• U.S.

TV’s Unholy Row: The Scandal of Televangelism

20 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

— St. Paul in Ephesians 4: 1-3

Evangelical Protestantism, America’s great folk faith, is usually as plain and decent as a clapboard chapel, but on occasion it can turn as raucous and disorderly as a frontier camp meeting. Over the past two weeks sweet order has fled, seemingly overwhelmed by hot words and rackety confusion. Perhaps not since famed Pentecostalist Preacher Aimee Semple McPherson was accused of faking her own kidnaping in the Roaring Twenties has the nation witnessed a spectacle to compare with the lurid adultery-and-hush-money scandal that has forced a husband-and-wife team of televangelists, Jim and Tammy Bakker, to abandon their multimillion-dollar spiritual empire and seek luxurious refuge in Palm Springs, Calif.

By pure chance, the Bakker scandal — involving sex, greed and ministerial rivalries — has coincided with a controversy swirling about another televangelist. The Rev. Oral Roberts, operator of a TV ministry, university and medical center in Tulsa, had broadcast that God would “call Oral Roberts home” unless by March 31 believers came up with $4.5 million for missionary work. Many Christians, including some Roberts followers, were scandalized by what they perceived to be implicit spiritual blackmail. The Bakker-Roberts furor raised questions about the future of TV evangelism, a fast-growing, klieg-lighted mode of Christian proselytizing — and fund raising. Counting radio, the gospel broadcasters’ total receipts probably approach $2 billion a year. To critics as well as concerned believers, the industry often seems more concerned with bucks than Bibles, and with the personality cults more than the spirit of Christ. Captivated by the unholy row, newspaper-headline writers christened the improprieties Godscam, Godsgate, Heaven’sgate, Salvationgate, Pearlygate and Gospelgate.

The errant man of God has long been the butt of barroom jokes, a straying sheep of American novels (The Scarlet Letter, Elmer Gantry) and even of TV movies. Much like fictional characters, the gospel telecasters in the current imbroglio emerged during the week as role players in their own real-life soap opera. Among the participants and events:

— Jim Bakker, a Pentecostal preacher with bases in Charlotte, N.C., and Fort Mill, S.C., appeared on his TV network to explain why he had relinquished the reins of his $129 million-a-year PTL (for Praise the Lord or People That Love) empire. It was not because he had confessed to one afternoon of sin in 1980 with Jessica Hahn, a comely New York secretary who was then 21, he insisted. Instead, flanked by his forgiving wife Tammy Faye, Bakker said he had resigned to stop a “diabolical plot” for a rival evangelist’s takeover of his church, which includes not only the cable network but a glitzy theme park, Heritage USA.

— It quickly developed that the rival was the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, a fiery preacher from Baton Rouge, La., with a substantial U.S. television audience. Swaggart denied any interest in “stealing” PTL and said the Bakker scandal was a “cancer that needed to be excised from the body of Christ.” Swaggart did admit, however, that he had passed along rumors about Bakker’s illicit behavior to officials of the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal denomination in which both are clergy. Swaggart says yet more scandals are brewing. “I believe they will come out. But they won’t come from me.”

— A lesser-known TV preacher in New Orleans, Marvin Gorman, then sued Swaggart over another whistle-blowing incident. Gorman said Swaggart had lied by accusing him of repeated instances of adultery when, in fact, he was guilty ) of only one. That, said Gorman, was worth $90 million in damages. Responds Swaggart: “I think I’m more of a victim than anything else.”

— Oral Roberts was fasting in his Tulsa Prayer Tower, a 200-ft.-tall glass- and-steel spire on the Oral Roberts University campus, and still awaiting this week’s life-threatening deadline, despite a surprise stay of execution — a gift of $1.3 million from Jerry Collins, a short, gruff dog-track owner from Sarasota, Fla. (“It’s very seldom I ever go to church,” said the philanthropic Collins. “I help them all.”) Roberts, feeling perkier after the donation, proclaimed Bakker a “prophet of God,” who had been victimized by an “unholy trio of forces,” presumably referring to Swaggart, the Assemblies of God and the press. Their attack, said Roberts, was “unlike any in the history of the world to come against the body of Christ.”

— Leaders of the 2.1 million-member Assemblies of God emerged from a caucus at Springfield, Mo., headquarters to pronounce that there had been no takeover plot and no blackmail, but an apparent “moral failure,” which Bakker had covered up. The church investigation is continuing.

— Jerry Falwell, the Lynchburg, Va., politician-pastor, TV personality and university head, was firmly in control of PTL, having taken over the organization at Bakker’s behest. At an emergency meeting of the reconstituted PTL board at Heritage USA, Bakker’s No. 1 aide, the Rev. Richard Dortch, was installed as president of the organization.

— The very day of Dortch’s ascension, the Charlotte Observer, which first broke the news of Bakker’s dalliance, wrote that Dortch had helped negotiate a deal with Hahn. To buy her silence, the paper charged, PTL raised a package of $265,000 for Hahn and her advisers.

