This is the grave of Tammy Faye Bakker.
Born in 1942 in International Falls, Minnesota, Tamara Faye LaValley was born to a pair of Pentecostal ministers. But her parents divorced shortly after, turning her mother against religion for awhile, though the family came back to it, unfortunately. Tammy Faye, as she was already known, attended North Central Bible College in Minneapolis. There, she met a young preacher named Jim Bakker. They married almost immediately, in 1961, dropping out of the college and moved to start a ministry in South Carolina. They worked together as religious grifters, figuring out all the new ways to make a buck on religion. He would preach and she would sing and play the accordion. I think the latter bit dropped out after they got big, but I may be misremembering here.
Like a lot of young ministers in the early 1960s, the Bakkers looked to television as the way to really make it big. As early as 1964, they were running a puppet show for children on Pat Roberton’s Christian Broadcasting Network, as well as having their own children’s show. They worked for Robertson until 1973. The next year, these grifters started The PTL Club, which stood for Praise the Lord. This was going to be their new ticket for greater wealth and fame. They ran this out of Charlotte, that home for soulless suburban post-civil rights white evangelicalism pioneered in that city by Billy Graham. The PTL Club was pure over-the-top modern fundamentalism. Tammy Faye would talk about Christ and start crying, Jim would ask for money, and both would preach a prosperity gospel that told all those newly upwardly mobile white southerners that God loved them because they were getting wealthy and He would love them even more if they sent the Bakkers some extra cash. This became an enormous money generator, among the mos successful for religious grifters of the era. The PTL Club became a huge corporate entity and a slush fund for their founders. Making it even worse was the founding of Heritage USA, an explicitly evangelical theme park that would become hugely popular with the idiots who watched them.
Now, to be fair I suppose, Tammy Faye was an unusual figure in this movement. They were not the first couple to make a buck off religion. But this was an extraordinarily patriarchal tradition. Women might be involved as singers, but they were not dominant personalities. But Tammy Faye was a dominant personality, perhaps more so than Jim. Moreover, she provided a version of evangelicalism that was a) massively over the top with the makeup and the hair and the nails and b) was purely emotive in a way that would allow her to express sympathy with AIDS patients and drug users in an era where both were demonized in society. We shouldn’t overstate any of this, nor should we forget that Tammy Faye was always a grifter. One can be looking for the big payoff and actually believe some of this stuff. She later became something of a gay icon due to her fashion, if that’s what we want to call it, and her general sympathy for the gay community. Well, it’s not up to me who various communities want to lionize, but I don’t think anyone should be doing so without remembering just how much cash Tammy Faye and her hubby were grifting off their idiot viewers and listeners. It was cash all the way down–direct fundraising on television, selling records, the theme park, of course all sorts of goods.
As it was with many stealing preachers in the late 80s, the house of cards the Bakkers built came tumbling down. The key part of this was the payoff to keep Jessica Hahn silent after Jim either raped her or they had an affair, which depends on who you ask. Quite a Christian there. Then there was the opulent spending, including the air conditioned dog house for Tammy Faye’s pup. Their house burned down soon after, but I’m not sure if it was under suspicious circumstances. The PTL soon went bankrupt. I don’t really know why–part of the appeal of the Bakkers to their followers was the ridiculous opulence. When all they do is tell you how great you are for being rich, why would they not act rich too? In any case, this, along with scandals that caught Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart, put a serious dent in the world of televised evangelicalism in these years.
Tammy Faye stuck it out with Jim for awhile, but after he was sent to prison for stealing so much money, which she didn’t get charged with, she finally divorced him in 1992. The next year, she married a California property developer named Roe Messner, who was also an evangelical lunatic. They had another big spread near Charlotte. He had gotten rich in part by being the lead contractor in building Heritage USA and was in fact they guy who had paid off Jessica Hahn. So it’s not as if we are talking about a real break from the past for Tammy Faye here. Then he himself got busted for bankruptcy fraud and went to prison for a couple of years too. Tammy Faye could sure pick em.
By 1997, Tammy Faye was ready to go back into the spotlight. She hosted a talk show with Jim J. Bullock (there’s a name I hadn’t thought of in a long time!), wrote her autobiography, and agreed to have a documentary made about her. Narrated by RuPaul, The Eyes of Tammy Faye came out in 2000. It’s interesting enough. But I repeat that this is very far from an admirable figure and should be an icon to no one. Jim was unquestionably an even bigger scumbag than she was, but she still sucked. She did, to her credit, become an even more open ally to the queer community later in her life. She was also suffering from colon cancer by 1997 and cancer struggles would define the rest of her life. She was quite open about this and appeared frequently on TV to talk about it. Her last appearance on TV was on July 18, 2007, on Larry King Live, to say goodbye to her fans. She died two days later. She was 65 years old.
Well, I suppose we should watch some of Tammy Faye’s work, if one wants to call it that.
Had no idea Capt. Steubing was an evangelical.
Shudder, all around.
Tammy Faye Bakker (I know the grave says Messner, but for the public, she’s known by one name and I’m running with it) is buried in Waldron Cemetery, Waldron, Kansas. Let me give you some vague directions here. Go to Wichita. Then drive about 50 miles west. Then turn left on a dirt road for 10 miles. Hope you don’t breakdown or a cow doesn’t interfere with your drive. Then, just before you get to the Oklahoma line, turn left on another dirt road. Go down about a mile. Get out of the car at the cemetery. Then, if my experience is normal, brave the 105 degree and biting flies to find her grave. As you can see, I am not the first pioneer to this remote location. It is complete coincidence that this post is on the 14th anniversary of her death.
This is the 3rd of the 64 graves I visited on my recent trip to the south central U.S. I was pretty pleased with this one. If you would like this series to visit other American evangelicals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Greg Bahnsen is in Los Angeles and James Montgomery Boice is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.