In this third decade of the 21st century, we’ve seen a lot of religious scandals, with Christian leaders abusing their power and position. Too many. Nevertheless, still to this day when you say the words religious scandal—more often than not folks will think of two television personalities of the 1970s and ’80s: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
The “Jim and Tammy” show was the basis of what became a massive ministry and theme park in Fort Mill, South Carolina. It was called PTL, an abbreviation that stood both for Praise the Lord and for People That Love. Then came revelations that PTL had been massively and illegally misusing funds, diverting church funds to pay for their extravagant lifestyle and selling more lifetime vacations at the theme park than the theme park could possibly support. At about the same time, The Charlotte Observer also revealed that Jim Bakker had been engaging in extramarital sex and that ministry funds had been used for hush money. The Assemblies of God kicked them out of the denomination. Jim Bakker went to jail.
During Jim’s imprisonment, the couple divorced. Tammy Faye, meanwhile, became a kind of campy celebrity, appearing in a VH1 reality TV show, hosting a syndicated talk show, and becoming a kind of gay icon. In the year 2000, seven years before her death, a documentary came out called The Eyes of Tammy Faye, narrated by drag queen superstar RuPaul.
Last week, a biopic based on that documentary came out with the same title: The Eyes of Tammy Faye. It’s directed by Michael Showalter, stars Jessica Chastain, and is getting a fair bit of buzz for its highly sympathetic portrayal of Tammy Faye as a misunderstood and maligned Christian woman.
Christianity Today’s Ted Olsen and Kate Shellnutt talked about Tammy Faye’s enduring appeal with Leah Payne, associate professor of theology at George Fox University and Portland Seminary. She is author of Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism, is working on a book on CCM for Oxford University Press and cohosts the Weird Religion podcast.
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Music by Sweeps.
Quick to Listen was produced this week by Ted Olsen and Matt Linder.
The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu.
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #282
You’re a scholar who has studied how Pentecostal women are treated and approached and you're someone who likes and studies, eccentric, pop culture, Christianity. Are you tired of talking about Tammy Faye? Is she oversized in the popular imagination these days?
Leah Payne: I'm the wrong person to ask because I would never be tired of talking about Tammy ever, probably in my life. I think that it's fascinating to watch her pop-up again, through this film and the advocacy of the film star, Jessica Chastain.
It's a very sympathetic portrayal of Tammy Faye Bakker and then Messner. I think she considers herself a strong advocate for her, but no I am never tired. In general, in religion stuff, the weirder, the better as far as I'm concerned. I’m happy.
How different was Tammy Faye to the general caricature of a Pentecostal woman leader? In what ways do you see similarities between Tammy Faye Bakker and other celebrity Pentecostal women leaders. Is it important for us to differentiate Tammy Faye?
Leah Payne: I would say that in my estimation celebrity and American Christianity, at least historically speaking, tend to go hand in hand. From the get-go, even before the United States was a thing, there have been these big, larger-than-life celebrity preachers.
Often as what happens with celebrity figures, they are in some way involved with scandals, many times its money and sex. The women are not in any way an exception to that. So, Tammy Faye was involved in money and sex scandals, and that is certainly a common thing. Aimee Semple McPherson is a well-known example, but we could probably make a long list of figures like that. In terms of her status as a Pentecostal woman, in Pentecostal communities, at least historically, there've been a couple of different strategies that women have employed to be accepted and to have authority in their congregations. One model is of a very modest non-glamorous vision of being a woman leader. Another model is an ultra-glam version of being a woman leader. In the early days of Pentecostalism, there was a woman named Mariah Woodworth-Etter, part of the holiness people, which is like a predecessor to contemporary Pentecostal Christianity. She adhered to what we would think of as called holiness code so she would wear very modest clothes, covering everything all the way down to your wrists and your ankles and your neck. No jewelry, no makeup, because that in some way a way of demonstrating that she had inner holiness, that God had done something in her that was giving her the gift of spiritual authority and leadership.
So that's one way of doing things. Aimee Semple McPherson famously upended that model and went ultra-glam and embodied a certain kind of glamorous womanliness. She was based in Hollywood so that makes sense, or at least in Southern California. Tammy Faye Bakker, then Messner is a great example of that. Kathryn Kuhlman is another example. In some ways, I think it's just what came naturally to these women, and it’s also in some ways a deliberate strategy to be accepted as someone who could speak to you about the things of God, which even in Pentecostal and charismatic circles, that is not all that common, even though many charismatics and Pentecostals will celebrate that they are accepting of women. They're more exceptions than they are rules in most communities. So, I think that Tammy Faye is an example that has been repeated many times in Pentecostal and charismatic communities.
