As a tumultuous chapter ends in the story of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's PTL empire, the only winner so far appears to be Jerry Falwell. After seven months at the PTL helm, the Rev. Mr. Falwell left in anger a week ago, taking the PTL board and top executives with him.
While most television evangelists have lost contributions during the Bakker scandals, Falwell's public reputation has grown enormously and improved.
PTL itself carries on, run day-to-day by middle managers and officers of the bankruptcy court, as long-time donors and creditors sort through choosing a new executive.
The Bakkers - Mr. Bakker was defrocked - are launching a 25-city ``Farewell for Now'' tour next month, complete with orchestra and ``inspirational dancing waters.''
PTL's court-appointed financial manager says no allowances will be made for the Bakkers' return to the ministry they built until it is out of debt - in probably five years.
What the PTL scandal has meant to the finances of Falwell's own fundamentalist enterprises are difficult to discern.
He says his Liberty Network has run up a $5.3 million deficit during his reign at PTL.
Within the past month, he has ordered his agent to drop 51 of 392 stations that carry Liberty Network programming.
Yet the year ending last June was the best year ever for his ministries, bringing in $91 million in contributions and earned revenue, such as tuition at Liberty University. Further, Falwell recently more than doubled the weekly hours of television time he buys from stations, according to the Lynchburg News and Daily Advance, which tracks the ministry's finances through public statements and available evidence.
Falwell has also been buying about 14 hours a week on the PTL Network, which has three or four times the stations as Liberty Network, according to the Lynchburg newspaper.
His greatest new exposure, however, has been in the mainstream secular media.
In the early 1980s, Falwell's name was invoked to call up visions of harsh fundamentalist intolerance and right-wing politics. After some 18 appearances on ABC's Nightline and scores of other news media interviews in the past seven months, Falwell has crafted an image of a sort of religious statesman.
On secular television, says Indiana University sociologist Anson Shupe, Falwell is ``a smiling, cordial fellow, nobody's image of a Bible-thumping fanatic, but basically a man facing a managerial problem.''
He ran into a managerial snag a little over a week ago. PTL's bankruptcy judge decided that regular contributors to the ministry, the PTL ``Partners,'' had a sort of equity ownership voice in PTL's fate. Falwell resigned Oct. 8, claiming this would undermine his reorganization plan and that this was the door that would bring back the Bakkers ``within six months.''
The Partners and PTL's creditors must file their own plan with the judge by Oct. 27. Both groups are split over whether the Bakkers should return. But the court-appointed attorney, William Robinson, says their reorganization plan will not allow for it.
So the leadership of PTL - post-Falwell - is in a state of tremendous flux. As of a week ago, it had $180,000 in the bank and owed more than $60 million. Dr. Shupe's prognosis is that the ministry will survive, even if the name eventually changes.
``PTL will go on because they've got the hardware and a big bureaucracy,'' he says. ``Too many people have a stake in that thing recovering.''
As for the Bakkers, he says, ``Jim and Tammy will just resurface somewhere else.''
Falwell has stepped out of what could have become a nasty dogfight over control of the ministry and ``he has not been discredited or disgraced,'' says Lynchburg College's James G.H. Price, who has written a critical book on Falwell.
Charismatic Christians have been suspicious of Falwell's gambit in taking over PTL from the beginning. Charismatics - such as the Bakkers, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart - have dominated the electronic church.
But charismatics have been preached against and their practices despised by fundamentalists, including Jerry Falwell, for most of a century.
Vinson Synan, a charismatic historian and organizer, says that feelings have softened very little toward Falwell. ``He may have thought he could have turned the tables on the charismatic movement,'' Dr. Synan says.
If Falwell does not leave with new found charismatic support, he almost certainly leaves with a fundraising treasure - the PTL mailing list, according to Dr. Price, since he contracted PTL mailings out to his brother-in-law in Virginia.