he said, as he wept in court and begged for mercy. “I failed my Master, failed my family, and failed myself.” He served only sixteen months. Since his release he has written three mea culpa books: Integrity: How I Lost It (1990); Losing It All and Finding Yourself (1993); and Fatal Conceit (1993).
Jim ended up in a federal prison in Rochester, Minnesota. Alan Dershowitz, hired by Roe Messner, managed to get Jim’s sentence reduced to eighteen years. It was later reduced to eight. After five years in prison Jim was out on parole. He settled in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where his lawyer Jim Toms lives. It was there in a rented farmhouse that he wrote I Was Wrong.
Tammy stood by her man until early in 1992 when she told him she planned to dump him and marry Roe Messner. Jim says he was devastated. In his book he describes Roe as a devout Pentecostal who became his “best friend”—aside from Jesus. He writes that he felt stabbed in the back. Reverend Dortch told People magazine in April 1992 that Roe “should hide his face in shame and put on sackcloth and ashes…. I have Christian contempt for Roe Messner, who took advantage of his so-called best friend’s wife.”
I Was Wrong is Jim’s grim account of his downfall, his life in prison, his frequent depressions, his feeling of being abandoned by both God and Tammy, and his final rebirth when he persuaded himself that imprisonment had been God’s plan all along to make him a better man. “I was wrong” occurs like a refrain throughout the volume, very much in the evangelical tradition of public penitence which can lead to public redemption. Bakker admits to many mistakes and sins, though not to any of the crimes for which he was sentenced. His greatest “wrong,” he says, was his excessively expensive and showy style of life.
American televangelists have long cherished what has been called the “prosperity gospel.” Oral Roberts likes to tell how he opened a Bible one day and his eyes fell on John 3:2: “Beloved, I wish all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” The verse had a tremendous effect on Oral. God does not want any of His children to be poor! “Seed faith” was Oral’s term for money given to his ministry. The more generous you are, he promised, the more money God will return.
It was not only Pentecostal evangelists who preached a “health and wealth” gospel, but also liberal “feel- good” ministers such as Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Harlem’s Reverend Ike. It was easy to rationalize their own conspicuous prosperity. Did it not prove to their flock how well seed faith works?
In one of his later chapters, Bakker reveals, with no hint of humor, that when he reread the gospels in prison he was dumbfounded to discover that Jesus hated the rich. “To my surprise, after months of studying Jesus, I concluded that He did not have one good thing to say about money.” Bakker ticks off the relevant passages: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth…” (Matthew 6:19). “But woe unto you that are rich…” (Luke 6:24). Jesus advises a wealthy young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. He said it was harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
Bakker writes that for years he taught that there was a low arch in Jerusalem called the “camel’s eye.” Camels had to kneel to pass under it, suggesting it was difficult but not impossible for the rich to be saved. Jim consulted references and found “not a shred” of reputable evidence for this conjecture. What about John 3:2? Bakker checked the original Greek. He was amazed to learn that the word translated as “prosper” had no reference to wealth. “I had to face the awful truth that I had been preaching false doctrine for years and hadn’t even known it!” He now feels he was wrong to flaunt his wealth. He no longer accepts Tammy’s frequent justification: “We were worth it.”
From the beginning Jim has viewed his brief fling with Jessica as a sin. It occurred, he writes, at a time when he and Tammy were at odds and she had turned to Gary Paxton, a long-haired country singer with a bushy dark beard who taught Tammy how to improve her voice, and who wrote gospel songs for her. Both Paxton and Tammy deny that sex was involved, but Bakker thought otherwise. He claims his affair with Jessica was intended to make Tammy jealous. Jessica, he writes, took the initiative. He was so ashamed that he never had the courage to tell Tammy about it, or about the hush money Dortch paid to keep Jessica from blabbing.
Tammy’s romance with Paxton was not the only time she strayed. On a later occasion she found another lover, PTL’s musical director Thurlow Spurr. Jim learned about it when he discovered in the garbage a love letter Tammy had written, then torn into tiny bits. It took Jim hours, he writes, to assemble the pieces. Like Paxton, Spurr was fired.
Bakker’s account of his years in prisontells of close friendships with inmates, of his loneliness, of his bouts of depression. His job was cleaning toilets, a task he didn’t mind because he knew they would be clean when he used them. He talked daily with Tammy by phone. He lifted weights in the gym. He took up painting in watercolors. Visits by Billy Graham and his son Franklin boosted his sagging self-esteem. He fended off attempted rape by an unnamed burly inmate. The man was eventually transferred to another prison, though not because of Bakker, who was faithful to prison ethics, and would not “snitch.”
