Monday, February 7, 2022

Tammy Faye and Medical Marijuana

In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Jessica Chastain transforms into the well known, and often ridiculed, TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker.  The film, now streaming on HBOMax and Hulu, is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name narrated by RuPaul. 

Tammy Faye LaValley left a "tiny, troubled home" and seven younger siblings in International Falls, MN to study at what was then North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, where she met her husband-to-be Jim Bakker. The two took off on an evangelism tour featuring Tammy Faye's singing and puppeteering, attracting the attention of  TV evangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell who put them on the air, where they became popular, and profitable. 

Tammy's version of Christianity meant loving everyone, no matter their orientation. In 1985, she has raised the ire of the religious hierarchy around her when she sympathetically interviewed Steve Pieters, an openly gay church pastor living with AIDS. As depicted in the movie, Falwell (a terrificly terrible Vincent D'Onofrino) pitched a fit about it and told Jim his wife needed to be controlled. 

Tammy's mother, played by the formidable Cherry Jones, divorced her preacher husband and tries to warn her daughter: "You follow blindly, in the end, all you are is blind." But Tammy continues drowning her feelings with the Atavans she washes down with Diet Cokes, until she takes too many and does time in a drug treatment center. 

Falwell is also depicted as telling the Bakkers that they must support G.W. Bush for President and not Robertson, claiming evangelicals and their coalition put Ronald Reagan in office. "This gay cancer is affecting our country, our families," he says. "Republicans can't win without us. You need to understand how powerful we are in this fight for our nation's soul." When Tammy responds that they ought to stick to religion and leave politics alone, Falwell tells her there's too much on the line, "Democrats are already trying to strip away our churches' tax exempt status."

"God wants you to be happy, God wants you to be rich, God wants you to prosper," was Jim Bakker's message, and the couple accepted His blessings themselves until 1987 when it was revealed that their TV ministry's donations had paid $279,000 to (temporarily) silence Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary who alleged Bakker raped her (he says he was set up). If the Big Boys wanted to silence Tammy Faye and Jim, that would have been a good way to do it. 

John Wigger, a history professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, wrote the book PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire. “A large part of her appeal on the show was that she was so open and unfiltered,” he says. “She said whatever was on her mind, no matter how inappropriate, and I think we’re just naturally drawn to people that we know are guileless and transparent and vulnerable. You instinctively trust them because wow, they’re going to tell you exactly what they’re thinking.” 

I know this to be true because in 1996, when I was working on the medical marijuana issue in Los Angeles, our office got the call that Tammy Faye wanted to interview my colleague Scott Imler on her TV talk show (The Jim J. and Tammy Faye Show with Jim J. Bullock). Staffers on the show had sent of a list of questions Tammy would be asking, and someone showed up while we were in the make up room to make sure Scott was prepared. But when he went before the cameras, Tammy went completely off script and started asking real-life questions anyone would want to know, like, "Doesn't smoking medical marijuana all day long make you dopey?" 

It turns out she may have had a personal reason to ask: she was diagnosed with colon cancer that year, and held it off in remission for more than a decade, before dying in 2007, after also developing lung cancer. 

The film ends with a heartfelt version of "Don't Give Up (On the Brink of a Miracle)," one of the ever-hopeful Tammy Faye's favorite songs, sung by her daughter Tammy Sue Bakker-Chapman. Two stage musicals (The Gospel According to Tammy Faye and Big Tent) have been inspired by her story, and Kristin Chenoweth is reportedly planning another, as is British playwright James Graham, with music by Elton John. 

Tammy divorced Jim Bakker, who got an early release on the prison sentence he was serving for multiple counts of fraud, and was paroled in 1994. In his 1996 book I Was Wrong, he admitted he only completely read the Bible while in prison, and that he had taken passages out of context and used them to support his prosperity theology. He began shifting to prognostication, starting with his 1998 book, Prosperity and the Coming Apocalypse. In 2003, he started broadcasting again with a new wife, while advertising colloidal silver supplements.

Bakker blamed Hurricane Matthew on then-President Barack Obama, and later predicted that if then-President Donald Trump was impeached, Christians would begin a Second American Civil War. A few days after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, he stated that "God came to [him] in a dream... and he was wearing camouflage, a hunting vest and had an AR-15 strapped to his back" and that God supported Trump's plan to arm teachers. 

In March 2020, the office of the Attorney General of New York ordered Bakker to cease making false medicinal claims about his supplements' alleged ability to cure the 2019–2020 strains of coronavirus. On June 23, 2021, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced that restitution of about $157,000 would also be paid to those who bought silver solution between February 12, 2020, and March 10, 2020.

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