On the latest episode of Stay Tuned, “Evangelical America & Trump,” Tim Alberta, the author of The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, told Preet about the concerning trends in Evangelical Christianity toward Christian Nationalism and conspiratorial thinking – and the malign impact on national politics. Another perilous moment for the relationship between the Evangelical Church and American government came in the late 1980s, when Congress briefly and tensely looked into television ministries following televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s mushrooming financial and sex scandals.

The 1980s reckoning in the Evangelical community surrounded the husband-wife ministry team of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In 1986, the Bakker’s massive North Carolina-based evangelical ministry, PTL (an acronym for both “Praise the Lord” and “People That Love”) brought in $129 million. The duo’s television show reached some 12 million people. The couple had a creationism-centric amusement park, the 2,300-acre Heritage USA, that was the third-most-popular in the country, after just Disneyworld and Disneyland. 

In early 1987, however, the Charlotte Observer revealed that Bakker had paid Jessica Hahn, a church secretary who claimed he had sexually assaulted her in 1980, $265,000 to withhold her accusations. As the sex scandal deepened, reports also surfaced that PTL had grossly mismanaged its finances and had promised its subscribers a number of perquisites that had not been delivered, including glamorous stays at the towering PTL-owned Heritage Grand Hotel. By August 1987, Bakker was under investigation by a federal grand jury for several overlapping fraud allegations. 

While the fall of the Bakkers is a famous tale – Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain played the couple in the vaunted 2021 film The Eyes of Tammy Faye – the response in Washington has been largely forgotten.

Congress did not exactly formally investigate the televangelist community writ large amid the Bakker drama. Instead, Texas Democrat J.J. Pickle, Chair of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, took a very narrow glimpse into the tax-exempt status of PTL and other massive television ministries, coordinating with an IRS audit of 25 churches. 

Pickle was an LBJ-acolyte who had taken Johnson’s House seat after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. He had long been a whistleblower. He led a charge in the early 1970s to examine President Nixon’s relationship with the International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) Corporation and offered hearings in the early 1980s on the financial vulnerabilities of private pension plans. Despite his critiques of big business corruption, however, the Washington Post’s Michael Isikoff described Pickle as “a soft-spoken middle-of-the-roader.” 

In July 1987, Pickle wrote a letter to twelve leading Evangelists, including the Bakkers, asking them to appear before the Oversight Subcommittee: 

Recent events surrounding the PTL . . . have cast shadows on television evangelical ministries which I feel need to be explored more fully in public.

Pickle received the early support of one letter receiver, Moral Majority and Liberty University head Jerry Falwell (who Alberta discussed at length with Preet). Falwell had stepped in, not particularly enthusiastically, to host PTL after Bakker’s fall. Falwell met with Pickle privately shortly after receiving the letter, and told the press that he supported the idea of Pickle’s hearing: 

I think PTL graphically proves that we in the media ministry need a greater sense of accountability and openness…The point is made that we do need to police ourselves far more carefully. And we are open to listening to advice. 

By September, however, Pickle was on the defensive amid a slew of negative mail from Evangelicals. He told the press: 

I’m getting a lot of mail from the public, from all over the country, saying we’re trying to take [the ministries] off the air. Nothing is further from the truth. We’re not going to take anyone off the air.  

And on the eve of the hearings, the National Religious Broadcasters, an organization to which most of the evangelists belonged, issued a belligerent fundraising mailer that asked for a “warchest” for the ministers. The mailer said, in an intriguing nod to the Iran-Contra Affair: 

[The hearings are] the beginning of a new ‘inquisition’ in which religious broadcasters will be put under the same torturous, unwarranted scrutiny that Oliver North and others have endured for lo these many months.

The “warchest” notwithstanding, the Oversight Subcommittee convened on October 6th, 1987 for a hearing entitled “Federal Tax Rules Applicable to Tax-Exempt Organizations Involving Television Ministries.” The Bakkers were not in attendance, though several other famed televangelists, Falwell included, were there. The entire hearing transcript is available on Google Books

The continued sensitivity of Congress’s involvement in a church issue led Pickle’s opening statement to read almost like a preemptive apology: 

I think Congress and the administration historically have been reluctant to look very closely at tax issues involving religious organizations. And certainly the politically safe and easy course would be to ignore this area of the Tax Code. But the fact remains that we have Federal laws that affect churches and religious organizations. Congress is responsible for the existence of those laws and the executive branch is responsible for the enforcement of those laws. We just simply cannot ignore that responsibility.

Following Pickle’s cautious opening, three IRS officials offered very general statements about ensuring that churches retained their 501(c)3 status by paying taxes on any business pursuits that were not directly religious – like for hotels at amusement parks – and to avoid making political statements supporting specific candidates or legislation. 