Is that still a division between ongoing the holiness side of charismatics and the abundant lifestyle charismatics? Are those divisions still as active?
Leah Payne: Yeah. A friend of mine, a historian named Andrea Johnson and I are working on a book chapter where we talk about that. I think that there are still some distinctions. In some cases, it is theological. Trinitarian Pentecostals, which are the larger group, tend to be more toward adaptation to whatever is going on in the mainstream culture. Tammy Faye was from an Assemblies of God background, that's a Trinitarian, the largest group of mainstream, historically white Pentecostals. Some groups do that. If you look at non-Trinitarian or also called oneness Pentecostals and charismatics, they tend to still embrace those modesty codes.
The first group that broke the song “Way Maker” in the US was a group of Pentecostals from, I think it's from Alexandria, Virginia. They did a version of “Way Maker” that has millions of hits, but you can see the women who are singing “Way Maker” are very modestly dressed.
They don't have makeup, most of them have not cut their hair and so that's an example of women being quite well known and leading in their communities, but they are very buttoned-down or buttoned up.
You talked a little bit in your review about kind of the difference between Trinity Broadcast Network, Pat Robertson from the 700 Club, and then the formation of Praise The Lord (PTL) after the Bakkers made their way through all of those productions. You talked about them being Assemblies of God Pentecostals, what was different about how they were formed and what they brought to their show in comparison to some of the other televangelists' outlets that were out at the time?
Leah Payne: I think communities tend to hold on to whatever their theological and cultural DNA is even long after they leave their titles or their official names behind. Pat Robertson is a great example of someone who was Southern Baptist and eventually gave up that title. He is a character in the film, and he eventually identifies as a charismatic Baptist. But you can still see some typical traditional norms that we would associate with Southern Baptists. He's very conservatively dressed. He is not effusive or ultra emotive with his hand gestures or anything like that and still to this day, his talk show is newsy. So, you're not going to see a ton of improvisation. The format is pretty traditional and conservative in many ways. The Bakkers were something different. I think the one distinct thing is it's Jim and Tammy. They're a couple together. They are very casual with their audience, and you can see tons and tons of footage of Tammy Faye on YouTube, saying hilarious and very unscripted things.
So, the film portrays some of the tensions between the traditional Baptist approach to things, especially with Falwell, and then a little bit wilder, Pentecostal approach to things. The same is true with Swaggart who was very Pentecostal as well. There's crying, there's tons of music. BeBe and CeCe Winans were backup singers for the Bakkers back in the day. They were innovative and influential over time.
The Bakkers brought their Assemblies of Goddishness in and ultimately the more Baptist influenced, and the more Pentecostal influenced groups had to negotiate their relationship. If you Google the PTL story, you can see that it did not end peacefully between those groups.
With the unscripted nature and kind of casual conversations, I assume that that's part of what you mean when you've talked about Tammy Faye as one of the original creators of reality television. What do you think about her ministry, the Bakkers’ ministry and where do you see their influence in the trajectory of Christian TV and media today?
Leah Payne: I think one of the more obvious inheritors would have been Jan and Paul Crouch and the televangelist crews that are still producing TV right now. The Bakkers were innovators when it came to not just the kind of programming that they created, but also the kinds of media and the networks that they used, satellite and stuff like that.
You can see that they had an outsized global influence. They were people around the world who were getting messages from them when they weren't getting things from other well-known preachers in the US, international and outsized international influence. One of the things that I'm interested in is how the messaging has changed or influenced things.
Jim Bakker has a new spouse, and he has his show that is still going on and he's still in trouble with the law now and then for a lot of the same things that he was in trouble for in the 1980s. So, he's still going. But one of the things that your question reminded me of is it's hard to track these groups and it's not that easy to track their influence especially as media has diversified. So some people think that the Christian television that we see now is a dinosaur, it’s not that influential but I think if we look at how they have adapted to the times on new media platforms, I think they're still really shaping how a lot of people see the world.
Ted Olsen: Yeah, and how the world sees American Christianity in a lot of ways because when I was in Kenya and other places in Africa, TBN is all over the place there. It's one of the channels that you could tune into without a satellite. So, it's shaping global views of Christianity as much as it is shaping a number of people's views of the world.
