A history professor recounts and updates the scandals revolving around the PTL Club and its guiding lights, evangelical preachers Jim Bakker and his then-wife, Tammy Faye Bakker.
In this deeply researched combination of recent history and biography, Wigger (History/Univ. of Missouri; American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, 2009, etc.) builds on a number of historical threads from the 1970s and ’80s, when the Bakkers were first famous—as well as vastly and ostentatiously wealthy—and then infamous due to the PTL Club, their televised “religious” enterprise. (PTL stands for either Praise the Lord or People that Love.) The author’s main themes are hubris and greed as well as financial fraud, sexual exploitation, phony religion, the siren song of celebrity, and the dangers of the prosperity gospel. Wigger acknowledges the far-reaching investigation during the 1980s by Charles E. Shepard, a Charlotte Observer reporter who wrote Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry (1989). In many ways, Wigger’s book serves as a skilled, informative update of Shepard’s exposé. Tammy Faye Bakker is now dead, but Jim Bakker is back after serving five years in prison for multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy. He has remarried and is now running an enterprise called Morningside, which serves people who want to buy supplies for a predicted apocalypse. One of the most damning parts of the book concerns Jessica Hahn, a young admirer of Bakker who was raped by the preacher and a colleague, and the horrifying detail provided by the author remains as upsetting as it was when originally disclosed. The Bakkers started out with good intentions when they chose to become itinerant preachers, but the monsters they became make it difficult to feel any sympathy for them despite Wigger’s thoughtful presentation. Many of the other high-profile evangelicals in the book—including Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robertson—also inspire very little admiration.
A worthy, clearly written account of a movement and its downfall.