Jim Bakker in screen captures from his current show, “The Jim Bakker Show”. (Google Images)
This has been one long, crazy story. Nearly unbelievable, except, very true. Sadly true. As a Christian, especially as one with roots in Pentecostalism, I felt shame and anger while reading about the exploits of Jim Bakker. Yes, I know I personally have nothing to do with the man or his ministry. But the greed, lies, and corruption is reflected back on the entirety of the Body of Christ. We all look awful to the very world to which we are called to be salt and light.
While reading for this series, I swung by the library and picked up Tammy Faye’s 1996 autobiography, Tammy: Telling It My Way. Published in the decade after PTL’s fall and about a decade before her death, the book is a super light, easy-breezy read. The chapter and section titles all have cutesy names like “Good Things Come In Small Packages”, “The Fabulous Bakker Boy”, and “The Plot Sickens”. I mention this not as an insult; Tammy comes across to me as sweet, likeable, but, somewhat naive.
She admits her shortcomings: the extramarital affections, her addiction to pain pills, her sadness at what the scandal did to her two kids. But… BUT… BUUUUUTTTTTT…. there are some things in there that made me raise my eyebrows and then give a side eye. Like this diddy right here:
Yes, terrible mistakes were made at PTL: mistakes of judgement, mistakes of ego, and mismanagement of large sums of money- but these mistakes were not criminal. If the leadership of PTL had not become intimidated by the government, they might have brought out volumes of proof- which still exist- that there were no criminal acts committed at PTL.
Tammy lays so much of the blame at the government, even going so far as saying plea deals are “criminal” and “should not be constitutionally allowed”. After all, Jim was, in her understanding, brought down by the lies of men given plea deals. She describes the overselling of time shares at Heritage as an “ambitious project… an innovative plan, which seemed quite feasible at the time.” Riiiiiggggghhhhhttttt, because that’s how pretty much all pyramid schemes must appear to those sitting at the pointy peak.
Tammy comes out swinging against Jerry Falwell and former boss Pat Robertson, Christians whom she viewed as anything but Christ-like. Opportunistic, greedy and hyprocritical, yes, full of Christ’s love? Absolutely not. She describes visiting Jim in depressing, dark and dirty prisons, and how at her lowest, she wanted to die. She kept it together with trust in God (she talks a lot about God, His faithfulness and mercy throughout the book) and a determination to continue raising their adolesent son Jamie.
Tammy with her second husband, Roe Messner, on their wedding day in October 1993. (Photo from Tammy)
To keep financially aright with Jim in prison, Tammy first sold most of her TV wardrobe (pocketing a cool 2 grand in her first carload alone), and then started a solo ministry in her new hometown of Orlando. If this seems… well, shocking, her reasoning was pretty logical. The only other job outside of ministry she had ever done was as a salesgirl at Woolworth, and with her name being mud, she probably couldn’t even do that. So ministry it was, using hotels and homes to hold services, and her congregation grew quite rapidly.
- Meanwhile, Tammy realized her marriage was dead:
I don’t know just how it died- from neglect, from words spoken that could be forgiven but never forgotten. I don’t know if it was Jessica Hahn that killed my heart, or maybe the fact that Jim allowed such a dreadful thing to happen to our family. Death is always so sad, and all I could feel was just this terrible sadness, so deep I could not bring myself to talk about it, or even think about it.
On March 13th, 1992, Tammy divorced the still-imprisoned Jim, although he had initiated the proceedings. She moved to Palm Springs California, and a year and a half later, married Roe Messner, a longtime family friend and former contractor at Heritage USA. She described their relationship:
We realized that what was happening between us was very special, something that only happens to most people once in a lifetime (and that’s if they’re lucky!). I don’t think a man and a woman should ever marry if that magic isn’t there. Because magic between two people is not something you can make happen. It’s either there or it isn’t. And it was there for Roe and me… There was something else that meant a lot to me: I knew that I could trust Roe. At PTL, it was well known that he was an honest, true, good man. Roe never went back on his word. He was the good earth!
An “honest, true, good man” who spent a couple of years in federal prison on bankruptcy-faud charges, getting out in 1999. In 1996, doctors found cancer on Tammy’s colon, and she began chemo and had surgery to fight it.
