The New Right – Reaganism, Conservatism and Evangelicalism

The New Right or Christian Right, a conservative populist movement, had religious, political, economic and cultural components. The term refers to a set of evangelical organizations that emerged in the late 1970s: the Moral Majority (later renamed the Liberty Federation), the Religious Roundtable, and the Christian Voice.  The overriding theme of the movement was America was once great. However, America experienced a marked decline in the recent past. Returning to past religious and cultural practices was the only way to make America great again. America had to replicate past norms in order reclaim or revive its status as a godly nation with a transcendent global mission.  The New Right appealed to a diverse assortment of Americans, including fundamentalist, evangelical Christians, anti-tax crusaders, advocates of deregulation and smaller markets, advocates of a more powerful American presence abroad, disaffected white liberals, and defenders of an unrestricted free market.

The Christian Right reacted strongly to the emergence in the 1970s of the women’s movement that criticized the traditional role of wife and mother as oppressive and asserted women’s needs for economic independence from men, for control over their own bodies, and for equal rights generally. The strong anti-communist views that the Republican party held during the era of the Cold War was another strong attraction to evangelicals and fundamentalists. Other issues that dominated the Christian Right were what Jerry Falwell has called a “tide of permissiveness and decay” brought about by a denial of God. (Himmelstein, p.98), the removal of prayer and Bible reading in schools, and the intrusion of government (“big government”) into segregated Christian academies in the South.

It was Reagan, who inaugurated what scholars David Domke and Kevin Coe have called the “God strategy” in American presidential politics, as “religious communications increased to levels never before seen in the modern presidency.” He struck an explicitly religious note in his acceptance speech. He merged established modes of civil religion with a newer rhetoric of anti-secularism. During his campaign, he stated: “I’ll confess that I’ve been a little afraid to suggest what I’m going to suggest. I’m more afraid not to.” He then paused. “Can we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer?” Perhaps the clearest evidence of the “God strategy” was Reagan’s persistent use of the expression “God bless America” in his 1980 convention speech and throughout his two terms. A commonplace phrase during his two terms, “God bless America” had appeared in a major presidential address just once before Reagan.

Although the depth of his commitment to the movement was questioned, Reagan cozied up to the evangelicals. Reagan’s presidential campaign and the Republican Party recognized the importance of evangelical voters and actively sought their backing. Beginning in 1980, the Republican platform included planks supporting organized prayer in public schools and defining human life as beginning at conception, and the party began to embrace the term “pro-family” to describe its agenda. Consistent with the Religious Right, Reagan favored tax emptions for religious schools, tuition tax credits, prayer in the classrooms and advanced policies (prayer amendment) to advance those principles.

It was the issue of abortion – more than any contentious school-related matters – that occupied a central place in Reagan’s thoughts and efforts, and he poured more energy into opposing it than any other president in American history. He strongly endorsed legislation to criminalize abortion, sought to restrict federal funds to assist in its practice, condemned it in dozens of public speeches and interviews, met numerous times with anti-abortion leaders, and even penned a eulogy for the burial of aborted fetuses. Reagan called for “a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children,” and advocated “Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers’ dollars for abortion.” Anti-abortion advocates would continue to push for legislation banning the procedure and Reagan would continue to support those efforts through the second term of his presidency. In 1985, the president, echoing the return to the ethical America of the past theme of the Religious Right, proclaimed a “Sanctity of Human Life Day” in which he declared: “If America is to remain what God, in His wisdom, intended for it to be – a refuge, a safe haven for those seeking human rights – then we must once again extend

During his eight years in the White House, Reagan served as a virtual spokesman for the Christian Right and its policy objectives, which he supported through traditional conservative-friendly policies, administration and judicial appointments, intervention in the courts, congressional legislation, and liberal use of the bully pulpit. He endorsed Christian conservatives’ participation in politics, embraced Religious Right influence in the Republican Party, and afforded its leadership unequalled access to the White House. By the time Reagan left office on January 20, 1989, Christian conservatives had made great strides. The loose group of organizations and individuals that had emerged at the close of the 1970s, a manifestation of decades long grassroots efforts, was, by the end of the 1980s, a nationally known, influential political force within the GOP, whose message reached, and resonated with, millions of Americans.

