The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

So, what were my impressions of Tammy Faye Bakker before seeing this documentary about her?

I remember her, of course, as having been half of one of the most prominent televangelist couples back at their peak. I remember that they then had a spectacular fall when Jim Bakker was revealed to have been having an affair, and their televangelist enterprise was revealed to have been crooked. I have a low opinion of televangelists and a low opinion of crooks, so certainly I had a mostly negative impression of them based on that. But I don’t remember thinking of them, or her in particular, as being as dishonest or slimy as the worst of that lot.

Of course like many people I thought her extreme bubbliness and wildly overdone make-up had more than a hint of the ridiculous about it.

I remember then seeing her years later show up in pop culture, most notably portraying Mimi’s mother in The Drew Carey Show. On the one hand, you could interpret that as her having sunk so low that she was willing to engage in self-parody to reclaim some minimal fame and an occasional paycheck, or you could interpret it as an admirable ability to laugh at herself. I suppose it came across more as the latter than the former to me; it didn’t rub me the wrong way. That is, I was probably both laughing at her and laughing with her, but I think doing more laughing with than laughing at.

So overall I had mixed feelings about her, to the quite limited extent I was aware of her or thought about her at all. I never hated her, but what negative feelings I did have about her were probably lessening with time as I saw her as someone who didn’t take herself too seriously.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is very much a sympathetic biography of her. It’s by gay filmmakers, motivated in part no doubt by wanting people to know how progressive she tended to be on gay issues, which I’m sure comes as a surprise to most people, like me, who hadn’t followed her career closely at all. But more on that in a moment.

Remember that it’s possible some of this is being spun to be more favorable toward her, but as the movie tells it, Jim and Tammy Faye were really, really good at what they did, but also in some respects a couple of innocents who could easily be taken advantage of. They had major charisma for a specific kind of audience, something that few if any other televangelists could match, but they also were routinely out-maneuvered by unscrupulous station owners, businesspeople, fellow televangelists, and the like. Multiple times they built something very successful out of nothing, only to have someone else then come in and take it over.

But let’s be more specific about what they, or Tammy Faye in particular, were so “good at.” I think the bulk of it had little to do with fundamentalist Christianity. Nor do I think, though I could be wrong, that their main skill was conning people out of their money on false pretenses. I get no sense, that is, that they were like exposed crooked faith healer Peter Popoff and his wife, caught on tape snickering about the suckers they were fooling.

Tammy Faye is more of a professional happy person than anything else. She couched it in Christian rhetoric, but in another culture or another time it could just as easily have been Buddhist rhetoric or New Age rhetoric or take your pick. The essence of her was that she loved to sing, smile, comfort, laugh, and love. She loved the limelight, and she would have hugged the whole world if she could. You can call that sickening or refreshingly joyful—and in reality I’m sure it has elements of both—but millions of people found her positivity infectious. Maybe they would have said they loved her because she was such a good Christian, but I really think the Christian part of it was secondary.

She expended a massive amount of energy just being Tammy Faye. As their success grew, they pushed themselves more and more. Then it sounds like Jim went overboard in his grandiose plans, and it just necessitated their pushing themselves all the more. They had always been in part about fundraising, but now it was incessant. They became like politicians who get trapped in the need to spend almost all their time raising money instead of doing their job, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to keep their job.

The main point of stress seemed to be the Christian theme park that was Jim’s great vision. Yes, they had fancy digs and lived a pretty luxurious lifestyle, but the overwhelming majority of the money they raised went to the theme park and other such money pits. They couldn’t admit these schemes were failures, so they kept working harder and harder at the fundraising to put off the day of reckoning, which incidentally means I doubt they had much time to enjoy those materialistic rewards they’d accumulated for themselves. It was destroying their emotional and physical health and their marriage, and evidently it led to at least some degree of financial wrongdoing to keep the house of cards standing, which in turn led to their disgrace and those memorable images of a tearful Jim Bakker being hauled off to prison.

The movie hints that the wrongdoing was exaggerated at the time, that the prosecution was in part a matter of their being an easy and satisfying target. Certainly Tammy Faye never ceased to insist they were innocent.

Substantively, though, she doesn’t seem to have much to say in their defense. It seems more passion and emotion, just an insistence that they—or especially she—never meant to do anything bad, and that it’s wrong to go after nice people who mean well. She’s about 80% emotions and 20% rationality to begin with, and on this emotionally powerful a matter of self-interest it’s not as if she articulates a clear point-by-point refutation of the accusations upon which they were convicted.

There’s a really interesting scene that illustrates this—and her general nature—quite well. The movie introduces a local journalist who broke a lot of the details of the scandal that brought down the Bakkers, and who later wrote a book about it. At one point he and Tammy Faye meet on camera in her home.

In reading a little about this movie online, I came across some reader comments about what a treat it was to see one of “those reporters” squirm when he was confronted by one of the people hurt by his sensationalism, but I didn’t see it that way at all. I thought the journalist was very reasonable and civil. His position was basically that as a responsible journalist he researched the story as best he could, checked and double checked things, listened to what all sides had to say (if they were willing to talk to him at all), and wrote his stories as accurately and fairly as he could. He conceded that even approaching the job in a responsible way like that didn’t guarantee infallibility, and that he was very open-minded for her to explain to him anything he got wrong, which he would then acknowledge.

But in my perception at least, she kept it on the level of emotion. He politely listened to her, but she couldn’t come up with much of anything in the way of particulars, as it was more about “we were well-motivated people trying to do good, and you people in the media persecuted us.”

