Christian MediaEngaging Culture

My Thoughts on Tammy Faye

So many people have asked me to comment on the death of Tammy Faye Messner, former wife of Jim Bakker. I didn’t know Tammy well, but I met her and Jim on a few occasions, and I directed them in a segment for their TV network when she came to the City of Faith Hospital in Tulsa for a medical procedure in the 80’s. They wanted to send their greetings and a report on Tammy’s successful procedure back to their PTL Network audience, and asked me to film the segment.

In many ways, I view Tammy through a similar lens with Hillary Clinton – regardless of what you think of them, they both struggled with bad decisions by their husbands – the kind of stupid decisions that sometimes define your life. I’m particularly fascinated right now with iconic men and women who accomplish important things in their lives, while at the same time are surrounded by scandal, controversy, and regret.

I just finished reading the book Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America by Matthew Avery Sutton. (Great book by the way). Amiee’s story is remarkably similar in many ways, and while she founded an entire Christian denomination that’s done remarkable work around the world, her life was fueled by scandal and controversy. It seems in many ways the same drive it takes to accomplish something significant in this culture is a drive that’s difficult to control, and often leads to tragedy.

Tammy’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times was a good re-cap of her life, and I’d encourage you to read it. Today, the trend continues – men and women who feel called by God to accomplish something important in the world, struggle with the same passions, emotions, and desires for money, fame, and satisfaction that most of us do – they just struggle on a more epic scale. Do we condemn? Love? Forgive? Hold accountable? It’s a difficult call, but one we need to struggle with every day.

That’s not to excuse their behavior, but just like King David, we know that God is watching from a much higher view, and it would be interesting to see His perspective. Tammy Faye was a product of her times: the bizarre intersection of her restricted Fundamentalist upbringing and the glam 80’s. I don’t know if there could be a stranger combination of what makes a human being.

Tammy Faye was never my cup of tea. But I must admit being moved, watching her on MTV’s “The Surreal Life” in 2003-2004. After her fall from grace, she reached out to many who most Christians wouldn’t care much for, and I saw her there on MTV surrounded by the likes of B-actor Erik Estrada and porn star Ron Jeremy. But there she was, sharing her faith with Ron Jeremy – unashamed, bold, speaking the truth in a way that showed she wasn’t just interested in winning another soul – she was truly interested in him as a human being. We could learn a little from that example.

Ultimately, that was Tammy Faye.

Here’s her LA Times Obit:

From the Los Angeles Times – OBITUARIES
Tammy Faye Messner, 65; former wife of televangelist Jim Bakker, pop culture icon
By Dennis McLellan – Times Staff Writer – July 22, 2007

Tammy Faye Messner, the mascara-laden former wife of televangelist Jim Bakker, the charismatic TV preacher with the choir-boy face with whom she appeared on their popular Christian talk-variety show until his downfall amid scandal in the late 1980s, has died. She was 65.

Messner, who underwent surgery for colon cancer in 1996 and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004, died Friday, her booking manager, Joe Spotts, told the Associated Press on Saturday night.

In a letter posted on her website in May, Messner said that doctors had stopped treating her cancer and that her weight had dropped to 65 pounds. “Now,” she wrote, “it’s up to God and my faith.”

She revealed that she had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer during a March 2004 appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” That Messner would publicly announce her diagnosis on King’s talk show underscored her status as a faded yet enduring pop culture icon.

Indeed, her radiation treatments even became part of a 2005 documentary, “Tammy Faye: Death Defying.” “During radiation,” she said at the time, “I did not lose my hair, but I lost my eyelashes, which is the funniest thing in the world to me, because it’s my trademark.”

As Tammy Faye Bakker in the 1970s and ’80s, she was known as “the first lady of televangelism,” a high-profile pioneer of the “electronic church.” At 4 feet, 11 inches tall (not counting 3 1/2 -inch spike heels) and with her red hair and heavily made-up eyes, Messner was described in the media as a “human kewpie doll” and someone who seemed to “ooze kitsch.”

As prone to giggling as she was to crying mascara-stained tears on camera, Tammy Faye Bakker proved to be irresistible fodder for late-night comedians. “She was the most laughed-at woman in the Western world,” Fenton Bailey, codirector of “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a largely sympathetic documentary on Messner’s life, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000.

“I don’t know of any woman in our time who has been so ridiculed, put down, maligned,” singer Pat Boone said in the 2000 film. “Really, I equate her with Hillary Clinton, because these two women have both suffered tremendously by the things that their husbands may have done, and yet she just keeps going.” During the heyday of the Bakkers’ television ministry, “The Jim and Tammy Show” reportedly was carried on more than 1,400 stations and their PTL ministry took in millions of dollars a month.

