The PTL story was partly about private morality. : Bakker Scandal, Pope, Robertson Top Year’s Stories

Times Religion Writer

Moral integrity, or the lack of it, was a major element in some of the year’s biggest religion news stories.

In an annual survey of its membership, the Religion Newswriters Assn. overwhelmingly picked the PTL scandal as the top news story in religion, followed by the U.S. visit of Pope John Paul II and the religiously imbued presidential campaign of Pat Robertson.

American fascination with celebrities no doubt helped make those three stories top news. The PTL developments were not only about religious broadcasters Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker but also about the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who tried for 7 1/2 months to put the still-troubled evangelistic enclave on a firm footing.

The PTL story was partly about private morality. Bakker said he resigned from the television network and resort park that he founded because of a 1980 sexual encounter with a former church secretary, Jessica Hahn, and the subsequent payoff she was offered to keep quiet.


Once Falwell and a new board took over, however, revelations about huge salaries paid to the Bakkers came out. Charges of homosexual activity on the part of Bakker, which he denied, were partly why the Assemblies of God stripped Bakker of his ministerial credentials.

More than that, however, the PTL developments prompted an outraged call for financial accountability by evangelists who seek donations from the public. As a result, most evangelistic organizations came forth with more information than ever before, and once-dormant efforts at self-policing in the evangelical world have been revived.

During Pope John Paul’s second visit to the United States in September, the Roman Catholic pontiff heard some dissent on church practices, and he told the U.S. bishops that “cafeteria-style” Catholicism--selective adherence to church teachings--was unacceptable.

Yet, some observers have noted that the Pope is widely admired, even by critics, for his integrity--a consistency in his religious postures and a persistence in defense of human rights.


The third-ranked story, Robertson’s presidential candidacy, was not just a story about politics. Robertson cut ties to his Christian Broadcasting Network and acted to drop his ministerial status shortly before announcing his bid for the Republican nomination. Nevertheless, public attention has remained focused on Robertson’s energetic religious following and to what extent religious beliefs may guide his political agenda.

Robertson was also in the news when he admitted that he had lied about his wedding date to protect his born-out-of-wedlock son and when he disputed accusations that he was given special treatment to avoid combat during the Korean War.

Picked as No. 4 was the collective effect of scandals in business, government, politics and religion that raised “questions about the condition of the nation’s soul,” according to the survey description answered by writers who cover religion news for the secular press. The survey alluded to the exits from the Democratic presidential primary race by Gary Hart (since returned) over reports of a tryst with a model and by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) over plagiarized quotes and misrepresentations of his academic career.

Other leading news stories in the balloting by 38 writers, about one-fourth of the active membership of the Religion Newswriters Assn., were:


5--The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was formally constituted out of the merger of three Lutheran churches.

6--Evangelist Oral Roberts raised more than $8 million for medical missionary students after saying God might “call me home” if he did not obtain the funds. Later Roberts claimed to have raised people from the dead.

7--Promotion of condoms and sex education in schools as measures to combat acquired immune deficiency syndrome stirs debate in religious circles. Some clergy were victims of the disease.

8--Catholic-Jewish relations were rocked by Pope John Paul II’s audience with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes, and unusual steps were taken to strive for better understanding.


9--A federal judge ruled in March that 44 textbooks used in Alabama schools were unconstitutional because they promoted “the religion of secular humanism.” The decision was reversed in August at the appeals court level.

10--Southern Baptist fundamentalists continued to tighten their hold on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at a June convention, although moderates scored some regional victories late in the year.

The also-rans included the early-year Vatican condemnation of test-tube fertilization and surrogate motherhood, the restoration to full authority in Seattle of Catholic Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a 1981 Louisiana law requiring “creation science” to be taught in public schools as an alternative to evolutionary theory.