Leah Payne: I think that Pentecostals and charismatics have made inroads in a couple of different ways in terms of becoming more mainstream in their ideas and frameworks for thinking and one is through those media networks, they were very skilled at making the most of those. The other is through music and the Bakkers were innovators on both of those fronts. So, I think you're right. Even if it is in the background, it's in some way shaping people's ideas about God and also about the world around them and their place in it.
Ted Olsen: One of the main things you always got from the Bakkers and that you've continued to get from Jim Bakker, and you got from Tammy Faye about the scandal was a persecution narrative. I think that has helped to tie together non-Pentecostal, non-charismatic, conservative Protestants with Pentecostals. It was what Timothy George and others have called that kind of a humanism of the trenches that has united what would have been very divergent Christians across the logical boundaries together and the cultural, political space.
Leah Payne: I think that this film is worth watching because it's a fun way to dramatize exactly what you just said, what would become the very conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention is happening in the background of the film, but those groups and Pentecostals were not friends in the early days.
Both groups made a lot out of that narrative toward each other, they would trade insults frequently in their publications and so what you see in the eighties is these groups agreeing to cooperate for political ends and their mutual benefit on media networks. One of the interesting things about the Bakkers and their downfall at PTL was they were also accusing Falwell of betraying them and was against them.
It is 2021 and this documentary came out 11 years ago. The relationship between conservative Protestants and the gay community was different, certainly very different from the heyday of PTL. What is the appeal in 2021 to Tammy Faye's story? Is it part of the popularity of reconsidering everything for example reconsidering women whose stories were dismissed during scandals? Is it part of the reassessment of the working class camp and skepticism about working-class heroines?
Leah Payne: I would say yes to everything that you said. My first book was about women Pentecostals in the early 20th century, which was the dawn of the mass media world in many ways that we live in now and I think there's no question that the women of that era, especially Pentecostal women preachers had a lot of people thinking they were strange. So, there's no question that they were treated unfairly on any objective measure. For example, Aimee Semple McPherson was tried for the misuse of public funds, and it was like the trial of the century and people brought up her sex life and all kinds of things. At the same time, a Baptist preacher was tried for literally shooting and killing a man in his office, an unarmed man, and did not get the same level of derogatory treatment. So, it's subjectively true that in those eras they weren't treated fairly.
I would add to your list Britney Spears. Also, in light of the #MeToo movement whereas the general public in some way, we should acknowledge where we weren't quite fair to them, but then I think she was very peculiar in a lot of ways, and she would be distinct now. So, I think she was just kind of an unusual woman. And so, I can't imagine an era when I wouldn't, now this could just be me because obviously, I like this kind of thing, but I can’t imagine an era where I wouldn't want to know more about her.
Tammy Faye emerged as a gay icon. How do you see that emphasis fitting into her life and ministry as a whole? What did it mean to Tammy Faye for her to love people and particularly to love someone who is gay?
Leah Payne: One of the things about both the documentary and the film is that it is very intent on getting her perspective on things. As a historian, I never like to psychologize. I try to go with what people have put out there. The film shows footage of what is now an iconic interview between Tammy Faye and the Rev. Steve Pieters.
It shows Tammy Faye's skill and the dynamic relationship that she had with her audience, that she was able to have this moment on her show while a lot of other stuff was going on because this was during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. There was just a ton of fear toward gay people especially because of AIDS. I'm not a film critic, and even though Jessica Chastain does an incredible job, there's no comparison between seeing it reenacted and then just experiencing it, watching footage of it.
I have to wonder if she was even fully aware of how extraordinary that moment was and what it would mean. The film shows that there are some big cultural differences between these televangelist networks, and I'm not sure that the Bakkers understood what folks like Falwell were trying to do with the medium. So, from my perspective, I don't know if she would even say that she was fully aware of all of the consequences and all of the meetings that were happening. From every account I've ever read, even from her very harsh critics, one of her talents was being in the moment with someone and just making that person feel like they’re the only person in the world.
It's something worth watching just to see her in action, if nothing else, and just to see the warmth that the two have for each other. For those of you who haven't seen it at the time the pastor, she's interviewing is too sick to come and be in the studio with her and so she interviews him on TV. He's just sitting in a big box and she's talking with him and there's still this very intense, emotional connection. So, I'm not sure if she was fully aware of the magnitude of what she was doing and her particular gift with people and also how that translated on TV. She had it.