The centerpiece of their evangelical empire — Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre Christian theme park, resort and ministry headquarters in Fort Mill, S.C. — reportedly attracted some 6 million visitors in 1986. Those who stayed at what was often described as “a Christian Disneyland” could buy eight different Tammy Faye record albums, not to mention items from the Tammy Faye line of cosmetics and pantyhose.

PTL stood for “Praise the Lord” and “People That Love,” but critics insisted it stood for “Pass the Loot” and “Pay the Lady.” The downfall of Jim Bakker began in 1987 with the revelation that he had had a one-time sexual encounter with a former church secretary from New York, Jessica Hahn, in a Florida motel room in 1980 — and that $265,000 in ministry funds were later used to keep Hahn quiet.

In March 1987, the scandalized Jim Bakker resigned as president of the $129-million-a-year PTL ministry and turned it over to the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Three months later, Falwell placed the ministry, which was more than $60 million in debt, in bankruptcy and turned financial records over to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 1988, Bakker and former top PTL associate Richard Dortch were indicted on federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. The 24-count indictment, returned by a federal grand jury, charged that Bakker and Dortch had fraudulently oversubscribed at least $158 million worth of $1,000 “lifetime partnerships” that guaranteed contributors three nights lodging per year at Heritage USA to help maintain Bakker and Dortch’s “lavish and extravagant lifestyles.”

The indictment further alleged that at a time when the PTL was in poor financial shape, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker received bonuses totaling some $3.5 million for their personal use. Messner, who was tre
ated at the Betty Ford Center in Palm Desert in 1987 for prescription drug dependency, was not named as a defendant in the indictment.

She publicly defended her husband, who pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, and she complained that the media vilified both her and her husband unfairly. “We lived no differently than any of the other evangelists,” she told People magazine in 1996.

Dortch pleaded guilty to four fraud and conspiracy counts in a plea bargain in exchange for his testimony against Bakker. In 1989, Jim Bakker was convicted on all 24 counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and conspiracy. He ultimately served about 4 1/2 years of an eight-year sentence and was released from prison in 1994.

The Bakkers had divorced two years earlier, after three decades of marriage and two children, Tammy Sue and Jay. Tammy Faye married former PTL contractor Roe Messner, the chief builder of Heritage USA, in 1993. Three years later, he was sentenced to 27 months in prison for federal bankruptcy fraud, and Tammy Faye once again found herself standing by her man.

Jim Bakker also remarried, and he and his second wife, Lori, now live in Branson, Mo., where they have started a new television ministry. Tamara Faye LaValley, the eldest in a family of eight children, was born in International Falls, Minn., on March 7, 1942. Her parents divorced when she was 3 and she was raised by her mother and stepfather.

When she was 10, she underwent a life-altering experience during an Assemblies of God church service after the preacher asked “everyone who wants God to touch them” to come forward. She later related that she practically ran down the aisle and threw herself down on her knees by the front pew. She then found herself flat on her back, her “hands up in the air toward the Lord,” as she spoke in tongues.

“As that language flowed from my innermost being, I actually felt the presence of God within me,” she wrote in her 1996 autobiography “Tammy: Telling It My Way.” “I have never in my whole life experienced such love. Liquid love pouring over my entire being!”

Her “encounter with God,” she wrote, let her know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. In 1960, she entered North Central Bible College, the Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis, where she met and fell in love with fellow student Jim Bakker. Unknowingly violating the school’s rule against student marriages, Jim and Tammy Faye wed in April 1961. Forced to leave school, they were soon traveling the Deep South preaching from one Assemblies of God church meeting to another. That ended when a puppet show they had been putting on for children after their Sunday services caught the eye of an aide to Pat Robertson.

In 1965, the Bakkers joined Robertson’s fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network in Portsmouth, Va. When the Bakkers first made their commitment to do what became a very popular children’s puppet show, Messner recounted, one of their conditions was that Jim someday would be allowed to host a “Tonight Show”-type program for Christians, something that he felt would “change the face of Christian broadcasting.”

The result was Christian television’s first talk show, “The 700 Club,” hosted by Jim Bakker. The show quickly attracted a large audience and generated considerable donations. But Robertson began taking over as host of “The 700 Club” several nights a week and, according to Messner, he and Jim Bakker had differences over Robertson’s ideas for bringing secular programming to the network to broaden its financial base. In 1972, the Bakkers left CBN.