During the 1970s, television evangelism burst into prominence. The growth was due partly to a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that said religious broadcasts could fulfill a station’s public-service requirement, partly to the new cable technology that made airtime more available and cheaper, and partly to the development of computerized mailing that allowed for large-scale fund-raising. The result was a new kind of religious broadcasting stressing evangelical themes (personal salvation through Jesus Christ, biblical inerrancy, the evils of the dominant secular-humanist culture) and sustaining itself through on-the-air fund-raising.

Each of the major organizations of the New Religious Right was initially associated with a major television preacher: the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell; Christian Voice with Pat Robertson; and the Religious Roundtable with James Robison. By the 1980s, evangelicals virtually monopolized religious airtime. The audience for religious broadcasting, estimated at about ten million in 1970, was several times that by 1984. One study estimated that about sixty-one million Americans had at least some exposure to it. The highest ratings went to Pat Robertson, whose “700 Club” reached 16.3 million viewers per month and whose Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) was the fifth largest cable network of any kind, with thirty million subscribers. In all, some two hundred local television stations and more than eleven hundred radio stations had a religious format.  Other significant television preachers were Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts and Robert Schuller. (123) Religious broadcasters spent between $1 billion and $2 billion for airtime, up from about $50 million in the early 1970s. (116-17).

Evangelical clergy became more likely to preach on controversial political issues than their non-evangelical counterparts. By the early 1980s Southern Baptist ministers had matched or surpassed ministers from more liberal denominations in their approval of taking public stances on issues and candidates, and, among them, supporters of the Moral Majority were more active than its opponents. (117-18) At the same time, assessments of the electronic church in the mid-1980s showed its viewership to be larger and more skewed to political preachers than previously believed.

The influence of the Religious Right leaders, particularly Jerry Falwell, was most visibly showcased at the 1984 Republican Convention. Eclipsing their presence in 1980, fundamentalists and evangelicals dominated the event, which began with a prayer by James Robison and closed with a benediction performed by Falwell. In between, the discussion revolved around the moral agenda, significantly abortion and school prayer. And when Reagan was inaugurated for the second time, Falwell was in attendance, standing next to the vice president.

The mission of Falwell’s Moral Majority was “to give a voice to the millions of decent, law abiding, God-fearing Americans who want to do something about the moral decline of our country.” The organization espoused four broad positions – “pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral, and pro-American”.  In determining the organization’s agenda, abortion was the most prominent issue (along with a strong national defense to ward off communism), but was only one of a number of societal ills it sought to address, along with welfare spending, pornography, gay rights, feminism, divorce, and secular humanism, the last of which they viewed as the source of all the other problems. Ultimately, the Moral Majority, with its almost exclusively Baptist leadership, never reached the constituency that Falwell envisioned. Much of the public viewed him as radical, and even within the Baptist Church, which comprised the vast majority of Moral Majority’s membership, Falwell and his organization were viewed with suspicion. In 1980, Falwell’s television program, despite his highly inflated claims, counted less than 1.5 million viewers.

Changes in the leadership of the Religious Right came with the shuttering of Moral Majority in the summer of 1989 (see discussion below). The most significant new group to emerge was Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. Robertson determined that the only way to achieve the change the New Right sought was to bring it about themselves. By the summer of 1985, the televangelist was privately considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination, suggesting that “we have enough votes to run the country.” Robertson drew support from disaffected Christian conservatives, chiefly “motivated by cultural and moral values.” These supporters were largely charismatics and Pentecostals.

Pat Robertson’s presidential candidacy in 1988 seemed to be a breakthrough, an accomplishment that would move the religious right from the supporting cast to a leading role in national politics. Then came the unholy scandals of 1988 (see discussion below) just as election campaigns were beginning in earnest. Suddenly the TV clergy, long protected by the cloak of religion, became fair game for the press. Robertson was subjected to intense scrutiny by a national media that felt free to attack the candidate in a way they would have never attacked Robertson the preacher.

Robertson may have lost his bid for the presidency, but he did not see his endeavor as a failure. “Out of the seeming defeat of my campaign and the demise of what had been called the Moral Majority came an extremely effective force, which I believe is the wave of the future, and which is toppling historic liberalism and will bring about a conservative era in the United States.”  By the time of the next presidential election in 1992, Christian Coalition had “seized control of the GOP political apparatus in several states.”

Evangelical Preachers and Television

“Televangelism” refers to the specific style of religious broadcasting identified with conservative Protestantism and the Religious Right. Its roots are in the fundamentalist radio ministries of the 1930s through the 1950s, but televangelists took advantage of changing FCC regulations, the increasing availability of cable television, and a changing cultural climate to build vast media empires, most significantly in the 1980s.

