One moment, men like the PTL Club's Jim Bakker and television's Jimmy Swaggart seemed bigger than life, supermen blessed with an uncanny ability to attract followers and money. The next instant, they were only men — fragile, flawed and the butt of barroom jokes and newspaper cartoons.
In many ways, it seemed like the beginning of the end for big-time TV religion.
But Americans, at least many of them, seem to have forgotten and forgiven. TV's salvation shows are still here, bigger and flashier than ever, thanks to the proliferation of the Internet and the continued spread of satellite and cable TV.
The names may have changed — Juanita Bynum, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer and a dozen others have replaced Bakker, Swaggart and Oral Roberts at the top of the evangelical mountain — but the message remains virtually identical.
Believe with all your heart and soul, they tell the faithful. And give, give, give until you can't give anymore.
In the late 1980s, when the sex-and-fraud scandals boiled over into America's living rooms, Joyce Meyer's little radio ministry was scarcely a blip on the evangelical radar screen.
Today, Meyer heads a ministry fast approaching $100 million a year and is among a dozen or so evangelical superstars headlining a revived and very healthy industry.
The prosperity gospel also has been called the "name it and claim it" theology. God wants his people to prosper, evangelists like Meyer maintain. Those who follow God and give generously to his ministries can have anything — and everything — they want.
But critics, from Bible-quoting theologians to groups devoted to preserving the separation of church and state, abound. At best, they say, such a theology is a simplistic and misguided way of living. At worst, they say, it is dangerous.
Michael Scott Horton, who teaches historical theology at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif., calls the message a twisted interpretation of the Bible — a "wild and wacky theology."
"Some of these people are charlatans," Horton said. "Others are honestly dedicated to one of the most abhorrent errors in religious theology.
"I often think of these folks as the religious equivalent to a combination of a National Enquirer ad and professional wrestling. It's part entertainment and very large part scam."
Meyer spends most of her three-day conferences on lessons in giving, and she is blunt when she addresses what the critics say about her seed-faith interpretation of the Bible. She says that those preachers who believe that to be godly is to be poor are the ones who have it wrong.
"Why would he (God) want all of his people poverty-stricken while all of the people that aren't living for God have everything?" Meyer said. "I think it's old religious thinking, and I believe the devil uses it to keep people from wanting to serve God."
Sociologist William Martin of Rice University said most people who follow TV religious leaders put so much trust in them that they want them to thrive. Martin is a professor of sociology at the university, specializing in theology.
The preachers' wealth is "confirmation of what they are preaching," Martin said.
Ole Anthony, whose Trinity Foundation works with the national media to uncover questionable activities involving TV evangelists, said most of the preachers begin with a "sincere desire to spread the faith. But the pressure of fund raising slowly moves all of them in the direction of a greed-based theology."
Bakker, who spent five years in prison for defrauding Heritage USA investors, says he has had a change of heart about the prosperity gospel.
The same man who once told his PTL co-workers that "God wants you to be rich," now says he made a tragic mistake.
Everything seemed to turn to gold in his hands, from his massive PTL Club ministry to his fun-for-the-whole-family, Christian-based Heritage USA theme park. At the height of his popularity in the mid-1980s, he owned six mansions and a Rolls-Royce and was pocketing an annual salary of nearly $2 million. God, it seemed, was good business — very good business.
Today, the nation's most famous fallen electronic preacher is in Branson, Mo., the family-entertainment capital of America's Bible Belt.
He's older and wiser, Bakker says, and scraping to make ends meet at a little cafe-TV studio just north of the town's famous "strip." He hawks whipped cream-topped pies and barbecue sandwiches, pleads for a new piano and begs for volunteers to operate his TV cameras.
Bakker's hourlong, five-day-a-week program, which first aired Jan. 2, marks the evangelist's first tentative steps back into the life that cost him his first wife, Tammy Faye, his fortune and his freedom. Convicted of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy for taking more than $3 million from his followers, Bakker spent five years in prison before winning an early release.
"For years, I helped propagate an impostor, not a true gospel, but another gospel," Bakker said in his 1996 book, "I Was Wrong."
"The prosperity message did not line up with the tenor of the Scripture," he said. "My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray."