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.”