“That’s How Jesus Loves”: Tammy Faye Bakker, Televangelism, and AIDS

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:50 PM
Murray Hill East (New York Hilton)
Emily Suzanne Johnson, Ball State University
In November 1985 – only a month after actor Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS sparked unprecedented media attention on the epidemic – televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker interviewed an HIV-positive gay minister named Steve Pieters on her international Christian television network. The tone of the interview was remarkably supportive; Bakker repeatedly invoked her belief in Jesus’s unconditional love and admonished her viewers to welcome gay people and people with AIDS into their communities. Though she occasionally fell back on stereotypes of gay men as effeminate, she largely affirmed Pieters’s experience that “God was with me through this disease, not having given me this disease.” The interview is remarkable because of its sharp divergence from other contemporary discourse surrounding HIV/AIDS, particularly in the conservative Christian milieu to which Bakker belonged. While Pat Robertson called for gay men to be “quarantined” and Jerry Falwell suggested that the epidemic represented some kind of divine punishment, Bakker spoke about hugging people with AIDS and showing them love. In this decade of Culture War and New Christian Right ascendancy, the bombast of figures like Robertson and Falwell became the lasting image of conservative Christian responses in the early years of the American AIDS epidemic. The Bakker-Pieters interview offers another perspective, highlighting the potential for political diversity that existed within the New Christian Right in the 1980s while also clarifying the limits of political divergence in this movement.