The Redemption of a Televangelist

For decades, the mascara-laden Tammy Faye was relentlessly mocked. Maybe America got her wrong.

Tammy Faye (played by Jessica Chastain) applying makeup
Searchlight Pictures

A memorable scene in the new film The Eyes of Tammy Faye encapsulates the biopic’s modern perspective on its much-maligned subject.

A dashing and boyish TV preacher named Pat Robertson (played by Gabriel Olds) has thrown a swanky poolside soiree at his palatial Virginia mansion. The era is the early 1970s, and fundamentalist Christians are alarmed that progressive cultural movements—for civil rights, gender equality, and sexual liberation—are pushing America into so-called moral decline. Robertson has convened a who’s who of rising evangelical superstars, including the young televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain) and the Reverend Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio), who would later become the veritable leader of the religious right.

The male leaders sit underneath the veranda while their wives have been consigned to a side table. Refusing to be relegated, Tammy Faye drags a chair over to the head table, passes her crying infant to Jim, and inserts herself into the men’s conversation. A tense discussion ensues between Tammy Faye and a paternalistic Falwell, who sardonically calls her a “firecracker” and contends that Christians need to mobilize and fight against “the liberal agenda, feminist agenda, homosexual agenda.”

“I love our country,” Tammy Faye responds, “but America is for them too.” Falwell can barely suppress his displeasure. Then, she continues: “I don’t think of them as homosexuals; I just think of them as other human beings that I love. You know we’re all just people, made out of the same old dirt. And God didn’t make any junk!”

Tammy Faye (played by Jessica Chastain) joins a table of evangelical leaders
Searchlight Pictures

Whether this confrontation happened in real life is unclear. But its crystallization of Tammy Faye’s countercultural beliefs checks out. With her garish fashion and heavy makeup, she eventually became “one of the most ridiculed and vilified American religious figures of the 20th century,” Kate Bowler, a religious historian at Duke Divinity School, told me. The Eyes of Tammy Faye deliberately forces audiences to reckon with qualities that her lampooners at the time either didn’t know or didn’t care to learn: her radically inclusive faith, her defiance of stifling female norms, and her prescient rejection of the divisive partisanship that has since infested white evangelicalism. Chastain, who is also a producer of the film, has said that after she watched a 2000 documentary of the same name (from which the new movie was adapted), she became convinced that Tammy Faye had been misunderstood and mistreated—not unlike other public women who have been labeled ugly, emotional, or crazy. This film is determined to show that Tammy Faye was actually ahead of her time.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Jim and Tammy Faye were religious royalty. As the founders of PTL Ministries (an assumed nod to the saying “praise the Lord”), they reigned over a Christian television empire that grew to more than 2,500 employees and saw annual revenues of $129 million. Their 2,300-acre Heritage USA theme park was at one point the nation’s third-most-visited attraction after Disney World and Disneyland.

PTL’s satellite-television network beamed The PTL Club—commonly referred to as The Jim and Tammy Show—and other Christian-inflected shows into as many as 14 million American households and 40 countries daily. Jim was part preacher and part fundraiser, with well-coiffed silver hair and a perpetual grin. Tammy Faye was positively fabulous on camera, dancing and singing and often moved to tears. Roger Ebert once remarked that she reminded him of Lucille Ball.

On air, the couple broke from the stodgy, sermon-centric format of their peers. Jim and Tammy Faye believed that Christianity should be fun, so their shows blended upbeat spirituality with cooking, comedy, and discussions of mainstream pop culture. The Bakkers’ “breakthrough innovation,” wrote John Wigger in PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire, was The PTL Club’s Johnny Carson–style Christian-talk-show format, which attracted a procession of celebrity guests including Little Richard, Mr. T, and the heavyweight-boxing champion George Foreman.

Then, in 1987, the Bakkers’ kingdom imploded. Jim resigned from PTL after a sex scandal involving a church secretary, Jessica Hahn—who was 21 years old at the time of the encounter—and allegations of homosexual affairs, which Jim denied. Separately, two years later, Jim was convicted on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy from his time running the ministry.

Jim went to prison, and Tammy Faye became a punch line—mocked for her appearance, perceived lack of intelligence, childlike voice, and struggle with prescription-drug addiction. In a standup set, Jay Leno quipped, “More guys have come forth to say they’ve had sex with Jim Bakker, but not with Tammy. What would you choose? ‘Nah, I’ll take Jim.’” Saturday Night Live portrayed her as a moronic “good wife” sobbing rivers of mascara. The columnist Lewis Grizzard published an article with this zinger: “How is Tammy Faye Bakker’s face like a ski slope? Five inches of base, 6 inches of powder.”