The Golden Age of televangelism, from approximately 1980 to 1987, brought religious broadcasting to national attention.  By the 1980s, three Christian networks broadcast 24 hours a day to nationwide audiences; there were 1,370 religious radio stations and more than 220 religious television stations. Pat Robertson formed the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) to send his message. Jim Bakker and his wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, developed The PTL Club (“Praise the Lord” or “People that Love”, but, some joked it stood for “pass the loot”) a raucous religious revival, into the largest viewing audience of any daily program in the world. Jerry Falwell used the Moral Majority as his TV marketing vehicle.  Other notable televangelists included, Robert Grant, founder of Christian Voice, Oral Roberts, “The King of the Faith Healers”, Robert Schuler, host of The Hour of Power, and Jimmy Swaggert.

Robert Schuller received his Bachelor of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary (Holland, Michigan) and was ordained by the Dutch Reformed Church of America. Schuller is the only televangelist from a mainline denomination. In 1955, he established a congregation in Garden Grove, California, where he conducted services from the snack bar roof of the Orange drive-in theater. Schuller’s Hour of Power was derived from Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” and shared his theology of “possibility thinking” (i.e., management of ideas, lessening negative self-talk, and exploring ideas for the possibilities they present). Schuller had a “Ten Commandments of Possibility Thinking” addressed to individual Christians to change their lives. In 1980, Schuller’s The Crystal Cathedral, an all-glass church, was dedicated and fully paid for at a cost of $16 million by the viewers of The Hour of Power. During the 1980s, Schuller vied with Oral Roberts for the position of most watched televangelist. The show was also seen in 44 foreign countries by an estimated 20 million viewers of special foreign-language versions.

Jerry Falwell graduated from Baptist Bible College, Springfield, Michigan. In 1956, Falwell founded the Thomas Road Baptist Church of Lynchburg, Virginia. From this church, Falwell broadcasted the Old-Time Gospel Hour, his television outreach program. Preaching to congregations across the nation and establishing lengthy mailing lists for direct mail solicitation campaigns, Falwell registered thousands of voters united by the Moral Majority.

Oral Roberts expanded his “Healing Waters” ministry into the Oral Roberts Evangelical Association (OREA) and purchased 175 acres of land in Tulsa, Oklahoma where he founded Oral Roberts University (ORU) in 1963. ORU is a fully accredited “charismatic university” based on “God’s authority and on the Holy Spirit.”  Roberts accepted biblical inerrancy as a living revelation perceived by experience; he believed in direct intervention of God (see Miracle of Seed Faith, Revell 1970). He avoided involvement with the Moral Majority movement, eschewing the mixing of politics and religion. His upbeat message of hope was combined with promises of health, happiness, and prosperity.

While the television ministries of Falwell, Schuller, Swaggart, Roberts and others kept fairly traditional formats-broadcasting the church services of their respective congregations with their own sermons as the central focus of the program – the Pentecostal ministries of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (PTL Club) and Pat Robertson (700 Club) emphasized revivalist methods designed to evoke specific responses by their audiences. Rhetorical styles, the use of music, and even the orchestration of the physical environment were all carefully examined, planned, and controlled to bring about the desired response: fear, repentance, conversion, and dedication to the ongoing support of the ministry so that others might experience the same.

The 700 Club (1966-2000) aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network every weekday for nearly 40 years. The conservative religious talk show was one of the longest-running television programs in history. It starred evangelical host Pat Robertson, a former Southern Baptist minister and 1988 presidential candidate, who lead emotional episodes filled with gospel music, sermons, group prayers, and interview segments.

Jim Bakker, prominent televangelist with his wife, Tammy Faye (née LaValley), developed the PTL Club into a multimillion-dollar television ministry composed of a cable network and a real estate venture known as Heritage USA.  The Bakkers began their careers as itinerant revivalists, ordained by Assemblies of God. In 1965, Bakker joined the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in Portsmouth, Virginia. Bakker was credited with originating the 700 Club talk-show format and was the first host. Bakker is also credited with creating the most successful on-air fund-raising shows, the proceeds of which established CBN as a well-financed entity. Bakker left CBN in November 1972 to join Paul Crouch at the Trinity Broadcasting System (TBS), where he started the Praise the Lord (PTL) Show. Bakker resigned in 1973 as president of TBS. His interpretation of Pentecostalism was described as the “gospel of prosperity” (Poloma, at 219) because he claimed that material prosperity was a sign of God’s love. Tammy Faye was an advocate for the right of Christian women to dress as they pleased without incurring disapproval from their congregations (Barnhart, at 33). The Bakkers’ messages and appeals were ecumenical and interracial. The Bakkers were not known for their involvement in politics and kept their political leanings to themselves. Jim Bakker did lend his name as a sponsor to the 1980 “One Nation Under God” rally in Washington, an ostensibly apolitical gathering that nonetheless had political pretensions.