They moved to Orange County, where Jim Bakker teamed up with Paul Crouch, his former youth pastor in Muskegon, to launch the Trinity Broadcasting Network in Santa Ana in 1973. With Jim Bakker as president and Crouch as business administrator, Bakker began hosting the PTL (for “Praise the Lord”) show, with his wife as the featured co-host and singer. The show was soon being syndicated across the country. But, according to Messner’s account, the board of directors voted Jim Bakker out as president.

Shortly thereafter, however, Jim Bakker received a call from friends in Charlotte, N.C., saying they needed his help to start a new Christian TV ministry. Within only a few months after launching “The PTL Club” in a storefront in Charlotte, Jim Bakker’s new show went into syndication and the viewers began pledging financial support. By 1979, donations reportedly totaled more than $27.6 million, compared with revenue of $255,000 four years earlier, and Jim Bakker had survived an FCC investigation of allegedly improper fundraising practices.

But eight years later came the fall.

Since then, Messner never strayed far from the spotlight. She wrote books, including “I Will Survive … and You Will Too!” (2003), and she made talk show and game show appearances. She also hosted an infomercial for her “You Can Make It” motivational tapes, appeared on the TV sitcom “Roseanne” and marketed Tammy Faye Celebrity Wigs (in 16 colors).

In 1996, she co-hosted a short-lived nationally syndicated daytime talk show with comedy actor Jim J. Bullock. More recently, she appeared on “The Surreal Life,” a reality series on the WB in 2004 in which she shared a house with five other celebrities, including actor Erik Estrada.

An icon in the gay community, she had been the only member of the televangelist community to embrace AIDS patients, interviewing a gay man on her PTL show, “Tammy’s House Party,” during the early days of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s. She openly championed gay civil rights, and some years ago hosted Drag Bingo in Durham to raise money for Alliance of AIDS Services Carolina.

In the end, she had permanently tattooed lip-liner, eyebrows and eyeliner, along with those famous false eyelashes. “Without my eyelashes,” she said in her namesake documentary, “I wouldn’t be Tammy Faye. I don’t know who I’d be.”

On Thursday, an emaciated Tammy Faye appeared with her husband on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to provide an update on her condition, for which she was receiving hospice care and taking morphine to ease the pain of swallowing food.

“I talk to God every single day, and I say, ‘God, my life is in your hands, and I trust you with me,’ ” she said. Asked if she had any regrets, she said: “I don’t think about it, Larry, because it’s a waste of good brain space.”

Added Messner: “I believe when I leave this Earth, because I love the Lord, I’m going straight to heaven.”

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7 Comments

  1. Perhaps no other scripture about Tammy Faye makes more sense at the moment then Paul's words to Timothy: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith…"(KJV) II Timothy 4:7. She did all that and more. The other aspect of her life in the past few years that seems so Godly is her love and acceptance of the gay community. She never seemed to be judgmental, just loving, real and authentic – bubbly energy and all. No finger pointing. There's a lot of Christ in that approach and much we as Christians can learn. Warts and all (and there were plenty), PTL gave many young people a start in Christian TV, especially those of us who came from Pentecostal & Assemblies of God backgrounds with little or no training in production. It was a throw into the deep end of network tv. Sink or swim. You may have not agreed with the antics, but PTL was a great training ground to learn broadcast tv. Many of us, the PTL Diaspora, wouldn't be where we are today without our start decades ago in Charlotte. God bless Tammy Faye. Her journey is over. She's fought the good fight.

  2. I miss her.

     

    She was my boss, my friend, my shopping buddy, my kitchen co-hort in crime.  I laughed with her until tears smeared both our makeup. 

     

    I watched in awe as she walked into a women's prison in 1979 wearing a white mink coat and diamonds.  I sat amazed as she broke the ice in that place by passing around her coat and rings for the women to try on.  I watched her move on stage from a giggling girl with them to a somber voice of the Gospel.  The Holy Sprit fell in that place and one by one they came forward to ask Jesus in their heart.

     

    I watched her with anger as she divorced Jim as he sat in prison.  I'd walked with her through many of her marriage ups and downs, and was saddened and yes, angered when she filed for divorce.  But I was protective.  It was okay for me to be mad– because I loved her–or so I told myself.  But no one else. 

     

    See, I understood that while Jim was in prison, God was able to get him alone and change him.  Tammy was on the outside taking head shots from the press every day.  Her healing was delayed because she was so busy dealing with her son and his problems with drugs, and her being left with nothing to live on.  Her famous jewels were sold to a preacher in NJ her clothes were sold at a consignment shop.