Yet at the same time, once she got off her chest what she wanted to say, she just didn’t seem to have much ill will toward the journalist after all. They got to talking in a quite friendly manner, and he even asked her to autograph a copy of the book, which she happily agreed to. With a mischievous grin she told him she was signing it, “I forgive you,” and they had a laugh and by all appearances parted on good terms.

It’s like she wasn’t going to back down on the basic issue of whether she’d been treated fairly, but in the end that didn’t matter nearly as much to her as liking someone and being liked and having a positive interaction with them.

At least on a superficial, emotional level she defends herself and disagrees with her critics, but there’s no bitterness about her. She’s still all bubbly and caring toward all.

Incidentally, in the movie’s telling of events, the one person who comes off the worst is Jerry Falwell. If you want to talk about a snake, a character with no redeeming qualities who really is all about manipulating simple-minded people of faith for his own aggrandizement—financial, political, and otherwise—he’s your man.

He pretended he was coming in to help the Bakkers when the accusations started flying, while in fact all he was ever really doing was facilitating their fall so he could inherit all he found useful from their massive enterprise. Tammy Faye is far from a hateful person—on camera anyway—but the closest she comes to making an exception is the way she talks about Falwell. Jim (who is interviewed only minimally for this film) is pretty much of the same opinion of Falwell and his actions.

One thing that’s mentioned in the movie is that after the Bakkers’ fall, for many years Tammy Faye didn’t belong to a church, and indeed rarely if ever attended church services.

One way to respond to that is to cite it as evidence that the whole operation was a sham to begin with, that she was never motivated by Christianity the way she claimed.

I, though, see it as evidence of my earlier claim that the Christianity part was really secondary to her, that the primary purpose of their show, and pretty much of her career in general, was to make people feel good. It was to focus on encouragement, inspiration, song, laughter, etc. The Christianity was just a convenient vehicle to get people of a certain demographic to be more open to the pep talk.

I’m not saying she was conscious of all that, that she was just pretending to believe in the religion part for some kind of pragmatic reasons. She probably believed it in whatever superficial way people who are much more about emotion than reason are capable of believing things. But when religion was no longer useful in furthering her purpose of being famous and entertaining and uplifting people, it’s not surprising it diminished in importance in her life.

She did eventually make a small comeback in the televangelist world, and it’s actually kind of a nice moment in the film. She’s given the opportunity to perform before a large Christian audience—I don’t recall the details of the event—after years away, and she’s very nervous about how she’ll be received. Will she be treated as a crook, a hypocrite, someone who let Christians down, a joke? Will she be booed, laughed at, ignored?

In fact, she gets a very appreciative, welcome back ovation. Maybe in spite of all that is flawed or ridiculous about her, people still respond to her essence as someone who genuinely likes people and wants to make them happy.

As to the gay thing, there’s a striking clip from back in her televised ministry days with Jim where she’s pleading with viewers to love and care for AIDS victims. It’s really quite moving. There she is with tears in her eyes (I know, I know, that’s no big deal because she cried about four times an hour on the show), telling people that it’s their duty as Christians to comfort those suffering rather than to judge and hate them.

Remember, back then the fear and hatred toward gays, especially surrounding AIDS and especially in the fundamentalist Christian community, was even greater than today. This was back when President Reagan wouldn’t even utter the word “AIDS” publicly, let alone take any action against the epidemic. And instead of going along with the prevalent attitudes, Tammy Faye gave an emotional plea for love and understanding.

Did it make a difference? I’m sure most fundamentalist Christians who loved the show and loved Tammy Faye found a way to rationalize ignoring her on this particular issue and continuing to be as homophobic as ever, but it’s hard to believe there weren’t exceptions—people whose views softened or who at least were compelled to stop and think more about this issue because of what she said.

It wasn’t a one-time thing. The movie makes the point that she consistently manifested her same bubbly, supportive attitude toward gays as toward anyone else.

She raised some eyebrows after the “fall” by co-hosting a cable talk show with an openly gay man, again long before that was as ho hum as I suppose it would be today. This was during her “self-parody” phase, where she was doing just about anything she could to restart her career, so I suppose you can dismiss it as a publicity stunt (or as further evidence she was never a sincere fundamentalist Christian to begin with), but it didn’t trigger any such cynical conclusions in me. At least according to the movie, it was consistent with her being fully comfortable with gay people in general.

One gay man recalls with emotion how supportive she was when his lover died of AIDS, how she told him what a wonderful human being he had been and what a great loss his death was.

There’s a very interesting point when he—or another gay man in the film, I don’t recall—seemingly is about to make the point that in private life she was so much better on this issue than she was as a fundamentalist Christian public figure, but then he stops himself because he can’t in fact recall her using homophobic rhetoric even as a televangelist. It’s like he was assuming she did because that’s just part of the job, and he wanted to assure people that off camera and in her later years she was fine with gay people, but then he realized that maybe that assumption wasn’t even true.

I don’t know that her show with Jim really did lack all homophobia. But it probably had a heck of a lot less of it than one would expect from televangelists, in part because of her surprisingly progressive attitudes on the issue, and in part because it was a show that so much stressed the positive.

I don’t know how she reconciled her views on gays with fundamentalist Christianity. She probably didn’t bother. She was no theologian, and she probably never thought she needed to justify choosing “Love thy neighbor” over “Homosexuality is a terrible sin.” She just did because it was in her nature to do so.

I come away from The Eyes of Tammy Faye uneasy with Tammy Faye’s irrationality, her persecution complex, and her inability to take an honest and critical look at herself. But on the whole, my impression of her is more favorable than before I saw the film, and as noted I really didn’t feel all that unfavorably toward her coming in. For all her quirks, she devoted a good portion of her life to spreading her own sometimes kitschy, easily ridiculed versions of entertainment, joy, and love, and in the end is that really so bad?

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