Three decades ago, the collapse of PTL was front page news around the country. Now it’s the subject of a book from John Wigger, a history professor from the University of Missouri whose specialty is American religious and cultural history.
His “PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s Evangelical Empire” was published last year by Oxford University Press. The Observer spoke with Wigger about the Bakkers and PTL. Here’s some of what he said:
Q. What surprised you in doing your interviews and research?
A. How fast PTL grew and how quickly it fell apart. What I really wanted to know was how PTL’s rise and fall were connected. How does deep religious devotion become so entwined with money, sex, and celebrity on a Hollywood scale? PTL was built on innovation — the Christian talk show, the first private satellite network, the theme park, Heritage USA — but at the same time there was a lot of dysfunction behind the scenes.
Q. Tammy Faye was never indicted. What did she know?
A. I sat down with one of the federal prosecutors and asked him that very question. Why didn’t you indict Tammy? He just laughed and said, “We were convinced that they didn’t tell her anything because they knew she wouldn’t keep it to herself.” They became convinced that Jim and his staff hid the financial details from Tammy. I think that’s mostly true.
On the other hand, most PTL people told me that Tammy was smart, that she hid behind this ditzy persona in the same way she hid behind her makeup. And if you’re a smart person and you’re spending all this money and seeing all this happen, you either had to willingly not think about it or you had to accept that not everything was above board. I don’t see how you could be part of that and not realize what was going on.
Q. Were the Bakkers and PTL very much about what America was going through in the 1980s?
A. That’s exactly right. Bakker picked up on things he could use in the culture of the ’80s. Things that gave him opportunities: The glitz, the big hair and the big money of the ’80s. When people came to him and said, ‘Jim, why are you driving a Chevy? You should be driving a Rolls Royce,’ it was easy for him to say, ‘Yeah, I should.’ Bakker and those closest to him at the end were not sufficiently grounded in their own faith to resist the darker impulses they rubbed up against.