The Eyes of Tammy Faye asks us to look again and look deeper. This kind of rethinking is part of a broader cultural propensity to reconsider women who were previously laughed at—Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, Marcia Clark—in a more human light.

With this perspective, Tammy Faye’s clothing, nails, and makeup are almost a form of rebellion. Throughout the new biopic, Chastain is adorned in oversize jewelry and bright costumes and strategically set against a backdrop of drab, pious women in order to highlight Tammy Faye’s aesthetic nonconformity. In the movie, as in real life, she refused to change the way she looked, even in the face of ridicule—the kind of stubborn self-expression that younger generations today might celebrate.

Most evangelical women in Tammy Faye’s time—especially the archetypal pastor’s wife—were expected to be submissive and not challenge the status quo. They were to be quiet and attractive, never loud or lurid. A woman like Tammy Faye supposedly existed to support her husband’s ministry and tend the home. But she demanded her own place next to Jim at the helm of their ministry. “She wasn’t just the sidekick; she was a bona fide star who openly broke the rules of female Christian piety,” said Bowler, who also wrote The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities. “She was not modest, she was not openly submissive, she was not an ex-missionary.”

While other evangelical preachers at the time were delivering fiery sermons that condemned sinners to hell, Jim and Tammy Faye spread a theology of God’s love with no qualifiers or caveats. In the ’80s and ’90s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis was claiming the lives of gay men and accompanied by widespread panic and misinformation, influential evangelical leaders—including Billy Graham—propagated the homophobic notion that AIDS was God’s judgment on gay and lesbian people for their sinful lifestyle.

But in 1985, Tammy Faye conducted a groundbreaking interview on PTL with Steve Pieters, a gay Christian battling AIDS. With tears streaming down her face, Tammy Faye lamented her fellow Christians’ judgment. “How sad that we as Christians—who are to be the salt of the earth, and we who are supposed to be able to love everyone—are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care,” Tammy Faye said.

The interview infuriated her most conservative viewers, but it helped to humanize the issue for countless Christians. The new movie renders the scene faithfully, and just as emotionally: At the screening of the film I attended last week, I heard quiet crying around the theater during this wrenching scene and caught myself wiping away tears too.

Tammy Faye’s son, Jay Bakker, told me that his mother often took him to visit AIDS hospices to “love on” gay and lesbian people. She once served as grand marshal in a Pride parade and led a crowd of drag queens in singing “Jesus Loves Me.” When asked why his mother was so beloved by the gay community, Jay told me, “Because gay folks know what it’s like to be scapegoated. They know what it’s like to be the butt of jokes. They know what it’s like to be hurt by other people and to live your truth anyway.”

In a contemporary light, vilifying Tammy Faye was cruel—but uncritically lionizing her misses the full story. As the Bible reminds us: “There is certainly no one righteous on the earth who does good and never sins,” and this includes Tammy Faye. Like all of us, she was part sinner and part saint. If you tell one half of the story without the other, you blow the whole equation.

“A charitable reading of her story says she was just a big believer in the goodness of God, that she wanted to belong and for others to belong,” Bowler told me. A skeptical take on her story might also note that she was complicit in a system that used spiritual manipulation to raise donations for personal gain, and never made amends for it.

Tammy Faye was never charged in connection with Jim's crimes, but—especially given her prominent role in the ministry—many doubted that she was completely in the dark. How could she not have known? And even if she didn’t, she helped prop up an exploitative system through her telethons, persuading viewers to donate money with the promise of divine blessings. Tammy Faye’s faith might have been inclusive and unconventional for her time, but arguably the central tenet of her theology was the “prosperity gospel,” which asserts that God rewards obedience with good health and material wealth. The belief persists today, most notably among Donald Trump’s spiritual advisers, but it has been derided by many Christians as a “false doctrine” and broadly dismissed by secular America for its obvious failure to deliver on its core promise. According to Bowler, this theology “is often a dark and painful message for those who fail to achieve health and wealth and happiness and whose actual lives aren’t a gleaming testimony of God’s goodness.”

Tammy Faye died of cancer in 2007, at age 65. Although plenty of her fellow Christians abandoned her after the ignominy of PTL’s public undoing, many in the gay community defended her, Jay Bakker told me. “The church never gave grace or forgiveness. They chose to judge us, to use my parents as an example of what not to be like,” he said. With The Eyes of Tammy Faye, show business, which she gave so much of herself to, is redeeming her too. “The gay community, and now Hollywood, is doing the job that the church never did.”