- In 2000, the documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” was released with RuPaul providing narration. Here’s the trailer:
- Four years later, Tammy appeared in the second season of VH1’s “Surreal Life” along with washed-up rapper Vanilla Ice, former child star Gary Coleman, and notorious porn star Ron Jeremy.
- Just three years later, Tammy, after battling cancer off and on for 11 years, passed away, just a day after recording a segment for “Larry King Live”. Strikingly, she quoted her favorite Scripture verse:
While Tammy moved on post-PTL to become a favorite of members of the LGBTQ community, reality star and motivational speaker in the fight against cancer, Jim wound up doing what he knew best- ministry. While Tammy’s sojourn back into pastoring only lasted a couple of years, Jim is STILL doing it.
In May of this year, Kelsey McKinney did an extensive piece for Buzzfeed on Jim Bakker’s new digs in Missouri, Morningside:
Located 30 miles southwest of Branson, Missouri, by car, Morningside is a giant compound on 600 acres of land that functions as part church, part business, part apartment complex, part suburb. From the outside, it looks like a shopping mall, but the inside — with a cinema that’s actually a prayer room, and a chapel — looks like a Hollywood backlot set for an Americanized idea of a European town square.
At the far end of the square is a granite stage surrounded by cameras and sound equipment. Three dozen chairs are set up around tables, which, although filming is supposed to begin in 15 minutes, sit empty. The Jim Bakker Show used to film here five days a week, but when I visited this past March the two scheduled episodes were both canceled because Jim Bakker — the once prominent televangelist whose very public fall from grace in the late ’80s resulted in a stint in prison — suddenly came down with an awful case of walking pneumonia. The taping had been canceled quickly and without notice, but there was no one there to miss it. Instead, the only audience for the empty stage was 36 white plastic buckets, each about a foot and a half tall.
They’re the kind of buckets that might be used to feed slop to pigs on a farm, and inside each are 18 dishes in freeze-dried food packets, making up almost 50,000 calories that, according to the purple labels slapped on their sides, have a 25-year shelf life. Just add water and, as Bakker says, “imagine — the world is dying and you’re having a breakfast for kings.”
Jim Bakker’s buckets of chow. (Image: NPR)
Speaking of that “breakfast for kings”, Kylie Mohr wrote about it at NPR a couple of years ago:
Among the freeze-dried products available on his website is a 50-day “Survival Food” sampler bucket containing 154 meals. It will cost you $135, but the idea is that you’ll be prepared when food shortages hit.
We got our hands on a version of this bucket, which contains a variety of hearty dishes, including buttermilk pancakes, vegetable chicken soup, creamy stroganoff, black bean burgers, fettucine alfredo and mashed potatoes.
If you’re an outdoor aficionado, you’re probably familiar with freeze-dried food. That’s what this stuff is, except all the packages have an expiration date of 2035. In addition to ample preservatives, each item is either nitrogen flushed or contains oxygen absorbers, reputedly to keep the food fresh.
Religious rhetoric around “the beginning of the end” is a common theme on The Jim Bakker Show…. Followers must be prepared to survive and continue preaching the Gospel, he says.
And why not, as Bakker urges, buy food today so that you can “have parties when the world’s coming apart?”
After tasting it myself, I’m going to have to say no thanks.
Bakker entered prison in 1989, but he did not serve the entire 45-year sentence. In 1991, a court of appeals upheld his fraud conviction but voided the original term, slashing his sentence to 18 years. In 1992, Bakker’s sentence was again reduced, this time to eight years, and he was released on parole in December 1994 after having served barely more than five years. By then, his marriage to Tammy Faye had fallen apart, and because of his absence from the network he created, donations to PTL sharply declined under Falwell. The IRS revoked the ministry’s nonprofit status, requiring more than $55 million in back taxes, and in 1988, after Falwell’s resignation, new ownership bought the company for $65 million in a bankruptcy sale….
In 1998, Bakker married a woman named Lori Graham, also a former preacher, and together they began to stage a return. Bakker had previously worked in what he often called “the ghetto” of Los Angeles, ministering to a primarily black community. But after he married Lori, the two moved back to North Carolina until, in 2003, Bakker got the opportunity to return to his primary pulpit — television — when a wealthy Missouri man offered to fund his comeback.
