Bakker’s back

Independent (England), June 15, 2003

The life of Jim Bakker, the world’s most famous fallen tele-evangelist, has always been about numbers, and we are not just talking hymns and psalms. There was the $1.9m salary he paid himself in 1986, the last full year that he led the Praise The Lord (PTL) Ministry that he founded in 1972 with his thickly mascara’d wife, Tammy Faye. At the time, he owned six luxury mansions, 47 bank accounts and a single Rolls-Royce. He was accustomed to raising $1m from his TV-goggling disciples across America every two days. Then came 1989, when he was charged, and convicted, on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy for stealing $3.7m from his flock to fund his fabulous lifestyle.

We could go on in this vein for ever. It was never exactly clear how many sexual partners (allegedly both women and men) he enjoyed in those crazy days before his reckoning with the law and crushing humiliation. We do know he paid $265,000 in cash to buy the silence of a church secretary he had been involved with in 1980.

The opulence of the Bakkers’ lifestyle at the height of their reign could not be measured in simple figures, however. They enjoyed the American Dream, but a garishly inflated version of it. They had an air-conditioned dog kennel and gold-plated bathrooms. Theirs was the kind of money that bought everything except good taste. Tammy Faye, who used glove puppets to help explain the Word of the Lord on air, is still seen today as the gold standard for eye shadow run amok. There is even a documentary film about her simply called The Eyes of Tammy Faye Bakker. Jim had a monkey face. His apple-shiny cheeks contrived to look at once bloated and stretched.

The Bakkers flaunted their wealth and used it to raise more and more of it. They offered a model of extravagant living that viewers drank in, presumably not in a spirit of post-modern irony. At its peak, the PTL broadcasts touched 13.5 million American households every day. The Bakkers are still being pursued for $3m (£1.9m) in unpaid income tax.

But there is one number, above all, that Jim Bakker, will never forget. It is 07407-058. Put “Inmate” in front of it, and you will see why. Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for his crimes, even though some of the counts against him were later reversed and in 1994 he was released after only five years behind bars. By then, Tammy Faye had divorced him and Bakker, we all assumed, would fade into shamed obscurity. One thing was for sure, he told one interviewer shortly afterwards – he would never preach on television again.

He did write a book, however, simply called I Was Wrong. And then, lo and behold, Bakker was wrong again. Not only is he preaching once more, but he is doing it before the cameras. Second chances are encouraged in Christian teaching and, for sure, they are allowed in America. For proof, you need look no further than a joint called the Studio City Café in Branson, Missouri, a folksy tourist town that peddles God and country music to Middle America in roughly equal measures.

Since January, Bakker, 63, and his new wife, Lori Graham Bakker, have been turning up here each weekday morning to record an hour-long show of music, pious chat and, of course, old-fashioned preaching. The show is being carried by a growing roster of television stations across America and, via satellite, around the world. Assisting them are 20 Christian singers doubling as waitresses and cooks and, on most days, a celebrity guest of questionable calibre. Tony Orlando was on recently, and if you can’t quite pin him down, he is the man who sang “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” with Dawn. On hand every day to ensure an atmosphere of wholesome devotion to Bakker, are the paying customers of the 260-seat café, nearly all tourists visiting Branson, cheering him on while shovelling down barbecued ribs and eight-inch-high chocolate gateaux.

Bakker, in other words, has made a swift journey from shamed to shameless. When the new Jim Bakker Show hit the airwaves in January, it was 16 years to the day since his last PTL appearance. Yet the sins that were subsequently unearthed were surely enough to make any resurrection in the TV evangelising business an utter impossibility. Chief among them was his success in persuading countless viewers to donate sums of $1,000 or more to purchase “lifetime partnerships” in a hotel complex at his glitzy Christian theme park in North Carolina called Heritage USA.

The theme park, with a Main Street to rival Disney World’s, certainly existed – but the hotel never did. It was the biggest time-share scam ever conceived, cloaked in the false respectability of the name of God. Thousands of American souls, mostly retirees, found they would be unable ever to get their money back. Bakker was defrocked by his denomination, the Assemblies of God, for “conduct unbecoming of a minister”, and all of America, and his fellow television evangelists, turned against him. Jerry Falwell publicly declared Bakker a sexual deviant, an embezzler and a liar. After taking over the PTL Club, as it was known, and taking it into bankruptcy, Falwell called its founder “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in two thousand years of church history”. Few at the time disagreed.

