NOT since pulpits were covered in gold had religious leaders flaunted their wealth with such abandon as Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker.
Early American televangelists rode in a vintage Rolls-Royce, slept in a plush hotel suite with wall mirrors, and kept their dogs in an air-conditioned kennel.
In just two years, their adoring fans have donated £150m to these 1980s icons of excess.
Tammy’s blue eyeliner, shoulder pads, breast augmentations and monumental shopping sprees were all funded by the generosity of Praise The Lord (PTL) TV viewers.
Their influence was so great that President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan requested their presence during the 1980 election campaign.
But the pretense of God-fearing virtue crumbled seven years later when it was revealed Jim had used church money to pay a young secretary who accused him of rape and Tammy was being treated at the Betty Ford Clinic for prescription addiction. medications.
More allegations followed, including wife-swapping, prostitutes and Jim “frozing” with three naked men in a steam room.
A new film stars Jessica Chastain as Tammy and Andrew Garfield as Jim explores the rise and fall of the Christian power couple.
Surprisingly, however, the film titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye reveals that the woman was actually a pioneer in progressive thinking about same-sex relationships.
At a time when the spread of AIDS was cruelly dubbed the “gay plague,” she urged her viewers to put their “arms around” men with the misunderstood disease.
Chastain believes Tammy’s interview with an AIDS-infected gay pastor named Steve Pieters in 1985 saved lives.
The actress, whose performance is tipped to win an Oscar, said: “It’s going to make me emotional, when I saw the bond she had with Steve, I feel like they saved some lives thanks to this interview.
“Because it was at a time when the conservative evangelical community was turning its back on the LGBTQ audience it had.
“The AIDS epidemic was just destroying lives and killing people.”
enjoy the faith
Raised in a family of preachers, Tammy was a natural performer who could both sing and play the accordion.
Together with Jim, whom she married in 1961, they were the mainstays of the first religious television stations.
It was their puppet show on televangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network that created national recognition.
Then, in 1974, they went it alone with their own glitzy PTL channel, where Jim told his flock, “God wants his people to go first class.”
Their 20 million viewers were asked to phone in for their donations, which they happily did.
Many of us have been quite appalled by their extravagant lifestyle
Reverend Steve Pieters
Four years later, they created their own Christian theme park called Heritage USA, which drew six million visitors a year to its water rides and Bible school.
The Bakkers used the funds to purchase lavish homes, including a beachfront condo and a 3,000 square foot suite at the Park Hotel.
The Reverend Steve Pieters, a clergyman at Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) in California, told The Sun, “My clergy friends and I had a tendency to make fun of them. We’ve seen the Jim and Tammy caricatures on comedy shows like Saturday Night Live.
“Many of us were quite appalled by their extravagant lifestyles.”
But Tammy wasn’t just in it for the money.
When she learned of the fate of the openly gay pastor Pieters, she decided to take a stand.
Steve, 69, diagnosed with AIDS in 1982, says: “There was a senator who wanted to quarantine everyone with AIDS, he wanted to put us all on an island.
“A lot of conservative Christians would talk about AIDS as divine punishment for homosexuals, but Tammy felt otherwise.”
Two years after being diagnosed with lethal immunodeficiency syndrome, Steve had eight months to live.
But he was the first patient to be placed on an experimental antiviral treatment called suramin, which quickly put his stage four lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma into remission.
He wanted to put us all on an island
Reverend Steve Pieters
After hearing Steve’s story, Tammy invited him to appear on her show in November 1985 via a TV hook-up.
During the incredibly emotional appearance, Tammy gushed, telling her audience “I want to put my arms around him” and “we’re just people.”
Steve recalls, “I didn’t expect her to be so incredibly compassionate and supportive.”
Tammy told her viewers that God loves everyone and that parents shouldn’t reject their children if they come out as gay.
Steve says, “A number of people have come to me and said the interview has saved their lives.
“A guy said to me ‘my mom always had PTL 24 hours a day and when I saw your interview I realized I wasn’t going to hell and I didn’t have to kill myself like I thought I had to.'”
The reaction of some influential fundamentalist Christians was very different, including homophobic preacher Jerry Falwell who was involved with PTL.
Rape claim in $1 million Playboy interview
The Eyes of Tammy Faye suggests that it was Steve’s interview that convinced Falwell that he should take over the TV station.
Two years later, a series of scandals allowed him to do just that.
First, Tammy took a break from the broadcast because she was so high on prescription drugs that she hallucinated cats on the wings of the plane that was taking her to rehab in California.
Days later Jim resigned as chairman of PTL Ministries after it emerged he had paid £85,000 in secret money to church secretary Jessica Hahn.
In a million dollar interview with Playboy magazine, Jessica claimed Bakker drugged and raped her when she was just 21.
He denied this account and others that followed, including allegations that he cheated on Tammy with men and women, including prostitutes.
While he managed to convince many fans that these sensational stories were part of a conspiracy against him, Jim could not avoid investigations into his department’s financial mismanagement.
The reality is that she was a drug addict at the time
In 1989 he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison, the prison term being reduced to eight years on appeal.
It is unclear if Tammy knew what her husband was doing.
Jessica says: “The reality is she was a drug addict at the time. So I think she was kind of a sleepwalker all her life and didn’t attend any financial meetings.
“And the US government thinks the same thing because they never charged her.”
“I became obsessed with her”
Three years later Tammy divorced Jim and in 1993 married real estate developer Roe Messner, who also served time in prison for fraud.
Over time, news of her interview with Steve spread and she became a hero in the gay community.
When Jessica saw it, the actress became obsessed with Tammy’s life.
She says, “I like to hear his voice in my head all the time. I got really obsessed with her and watched all the videos.
“I think I watched everything that was filmed on her.”
Tammy was diagnosed with cancer, which she battled for 11 years, before dying in 2007 at the age of 65.
Her son Jay, 46, became a liberal pastor who, like his mother, supports gay rights, and her singer daughter Tammy Sue, 51, recorded a song for the film’s credits.
Remarkably, Jim, 82, who remarried in 1998, still asks for donations from his flock to continue his television show.
The Jim Bakker Show broadcasts from a 700-acre lot in rural Missouri where it prophesies disaster.
Last June he was ordered to pay £115,000 in damages for falsely claiming that a product called Silver Solution could cure Covid-19.
That means there’s little chance his shattered reputation will ever be rejuvenated.
But Jessica hopes her film, which she spent ten years working on to ensure it gets made, will put Tammy in a new light.
She concludes: “I just knew that I had to be part of his true story, because I felt like a great injustice had been done to him.”
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently in theaters.