“Without Them, I’m Not Me…”

These are the words that Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) uses to describe her outrageous eyelashes in the opening of the documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000).  I’ve said in several places that I feel like we are in a hey-day of religious documentaries.  Any discussion of this genre must include this insightful film about one of televangelism’s most (in)famous figures.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a predecessor to the likes of JesusCamp and Hell House in its treatment of various elements of conservative evangelical Christianity, sheds light on the infamous rise and fall of former televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker and her husband Jim.  Once the pinnacle of Christian broadcasting, she developed a drug addiction and endured a financially corrupt, unfaithful husband and a history of business rejections.  After her husband’s conviction of fraud, Tammy Faye lived a life of virtual exile in southern California.  While we might be quick to judge what appears to be another religious cheat, the film reveals the good that their ministries did accomplish, especially their prophetic outreach to members of the AIDS and gay communities in the late ’70s and early ’80s.  During her exile, the gay community embraced Tammy Faye, and she became something of an icon for them as they returned the favor.  Tammy Faye died tragically on July 20, 2007 of inoperable cancer.

Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato and narrated by RuPaul Charles, The Eyes of Tammy Faye shows just how integral Jim and Tammy Faye were in the development of Christian broadcasting.  Responsible for the creation of the most influential Christian programming and networks today like the Christian Broadcasting Network’s The 700 Club and Trinity Broadcasting Network, they were often shoved out by the likes of Pat Robertson and Paul Crouch once they realized the power and popularity of these programs.  After this “mistreatment” Jim and Tammy Faye founded PTL (Praise the Lord) and Heritage Ministries which saw huge financial gains and burdens that would eventually lead to their demise.

The film also exposes the devious intervention of Rev. Jerry Falwell as their ministry, and Jim’s personal life, began to collapse.  In what cannot be considered anything other than extortion, Rev. Falwell convinced Jim to hand over his ministries to him as the news about his affair with Jessica Hahn was just about to break.  When it was clear that Jim and Tammy Faye could never return to their once powerful status, Rev. Falwell sent a messenger to them and told them that he would take care of them, offering to pay their salaries and provide benefits for one more year.  He told them to just write down their requests on a piece of paper and he would take care of them.  As soon as he received Tammy Faye’s stationery, he went before a live newscast and treated the list as a list of demands made by a prideful Jim and Tammy Faye.  They then knew it was all over.

With her husband in jail, Tammy Faye had few people to turn to.  Living a solitary life, she gradually crept back into the public eye in both religious and secular audiences.  She performed at Oral Roberts University and then co-hosted a day-time talk show with an openly gay co-host.  No doubt in light of this film, she also participated in VH1’s The Surreal Life.

While Tammy Faye could be seen as something of an enigma or a contradiction, we could also see her as a person of sincere, genuine faith who refused to judge others, even when so many people judged her.  Here was a woman who lived and worked in the bastion of conservative evangelical Christianity, yet threw her arms open wide for members of the AIDS and gay community, people who a large portion of this branch of Christianity have traditionally rejected.  In fact, the documentary employs Mel White, president and co-founder of Soulforce Ministries, as something of an apologist for Tammy Faye.

Jim and Tammy Faye seemed like an easy target for demonization and no doubt were in the mainstream media and conservative evangelical Christian circles.  As Christian entertainer Pat Boone put it, “We have the tendency to kill our wounded.”  Yet The Eyes of Tammy Faye reveals a different story.  It paints a picture of a woman, committed to sharing God’s love, whose success in doing so (perhaps?) consumed her and, especially, her husband Jim.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye (79 mins.) is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and is available on DVD.