On a hot pandemic day in 2020, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the fundamentalist Christian Liberty University, was caught with his pants down. To be fair, Falwell voluntarily posed for the compromising photograph, which he then posted to his 25,000 Instagram followers. In the photo, the evangelical leader stands with his pants unzipped to reveal the top of his underwear. His shirt is tied at the waist, exposing his abdomen. His arm is around his wife’s similarly attired assistant (though the assistant, Falwell would later explain, could not zip up her pants because she was pregnant). In a half-hearted apology, Falwell said the photo was intended as a joke and promised to “be a good boy from here on out.”
Being a good boy turned out to be a challenge. Three weeks later, Falwell’s former business partner Giancarlo Granda threatened to disclose the details of the sexual relationship he had reportedly shared for years with Falwell’s wife Becki. According to Granda, as the couple took him under their wing—and their marital bed covers—Falwell was fully aware and supportive of the affair, sometimes watching Becki and Granda have sex “from the corner of the room.”
The day before Granda went public with the story, Falwell, anticipating the exposé, published a letter in which he blamed his wife for the impending scandal. Falwell described Becki’s sexual relationship with Granda as “inappropriate” and insisted that it was “something in which [he] was not involved.” Falwell’s preemptive disclosures sought to portray him as a victim of Becki’s sins. He asked the readers for patience and grace, as the couple would now have to wrestle with the consequences of Becki’s choices. Two days later, Falwell resigned from Liberty University.
As the secular media celebrated the fall of yet another religious hypocrite, few commentators assessed the role of the wife in in the trope of Christian sex scandals. A notable exception came from religion and gender scholar Leslie Dorrough Smith, who argued that there was a “pattern in American culture of finding fault with the woman in a sex scandal.” Indeed, the blame for Falwell’s indiscretions in the letter quickly shifted onto Becki’s insatiable sexual appetites, as Falwell’s better judgment had apparently been impaired in the course of her affair.
This damage control was likely performed with Becki’s full consent. After all, as the wife of a conservative evangelical leader, she was by then used to playing the role of the stable, unwavering supporter of her husband’s Christian purpose. Becki sacrificed her reputation in a desperate attempt so save Falwell’s standing as the inheritor of his late father Jerry Falwell Sr.’s evangelical empire. All affairs were family affairs.
By the time the nation learned of the Falwells’ unchristian proclivities, conservative Protestants had been experimenting with scandal management tactics for nearly half a century. Appeals to their wives and families had turned out to be among the most effective, particularly when Christian leaders were accused of queer appetites, as in the case of Falwell’s not quite gay—but likely not biblically sanctioned—cuckolding. Scorned wives’ resilience, support, and testimony would be key to reasserting patriarchal straightness.
Billy James Hargis, the fiery anti-communist preacher, first used these tactics in the 1970s. Like Falwell, Hargis was the president of a fundamentalist university. American Christian College, which Hargis founded in 1971, was part of his broader ministerial effort to galvanize conservative Christians to fight against communism, sex education, and homosexuality. Soon, the nation would learn that Hargis had been ousted from his position after several students accused the president of inappropriate sexual behavior—with both men and women. The first witnesses to come forward were newlyweds, who had confessed to each other on their honeymoon that they were not as pure as their religion had taught them to be, having both lost their innocence to Hargis. Three other students came forward with similar accusations.
After the story broke in 1976, Hargis denied all allegations and dismissed them as anti-Christian propaganda. He was, of course, guilty of sin, he said, but not of that particular kind of sin. When the public failed to find Hargis’s denials convincing, he resorted to appealing to the harm the scandal was causing his wife and family. “I hope and pray to God that I will never in my life attack a man on such charges, whether they are true or they are false,” Hargis said in an interview, “because I know the hurt that comes for him—not just the hurt to him, but everybody that loves him. What about my wife? What about my four kids? What about my ministry?”
