Apocalypse Chow and the Genius of Jim Bakker


In the 1980s, Jim Bakker was a con man and a true believer.

He was also a genius, says John Wigger, author of “PTL: the rise and fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s evangelical empire.”

The Bakker’s invented the Christian talk show, built one of the first satellite networks, and created a Christian Disneyland, complete with a water park.

Everyone who was anyone seemed to appear on their show. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan showed up while on the campaign trail. Mother Angelica was a regular (Bakker later claimed he built her first set when she launched out on her own). Even Little Richard came by for a visit in one of his holy roller phases.

The Bakkers even pioneered an early form of reality TV, with their unscripted approach to the PTL Club, argued Wigger in a commentary for Religion News Service.:

In one episode they brought a camel on the show to promote their Christmas program. As Jim described how magnificent the camel was, it peed a river across the set, all on live television. Viewers came to think of Jim and Tammy as part of their extended family.

Even more, they knew how to read people– and to tell them what they needed and wanted to hear.

And people loved to give them money–including $148 million from 1983 to 1987–at the height of fundraising for Heritage USA.

In fact, the Bakker’s biggest problem– apart from the sex, drugs, and lying–was that they were too successful at meeting people’s needs. If people hadn’t loved Heritage USA so much–they wouldn’t have shown up in droves, writes Wigger.

And no one may have know that the Bakker’s oversold rooms at Heritage USA–which was the heart of the fraud case against them.

After the Bakkers fell and Jim went to jail, they reinvented themselves. Tammy Faye became a talk show host on her own, with Jim J. Bullock, who was openly gay. She also became an icon–one of the few Christian leaders of the 1980s to be kind to gay men, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis in the US and died beloved.

Jim reinvented himself as well– selling repentance at first and later, the end of the world.

For a while, he even denounced the prosperity gospel, he told Christianity Today in 1998:

I believe the harlot of the Book of Revelation is materialism. Our denomination [the Assemblies of God], at least, used to teach that the harlot was the Catholic church. That was escapist—we wanted to blame somebody else and never look at ourselves. If you study the attributes of the harlot, she’s all about materialism. Everything is about the commerce of buying and selling and stuff. It’s about loving this world and the things of this world.

He also told CT that he preferred working with the poor to returning to television and that the secret of the Christian life was to draw close to Christ and his suffering:

On returning to television. I don’t want to say never on anything. But with the money it takes to be on television—my budget was a million dollars every two days—the tail wags the dog. I don’t want money to be my consuming force again. Now I live in the ghetto of Los Angeles, where I work under a group of men that I highly respect. There are 160 different ministries working together. It’s like a New Testament church, a daily thing, where we are feeding people, working with drug addicts, and repainting whole city blocks. We have about 4,000 in our sidewalk Sunday schools, and 12 different language churches at the center.

The street ministry didn’t last too long. And the end of the world turned out to be extremely lucrative.

Today, Bakker is the star of Morningside, a 600-acre complex near Branson, complete with condos and cabins, when fans and followers can watch the new Jim Bakker show live and pick up buckets full of his survivalist foodstuffs. The end of the world is coming, so it’s best to have a few freeze-dried meals on hand.

For $3,000 you can buy the “Super Grocery Store” bundle of food–a pallet with close to 21,000 servings.

As  Buzzfeed put it:  “Just add water and, as Bakker says, ‘imagine — the world is dying and you’re having a breakfast for kings.'”

It’s easy to poke fun at Bakker, as just another snake oil salesman or crooked televangelist. But Wigger says that it’s worth paying attention to Bakker.

After all,  Wigger says in a chapter called “Apocalypse Chow,” Bakker has a keen eye for what a large number of Americans want.

“In exchanging the prosperity gospel for doomsday apocalypticism, Bakker has found a way to turn a profit by selling freeze-dried survival food and gear, including water filters, solar generators, and camping supplies. It is brilliant, in a way. Just as the abundant life gospel fit the 1980s, a survivalist message resonates in post 9/11 America. Once again, Bakker has proven himself adept at detecting shifting patterns in the cultural currents.”


Atheists Vs. The Housing Allowance: Round Three

A federal judge has once again ruled that the parsonage allowance — a tax break that allows pastors to pay all their housing costs with tax-free dollars–is unconstitutional, reports Christianity Today.

The purpose of the housing allowance, ruled  U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb,” is to provide financial assistance to one group of religious employees without any consideration to the secular employees who are similarly situated to ministers. Under current law, that type of provision violates the establishment clause.”

Ministers get about $800 million in tax relief each year because of the housing allowance, according to Christianity Today. So it’s a big deal.

Crabb issued a similar ruling in 2013, after the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the IRS, saying that it was unfair that pastor could get a housing allowance, but the leaders of a secular nonprofit–in this case one run by atheists– ould not.

The Department of Justice responded by saying in essence, “OK–atheists can get a housing allowance.” An appeals court later overruled Crabb, saying that FFRF leaders hadn’t ever asked for a housing allowance.

So the FFRF’s leaders called the government’s bluff. They asked for a housing allowance by filing amended tax returns. The IRS gave them some money but then later, turned down their request.  Atheists can’t get a housing allowance, the IRS said,  according to the FFRF.

“IRC Section 107 specifically requires that to exclude a housing allowance from income you must be a minister of the gospel,” states a letter quoted in Crabb’s new decision. “The IRS does not have the authority to interpret this to include anyone other than those who meet this definition.”

This is the third time the housing allowance has been in legal trouble. The first came way back in 2002, when Rick Warren feuded with the IRS.





Religion Reporting by the Book

A few weeks ago, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein stirred up a hornet’s nest by criticizing the beliefs of judicial nominee Amy Barrett during a hearing.

Barrett described herself as a “faithful Catholic.”   That bothered Feinstein, who implied that Barrett’s faith disqualified her.

“The dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said, according to published reports.  “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.”

This exchange made Barrett’s beliefs into headline news. That got New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein thinking:  “What does Barrett believe.”

Like any good beat reporter, Goodstein went digging. What she found was fascinating. Barrett is a member of the People of Praise, an “ecumenical, covenant community” with ties to the Catholic charismatic movement.

Among the group’s practices: a belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as healing and speaking in tongues, and the practice of spiritual oversight, where each member is assigned a mentor or spiritual guide.  They also have a missionary bent:

“As a community, and together with the whole Church, we pray for a continued outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our time, so that all men and women might come to know, love and serve Jesus,” the group’s site states.

Goodstein found that at times, the People of Praise have been accused of trying to control their members’ lives.  Among their critics is one of the group’s founders. who wrote a paper describing them as “not reliable guides.”

Goodstein also scored a coup: getting the group’s leader on the phone. (As someone who has covered small sects and religious communities for years, that’s no small task. Usually, people go running when I call.)

Craig S, Lent, the group’s coordinator, laid out the group’s beliefs. They don’t control members and individual members have to discern God’s will for their lives, he told Goodstein,  Lent also addressed critics, who worried that the group would try to influence Barrett’s decision on the bench.

“If and when members hold political offices, or judicial offices, or administrative offices, we would certainly not tell them how to discharge their responsibilities,” he told the times. 

To recap:  The religious beliefs of a judicial nominee became a matter of public discussion and controversy.  A reporter tracked down the nominee’s specific beliefs, asked questions of whether that nominee had tried to hide those beliefs, and got the leader of the nominee’s religious committee to answer questions raised by critics.

The piece was textbook religion beat writing.

There’s been some criticism of the article as a “hit piece,” as if reporting on Barrett’s beliefs is somehow hostile.

Still, the controversy over Barrett raises some important questions about religious liberty.  In the past, politicians and talking heads have questioned whether Catholics or Muslims can hold public office–arguing that those faiths undermine the loyalties of their followers, making them less patriotic.  More recently, Senator Bernie Sanders argued that believing hell disqualified an evangelical nominee from public office,

But there’s a big difference between a Senator who discriminates against a nominee on the basis of their religion — and a reporter who asks about a nominee’s faith.  One is a religious test for office. The other is reporting 101,

My two cents: We need more reporters who are willing to ask Americans of all stripes about what they believe and about how those beliefs — or unbeliefs — shape their lives.  Religion is  not going anywhere –and if we’re going to get along as Americans, we need to get how religion works.

That’s a not a  hit piece. It’s journalism 101.








The Chainsaw Option

Do what you can to help.

That’s the lesson that Sister Margeret Ann wants her students at Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in Miami to remember when they walk out the school’s doors and into the community.

So when she saw a tree blocking the road following Hurricane Irma–Sister Margaret Ann decided to take her own advice. She raided the school toolshed for a chainsaw–consulted Saint Google–and got to work clearing the debris.

Her good deed–like thousands of other acts of everyday kindness in the wake of the recent hurricanes–might have gone unnoticed, had not a Miami police driven by and taped her at work, creating a viral disaster relief superstar.

Sister Margaret didn’t know she was famous until she’d got home.  All the attention seems to have caught her by surprise. After all, she was just doing what came naturally.

So, there was a need, I had the means — so I wanted to help out,” she told CNN.

This is how religion works in America. There’s a disaster–and thousands of people show up to help with chainsaws and willing hands. Someone gets sick and friends show up with casseroles and kindness. A neighbor grieves the death of a child or a spouse or a parent and their community rallies around them so they don’t grieve alone. Volunteers distribute food so kids don’t go hungry.  A church opens its doors to refugees.

Most of the time there are no cameras and no Twitter fame. Just everyday, unexpected acts of grace. They see a need, they have a means to help and they get to work.

With apologies to Rod Dreher, call it the Chainsaw Option.

That’s why I became a religion writer in the first place — to cover the way that ordinary people practice their faith, live out their values, and put their spirituality to work in the real world.

There’s a time to cover the flashy side of faith — the rock star preachers, the cat cults , the lawsuits. But that’s not the heart and soul of religion.

But that’s not the heart and soul of religion in America,

Folks like Sister Margaret Ann are.