As the Spiritual Soap Opera Plays On, An Expert Assesses How Jim Bakker's Fall Could Change Television Preaching

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They call it Holy Wars, Holy gate, Pearly gate, and it surely is one for the book—the Good Book, that is. The fall from grace of television evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker—he for a sexual dalliance, she for an addiction to prescription drugs—and the subsequent battle over their Praise the Lord Club (PTL) empire has focused national attention on what, to many, was a world but briefly glimpsed while changing channels. As the story grew, those who had their say included many of televangelism's biggest names, notably Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts and Jerry Falwell. Swaggart, who helped bring to light the story of Bakker's 1980 tryst in a hotel room with 21-year-old church secretary Jessica Hahn, was implicated by Bakker's lawyer and by ally Oral Roberts of wanting to take over PTL and its $150 million Heritage USA complex. When Bakker resigned from PTL in disgrace, he asked Falwell to take over. No wonder there has been confusion about who stands for what and who is on which side.

Attempting to clear this up is Jeffrey K. Hadden, sociology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who has been following TV preachers for years. Hadden is the co-author of Prime Time Preachers and the forthcoming Pat Robertson and the Other Americans. Although he was born to Quaker parents, raised a Methodist, and once considered becoming a Baptist minister, Hadden says he's no longer a churchgoer but "culturally a Christian." He discussed the turmoil in Christian broadcasting with Washington reporter Jane Sims Podesta.

How do you think America views evangelists in general?

The level of skepticism is high: Our image of evangelism is a legacy of Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry. Even today, the TV image of an evangelist is that of a scoundrel who is cheating and lying to raise money.

Why have the problems of Jim and Tammy Bakker, who are ranked only 13th in popularity among the 90 syndicated TV evangelists, become such big news?

Like great drama and literature, everybody sees something different in it: For the secular person, it's comic relief from a troubled world. For Pentacostal Christians, it's a moment of great crisis and challenge.

Why did the Bakkers go public with admissions of infidelity and drug addiction?

It's all part of the theatrics and soap-opera melodrama that the Bakkers have been staging for many years. They delight in letting viewers know they have been through the depths of hell. Their marital separation, family spats and emotional crises have long been on-air topics.

Will Jim and Tammy be coming back, and can the PTL empire survive?

We don't know yet whether the Bakkers have a window to come back into this ministry. I doubt that PTL can survive without a replacement by someone with the same high-energy level. I don't see that among the present crowd of clergy that hangs around Heritage USA and appears regularly on the show.

Was Jimmy Swaggart trying to take over the PTL Club as some Bakker supporters suggest?

There's no way there could be a hostile takeover. Swaggart has the fastest-growing audience of them all this past decade. He has started up a college and world mission center. He couldn't absorb all of Bakker's empire. And even though they are both Pentacostals in the Assemblies of God denomination, they appeal to very different segments within that denomination. Swaggart believes in God's judgment—that sin is not to be taken lightly. The Bakker theology is one that focuses much more on the gospel of prosperity. God is sort of a contemporary Santa Claus who delivers all to those who love and trust him.

Why did the Bakkers' downfall draw in the other big guns of televangelism?

Had Jim and Tammy simply walked off in disgrace the mudslinging might never have happened. But within a few days of resigning, Jim was on the air pointing the finger and inviting a response from Swaggart—who, in his caustic fashion, said he didn't appreciate being accused of things he didn't do. Then Oral Roberts goes on camera, further adding to this melodrama. The personal friendship between the Robertses and the Bakkers is so intense that Oral let himself get sucked into this fracas.

What's your reaction to Oral Roberts' do-or-die $8 million campaign, during which he said God would "call him home" if he didn't raise the money?

This is not a man driven by God's will, but by his own ambition and his desire to leave a legacy.

Are these hard financial times for television evangelists?

There is no evidence that things are slowing down. Although the visions and dreams of Bakker and Roberts may expand beyond their capacity to raise money, the critical task is to be engaged in projects that excite contributors. Nobody likes to pay electric bills.

How will the scandal affect Pat Robertson's presidential bid?

I think he has got to be feeling, "Lord, why does this have to happen now?" But I don't see it as a major setback. If anything, it may help draw a distinction between Robertson and the other TV preachers. Robertson is an intellectual, a scholar. He's better read than all the others, who tend to fly by the seat of their pants.

And how does Jerry Falwell, who has taken over the PTL for Bakker, come out of this?

Many of the other televangelists are behaving like a bunch of loose cannons on the deck. Into this Falwell steps as the professional and the statesman. If he's successful, I think that he will have firmly developed the foundation to become the preeminent religious leader in America. Billy Graham is getting older and Falwell may be positioning himself to inherit his mantle.

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