Betty Jane Hargis, the wife, had been a quiet supporter of Hargis’s ministry for more than 20 years. In the wake of the scandal, she would become its central character. In his memoir, Hargis continuously invoked his wife and children as he navigated the allegations of extramarital sex and homosexuality. “It hurts my wife,” he wrote, “to read in national publications […] lies and exaggerations about our personal lives.” Never admitting to the sins of which he stood accused, Hargis conveniently took the blame for the more general kinds of trespasses: arrogance and pride. He was most ashamed, he wrote, “of the sorrow I brought to my beautiful wife’s heart, and the knowledge I still possess that my children will have to scratch in my embarrassment as long as they live.”
The embarrassment did not last long. By the mid-1980s, Hargis was once again accumulating conservative Christian supporters by preaching that homosexuality was to blame for the AIDS epidemic and that innocent people were being punished for homosexuals’ sins. Hargis’s ministry continued, scandal and all, until his death in 2004, when his son Billy James Hargis II took over. The family persevered.
As Hargis was grappling with his predicament through appeals to his wife and children, another Christian family was rising to unprecedented prominence. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were building a multimedia television empire that would be the envy of enterprising televangelists across the nation. Warmer and less judgmental than the previous generation’s preachers of doom, Jim and Tammy seemed kind and approachable, even if their exceedingly lavish lifestyles, built largely through their followers’ donations, set them apart. Prosperity gospel helped explain the wealth: God’s blessings would result in material well-being for those who obeyed.
With success and prosperity came new challenges. Jim was spending most of his time on ministry business. To cope, Tammy developed a Valium addiction and a romantic interest in musician and producer Gary Paxton. Reports of what actually occurred between the married Paxton and the lonely Tammy differ, but something akin to an emotional affair likely took place. In couples counseling in the spring of 1980, the Bakkers would arrive at a diagnosis: Tammy had committed adultery in her heart. Jim would later conveniently blame his own sexual indiscretions on the alienation he felt from Tammy.
Revenge took the form of abuse. In December 1980, Jim Bakker flew to Florida on ministry business and invited Jessica Hahn, a young church secretary, to babysit his daughter while he was away from his hotel. Bakker was a Christian celebrity, so Hahn gladly accepted the invitation. But things did not go as Hahn had hoped. Bakker allegedly forced her to have sex with him. He justified the encounter by telling Hahn that things with Tammy were rocky. They were going through a separation, he claimed, and her body was no longer sexually desirable to him.
It was not just the isolated incident that later got Bakker in trouble. Reports of Bakker’s coercive, abusive behavior toward his male employees surfaced as well. There were rumors of naked trysts with multiple men at one of Bakker’s properties. There was a time in 1984 when Bakker attempted to force a male employee to perform manual stimulation. And then there was the ongoing sexual relationship between Bakker and his colleague Jay Babcock. Bakker reportedly told Babcock that he did not believe that sex with men constituted cheating on his wife.
Bakker resigned from ministry on March 19, 1987, though the reasons for the departure were initially murky. Soon, the public learned that Bakker’s ministry had paid Hahn $265,000 for her silence following the assault in 1980. Right away, the press began to blame Tammy for her husband’s affair. “Tammy Faye Bakker’s crush on a flashy country singer here,” opened a Washington Post article, “wounded her husband’s pride and may have pushed him into his now-famous fling with a church secretary.” This interpretation aided Jim Bakker’s own defense strategy: From the start, the minister insisted that the Hahn episode was not an affair, but rather an isolated 20-minute incident embarked upon solely to make Tammy jealous. He had repented a long time ago, Bakker claimed, and was able to put his marriage back together shortly thereafter. Now his jealous and greedy enemies were using the story to destroy his reputation and steal his ministry.
One of these purported enemies turned out to be Jerry Falwell Jr.’s father. Jerry Falwell Sr. had by then taken temporary control of Bakker’s ministry in an attempt to maintain the organization while Bakker embarked on a redemption tour. Restoration began to seem less feasible when Bakker was accused of financial fraud. And if extramarital sex and financial abuse were not bad enough, rumors of Bakker’s bisexuality—or, as Falwell would have it, homosexuality—joined the chorus of accusations that made Bakker seem increasingly unfit for Christian ministry.