The tone shifted markedly once D. James Kennedy, the first televangelist witness, took the stand. Kennedy, the minister at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, had an audience of more than 3 million for his Coral Ridge Hour. Despite Pickle’s assurances to the contrary, Kennedy accused the Subcommittee and the IRS of mounting a broad investigation into American churches: 

I believe that we have here something which has a potential danger to it.I  think this is a dangerous departure from 200 years of practice in this country, that for the first time in the history of the Nation that we have the Congress of the United States investigating churches. I think this is an extraordinarily dangerous precedent that is being set. I am fearful of the camel’s nose in the tent.

Kennedy also invoked the anti-religious specter of the USSR as a model of what the IRS could become if the audits expanded: 

We need to remember that in every despotism that exists in the world today, whether it is the Soviet Union or any place else, always they put the church under the Federal Government. In the Soviet Union the church is under the Department of Cults and is totally controlled by that Department, and I think that we need to be careful that we do not turn the IRS into a Department of Cults.

Pickle, at this point a bit of a broken record, pushed back on Kennedy’s catastrophist rhetoric: 

We are not investigating anybody. We are not investigating any churches. We are not making any recommendations. Any assumption that we are investigating churches is erroneous. We are considering only whether these charitable organizations are complying with the Tax Code.

Falwell was much more accommodating than Kennedy about the overall goals of the hearing, arguing that the PTL scandal was akin to Watergate and showing sympathy for the anxiety of the legislators: 

I feel that it is your business to look at what has become a major Watergate for all of New Testament Christianity in our country; namely, the PTL situation. I also understand you are walking a tightrope, and I perceive from listening to what I have heard that you are as nervous about this as we are, because there is a lot at stake for all of us. 

Near the end of his appearance, Falwell looped back to the Watergate theme: 

Running on the Republican ticket in 1976 was tough. Being on television as a preacher today, after PTL, is tough. We will survive it, but when it is all over we will be better for it.

Despite his willingness to admit wrongdoing within the movement, Falwell was more lukewarm, in his reaction to a suggestion from another pastor that more churches file Form 990s, disclosure forms that nonprofits could use to better inform the government and public of their programs (churches today generally still do not have to file 990s unless they make auxiliary income). 

Falwell suggested that any form of compulsory 990 filing would lead to a major rebellion: 

I think that you will find an uproar that none of us could handle if we begin suggesting that 400,000 churches and synagogues be compelled to file 990s.

He also argued that fraudsters would still operate regardless of requiring more stringent disclosure forms – and delivered a potent guilt by association dig in the process: 

If this Congress had, in fact, compelled long ago 990s of everybody, you would not have prevented Jim Jones or Jim Bakker from doing what they did. That would not have stopped it.

Another high-profile evangelist who agreed to appear was Oral Roberts, whose evangelical ministry, university, and medical school brought in some $120 million a year and employed 2,300 people at his Oklahoma headquarters. 

After Roberts offered similarly cooperative but cautionary words as Falwell, Subcommittee member and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan bluntly asked Roberts his real feelings about the Congress’s involvement in the PTL fallout: 

Some have said that they feel these hearings are inappropriate because they threaten religious freedom. How do you feel about coming to these hearings? Do you have a problem with these hearings?

Roberts then let loose with a bit more confrontational questioning of whether the Subcommittee had overstepped its jurisdiction: 

Well, I guess you want the bottom line with me. I am not used to running around in circles and trying to answer a question. I thought about requesting that I not appear. It seems to me like it is on the raw edge of the Constitution. But I am not built like that. I just do not run. I came up here because you asked me. 

After the ministers finished, the Subcommittee heard from Richard Yao, a young banker and Yale Divinity School graduate who had left the fundamentalist arm of evangelical Christianity preached by most of the televangelists at the hearing. Yao had started Fundamentalists Anonymous, a group of some 40,000 ex-practitioners, many of whom had felt cheated or manipulated. As time expired in his testimony, Yao underlined what he saw as the fundamental issue with the financial windfalls of televangelists: 

In the gospels, Jesus with great fury cast out those who sold and bought in the temple. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. God’s house is a house of prayer, but they have turned it into a den of thieves. Today, the merchants and the moneychangers have made their way back into the temple again. Today, they are preying upon the elderly, the poor and the infirm again. Today, God’s temple cries out for cleansing from this great defilement. 

Almost 40 years after Yao’s warning and the larger confrontation between Congress and the cloth, Alberta showcases the continued drift of much of the evangelical community into bald-faced politics and profiteering – and the dangers of another election year with such a strew of incendiary religiosity. 

In addition to Alberta’s book, check out Frances FitzGerald’s 2017 The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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