For the first time Bakker reveals that as a child he had been repeatedly abused by a friendly young man without realizing that what he was doing was sexual. He wonders: Can I be a repressed homosexual? The prison doctor assures him he is not. In a candid passage he tells how inmates tried to teach him how not to walk like a girl or toss a ball like a girl. He had never handled a baseball as a boy. For a time his cellmate was Lyndon LaRouche, Jr., the eccentric right-wing political figure who was doing time for tax evasion and for swindling contributors of $30 million.
When I listened to George Bush give a televised convocation speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty College, and refer to Falwell as a dear friend, I assumed he was doing his best to curry favor with the religious right. After reading Bakker’s book I am now convinced that Bush wasn’t faking. Here is how Bakker reports a private conversation with Bush in 1986:
Consequently, I was not surprised when, shortly after our lunch began, the vice president brought up the subject of Christianity. I quickly realized that the future presidential candidate was interested in how he might make inroads with the evangelical Christian voters. In the presence of only his personal aide and my assistant, George Bush probed, “Jim, I believe in God, but I am just not comfortable with the term ‘born again.’ That is not a term we use in our church tradition.”
“Well, do you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God?” I asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that He was born of a virgin, and that He died on the cross for our sins? Do you accept Him as your Lord and Savior?” I asked the vice president.
“Yes, yes, I do,” George Bush replied.
“Well, that’s what being born again is all about.”
The vice president and I went on to talk about prayer, and he emphatically declared that a day never went by when he did not ask for God’s help and wisdom in dealing with his responsibilities.
There are glaring omissions in I Was Wrong. Bakker never mentions the lies he told his television audience. He said there was a strict limit on the number of PTL lifetime partnerships—for a thousand dollars a partner was guaranteed three nights free every year at Heritage Grand Hotel—when actually he was selling partnerships far beyond the luxury hotel’s capacity. Nor does Bakker mention the time he said tearfully that he and Tammy had given “every penny” of their life savings to PTL. A few days later he made a $6,000 down payment on a houseboat. Nor does he recall saying that copies of a statue of David and Goliath that he was offering to donors “might well be worth $1,000.” They cost PTL ten dollars each.
Bakker has nothing to say about Charles Shepard’s carefully documented 635-page history, Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of the PTL Ministry (1989). Shepard was the Charlotte Observer’s reporter who for years covered the PTL scandals and showed how much money Bakker was making. His articles won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Nor is there a trace in Bakker’s book of Art Harris’s interview (Penthouse, January 1989) with John Wesley Fletcher, a flamboyant Pentecostal Bible-thumper and faith healer who often appeared with Jim on PTL shows. An alcoholic, frequently in trouble with the law, he was the man who introduced Jim to Jessica.
“I was Jim Bakker’s male prostitute,” Fletcher told Harris. He described Jim as a bisexual who lusted after young male cameramen. On three occasions, Fletcher reported, he had had sex with Bakker.* Fletcher tells of catching Bakker in bed with David Taggart in a Bermuda hotel room. As Bakker’s top assistant, Taggart received an annual salary of over $400,000, not counting bonuses. He and his brother James, PTL’s interior decorator, were convicted in 1989 of evading more than half a million dollars in taxes. Each was sentenced to seventeen years in prison and fined half a million. Jim is silent about their arrests.
After Fletcher and others told their stories at a secret meeting of leaders of the Assembly of God, the large denomination to which Bakker and Dortch belonged, Bakker was defrocked for adultery and alleged bisexual activities. Jimmy Swaggart was later excommunicated by the same denomination for hankering after prostitutes.
Jessica lied, Fletcher told Harris, when she claimed to be a virgin raped by Bakker. He himself, he said, had slept with her earlier as well as immediately after she had slept with Jim. Jessica, by the way, was befriended by Hugh Hefner, owner of Playboy, who paid for plastic surgery on her breasts and face. She was featured nude in two issues of Playboy, one showing her before the surgical enhancements (November 1987), the other showing her after (September 1988).
Can Fletcher’s charges in Penthouse be trusted? We will probably never know for sure. Tammy branded them a “sick lie,” and in 1990 Fletcher was sentenced to three years probation for perjury in his testimony to a grand jury about Bakker’s liaison with Jessica Hahn. On June 2, 1996, The Globe tabloid ran a pitiful picture of Fletcher in a hospital bed and said he was dying of AIDS. The paper added, without producing any evidence, that he knew he was HIV positive when he had sex with both Jessica and Bakker.