In May 1987, Falwell held a 90-minute press conference in which he enumerated the charges against Bakker. Falwell claimed that there were credible reports of homosexuality going back decades. In her memoir, published almost a decade after the scandal, Tammy would articulate the precise power of allegations of queerness against evangelical ministers. She described confronting her husband after Falwell’s press conference. After being reassured by Jim that he was not a homosexual, Tammy recalled thinking that Falwell’s strategy was clever. “He knew that the partners would probably forgive Jim for an indiscretion with a woman,” she wrote, “There were certainly other preachers—like Jimmy Swaggart—who had fallen from grace and come back. But Falwell knew that many people could never forgive Jim if he were homosexual.” Indeed, Bakker’s denomination, the Assemblies of God, viewed homosexuality as unpardonable. The denomination quickly defrocked the minister for adultery and the “alleged misconduct involving bisexual activity.”
Still, the Bakkers continued to present a unified front. In an ABC interview, Tammy attempted to squash the rumors of Jim’s queerness: “I have been married to this man for 26 years, and I can tell you one thing: He’s not homosexual or [sic] is he bisexual; he is a wonderful, loving husband.” Despite multiple credible reports of Bakker’s bi- or homosexuality, the power couple held on to their conviction that he was nothing but straight.
The publicity campaign did not help the Bakkers’ troubles. In 1989, Jim Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in prison and a hefty fine for multiple counts of wire and mail fraud. Two years later, the sentence was replaced with a milder 18-year term. Bakker was paroled in 1994, having served fewer than five years. In his 1996 memoir, he continued to insist that he was fully and unequivocally straight. He resumed ministry shortly thereafter.
Tammy, who had by then divorced the disgraced preacher, still remained in Jim’s corner when it came to testifying to his heterosexuality. In a memoir, published in 2003, Tammy continued to dismiss all accusations of homosexuality as lies. Ironically, by then, Tammy had become a queer icon herself—all the while continuing to relegate her ex-husband’s sexuality to the fragile evangelical closet.
By the 2000s, the conservative evangelical stance on homosexuality had cemented itself in a series of denouncements, prohibitions, and therapeutic treatments. God wanted everyone to be straight; some just had to work a bit harder at it. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), knew this intimately.
Haggard was the charismatic founder and pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was friendly with the anti-gay Focus on the Family leader James Dobson and served as an occasional advisor to George W. Bush’s White House. In 2006, as marriage equality was being debated in state and federal courts, Haggard endorsed Colorado’s proposed ban on same-sex marriage. When sex worker Mike Jones learned about his long-time client’s true identity and political activism, he rushed to the press with the explosive details of Haggard’s double life.
According to Jones’s memoir, Haggard was a regular client of three years, a period that coincided with his term as head of the NAE. During the second year of Haggard’s presidency, the NAE formally adopted the position that homosexuality was “not an inherited condition in the same category as race, gender, or national origin” and was therefore not sufficient grounds for granting equal protection under the law. Meanwhile, during his sessions with Mike Jones, Haggard seemed to relish his own homosexual encounters. To be fair, according to Jones, on more than one occasion, Haggard needed to snort crystal meth to help him relax. After all, Haggard was a Christian man—with a loving wife, a handful of children, and a church that believed in the virtues of heterosexuality back in Colorado Springs.
As the world watched the scandal unfold—first through televised denials and then, inevitably, through emotional press conferences, tearful confessions, and earnest interviews—all eyes were on Gayle Haggard. Having chosen to stand by her husband, Gayle explained her decision in a book titled Why I Stayed: The Choices I Made in My Darkest Hour. The answer had to do with faith. It turned out that Gayle chose to stay not just because she believed the gospel’s call to forgive her erring husband, but also because she still believed in Ted’s straightness.
The Haggards used all public relations mechanisms available to them to earn a chance at redemption. At first willing to work with the leadership team at his church, Haggard took a suspension from his post and submitted to Christian counseling. Then, a miracle occurred. In November 2007, when he emerged from the first round of counseling, Haggard declared himself “completely heterosexual.” The public was not convinced.