Bakker has since contended that his years in prison were his salvation. He re-read all the scriptures and crucially concluded that the so-called “prosperity preaching” of his PTL days – wherein he equated dollar-wealth with godliness – was misguided. For a while, Bakker lived by his new creed that God also attended to the poor. He moved to Los Angeles where he worked for a ministry working in a city ghetto. It was there that he met his new wife, with whom he is now raising seven Hispanic foster children. Later the couple moved to Florida where they founded a Christian camp for inner-city teens, called the New Covenant Fellowship. And, as he did so, Bakker discovered that he was not quite the pariah he imagined. When he addressed a Christian leadership conference in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1995, when he was barely out of prison, 10,000 clergymen cheered and gave him a 15-minute standing ovation. “I thought people would spit on me,” he later recalled. “Instead they received me with open arms.”

Bakker recently commented that it was a “supernatural act of God” that got him back in front of the cameras. He may also have been inspired by his ex-wife, Tammy Faye. In 1994, she married Roe Messner, a construction contractor who used to be one of Jim’s best friends and who helped build Heritage USA, and now she too is exploiting her notoriety on the tube. With a little-known actor, Jim J Bullock, she has a cable chat-show featuring D-list Hollywood guests, entitled The Jim J and Tammy Faye Show. She talks Tinseltown and glamour but leaves God well out of it.

But, in fact, most of the credit for Jim’s resurrection goes to a Branson businessman called Jerry Crawford. Crawford’s unbroken admiration of Bakker stemmed from his memory of visiting Heritage USA many years earlier, an experience, he has since claimed, that saved his then crumbling marriage. Crawford owns the Studio City Café in Branson and persuaded Bakker that it was the perfect venue for a television comeback. Relying on the sweat partly of volunteers and the broadcast talents of other devotees of Bakker, the restaurant was hastily converted in time for January’s launch. It remains a shoe-string affair. Fabulous has made way for folksy and Bakker cuts a self-consciously humble figure.

“Oh my, I never really planned to come back on television,” commented Bakker himself. “I had been sick for two months before the show started, and I think it was related to my losses before, to the press, and what I’ve been through. I think it was just my body saying, ‘No! No! Don’t put your head above the crowd. You’ll get tomatoes thrown at you again.'”

And the reception has been remarkable. “I’ve never been welcomed so wonderfully anywhere in my life,” Bakker said of Branson and his new audiences. “I’m beyond excited, I’m overwhelmed.” His show airs daily on 30 Christian broadcast television stations around the US, even though in some markets the time-slot is in the small hours. It is taken by 200 cable channels and, most recently, reaches homes worldwide via the Christian Television Network’s “Angel” satellite. “We didn’t really get any flak at all [for putting Bakker back on the air],” commented CTN’s president Bob D’Andrea. “We’ve had a lot of favourable comments that people are glad to see Jim back.”

And among the folks packing the Studio City Café, you will even find a few who donated to PTL and to the hotel scheme and lost everything they gave. But, apparently, there is just something about Bakker they cannot resist. And they forgive him. “We lost money,” Bill Armstrong, recently retired from a metal casting company, told a reporter from the Springfield News-Leader after visiting the café and watching Bakker do his thing again. “He’s forgiven.” And people respond to his new low-key tone. “We don’t come as someone who has all the answers,” Bakker insisted. “We don’t come as examples. We come as a demonstration of God’s restoration.”

He may not want to be an example – prison is seldom something the average viewer aspires to – but Bakker has not been able to resist digging out some of the trappings of his old incarnation. A few of the more valuable paintings that used to adorn the walls of Heritage USA are once again on view in the café, including four huge paintings of Jesus by Joseph Wallace King. And on a small wall just next to the kitchen, fans can find a collection of framed photographs, harking back to the days when Bakker hob-nobbed with presidents and tycoons. Bakker can be seen posing with Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and George Bush Sr. There is even a frame exhibiting an engraved napkin ring and other mementoes from Air Force One from the day in 1980 when President Carter invited him on board to help him pray for the American hostages in Iran.

So, what about Bakker’s old fetish with numbers? At what stage in his show, you may be wondering, does he stare deep into the lens of the television camera and implore his new-found flock to send their dollars to Branson? Wouldn’t it be nice to build a Bakker motel adjacent to the café, at least? No, that is not part of the script this time around and if it was, you can be sure that Bakker would be scooped up by federal agents faster than he can say “Praise be to Je-sus!”

But we cannot let him off the hook completely. Someone has to pay for the cost of the show. Programming is expensive nowadays. So there it is, for those who make it all the way to the end of the Jim Bakker hour – a gentle request to viewers to write a cheque, large or small, to keep the show on the air. And donations, believe it or not, are rolling in.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday June 17, 2003.
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