Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

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From the Editor:

Beating Up on the New Atheists

Romney and the Mormon Moment

The Democrats Get Religion

No More Mr. Nice Pope

Establishing Religion by Executive Order

The Gospel According to South Park

People Who Loved Tammy Faye



The People Who Loved Tammy Faye
y Christine McCarthy McMorris

On July 19, a skeletal, nearly unrecognizable Tammy Faye Messner, in the final stages of metastatic colon cancer, made her last stand on CNN’s Larry King Live. In obvious pain, she struggled to tell the world beyond the camera lens that she had no regrets (“it’s a waste of brain space”) and not to worry. “[B]ecause I love the Lord,” she said, “I am going straight to Heaven.”

Who could be surprised by Tammy Faye’s wish to appear on television (via her home in Kansas City) in her final hours? And when she died the morning after the interview aired, who could be surprised that her husband Roe Messner should call King to ask him to announce the passing of the former First Lady of Christian Television. For decades, her public triumphs, personal disasters, and wacky reinventions had all played out in the media’s warm glare.

Reporting her death put mainstream journalism in touch with its inner tabloid.

Tammy Faye and first husband Jim Bakker, wrote Anita Gates in the July 22 New York Times, “built a commercial empire around television evangelism only to see it collapse in sex and money scandal.” The Washington Post’s Adam Bernstein played up the gulf between Messner’s hardscrabble Minnesota upbringing (“the family lacked indoor plumbing”) and her ’80s-style affluence, complete with “vintage cars, hefty bonuses, expensive vacations and eccentric spending, including an air-conditioned dog house.”

And like virtually every other paper, Dennis McLellan’s Los Angeles Times obit called attention to her “heavily made-up” and “mascara-laden” eyes even as it described the $265,000 in hush-money paid by Jim Bakker to church secretary Jessica Hahn to cover-up their “sexual encounter” in a Florida hotel room in 1980.

Few stories forgot to mention the Bakkers’ war with Jerry Falwell, who briefly assumed control of their collapsing televangelical empire, or Tammy Faye’s bankruptcy, her addiction to painkillers, her first (and second) husbands’ stints in prison, and her reincarnation as a TV personality—including hosting, in’s words, “the Jim J. and Tammy Faye show with gay actor Jim J. Bullock.”

Amidst this juicy catalogue, the judgments ranged from the condemnatory to the understanding.

On July 24, an editorial in the Dallas Morning News went so far as to suggest that Tammy Faye’s cancer had been a just punishment for her “burlesque style of televangelism.” According to the paper, her final appearance on Larry King Live proved that the “power of positive thinking was no offense against the grave’s assault on her gaudy artifice.”

“[I] know something about the fruits of her labor and how they, as history in her lifetime proved, turned rotten,” exclaimed Knoxville News Sentinel columnist Ina Hughs July 26.

On the other hand, Hartford Courant columnist Susan Campbell wrote July 24 how Messner’s own troubled life enabled her to empathize with all sorts of people in pain: “I think Tammy Faye embraced them all because she knew better than most what it is to be an outsider.” As for Messner’s over-the-top appearance, Campbell insisted, “If you grow up cold and hungry, you earn the right to define your own aesthetic.”

If Tammy Faye got giggles, potshots, and a dose of sympathy from the mainstream media, it was mostly the silent treatment from her sometime peers in the evangelical world.

On July 21, Pat Robertson’s CBN did report her death, wrapping up its report with a sneer: “The former evangelist also appeared on a 2004 VH1 reality television series, The Surreal Life, in which she stayed in a Los Angeles home with a porn star, a rapper, and several actors.”

Among evangelical bigwigs, Robertson alone took note, even issuing a terse statement that sounded a positive note: “Her bravery in the midst of her suffering will be an inspiration to many.”

It was her embrace of the gay community that seemed to make Tammy Faye persona non grata to evangelicals. In his August 5 column on the conservative website, Baptist pastor and Christian radio host Paul Edwards took issue with Tammy Faye’s “so-called gospel”: “Tammy Faye put her arms around the gay community, never telling them the truth about their sin.”

In fact, most of the obits mentioned that Tammy Faye had a fan base among gay men, and quoted her affirmation on her final Larry King Live appearance, “When we lost everything, it was the gay people that came to my rescue, and I will always love them for that.”

In an article in Slate July 23, Michelle Tsai tackled the question of how Tammy Faye became a “gay icon,” suggesting that it was her trashy yet fabulous clothes and makeup that set her up for gay adulation. Tsai posited that female gay icons from Billie Holiday to Judy Garland “are often powerful women who are also marginalized and vulnerable.”

It didn’t hurt that in 2000, two (gay) men, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, made a documentary entitled “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” Narrated by drag queen Ru Paul, the film followed Tammy Faye as she railed against her enemies (and gave makeup tips!), becoming a cult hit in the gay community.

But for many gay men, especially younger ones, it was not just her status as diva, which amounted to an impersonation of a drag queen, that made Tammy Faye a revered figure. It was her outspoken acceptance of homosexuality.

The Washington Blade, D.C.’s gay newspaper, ran an informative article by Joey Digugliemo July 27 that praised her as “the first evangelist to have a gay man with AIDS” on a TV show. In an appearance at the 2002 D.C. Capital Pride parade and festival, she not only sang “Amazing Grace” but  also judged a Tammy Faye lookalike contest.

Digugliemo noted that she consistently spoke out against anti-gay discrimination in the Christian church. In a 2002 interview in the Advocate (the largest national gay publication), she advised parents of gays or lesbians, “Accept that child. Love that child. Hold onto that child….That’s how Jesus loved.”

Her public stance inspired eulogies from gays and lesbians across the country, including hundreds of pages of comments on the website A few examples:

     • In spite of—perhaps because of the hardships she faced, she embraced us…     she will be long-remembered and long missed.”
                      —Matt Foreman, Executive Director, National Gay and Lesbian                          Task Force

     • One of my heroes passed away….Because of Tammy Faye, many gay and       lesbian people who had been cast aside by the church were able to know that,       despite what some “Christians” may say, God loves them.
                       —Hamza Darrell Grizzle, Blog of the grateful bear

     • Tammy, if there is a heaven, you are going there. We love you for how much       you helped our community and for your real christian love.” 
                       — condolence page forum writer

     • We will always remember Tammy Faye Messner as a woman of God who         reached beyond the boundaries to include all people. 
                    —official statement by Rev. Nancy Elder, Metropolitan Community                         Churches

Tammy Faye’s ashes were buried during a private memorial in Kansas. Leading the service was Rev. Randy McCain, the gay pastor of the Open Door Community Church in Sherwood, Arkansas.

In an exclusive account written for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette July 28, McCain remembered his “boyhood spiritual alienation” and recalled finding solace watching the “cheery and upbeat” Tammy Faye on the PTL Club. “I cannot count the times I got through the night thanks to the light from the eyes of Tammy Faye.”

Not everyone in the mainstream media missed the point.

Jan Tuckerwood of the Palm Beach Post captured the spirit of the moment, writing on July 24 “Tammy Faye went out like she came in: Painted but positive. Fake but real. Ready for her close-up with Jesus.”

And while Miami County [Kansas] Republic’s Jan Sykes didn’t pass up the chance to paint Messner as “a tad bit vacuous,” her August 1 column got to bottom of it: “Tammy Faye did what she had to do to be able to forgive Bakker. She even ultimately forgave Jerry Falwell. Her outward cheap glitter was real gold inside.”


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