On air, the couple broke from the stodgy, sermon-centric format of their peers. They believed that Christianity should be fun, so their shows blended upbeat spirituality with cooking, comedy, and discussions of mainstream pop culture. Their PTL show, tapping into “the prosperity gospel”, which hinges on a belief that your health and wealth are controlled by God, and God is willing you to be prosperous, featured persistent pleas for money. Believers were encouraged to show their faith through payments, which they understood would be repaid – many times over – either in the form of wealth or healing.

The Bakkers’ personal lifestyle of extravagant spending, including multiple homes, expensive cars, and frequent home renovations, made them stereotypical targets in the secular popular media. The Bakkers’ lavish lifestyle was paid for by their viewers, telethons, persuading viewers to donate money with the promise of divine blessings. Everything seemed to turn to gold in their hands, from the massive PTL Club ministry to the fun-for-the-whole-family, Christian-based Heritage USA theme park. At the height of their popularity in the mid-1980s, the Bakkers owned six mansions and a Rolls-Royce and were pocketing an annual salary of nearly $2 million.

The Bakkers 2,200-acre resort-theme park, Heritage USA, which featured a studio large enough to seat 1,800 people was marketed as the “Inspirational Park for the Whole Family”. Heritage USA’s size made it remarkable; it was more than 10 times larger than Disneyland in California and nearly 20 times larger than Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Florida.  Six million people visited the park in 1986, placing it behind only Disney World and Disneyland in terms of attendance.

Heritage USA combined the Bakkers’ televangelism empire with theme-park hedonism, offering an immersive experience in the sights, sounds, and practices of American conservative evangelicalism. (“A Theme Park, a Scandal, and the Faded Ruins of a Televangelism Empire”, Emily Johnson (October 28, 2014)). What made it special was that it was “A Special Place for God’s People.” Included among its other secular attractions were Billy Graham’s boyhood home, a shop that replicated the experience of shopping in a Jerusalem marketplace, and a passion play depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ, with the aid of light-show special effects. In fact, Jim Bakker expressed his hope in 1986 that the park would one day include a “full-scale replica of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Jesus.”

Another major draw was the park’s life-size version of the Upper Room, which Christians believe was the site of both the Last Supper and the Pentecost, when the early disciples first received the Holy Spirit and found themselves able to speak in many tongues. Like the Jerusalem Shop, the Upper Room offered a curated version of the Holy Land for Christians unable to or uninterested in travelling to the Middle East. The Bakkers described the Upper Room as a pilgrimage site in itself. They shared the testimonials of people who had received spiritual and even physical healing by praying in the Upper Room, or even by having someone else pray for them there.

Jimmy Swaggart rose from poverty to lead one of the largest tele-ministries in the United States, with an estimated $141 million worldwide organization. Like the others, Swaggart was ordained in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Swaggart developed a large viewing audience across the country. By the mid-1980s his weekly telecasts, which aired in all 50 states, and was dubbed into 15 foreign languages for overseas broadcasts, reached approximately two million households (8 million viewers) per week in the United States, making him one of the most popular and successful televangelists of the era. Swaggert’s World Ministry Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, included a 7,500-seat Family Worship Center and a production center. The cost of the complex was $20 million.

Swaggart adhered to the practices of speaking in tongues and the altar call. Swaggart’s television ministry was known for its exuberant, emotional preaching and singing service, which was attributed to his family and geographic upbringing in Ferriday, Louisiana. Cousin to Mickey Gilley of country music fame and Jerry Lee Lewis, rock music pioneer, Swaggart had 12 gold records of gospel music to his credit (Schaffer and Todd 1987:135).

