Tammy Faye’s glitzy God put on the ritz
Cosmetic titans loved the free publicity Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner gave them when she ruled Christian TV in the 1980s with her first husband Jim Bakker. Messner used gobs of eyeliner. Whereas Jesus’ perspiration in the Garden of Gethsemane mixed with red clay so he appeared to sweat great drops of blood, Tammy constantly became teary-eyed, causing her mascara to run. It formed rivulets of dark lines down her cheeks.Messner died on July 21 from cancer. A mere 65 pounds at the end, with a gasping voice she appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” the night before her demise. She testified to her faith in Jesus, never losing her trademark way of speaking. Messner on camera, when her Christian ministry show ruled Christian broadcasting in the 1980s, never really spoke words. She gushed them, like a merry mountain stream rushing down a slope in spring.Adorned with trademark makeup dripping down her sunken cheeks, Messner told Larry King how she believed even death wouldn’t break the bond with her Savior. “I believe when I leave this earth,” she said, “because I love the Lord, I am going straight to heaven.” When questioned about having any regrets, she said, “I don’t think about it, Larry, because it’s a waste of good brain space.”Messner had strayed from the biblical caution about keeping riches in check when she ruled the Trinity Christian network as celebrity queen of sentimental Christianity. She needed to be reminded of the Apostle Paul’s wise counsel in both penny-pinching days and times not so lean. “I know how to be abased,” he wrote, “and I know how to abound” Philippians 4:12. Messner’s messy mascara symbolized an off-based Christianity into which millions invested their lives. Her streaking eyeliner respecting no bounds became a premier symbol of greed and opulence gone wild in 1980s American pop religion.Road to richesShe told of growing up in a restrictive Christian household where the Devil enticed saintly girls with make-up to make them look like strumpets. The first time she put on mascara, she quickly wiped it off, lest she look like a victim the Devil had caught in his lair. She didn’t think Jesus wanted to see her looking like a tramp with make-up on.Then she looked at her common face in the mirror. “Why can’t I do this?” she asked herself. “If it makes me look prettier, why can’t I do this?” So, she went overboard, making a career of caking on mascara. She loved to abound in putting on her face.Skeptics ridiculed Messner as cartoonish. She married Jim Bakker in 1961 after meeting him at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, Minn. They started a puppet ministry which evolved into such a gargantuan operation that Messner started looking like a ditzy, glitzy gal who puppeted a slick gospel. She and Bakker hit big-time with their popular PTL ministries, which stood for “Praise the Lord” or “People that Love.” Critics of the husband and wife team, saw Jesus paraded down the Ritz, said PTL stood for “Pass the Loot.”The Bakkers became effective spiritual hucksters on the “Jim and Tammy Show.” Their Heritage USA Christian theme park featured a 500-room hotel, a plush TV studio, a cavernous shopping mall to buy Jesus trinkets, a water amusement park in which devotees could vacation as they were baptized in the Spirit, and kindred other spiritual investments employing 2,000 workers. In 1992 Bakker went to prison for defrauding millions of the faithful. Messner then married Roe Messner who built Heritage USA before being convicted of bankruptcy fraud. He served about a two-year jail term. Though in the center of these scandals, Tammy Faye Messner was never convicted. She preyed on the poor, spreading a polluted gospel that goes by several names and still is highly popular. Some dub it the “Prosperity Gospel.” A “Health and Wealth Gospel” captivates others. Legacy leftIn its lead story for its July edition, Christianity Today magazine featured “Health and Wealth in Africa: How the Prosperity Gospel is Taking a Continent by Storm.” Like a ghostly Hamlet’s father, Messner’s apparition runs through much African evangelism that sells. People want Jesus to make them healthy, spoil them with big bucks, grant them a mental buzz and anoint them with success.”While Christians of all types and times have relied on God’s material provision,” we read in Christianity Today, “the kind of blessings that such preachers [in Africa] often promise-such as divine expectation of abundant wealth, runaway professional success, and unassailable physical and emotional health-spring from a relatively recent brand of religious thought.”It’s hard for the poor not to covet and for the rich not to become showy. Balancing when we are abased by lean budgets and when we abound with fat wads of cash isn’t easy. As a Scottish proverb reminds us, “It is more difficult to carry a full cup than an empty one.”Two centuries ago our nation’s founders respected French philosopher Montesquieu’s insights. The way “to attack a religion is by favor, by the commodities of life, by the hope of wealth…” he observed. Wreck religion by making it glitzy.Messner in the 1980s piled glitz on God, like gobs of mascara on her face. Millions still adore this divine facial, but God rejects it. He’s camera shy, isn’t He. God doesn’t walk down the Ritz, the road where Messner found glitzy fame. The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.