In PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford Univ., Aug.), Wigger explores how a warm and cozy talk show grew into a media behemoth, which then collapsed into scandal and sin.
What about PTL and the Bakkers in particular drew you to their story?
What I really wanted to know was how PTL’s rise and fall were connected. Jim and Tammy started the PTL network with half a dozen employees in a former furniture store in 1974. By 1986 PTL had annual revenues of $129 million, 2,500 employees, a 2,300-acre theme park, and a private satellite network that reached into 14 million homes in the U.S. Then it all came crashing down. In March 1987, Bakker resigned from PTL after his 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. Stories emerged about gay relationships and visits to prostitutes. By the end of the year, PTL was in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation. In 1989 Bakker was convicted of wire and mail fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Were the Bakkers a political family?
Jim Bakker claims that his support was key to Trump’s election. But Bakker’s political turn is relatively recent. Before the 1980 presidential election, Bakker visited with President Carter and Ronald Reagan but declined to endorse either candidate. I suspect that Bakker’s current interest in politics reflects where his audience is headed. It’s more marketing than conviction.
How do you see the relationship between the religious right and big business evolving?
Bakker and PTL made it big in the 1970s and 1980s through innovation. They created the warm and cozy Christian-talk-show concept, pioneered the first independent satellite network, and built a Christian Disneyland, something no one else had ever done before. Theologically, Bakker aligned himself with the prosperity gospel, which fit the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s. It was always more about cultural relevance than political orientation. I don’t see the link between religious innovation and popular culture going away anytime soon, though exactly where it is headed next is difficult to predict.
How was PTL different from other Christian networks?
From the start, PTL had a global perspective and was more open to putting women and black people on camera than the major networks. PTL programming was seen in 40 nations at its height. This reflects PTL’s Pentecostal heritage and surprised most reporters who showed up to cover the scandal in 1987. [Televangelist] Paula White’s recent appearance at the White House seems to tap into the same impulse [for theological diversity]. We tend to regard all theologically conservative groups as far-right fundamentalists, but in the case of PTL this just isn’t a very useful perspective.