IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Through it all, Tammy Faye never wavered

Tammy Faye Messner, who died Friday of cancer at 65, was many things, but she was never a hypocrite. She was always sincere, in her faith and in herself.  Commentary by’s Alex Johnson.
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, Jim Bakker
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner and her then-husband, television evangelist Jim Bakker, talk to their TV audience at their PTL ministry near Fort Mill, S.C., in August 1986.Lou Krasky / AP file

There was simply no room in Tammy Faye Messner’s tiny body for even an ounce of guile.

Messner, who died Friday of cancer at 65, was many things. She was a pioneer of Christian television. She was a gay icon. She was a great symbol of fun for social commentators to poke at — the makeup industry’s wildest dream and worst nightmare.

She was never a hypocrite. She was always sincere, in her faith and in herself.

For all the fame and wealth she and her first husband, Jim Bakker, reveled in before their PTL television ministry came crashing down, Tammy — instantaneously recognizable by her first name — was first and foremost an evangelist, in the old-school sense of the word. She loved luxury and she loved fame, and she didn’t care what you thought about that. If her flamboyance got your attention long enough for her to try to bring you to her God, she was happy to oblige.

It is important to remember that Tammy herself was never seriously implicated in any of the scandals that were attached to her two husbands: Bakker, who fronted PTL and its Ponzi scheme of selling far more lifetime vacations to believers than it could provide, and Roe Messner, who built Heritage USA and became the nation’s largest church builder before going to prison for bankruptcy fraud.

Tammy got into many of her fixes not because she was vain or scheming, but because she was utterly naive. She didn’t grasp how the excesses of the PTL lifestyle — the mansion in Tega Cay, S.C., the jets, the air-conditioned doghouse — could be seen as worldly materialism. To Tammy, they were proof of God’s generosity. You, too, could have them. You just had to believe and pray hard enough — “You don’t have to be dowdy to be a Christian,” she once said.

She believed in Jim Bakker, whom she married at 19 while at seminary. She believed in Jerry Falwell when he swooped in to “save” PTL. When they failed her, she clung even more reverently to God.

“I am extremely joyful,” she said three years ago in an interview with MSNBC. “The Lord says he will not put more on us than we can bear. And the Bible says, in everything, give thanks, for this is the will of God and Christ Jesus concerning you.”

Even the cancer that killed her was a key to open doors, she believed.

“It gives me an opportunity to talk about Jesus,” she told MSNBC in 2004. “It gives me an opportunity to tell people that God is able, no matter what situation that you find yourself in, to go forward, live one day at a time. And keep a positive attitude.”

A Christianity not so conservative
Her life’s calling was to bring that message to everyone. She believed God made and loved all His people, so she loved them, too, even those who scorned her, and even those — especially those — whom society scorned.

Way back during the “PTL Club” days, when many other religious figures were pointing to AIDS as God’s retribution against homosexuality, Tammy embraced gays and lesbians with HIV. When she became a figure of high-camp gay fascination in the 1990s, she embraced that role, too. As a fervent Assemblies of God lay leader, she definitely believed homosexuality was wrong, but she refused to believe that homosexuals themselves were anything other than God’s children.

“We’re all just people made out of the same old dirt,” she once said, “and God didn’t make any junk.”

When Jim Bakker was convicted of defrauding his followers of $158 million in 1989, Tammy cried, as she always did, and then she broke into song:

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand, All other ground is sinking sand.

For many Christians, Edward Mote’s hymn is a defiant message of grace, a core faith that through the darkest of troubles, God will see you through.

Tammy Faye Bakker Messner’s life took many bizarre twists, at times making her a woman of camp, a woman of sorrow, a woman of ridicule.

But at all times, Tammy Faye was a woman of grace.