— Pat Robertson, the engaging entrepreneur of the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia Beach, Va., denied that the furor over his fellow TV religionists would harm his hopes of becoming a Republican candidate for President of the U.S., although there was hearty debate about its effects on his campaign. Referring to Bakker, Robertson said, “I think the Lord is housecleaning a little bit. I’m glad to see it happen.” Meanwhile, Robertson had other pressing business. He interrupted his campaign tours to give a deposition in his two libel suits, each for $35 million, against two politicians who said that his late father, Democratic Senator A. Willis Robertson of Virginia, had arranged to keep young Pat out of combat duty during the Korean War.

The key player in the early convolutions of the drama was Jim Bakker, the religious entrepreneur who reigned over the domain called Heritage USA. Nestled in the pine-carpeted piedmont just south of the border between North and South Carolina, Heritage is the third most popular theme park in the country (after the two Disney operations). It drew more than 6 million people last year to its 500-room hotel, 2,500-seat church, five-acre water park, and mock gable-fronted “Main Street USA,” an enclosed mall with 25 stores and a 650-seat cafeteria.

The heart of the operation is the PTL cable network, which reaches 13.5 million households over 171 stations and until last month featured the chatty Jim and Tammy Show. On the hourlong daily program, Jim continually pleaded — and sometimes Tammy wept through enormous fly-whisk eyelashes — for funds to support such new projects as a home for unwed mothers and Heritage USA’s $100 million re-creation of England’s 1851 Crystal Palace.

Bakker’s fall from this sugarplum land of his own creation began on a warm December day in 1980 at a hotel in Clearwater Beach, Fla. At the time, Jim and Tammy, although sunny on camera, were going through a chilly time offstage. According to some accounts, Evangelist John Wesley Fletcher arranged for Bakker to meet young Jessica Hahn, a secretary for the Full Gospel Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church in Massapequa, N.Y. According to Bakker’s official statement in resigning as head of PTL, the brief encounter was a setup: “I was wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friends and then colleagues who victimized me with the aid of a female confederate.” One friend, Jamie Buckingham, a well-known charismatic writer, told the Washington Post that Bakker “was very surprised that this gal was able to perform the way that she did . . . He described her as very professional for 21 years of age . . . She knew all the tricks of the trade.” Hahn indignantly told Long Island’s Newsday, “That was not my style, honest. I think it’s a ridiculous statement.”

Those on Hahn’s side portray her as a devout follower of Bakker’s who was spiritually and emotionally “shattered” by the tryst. Hahn told her pastor, the Rev. Gene Profeta, about the incident. Profeta consulted his friend Paul R. Roper, a business consultant in Anaheim, Calif., and self-appointed monitor of clergy skulduggery. John Stewart, a Christian broadcaster and teacher at ! the Simon Greenleaf School of Law in California, became Roper’s partner in the project. Hahn told Roper that Bakker had pressured her into sex. Roper says, “She was overwhelmed by being in the presence of this man ((Bakker)), who was second to God in her mind.” Roper said that Fletcher had given Hahn a glass of wine, and that at some time after, she had engaged in sex with Bakker for one hour. In a vivid if inelegant assessment of her plight, Roper disclosed, Hahn later said she felt like a “piece of hamburger somebody threw out into the street.”

Roper repeatedly notified PTL of Hahn’s story, and when no reply resulted, he and Stewart sent PTL officials a draft of a civil complaint on Hahn’s behalf, claiming emotional distress, as well as Hahn’s account of her Florida tryst. Within ten days that document got the attention of Dortch, an Assemblies of God minister who was installed as Bakker’s top administrator in the wake of press allegations of misuse of PTL moneys. Dortch met Roper in tony Newport Beach, Calif., in 1985 and soon hired as PTL’s representative Criminal Lawyer Howard Weitzman, whose clients have included ex-Motor Magnate John De Lorean.

On Feb. 27, at a meeting held in Weitzman’s office, PTL agreed to pay Hahn $115,000 immediately. Of that Hahn got $20,300, and the rest went to Roper and Stewart and for expenses. In addition, PTL established a $150,000 trust fund, with interest to be paid out monthly. In 1985 Hahn collected $10,046. Under the deal, if Hahn filed no lawsuit and kept quiet about the Bakker liaison for the next 20 years, she would receive the $150,000 as well.

As surely as word of King David’s liaison with Bathsheba eventually reached the prophet Nathan (II Samuel 11-12), the sordid little tale did not remain bottled up. Last September rumors reached the receptive ears of Revivalist Jimmy Swaggart. Swaggart’s source was an old friend, Fletcher, who had arranged the Clearwater rendezvous. Fletcher knew Profeta and Hahn, and had been defrocked by the Assemblies of God for alcohol problems.

Swaggart was not the most disinterested recipient of such news. Although something of an entrepreneur on his own, Swaggart had made no bones about his contempt for Bakker’s “Christian Disneyland”; what’s more, Bakker had taken Swaggart’s show off the PTL cable network. (Swaggart says the squabble was over time slots; PTL defenders insist Bakker wanted to eliminate Swaggart because of his sharp attacks on Roman Catholicism.)