     

    Tammy was never out of the spotlight, and while some would have curled up and died under the glare, Tammy decided to turn it around to her favor.  When the world treated her as a cartoon, she leveraged that to spread the Word of God's love and forgiveness and to support herself.  She often laughed and said, "What else I am going to do for work, it’s not like I can go back and work at Woolsworth (as she had in the 60s).  I am too well known.  No one would have me."

     

    Roe Messner was there when the prison doors slammed on Jim and Tammy was left alone with the cameras and press.  He was steady, dependable, and became an anchor for her.  Jim forgave her, her kids forgave her, and of course God forgave her. 

     

    She went places Christian just don't go — gay rallies and Hollywood reality shows.  But she never winked at sin, she never denied that homosexuality was sin, or adultery, or any other sex sin.  But more important was her message that God loved them all, no matter their sin.  He sent Jesus to save them from their sin.

     

    When the cancer attacked her, Tammy was not scared.  She faced so many terrible things in the last few decades that she was certain she would overcome this as well.  I sat in her house in December of 2006 and shared a bowl of chili she had made.  She lay on the coach most of the visit, holding a spot in her chest that ached with pain.  Every hour or so she would take another pill.  It didn't help much, the pain was unending.

     

    Last fall I saw her for the last time.  She and Roe met me at a Charlotte restaurant, though I will never know why she forced herself out of bed.  Every step was hard for her, and Roe almost carried her from the car to the restaurant.  Tammy wanted to laugh and remember silly times, and we did.  She ordered food she could not eat and leaned on Roe to hold her up.

     

    As we walked out after the meal, Tam heard a table of friends laughing out load, having a good time.  She turned to me and said "I'd give anything to feel that good for just one day."  Her prayer then was simply, "God heal me and take away the pain or let me come home to you."  I guess He was ready to have her home.

  3. Prior to her passing, I was given the assignment of producing a "tribute show" for Tammy Faye here at TBN. As I went thru the footage and we had in the library, I watched Tammy tell her story and give her testimony of God's grace. As we put the show together, we made a commitment to show the little girl from International Falls, Minnesota who had a love for people, and wanted to share the gospel with anyone and everyone she met. I did not watch her appearance on Larry King because I didn't want to see her sullen face and hear her raspy voice. I wanted to remember the little 4'11" lady who cried every time she talked about her Jesus. She shared her faith with the world, faithful to the call on her life. Was she was found guilty in the court of public opinion for the sins of others? Absolutely. But she still found a way to keep smiling. I was fortunate enough to work at PTL in 1978-79 and be in the studio every day watching the show. It was there that I produced my first promo and learned important lessons that have helped me grow creatively. Tammy Fay wasn't perfect, but she [as anyone who believes on Christ] was forgiven.  

  4. When I became a Christian in 1976 I wasn't saved in a church building, but in my home in Austin, Tx.   At first I was a little leary of "organized" religion so I stayed at home and read my bible.   Then, sitting up late at night I discovered this thing on TV called the "PTL Club".   I began watching these odd people.   They were certainly quite the opposite of myself, a "long-haired, dope-smoking, anti-establishment, hippie".   But as I kept watching, they were able to break through to me and truly minister to me.   The true love they had for people won me over when everything in me wanted to reject them.   As years went by I did reject them for a time, along with all of the others, Christians and the world as well.   I misjudged them, but when I later actually took the time to listen to them again and hear how the Lord was still working with and through them, I was able change my heart.   Recently I saw some of Tammy on the reality TV show where she was in a house with others who you would think would be diametrically opposed to her.   Her interactions with porn star Ron Jeremy and others were amazing, and you could see the love of   God coming through her.   I am sort of amazed that I am actully shedding tears for Tammy Faye today.   I really didn't think I would do that.   She and Jim Baker will always be a part of my testimony. 
  5. The bottom-line is this: Ask yourself, would the world be a better place if it had more people that had the forgiving attitude, the gratitude, strength, compassion and basic love for other people that Tammy Faye had? I believe so. Particularly in todays world. I personally thank her for the memories, encouragement and wonderful music. I enjoyed and love Tammy Faye for exactly what she was "REAL."  She was a real person, who lived a real life; the good, the NOT SO GOOD, survival and experienced a dreadful disease in an amazing fashion. She did it all with class, dignity and always gave praise and glory to God; the God of Abraham Issac and Jacob.  I miss her, 

  6. I hope she is given a good send off at whatever memorial is planned.  Preachers who got their start at PTL have snubbed her for years.  God be with her family.

  7. WHAT A LADY.

     

    I am so thankful to GOD who allowed Her the marriage to ROE MESSNER who showed her the earthly caring and Love she so desperatly wanted, and so kindly gave to so many.

    She was a GIVER, and yes their is proof.

    Greg-Tx

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