Michael Scott Horton, who taught historical theology at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif., called the message of the televangelists a twisted interpretation of the Bible – a “wild and wacky theology.” “Some of these people are charlatans,” Horton said. “Others are honestly dedicated to one of the most abhorrent errors in religious theology… I often think of these folks as the religious equivalent to a combination of a National Enquirer ad and professional wrestling. It’s part entertainment and very large part scam.”

Moral Majority – The Dead Kennedys, Songwriters: Jello Biafra,

We are gathered here tonight
To pay tribute to our Lord, and money unto me
Oh, Lord in heaven, let us pray!
You, T.V. viewers, give me your pay and see

You call yourself the Moral Majority
We call ourselves the people in the real world
Trying to rub us out, but we’re going to survive
God must be dead if you’re alive

You say, “God loves you, come and buy the Good News”
Then you buy the president and swimming pools
If Jesus don’t save ’til we’re lining your pockets
God must be dead if you’re alive

Circus-tent con-men and Southern belle bunnies
Milk your emotions then they steal your money
It’s the new dark ages with the fascists toting Bibles
Cheap nostalgia for the Salem Witch Trials

Stodgy ayatollahs in their dobble-knit ties
Burn lots of books so they can feed you their lies
Masturbating with a flag and a Bible
God must be dead if you’re alive

Blow it out your ass, Jerry Falwell
Blow it out your ass, Jesse Helms
Blow it out your ass, Ronald Reagan
What’s wrong with a mind of my own?

You don’t want abortions, you want battered children
You want to ban the pill as if that solves the problem
Now you wanna force us to pray in school
God must be dead if you’re such a fool

You’re planning for a war with or without Iran
Building a police state with the Klu Klux Klan
Pissed at your neighbour? Don’t bother to nag
Pick up the phone and turn in a fag

Blow it out your ass, Terry Dolan
Blow it out your ass, Phyllis Schlafly
Ram it up your cunt, Anita
‘Cause God must be dead if you’re alive
God must be dead if you’re alive

Jesus He Knows Me, Genesis, Songwriters: Anthony Banks / Michael Rutherford / Phillip Collins,

Do you see the face on the TV screen
Comin’ at you every sunday?
See the face on the billboard?
Well, that man is me
On the cover of the magazine
There’s no question why I’m smilin’
You buy a piece of paradise
You buy a piece of me

I’ll get you everything you wanted
I’ll get you everything you need
You don’t need to believe in hereafter
Just believe in me

‘Cause Jesus, He knows me and He knows I’m right
I’ve been talkin’ to Jesus all my life
Oh, yes He knows me and He knows I’m right
And He’s been tellin’ me everything is alright

I believe in family
With my ever lovin’ wife beside me
But she don’t know about my girlfriend
Or the man I met last night
Do you believe in God?
‘Cause that’s what I’m selling
And if you wanna go to heaven
Well, I’ll see you right

You won’t even have to leave your house
Or get out of your chair
You don’t even have to touch that dial
‘Cause I’m everywhere

And Jesus He knows me and He knows I’m right
I’ve been talkin’ to Jesus all my life
Oh, yes He knows me and He knows I’m right
Well, He’s been tellin’ me everything’s gonna be alright

Won’t find me practisin’ what I’m preachin’
Won’t find me makin’ no sacrifice
But I can get you a pocketful of miracles
If you promise to be good, try to be nice
God will take good care of you
Well, just do as I say, don’t do as I do

Well, I’m countin’ my blessings
‘Cause I’ve found true happiness
‘Cause I’m gettin’ richer
Day by day
You can find me in the phone book
Just call my toll free number
You can do it anyway you want
Just do it right away

Well, there’ll be no doubt in your mind
You’ll believe everything I’m saying
If wanna get closer to Him
Get on your knees and start prayin’

‘Cause Jesus He knows me and He knows I’m right
I’ve been talkin’ to Jesus all my life
Oh, yes He knows me and He knows I’m right
Well, He’s been tellin’ me everything’s gonna be alright

‘Cause Jesus He knows me and He knows I’m right
Ooh, yes He knows me and He knows I’m right
I’ve been talkin’ to Jesus all my life
And He’s been tellin’ me everything’s gonna be alright, alright

Jesus He knows me
Jesus He knows me, know
Jesus He knows me
Jesus He knows me, know
Jesus He knows me
Jesus He knows me, knows me

No Religion, Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI), Songwriters: Peter James Cassidy,