Two years later, the Haggards embarked on a publicity tour for redemption. In 2009, the couple sat down for an in-depth interview with Oprah Winfrey, when they finally confronted the difficult question of Ted’s sexuality. By then, Haggard’s claims to complete straightness assumed a softer tone. In a candid moment with Oprah, he admitted to having wondered whether he was gay. Haggard’s therapist had diagnosed him as a “heterosexual with homosexual attachments.” When Oprah pressed Haggard on what that meant, the pastor doubled down on refusing to embrace rigid identity categories: “I do believe I don’t fit into the normal boxes. I do think there are complexities associated with some people’s sexuality.” Haggard’s queer theorizing ended there, but he admitted to having sexual thoughts about men and changed his course on the whole “completely heterosexual” debacle, answering “no” to the question about whether he was one. “I would say I’m a heterosexual with issues,” Haggard concluded.
Gayle’s memoir, published in 2010, confirmed what the couple told Oprah: Ted was not gay, just complicated. Gayle insisted on Ted’s straightness and emphasized the hyper-heterosexual nature of the couple’s romance. “God designed the marriage relationship for intimacy,” Gayle wrote, “and though Ted and I had always enjoyed physical intimacy, I yearned for greater emotional intimacy with him.” The problem wasn’t with Ted’s heterosexuality; it was that they couple were growing apart emotionally, despite having a decent sex life.
Although Gayle ultimately chose to remain in the marriage, she admitted to initially feeling conflicted. There was a lot to digest. After Ted confessed to both the sexual relationship with Mike Jones and the purchase and use of crystal meth to his wife in private, more revelations of Ted’s queer encounters continued to break Gayle’s heart. Even that evidence did not amount to queerness in Gayle’s mind: The fundamental problem for the Haggards was sin, not sexual preference.
Where theology couldn’t account for persistent queer attraction, the Haggards turned to science. In EMDR therapy, Ted disclosed his earliest memories of same-sex encounters, including being sexually abused when he was seven and experimenting sexually with other boys in sixth and seventh grades. Counseling “helped him determine” that he was not homosexual. There were other sources for the quasi-scientific denials of Ted’s queerness, too. The Haggards turned to experts to validate Ted’s straightness. Citing sexologists and Christian counselors, the Haggards at once differentiated between homosexual acts and identities and blamed the brain for making queer sex addictive. With Ted’s complex straightness established as fact through faith and science, the Haggards set off on their journey to re-learn heterosexually within the confines of their marriage.
For the past several years, the Haggards (notably, both husband and wife) have pastored a new church in Colorado. They have had to change denominations—a small price to pay for a return to their chosen profession post-scandal. Citing the results of a polygraph test he took in 2006, Ted Haggard now insists that he never had more than one sexual encounter with Mike Jones and that he never had sexual contact or groomed anyone affiliated with his old megachurch—making him a presumably safe bet for spiritual leadership at his new establishment. Gayle Haggard’s official position as co-pastor undoubtedly serves as further reassurance that Ted Haggard’s sexuality is finally under control, though recent allegations suggest that straightness remains as elusive as ever.
In their quest for sexual purity and heterosexual patriarchy, evangelical leaders like Haggard, Bakker, Hargis, and Falwell have been only marginally successful. Many of the most outspoken proponents of the carefully manufactured 1970s ideal of “traditional” Christian family values have failed dramatically in practice. When it comes to mounting defenses against accusations of queerness, conservative evangelicals have been extraordinarily successful in deploying their wives as effective shields. Redemption is possible, it turns out, when it is supported by a wife’s testimony of her husband’s straightness. As the patriarchal family ideal has continued to be undermined from within by the leadership of evangelical organizations, the wives of charismatic Christian leaders have time and again come to the rescue.
Suzanna Krivulskaya is an assistant professor of history at California State University San Marcos. Her book, Disgraced: How Sex Scandals Transformed American Protestantism, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.