Bakker speaks often in his book about Jim Toms, his Hendersonville Christian friend and attorney. For a while, after his release from prison, Bakker worked for Toms, and even painted the façade of Toms’s office building. Bakker fails to mention that in 1995 Toms confessed to having bilked more than $1 million from his clients. He has declared bankruptcy and been disbarred in North and South Carolina. When Bakker was interviewed by Hendersonville’s Times-News in October 1996 he had no comment on his lawyer except to say that Toms and his wife were “two of the finest people I have ever met.” On March 19, 1997, Jim Toms pleaded guilty in Hendersonville, North Carolina, to eighteen counts of embezzling $1.4 million from his former clients. “I have let down my clients, the bar, and the courts,” he told the judge. “Words cannot fully express my remorse for the wrongs I have done.” His sentence will be decided in May.
Bakker’s most emotional chapters are about his discovery that Tammy was leaving him. He prints many of her letters telling how much she loved him, and his equally passionate replies. To this day he insists he is still in love with her. He writes that after long prayerful struggle he has finally managed to forgive both Tammy and Roe Messner, as well as his three most bitter enemies, Ankerberg, Swaggart, and Falwell. He knows God has forgiven him for his sin with Jessica and for his lavish lifestyle.
The book closes: “I had once thought that God had abandoned me. I thought that my days of ministering for the Lord were done. I thought that I would never preach again. I was wrong.”
The preaching has already begun again. Among evangelicals, public repentance goes a long way to redeem the sinner, and a penitent preacher’s following may even be augmented as he presents the spectacle of a fallen man overcoming his sins. In March 1996 Jim was the “host” at two services at a church in Lakeland, Florida, whose pastor was his close friend Karl Strader. Strader’s son Daniel was sentenced two years earlier to forty-five years in prison for defrauding elderly residents of more than $3 million. Reverend Dortch has set up a legal defense fund.
Unlike her earlier autobiography, Tammy’s new book mentions no co-author, though her page of thanks opens with “I want to acknowledge above all the Lord Jesus Christ.” The book’s jacket, like the cover of I Gotta Be Me, is a photo of Tammy in her familiar heavy makeup. Comics have long made jokes about her false eyelashes, thick lipstick, and mascara. T-shirts smeared with paint were sold, with the legend “I ran into Tammy Faye in the mall.”
A few years ago Tammy toned down her makeup, saying she looked too much like Bozo the Clown, but the Bozo makeup is now back. It has become so well known a show-biz trademark that she can’t abandon it. She says she still wears it while she sleeps, and intends to be buried with it on.
Tammy’s new book covers much the same ground as her previous autobiography. There is much talk of sobbing, though not as frequent as in I Gotta Be Me, where she weeps on almost every page. She tells of occasions when Jim would lie face down on the floor and weep uncontrollably. Both he and Tammy like to describe sobs in triplicate. “I wept and wept and wept,” Jim writes, after learning that his wife of more than thirty years was leaving him. And on page 617 he writes that after hanging family pictures in his Hendersonville home, “I broke down and sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.”
When Jim and Tammy were guests on Nightline in 1987, it got the highest rating ever for a TV talk show. Ted Koppel begged them not to wrap themselves in Biblical quotations and spiritual admonitions, but Tammy, holding her pet dog Snuggles, closed the show by saying to listeners, “God loves you.” Koppel later told a reporter, “He’s a con man and she’s a con woman.”
Tammy’s book gains in interest when she reveals her many clashes with Jim throughout their stormy marriage. She had wanted a child. He did not. (They had a boy and a girl.) He became more obsessed with building Heritage USA than with her. For a while they separated and considered divorce. Amazingly, they joked about their quarrels on PTL shows, prompting a deluge of letters from viewers who were praying for their reconciliation.
Tammy only briefly mentions her addiction to over-the-counter and prescription drugs, including a strong tranquilizer. Jim recalls how she once awoke screaming, “There’s an elephant in the room.” On a plane trip to a Palm Springs medical center for treatment, Tammy hallucinated. She saw an orchestra playing and people dancing on the wings. She saw a cat on the wing. They had to restrain her from trying to open a door to get out. Tammy completed her detoxification at the Betty Ford Clinic.