Ted Olsen: There's a lack of kind of self-criticism and guarding herself in that interview. She asked questions that indicated she was truly present at that interview and trying to honestly figure out what it meant to be a gay man.
Leah Payne: Yeah. It partly feels like a public health announcement where she tells people not to be afraid to hug someone who has AIDS. It also feels like a mom who's talking to a son, and I think that that's what people found so confounding or charming about her, depending on where you fall on that.
To a lot of folks, she's not their cup of tea. At least the film depicts Falwell in particular as just being like, get this woman under control because she would say whatever. There are some pretty funny moments that they repeat where you could never get away with that on Christian TV now. But part of it speaks to uncharted territory.
The style and the very unscripted, outrageous things she would ask or say, you do not see that now as it's a little bit more of a polished look.
Ted Olsen: Yeah, there's something that I read in a book about her getting started with puppets and that she found in puppetry and in that foray into television, freedom to be unguarded.
It does get to that question of what is authenticity and naivete? Where did the reality begin and what's just over the top?
Leah Payne: It's interesting how different cultures of Christianity interpret Tammy Faye. I've never met one person who didn't know her personally who didn't think that she was just the nicest, most genuine person they'd ever met including people who were on staff at, at PTL.
Now the naivete is a really good and important question. You also spoke about class. She was open about the fact that she was raised in poverty, and she had a great time manipulating her appearance and whether or not that is a mask that's where I don't go into psychology territory because maybe she just liked a lot of makeup, she seems to talk about it a lot. I think she wore what suited her and it was not that uncommon to have a flamboyant female figure in charismatic and Pentecostal circles.
But the idea that you have this woman that is ultra emotional when they're talking about the Lord and very responsive to the Spirit and that I think every charismatic church has a church lady like that. A lot of the charismatics and Pentecostals were frustrated with her because at that time they wanted to be seen as mainstream and acceptable.
Christianity Today once published an article with Jack Hayford on it and they called it the gold standard of charismatic or Pentecostal, and I think that for many charismatics and Pentecostals, that was a really big deal because they saw the magazine founded in part by Billy Graham as making it on the broader evangelical scene.
So, I think she was seen as a stain on that and also Jim Bakker. I think they were a little bit embarrassed by her because they felt that she was not representing the best version of themselves in public, but other people just loved her. They thought that the tears were real and lots of people gave a lot of money to it.
Kate Shellnutt: Since we've done the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, whenever we talk about past failures, there's this instinct to want to learn from them. We want to acknowledge how past leaders had missteps and not do those things again, but when it comes to someone like Tammy Faye and the Bakkers, she's such an outlandish, extraordinary, exceptional figure that it is hard to relate to her or to see parallels in our lives to her ministry.
Do you think her story holds a lesson for the average evangelical, for people like you and me?
Leah Payne: I think she would say yes. She seemed pretty open about trying to be herself. One of the lessons that I appreciate about her was her enthusiasm for people. The documentary and the film get it that she's probably the kind of person that you could bring into any kind of room, and she would find some sort of way to show enthusiasm for the other people in her life. I think that's probably one of the things that gave her staying power even after all of the scandals.
One thing to think about, about the life and ministry of Tammy Faye and Jim is how those media networks still shape the way so many of us interpret the world, how those functioned, and how we relate to them.
Where we are listening to hours and hours of televangelists TV, maybe we should be thinking about what am I listening to? Maybe in a more in-depth way than just, this one is Christian, because one of the things that the film invites us to think about are different visions of what it means even to have a public expression of the Christian message.
For a normal person like me it invites us to think about that some of those big figures are not all saying the same thing even though they cooperate with each other, even if they blurb each other's books and go on each other's shows, they might not be articulating the same thing. Probably something that listeners are taking away from The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast for example is that there are a lot of folks who worked and cooperated quite frequently with Mark Driscoll, who may disavow many of the things that he said. So just because they're all smiling together, doesn't mean they're all creating the same kinds of theologies.
Kate Shellnutt: As we've moved into other media too, you mentioned music and I think of the outsize presence of Pentecostals and superstars and in Christian music now. I think of people at conferences and streaming all these platforms that you can apply the same lessons there too, about who we're looking to for teaching and entertainment.