Sunday, July 22, 2007
Goodnight, Tammy Faye
"The eyes of Tammy Faye" are forever closed.
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner died yesterday.
That particular news item will not prompt flags to fly at half mast, nor will heads of state be inspired to call for even a national minute of mourning. How much are you willing to wager that most evangelical blogs will not give either her life or her death so much as a passing mention, never mind offer a prayer for the repose of the soul of the undisputed, "First Lady of Televangelism"?
And yet, it seems important to note the passing of this Christian cultural icon.
This picture is of her when she appeared on Larry King Live in March 2007 to announce that she had stopped all treatment for lung cancer.
She appeared again a few days ago, just four months later, looking horrifyingly ghost-like and gaunt, weighing a mere 65 pounds, all the while rejoicing in her characteristically upbeat way that she had gained five pounds that week.
She looked so awful I wanted to turn away, and yet something about her indomitable spirit kept me glued to the television set. Then again, it has ever been thus with Tammy Faye, hasn't it?
As her second husband Roe sat sadly beside her, she was clearly laboring for breath as she spoke in unmistakably chirpy tones of her craving for a cheeseburger with fries, but had to settle for chicken soup. When asked if the doctors had told her how much time she had left, she said she didn't want to know, that she had placed her life "in the hands of the Lord" and would live each day as the gift it was.
The scandal that became her life was revealed in the documentary 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye,' by openly gay filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, who captured all of Tammy Faye's bizarreness and kindness on film and exposed a new audience to her long-standing support of gay men.
Tammy Faye was born the eldest of eight children in an impoverished home in International Falls, Minn. She married Jim Bakker and together they created the first Christian talk show, the 700 Club for the then fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network. They also founded the Trinity Broadcast Network and started the Praise the Lord empire, which included Heritage USA, the first Christian theme park.
It didn't take too long before Jim was exposed for having an affair with Jessica Hahn and for selling $1,000 memberships for lifetime access to imaginary hotel rooms at Heritage USA.
Before long, Praise the Lord was bankrupt, Jim Bakker was in prison, and Tammy Faye was suffering from depression and addiction to prescription meds. Then her second husband, Heritage USA contractor Roe Messner, also went to jail for his role in PTL, and Tammy Faye was diagnosed with cancer.
Mostly because of her plunky, spunky way, she persevered, becoming endeared by thousands of gay men for many of the same reasons Liza Minnelli, Patsy Cline and Marilyn Monroe engender their fierce loyalty and support.
"I have great respect for Tammy Faye," John Waters, author of such outlandish shows as "Hairspray" once said. "She's a militant Christian fag hag drama queen. ... She's got the eyelashes; I've got the mustache. We're eyeliner headliners."
Tammy Faye's quirky personality and genuine sweetness have captured the hearts of many over the years. There was something so real about her unbelievable faith that made you wish, even for a few moments, that you had her kind of child-like faith. The world would certainly be a simpler place, you thought, until you remembered how horribly complicated her life had become.
I found myself praying aloud and unashamedly for Tammy Faye this morning during the 'Prayers of the People." Behind those hideous false eyelashes were the mirror into a simple soul, who, in her inspirational video 'Day by Day' advised "all women over the age of 16 to wear a little eyeliner, blush, lipstick, and a makeup base." She also "offered accessorizing tips and fudge recipes, as well as some very candid advice on facing fear, accepting people for who they are ("even if they don't wear makeup"), counting your blessings, and learning to laugh with the people who laugh at you."
And you know what? That's a better legacy than many Christians can claim.
Sleep well, Tammy Faye. You earned it, hon.