It was 20 years ago – March 19, 1987 – that television evangelist Jim Bakker‘s PTL scandal shook the religious world.
It became a turning point for American Christianity and inadvertently made Bakker one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the 20th century.
Chances are you haven’t thought much about Bakker lately, but for almost two years in the late 1980s there was non-stop news coverage of the fallout from his sexual indiscretion and misuse of ministry donations.
Bakker’s resignation from one of the biggest ministries in America, which included a theme park with posh hotels, waterslides and a Christian mall, led to a “holy war” that erupted among other television evangelists that wanted Bakker’s supporters.
Newspapers won major awards for their coverage of the resulting scandals. ABC’s “Nightline” scored its highest ratings in history when Ted Koppel did the first Bakker interview three months after the story broke.
Polls showed the public ranked media ministers at the bottom of the trustworthiness scale, alongside lawyers and politicians.
Critics said it was the end of television evangelism. But here’s a startling reality check: 20 years later, nearly every one of those TV ministries is still on the air.
Bakker? After he spent almost five years in prison, during which wife Tammy Faye divorced him, he remarried and returned to the air with a second wife from his new headquarters in Branson, Mo.
Jimmy Swaggart? He tearfully begged for forgiveness after getting caught with prostitutes, his flock thinned and he televises his services today from an almost-vacant sanctuary
Oral Roberts? At one time he had more than 4 million viewers, but after years of struggling his son, Richard, carries on the ministry with a daily satellite broadcast.
The fraudulent tactics of faith healer Peter Popoff and get-rich-quick preacher Robert Tilton were uncovered by hidden camera exposes – but after years of legal troubles, both men are back on the air.
Iowa native Robert Schuller, Billy Graham, Kenneth Copeland and others survived the Bakker fiasco but suffered dramatic losses.
Within just one year, viewing levels of syndicated religious broadcasts dropped from 20 million to around 5 million, and ministries reported that donations dropped by up to 90 percent.
Other TV preachers lost momentum and impact.
Jerry Falwell‘s Moral Majority went from being credited for helping to elect Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to shutting down operations.
Pat Robertson, despite a strong showing in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, lost support for his presidential candidacy when the media exposed his unfulfilled prophecies and misrepresentations about his past.
Roberts had to shut down graduate schools after claiming God said he would be called “home” if he didn’t raise $8 million.
To avoid being associated with the scandal-plagued preachers, new ministries began holding services in warehouse buildings, removed crosses from sanctuaries and dropped requirements that members hold certain beliefs.
Best-selling books focused on grace, and some churches began to condemn attempts at upholding moral standards as “legalism.”
The new crop of television evangelists, such as Joel Osteen, emphasized happiness and prosperity while avoiding any mention of the demanding aspects of the New Testament.
Christianity Today pointed out the trend in this month’s issue.
One story about the Calvary Chapel ministry, which operates 400 radio stations including translator 89.7 FM outside of Des Moines, detailed a church culture of “easy forgiveness” that has resulted in accepted sexual misconduct by pastors and followers, leading to the conclusion that “these men cannot call sin sin.”
And a columnist on the subject of “What Jesus Says Doesn’t Match What We Usually Say” concluded that “mediocrity and hypocrisy characterize the lives of many avowed Christians.”
Jim Bakker’s son, Jay, who heads a radical ministry that started in an Atlanta bar and has expanded to New York and Charlotte, claims to be an evangelical, although he holds to few of the doctrines held by born-again believers.
He says his philosophy is that Jesus wouldn’t condemn anyone and is tolerant of all sin. But while he preaches his message of acceptance and claims to still have faith in the Bible as God’s inspired word, he strongly voices a lack of tolerance for believers that want to uphold traditional biblical standards.
Jay doesn’t want to be accused of false piety, so he has abandoned a lifestyle guided by spiritual standards.
Yet, such a response has resulted in a mediocre message often being preached, one that encourages followers to profess verbal belief without holding them-selves accountable for corresponding actions.
While many Christians struggle to live out a consistent faith, the impact of the PTL scandal could be that some who want to distance themselves from the likes of Bakker and Swaggart may be practicing the very hypocrisy they have tried to avoid.