Whether films or documentaries about Pentecostal snake-handlers, indie films or Netflix documentaries about gay “reparative therapy,” or HBO comedies about Falwell-style televangelist corruption, Hollywood tends to seize upon any opportunity to spotlight the scandals and most egregious examples of evangelical sin. Sadly there is ample fodder there for source material—and the pool of sordid stories seems to grow by the day.
In some ways the 1980s scandal of televangelist power couple Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker feels quaint and nostalgic compared to more recent scandals. But its colorful characters—particularly the big-haired, bedazzled, Bettie Boop–voiced Tammy Faye—are too irresistibly cinematic for Hollywood to ignore. And so we have The Eyes of Tammy Faye, starring one of Hollywood’s best actresses (Jessica Chastain) in a juicy role likely to generate awards buzz. But underneath the copious amounts of mascara and scandalous plot points, the film is at heart a (rightful) indictment of one type of prosperity gospel and an (unfortunate) endorsement of another type.
Health, Wealth, Cheap Grace
Based on the 2000 documentary of the same name (narrated by drag queen RuPaul), The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a fairly standard biopic that tells a classic “rise and fall” tale. We follow Tammy Faye from her early childhood in Minnesota to her college years at North Central Bible College, where she met Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). The film then shows the couple’s rise to evangelical stardom through hosting CBN’s The 700 Club and then their own cash cow, The PTL Club, in the ’70s and ’80s, before it all comes crashing down in 1987 with the scandals that eventually led to the Bakkers’ divorce and Jim’s imprisonment.
The film deftly captures the obviously perverse nature of the prosperity gospel. It should be cringeworthy to watch televangelists monetize Christ’s gospel, manipulate audiences who need its hope, and parlay the whole enterprise into opulent mansions and private jets. The stereotypes of prosperity-preaching televangelists are an easy target—and deserve such treatment. Any minister of the gospel who promises fringe benefits like health and wealth, while neglecting any talk of suffering, repentance, or the cost of discipleship, is a false teacher who deserves condemnation. And the Frankenstein of American prosperity preaching is especially ugly—a toxic blend of Jesus’s gospel with heaping spoonfuls of capitalism, “love yourself” self-help, Peale-esque positive thinking, politics, patriotism, and more.
The film captures all of these sordid dynamics with great flair. One Bakker trademark the film lingers on repeatedly is when Jim looks into the camera and assures the television audience, “God loves you. He really does.” It’s a sort of feel-good, pithy assurance-of-pardon moment that epitomizes the cheap grace on offer—the sort of grace that preaches forgiveness without requiring repentance, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined it.
But even though this “cheap grace” distortion of the gospel is every bit as egregious as the “health and wealth” distortion, it’s unclear whether the filmmakers find it problematic. As the film progresses and Tammy Faye comes to embrace a more earnest, less financially motivated form of the “God loves you just as you are” message, it’s framed as a valiant thing.
Different Prosperity Gospel
One aspect of Tammy Faye’s life stressed in the film is her popularity among LGBTQ people—both for being a resilient, campy feminine icon, and for her seeming refusal to speak much about the sin of homosexuality. A crucial scene in the film recreates Tammy Faye’s 1985 interview with AIDS patient (and gay Christian) Steve Pieters. It’s a scene—which Chastain plays with gusto—that figures prominently in the film’s overall aim to portray Tammy Faye as a sincere Christian caught up in a web of religious hypocrisy and money/sex/politics-corrupted faith.
The powerful white men around her are largely portrayed as seedy hucksters and homophobes. Husband Jim is depicted as a closeted gay man whose love for his wife is largely utilitarian. Other televangelists like Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) and Jimmy Swaggart (Jay Huguley) are played like cutthroat members of some sort of evangelical mafia, with Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) given an especially villainous treatment as the televangelist underworld’s mob boss.
Though certainly an entertainer at heart who enjoyed the spotlight, Tammy Faye’s “performance” is authentic, the film suggests, in contrast to the others around her who played roles—and manipulated vulnerable people—in order to maintain power and make money. While the perverted American gospel of Jim, Jerry, and other prosperity preachers is rightly critiqued in the film, Tammy’s message—God loves you just as you are!—is celebrated. Herself a marginalized and misunderstood victim, Tammy Faye is reassessed as a heroine for an expressive individualistic age in which permission to “love yourself” and “be who you are” is a more appealing gospel than “repent and turn to God” (Acts 26:20). What the film misses is that Tammy’s gospel is just as truncated, and ultimately destructive, as that of the greedy televangelist men around her. God loves us even while we are sinners, to be sure (Rom. 5:8), but his forgiveness requires our repentance (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18). To preach a “cheap grace” gospel, with no need to turn from behavior the Bible calls sin, is just another form of false gospel prosperity preaching.
Culturally Acceptable Prosperity
Christians should call out and condemn the prosperity gospel in all of its forms, both the salacious forms that most everyone finds abhorrent, and the subtler forms that many people today—including many Christians—deem acceptable.
Christians should call out and condemn the prosperity gospel in all of its forms, both the salacious forms most find abhorrent, and the subtler forms many deem acceptable.
Are we alert to the subtler forms of prosperity gospel? We can easily spot the obvious gospel perversions in preachers wearing $850 Prada sneakers, but do we also have eyes to recognize the gospel perversions in popular authors who downplay sin and play up self-love? We hear versions of this message often today: God loves you as you are, doesn’t require you to deny any desires, and really just wants you to be your best self. Make no mistake: These are prosperity-gospel lies. They may be couched in compassion for the vulnerable and the lingo of empowerment, but they are still lies. Do not be deceived.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye doesn’t have eyes to see that while its heroine may be sweet and spunky and fearless, she is just as much a peddler of gospel distortions as her husband and his affiliates. Her distortions may be legal and lauded—earning the applause of Hollywood—but they are still tragic distortions. The gospel is not less than “God loves you. He really does.” But it is more. So much more.