The Bakkers moved to Branson, Missouri, and began broadcasting The Jim Bakker Show from the now-defunct Studio City Cafe, before moving to Morningside five years later, in 2008. “I’ve always thought of the Lord. He is the reason I’m back on television, because I felt a calling,” Bakker told the local news the following year. “This is the dream of my lifetime.” Morningside was built by Jerry Crawford, a man who credits Bakker and his show with saving his marriage. According to early reports by the Salt Lake Tribune, Crawford invested $25 million in Morningside, and still owns most of the property used for housing development. (Critics of Bakker who I spoke with claim that he cannot own the property because the IRS revoked PTL’s tax-exempt status in 1988, and the ministry still owes $6 million in back taxes.)
In prison, Bakker famously studied the Bible all the way through for the first time, quickly determining that the prosperity gospel he had preached before (that God would bless you if you believed and donated) could not possibly be true. The biblical evidence was wishy-washy, and it no longer held true in his personal life, either. Before his stint in prison, before his fame and money and prosperity crumbled before his eyes, Jim Bakker didn’t talk a lot about the second coming of Christ.
However, in the last three years the second coming has become drastically more prominent in his teachings and on his show. Now, instead of convincing his viewers to give money so that they might later receive blessings from the Lord, Bakker is instead asking them to give money so that he can help them save themselves when the end times begin.
Image and caption via Buzzfeed.
Um… why must he always have to have some kind of theme? The Prosperity Gospel was as fashionable as shoulder pads in the “greed-is-good” 80s, but in the new millenium, a change to Doomsday Prepping with a shiny gold cross? Why? So if you can’t make it to Morningside, how do you catch up with Jim?
When Bakker began his show with Tammy Faye back in the ’70s, they had their own national network. And though Bakker retained the rights to use PTL branding, and his gift shop still sells PTL coffee mugs, The Jim Bakker Show now appears only on various Christian television channels like Angel One, Daystar, World Harvest Television, and The Word Network, and 14 local networks in nine states, or streamed online.
Bakker lives nearby, in a house off the Morningside property. The people on his campus love him and respect him, but they are not his primary audience. His church exists in the living rooms of people all over the country, his message disseminated through cable wires. In many ways, Bakker’s new show is simply a spinoff of the original, talk-show-style PTL Club. It’s filmed the same way almost every time: Jim, Lori, and the week’s guests sit behind a curved table, sipping out of PTL mugs and engaging in a conversation about that week’s topic — be it scriptural, personal, or political. Because the show has most recently been focused on signals of the end times, Bakker and the guests discuss events in the news, from sources like WorldNetDaily, the Washington Free Beacon, and Breitbart News.
Image and caption: Buzzfeed.
Ahhhh, of course, there’s got to be some politics:
In 2016, Bakker went even further, saying that Obama “sounded like the representative for Antichrist.”
As 2015 wound down, The Jim Bakker Show began to focus its sights on the 2016 election and what would happen if a conservative candidate did not win a spot in the White House.
“Hillary Clinton is a very wicked and un-Christian woman,” Bakker said in August 2016. “She supports gay rights and abortion. I would say she is a bride of Satan. If America elects her, it could lead to Armageddon.” For most of the election cycle, Bakker believed that Clinton would win, and that it would take (as he said multiple times) a “miracle” for Donald Drumpf to become president. Bakker — like many Christians — believed that God was sovereign over the election and that he would choose the winner, but that if he chose Clinton it meant damning things for the country. “God could allow Hillary to be elected because God sends judgment to a nation by giving them what the Bible says is immature leadership,” Bakker said in September 2016.
[O]n election night, Bakker hosted his own results broadcast. He, Lori, and other members of the Morningside community filmed their reactions to the election results live while Fox News coverage played on television screens behind them. As Donald Trump was declared the winner, Bakker smiled at the camera and pounded the table in excitement. As the camera panned across to the audience of around 40 people, women jubilantly danced through the aisles. When the camera returned to the stage, Lori was wearing a white “Make Donald Trump Again” hat with gold lettering. And then, while his eyes filled with tears and emotion caught in the back of his throat, Bakker announced that he thought Trump’s election was “the greatest miracle I have ever seen.”
“All the polls were wrong and the prophets were right! God was right!” Bakker yelled. He compared this political victory to other miracles throughout biblical history.
“It is the hour of the church in America again,” Bakker promised, saying that a Trump victory would bring God back into America.
Okay. It may or may not be the hour of the church again, but strangely, in 2017, 30 years after PTL’s fall, it is time, once again, for Jim Bakker.