Swaggart asked to meet with Bakker. Instead, Dortch flew to a Baton Rouge hotel to talk with Swaggart and two officials of the Assemblies of God. As Swaggart tells it, “I confronted Dortch about the Jessica Hahn thing. He flatly denied it. He lied to me.” Swaggart did nothing further until the February convention of National Religious Broadcasters, the trade association for radio-TV preachers. Swaggart was about to speak when the Rev. John Ankerberg, Southern Baptist proprietor of a weekly TV show, approached, knelt down and whispered to him that the Charlotte Observer was hot on the Bakker- Hahn story.

Shortly thereafter Swaggart alerted Assemblies of God leaders to the impending scandal. Then, on March 19, Bakker beat the Observer to the punch. He confessed to the newspaper his adultery and the payment of “blackmail,” quit PTL, and to the surprise of his followers handed control over to Jerry Falwell.

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.

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.

Whatever the fallout for American politics, the showy world of born-again broadcasting has surely been shaken. Falwell has gained a new audience but – finds himself saddled with additional responsibilities at a time when his own ministries have run into fiscal problems. A long-running battle with the city of Lynchburg, Va., to win property-tax exemption for his Liberty University is not yet won. Just a year ago Falwell had to lay off 225 employees at his Lynchburg offices because of high university expenses. His broadcast, the Old Time Gospel Hour, was temporarily canceled last week by cable superstation WTBS because of nonpayment of back bills, which a station spokeswoman said ran “well into six figures.”

Some analysts see Falwell’s PTL maneuver as a masterstroke to forge a new alliance between two Protestant forces that have had little to do with each other — Fundamentalism and the Pentecostal-charisma tic movement. But during an appearance in Cocoa Beach, Fla., last week, Falwell said he had another reason for acting: “If Heritage Village were to go down the tubes, it would affect every Christian person in America.”

Observers of Evangelicalism predict that, in the short run at least, PTL supporters will rally around their beleaguered organization. The TV ministries like PTL occupy powerful positions because they meet the spiritual and emotional needs of millions of viewers. Indeed, loyal fans of the Bakkers reacted with surprising equanimity to the couple’s disappearance. Ron Olguin, manager of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County and a daily viewer of religious TV, contributes upwards of $10,000 a year to televangelists. He is irritated by all the criticism of the Bakkers. “These people have done a lot of good in their lives,” he says. I. Delbert Rose, an Idaho freight salesman, is not bothered by the lavish life-style that the Robertses and the Bakkers are said to enjoy. To him, “their rewards should be great, because they’ve done great things for the Lord.”

Talk about television always gets down to money. The TV preachers have a voracious need for cash in order to stay on the air, and they have been stubbornly unwilling to report what they do with all the donations they receive. Evangelical Theologian Carl F.H. Henry predicts a “growing pressure for public financial accountability from all religious broadcasters who solicit funds over the airwaves . . . The personal life-styles of those who appeal for sacrificial support will also come under more scrutiny by the churches and by a skeptical society.” To Presbyterian Minister Ben Haden of Chattanooga, Tenn., a pastor and radio-TV speaker, such changes will be good for evangelism: “The No. 1 stumbling block to the unbeliever about the Christian faith is not the Cross or the Second Coming or the Virgin Birth. It is the money angle.”

To date, however, efforts at self-policing in gospel TV have failed miserably. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability of Washington monitors the ethical performance of agencies independent of church control and gives them a seal of approval. But its leader, the Rev. Arthur Borden, admits that loss of such accreditation has no impact on an agency. Of the biggest TV evangelists, only Billy Graham, who does not have a weekly series, is a member in good standing. The National Religious Broadcasters, to which most of the big operations belong, is toughening its ethical code and creating a voluntary agency to accredit broadcasters’ ethics.

The need for such measures is an obvious indication of how far the independent entrepreneurs of television-based conglomerates have strayed from ordinary church life. The local Protestant congregation, observes Church Historian Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, “has to account for every penny it takes in. The treasurer lives next door to you. You all get to vote on the budget.” By contrast, many televangelists are accountable only to themselves and to cozy boards of admirers.

Will the current furor weaken the evangelical movement, which has gained enormous impact and visibility over the past two decades? Sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia thinks not. “It is very much a populist movement that derives its strength from the vision of reality it holds and an expansive set of institutions which sustain that vision,” he observes. “The TV ministry is a small part of this. A visible part, but a small part.”

The Rev. Billy Melvin, executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, argues that his movement — media portrayals to the contrary — consists not of star preachers but of tens of thousands of churches across the country that “plug in, day in and day out.” Perhaps last week’s theatrics provide a useful reminder that the heart of Evangelicalism can never be found on the artificial “Main Street USA” of a theme park but only on the many real Main Streets, however simple and unglamorous, that traverse America.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com