Tammy has nothing good to say about Alan Dershowitz. She claims he attended Jim’s trial for only one day. “All I remember about Alan is his frequent calls to me in Orlando, and the threatening letters he wrote telling me he had to have the thousands of dollars we owed him for that one day he was there.” Tammy had no money. A friend finally gave her $25,000 to silence his demands. It was not as much as he wanted, but “enough to satisfy him for a while.” Dershowitz had every right to collect his fee, Tammy continues, “but it was one of the straws that helped break the camel’s back for me.”
Tammy is even harsher on Judge Potter, who sentenced fifty-year-old Jim to forty-five years. She describes him as openly scornful of Jim, once calling him in front of the jury a “little sawed-off runt.” During the trial, she writes, he would close his eyes as if asleep, and stick fingers in his ears when he didn’t want to hear something. “He would yawn and belch and wink at the jury.”
Tammy has lost none of her dislike for Pat Robertson. When Jim went to prison, Pat said Jim should serve every day of his sentence. “I thought this was an extremely cruel and cold-blooded thing to say. It wasn’t enough that Jim was buried; Robertson had to shovel more dirt on his grave.” When Tammy tried to get back into television she found doors closed in her face. An appeal to Oral Roberts and his son was never answered. Other televangelists refused to speak to her.
Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Television finally hired Tammy to do a slightly risqué talk show with actor-comedian Jim J. Bullock. When he told her he was gay, Tammy says, she replied: “When I look at people, I do not see gay or straight…. I see a person that God loves, and that His son Jesus died on the cross for. So who am I to judge?”
“The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show” ended, after what Tammy calls “sixty fun-filled shows,” when she discovered she had colon cancer. Tammy had been bleeding for a year, but relied on prayer rather than see a doctor. “I prayed for a miracle,” she told a reporter, “but God said no.” The Lord had earlier said no, Tammy wrote in IGotta Be Me, when she prayed for him to raise her pet dog Chi Chi from the dead.
The tumor has been successfully removed and the cancer is in remission. The Bakkers’ daughter, Tammy Sue, now married and with two children, lives near Jim. She is singing and preaching around the country. Jamie, their other child, had a difficult time getting over a period of smoking, boozing, and drug experimenting, but is now recovered and on his own as a youth minister. Roe has been indicted by a Wichita, Kansas, court for concealing $400,000 when he declared bankruptcy. He had lost millions when PTL went broke. Roe is now free on bond and appealing a jail sentence of twenty-seven months. The back jacket of Tammy’s book says that if you want to join the Tammy Faye Fan Club you can reach it through a post office box in Rancho Mirage, California, where she and Roe live.
Although both books are largely self-serving flimflam, there is not the slightest doubt that Jim and Tammy are sincere in their Pentecostal faith. They speak in tongues. God talks to them in their hearts and in their dreams. They believe in Satan, demons, eternal hell, and the impending return of Jesus. For them the Bible is God’s holy word, not open to doubt or cultural analysis. Both Jim and Tammy have rated high on IQ tests. Their religious opinions are not so much stupid as they are childish. Most of what they imagine to be their sins are trivial compared to a sin they are incapable of recognizing—the sin of willful ignorance.
Jim’s narrative bristles with references to books that gave him spiritual strength while he was in prison. Virtually all are by conservative Christians whose views are close to his own. I would be astonished to learn that Jim has ever read a book skeptical of fundamentalist Christianity. His and Tammy’s minds are untouched by knowledge of science or modern Biblical criticism. It may never occur to Jim that God was telling him all along to stop struggling to save souls, to get an education, and to work at an honest job.
The unsinkable Tammy Faye is today as happy, perky, and funny as ever. Although her book blasts the weekly supermarket tabloids (she calls them “rags”), when she married Roe she allowed The Globe, one of the worst scandal sheets, to cover the wedding. On the recent talk shows I’ve seen she giggles more than she sobs. After thanking Jim for saying he is still in love with her, she adds, “I must have done something right.”
—May 1, 1997
May 29, 1997
The actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., attributed his religious conversion to Fletcher’s persuasive urgings on “The Jan and Paul Crouch Show.” Zimbalist later became a member of PTL’s board of directors. Ex-Pentecostal minister Austin Miles, in his revealing book Don’t Call Me Brother: A Ringmaster’s Escape from the Pentecostal Church (Prometheus, 1989), recalls asking Zimbalist if he felt embarrassed when he learned of Fletcher’s homosexual relations with Bakker. “Not at all,” said the actor. “No matter what he turned out to be, I’ll always be grateful to him. It’s because of him that I’m a born-again Christian and know Christ.” ↩