Won’t see me on my knees
Take my soul and save it, please
Ten hail Mary’s for my sin
Paying heaven to get in
Got no money for your basket
A million times you can ask it
Find your bible far too odd
Ain’t got time for your god
I’ve made my decision
Don’t want your religion
No more church-bound prison
Or jerry falwell television
Don’t forget, he’s coming back
So put your dollars in the stack
The second coming’s getting close
So pay up now and get the most
Form a line for all to pay
And do the same next Sunday
Step right up and clean your soul
Single file, young and old
I’ve made my decision
Don’t want your religion
No more church-bound prison
Or jerry falwell television
Wash your brain, a strange obsession
You’re an angel, post confession
Holy book tells right from wrong
Last donation, overdrawn

If one thing was certain, televangelists were not shy about flaunting their wealth – calling it proof that their teaching worked – from their fleets of Mercedes Benzes and Cadillacs, decked-out jets, and swank properties to their choice of designer watches. The Rolex was a status symbol for wealthy yuppies in the ’80s and decorated the wrists of many a televangelist. Questioning the ostentation of these TV preachers, Chet Atkins and Margaret Archer wrote Would Jesus Wear a Rolex? for Ray Stevens in 1987.

Woke up this mornin’, turned on the t.v. set.
There in livin’ color, was somethin’ I can’t forget.
This man was preachin’ at me, yeah, layin’ on the charm
Askin’ me for twenty, with ten-thousand on his arm.
He wore designer clothes, and a big smile on his face
Tellin’ me salvation while they sang Amazin’ Grace.
Askin’ me for money, when he had all the signs of wealth.
I almost wrote a check out, yeah, then I asked myself

Would He wear a pinky ring, would He drive a brand new car?
Would His wife wear furs and diamonds, would His dressin’ room have a star?
If He came back tomorrow, well there’s somethin’ I’d like to know
Could ya tell me, would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show.

Would Jesus be political if He came back to earth?
Have His second home in Palm Springs, yeah, a try to hide His worth?
Take money, from those poor folks, when He comes back again,
And admit He’s talked to all them preachers who say they been a talkin’ to Him?

Just ask ya’ self, would He wear a pinky ring,
Would He drive a brand new car?
Would His wife wear furs and diamonds, would His dressing room have a star?
If He came back tomorrow, well there’s somethin’ I’d like to know:
Could ya tell me, would Jesus wear a Rolex,
Would Jesus wear a Rolex
Would Jesus wear a Rolex
On His television show-ooh-ooh?

Scandals in The Kingdom

In the late 1980s, sexual and financial scandals brought down several big name televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. These troubles received extensive coverage in the media. The events mirrored the whole Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” mentality and lifestyle of that time period, which is described earlier in this piece.  However, instead of financial manipulators, those involved were spiritual manipulators.

Perhaps the most notorious of the scandals involved the Bakkers. The Bakkers’ fall from grace was caused by revelations made by Jimmy Swaggart. To put it bluntly, Jimmy Swaggart “was a snitch”.  Swaggart saw Bakkers’ growing ministry as a threat to his own and made Bakkers’ indiscretions public. (Poloma (1989))

In the most serious incidents, Jim Bakker was caught in sex and hush money improprieties involving a church secretary, Jessica Hahn. (There were also allegations, never proven, that Bakker had a number of same-sex relationships.)  He was later convicted of financial fraud for his mishandling of the Heritage Grand Hotel and the PTL empire. Likewise, Jimmy Swaggart was exposed as hiring prostitutes for pornographic purposes. Less serious controversies swirled around Oral Roberts for linking his fund-raising efforts to being “called home” by God – he announced that if supporters did not contribute a specified amount of money within a specified time to his ministry, “the Lord will take me home” (i.e., he would die)- and Pat Robertson over allegations that he lied about his date of marriage and war record and for various statements made during his unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Bakker’s financial fraud involved offering PTL “lifetime partnerships”, for donations of $1,000 or more that promised three free nights annually at the Heritage Grand Hotel. Internal memos revealed that although the ministry had raised more than double the money needed for a new hotel called Heritage Towers, the hotel had not been completed, and more money was still being solicited. Money donated specifically to Heritage USA had been diverted to personal expenses including high salaries and generous bonuses for the Bakkers and PTL board members. The ministry had also sold so many lifetime partnerships that if every eligible person claimed his or her three free nights at Heritage USA, the park would not have been able to accommodate them all.

