He’s moving from a low-key show out of a converted restaurant in a one- horse Missouri town and back to the limelight with a broadcast from a sprawling 600-acre development.
Of course, he’s asking for forgiveness. Of course, he’s also asking for “love donations” from the very flock he once hoodwinked out of their savings.
The subject is of particular interest to me because in May 1987, I set out on a journey down that broad red ribbon on the map that Christian fundamentalists call “Highway to Heaven.”
I’m talking about Highway 77.
It runs like a vein down into the deep South, plunging into Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and straight into the land of Bible message billboards, right past the pearly gates of Jim and Tammy and into the home of Christian scam and scandal.
It was purely coincidental that I arrived just when the Bakkers flew the coop, leaving Jerry Falwell to sweep in with a helicopter to seize control of their $129-million-a-year operation.
Bakker spent five years in prison for diverting millions into his own pockets. Tammy, soon after the debacle of The PTL (Praise The Lord) club, divorced her husband, and has since passed away.
Now Jim’s lost flock is quietly making its way back to him, despite being duped into handing over their life savings to this man.
In a class action suit, some 165,000 of these PTL followers each won a refund of $6.54.
My 1987 trip is something I won’t ever forget.
As I headed south, there was only the hint of what this part of America was all about. Quaint white frame steepled churches solid the lush green rolling landscape.
At each junction to a town or a city, among a forest of Holiday Inn and Ramada Inn signs, there were billboards bidding drivers to “Turn Back To the Bible.”
Ironically, it became clear in God’s America that things were not right.
Not then. Not now.
Just as it was hard to find something other than gospel or country and western on the radio, it was also difficult to ignore the indignant denials of immorality over PTL or the smooth-talking words of “forgiveness” about the Bakkers.
The country and western music, with all its hurtin’ and cheatin,’ really seemed to be the flipside to the “gospel” fabric that still pervades the lives of the people here — Baptists, Pentecostals or Lutherans.
Before long, as I ventured further south, I passed over some invisible boundary line and knew I was well inside the Bible Belt.
There was nothing to signal this –no road signs, no guide books –but there was that sense I had somehow passed into territory that was like nothing else I’d ever seen.
If it was a Wednesday night and I was passing a Pentecostal church I’d see cars parked bumper to bumper along the shoulders of the highways. If I rolled down the car window, I would’ve heard singing and clapping.
At Heritage USA, I walked into Bakker’s multimillion-dollar religious Disneyland with gigantic waterslides, the original childhood home of Billy Graham, a recreated stage set of Jerusalem with Herod’s armies and shepherds and camels.
I conducted dozens of interviews, including talking to Bakker’s parents and Tammy’s cosmetic associate.
One of my best was with the actor who played Satan in their religious plays. This man complained about the role, telling me he was attacked nightly by the audience. And the crowd cheered each time they’d assault him.
“They thought I really was Satan!” he said. “I complained and asked the director if I could just once be Jesus!”
While there, I stayed at the magnificent Grand Hotel with its glitzy lobby of chandeliers, mirrors and twinkling lights. This was a hotel without mini bars in the rooms or smoke shops in the lobby. It was a place where smoking and drinking were banned, where the wake-up call tells you: “This is the day the Lord has made!” and where bikini-clad women were forbidden from the hotel pool.
This was Bakker’s empire. A sprawling 2,200-acre religious dreamland smack dab in the middle of fundamentalist, Bible-centred America, where people spoke in tongues and where prophecies were as commonplace as cornbread and catfish.
Bakker is doing it again. He’s bringing back the excesses of fundamentalism, and that odd commingling of carnival razzmatazz, amusement parks, early American revivalism and old-fashioned Protestant Bible camp camaraderie.
When will people wake up?
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