During his legal troubles, Bakker turned the operation of his ministry over to Jerry Falwell.  Falwell uncovered additional problematic areas in the operation of PTL and refused to return control back to the Bakkers.  Falwell called Bakker “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” Bakker was convicted in 1989 on federal wire and mail fraud charges for his shenanigans related to financing Heritage USA. The New Yorker reported: “They [the Bakkers] epitomized the excesses of the 1980s; the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness, which in their case was so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence.” While Jim was in prison, the Bakkers divorced and Tammy subsequently remarried. This scandal had major consequences for television ministries and televangelism generally. It led to a reduction in financial support for all televangelists and to major changes in televangelism as a whole.

Jimmy Swaggart was too preoccupied with his own battle against Jim Baker and other preachers to notice the one forming against him. As a side hobby, Swaggart was hunting down his fellow ministers (or, more appropriately, his competition) like Jim Bakker and Marvin Gorman for their own illicit misconduct. Gorman, in turn, dug up evidence of Swaggart’s motel liaisons with hookers and broadcast them to the world, leading to Swaggart’s infamous “I have sinned against you” apology on his TV program in 1988. After being suspended, and eventually defrocked, Swaggart found comfort with yet another prostitute. This time around, he declared, “the Lord told me it’s flat none of your business.” Coming less than a year after the Bakkerr’s sex scandal, Swaggart’s collapse dealt a devilish hand to big-business religious broadcasting. One of the few televangelist ministries that came through the storm intact was Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and CBN.

Christian alt-rock singer Steve Taylor warned people against Swaggart and his ilk in his 1984 song “Guilty By Association”:

So you need a new car?
Let your fingers take a walk
Through the business guide for the born-again flock.
You’ll be keeping all your money
In the Kingdom now,
And you’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow.
Don’t you go casting your bread
To keep the heathen well-fed
Line Christian pockets instead,
Avoid temptation-
Guilty by association.
Turn the radio on
To a down-home drawl.
Hear a byrlcream prophet
With a message for y’all.
“Well I’ve found a new utensil
In the devil’s toolbox
And the heads are gonna roll
When Jesus rocks.
I’ts of a worldly design.
God’s music should be divine!
Try buying records like mine,
Avoid temptation”-
Guilty by association.
So you say it’s of the devil
And we’ve got no choice
‘Cause you heard a revelation
From the “still small voice”?
(Psst hey you)
If the Bible doesn’t back it
Then it seems quite clear
Perhaps it was the devil
Who whispered in your ear!
It’s a Telethon Tuesday
For “The Gospel Club”-
Send your money in now
Or they’re gonna pull the plug!
Just remember this fact
When they plead and beg:
When the chicken squawks loudest,
Gonna lay a big egg.
You could be smelling a crook,
You should be checking The Book,
But you’d rather listen thank look,
The implication-
Guilty by association.

The Ballad of Jim and Tammy (to the tune of Harper Valley PTA), Tammy Faye Bakker w/Tom T. Hall,

‘Now Jerry Falwell came with Grutman to Jim’s house in California one fine day,’ They said, ‘Beware, Jim and Tammy, of a plan Jimmy Swaggart is to play, ‘We want to let you know the plot, and tell you we are here to help you in any way, ‘We want to help you Jim and Tammy, help you save your Heritage USA, ”Well, ‘We will never touch your ministry,’ was the line they gave to me,’ You will always be in charge of everything we put on your TV, ‘Now you just rest and trust in us and leave your network and your show in our hands,” He said, ‘I’ll give it back when we reveal the Jimmy Swaggart takeover plan,” Now they flew back to North Carolina in a hurry in Falwell’s private jet,’ And at once began the deed that people will never forget, ‘Well, they changed the board that very day and our whole team and fired everyone with power,’ And Falwell, Nims and Grutman were on TV before the press within the very hour, ‘Talked to the staff at PTL and convinced them Jim and Tammy had done wrong,’ They said support Jerry Falwell and his team if you want to keep your job,’ They held an auction in the barn and sold fixtures from the Grand they said were gold,’ They even sold Max’s doghouse leaving three little dogs out in the cold, ”We watched them tear apart the park and sell the assets of the ministry at a loss, ‘Saw them file bankruptcy, go to court, kick Kevin out of his house, ‘They told lies about Jim Bakker, tried to ruin him and his life in every way, ‘Let’s send Falwell back to Lynchburg and rebuild our Heritage USA, ‘Let’s send Falwell back to Lynchburg let the people rebuild our Heritage USA.