Most people who recognize the name Jim Bakker will recall his heyday as a prosperity gospel televangelist in the 1970s and 1980s. Bakker went from hosting Pat Robertson’s relatively anodyne The 700 Club to his own hugely profitable religious talk show, The PTL Club (short for Praise the Lord), which embodied the worst excesses of the Reagan era and ended in disaster. Millions in tax-exempt ministry funds were used to finance not only Rolls-Royces and vacation homes, but the construction of a Christian theme park with a 500-room luxury hotel onsite; later, the money was used to pay off women who had accused Bakker of rape. His fall from grace in 1988, which saw him charged with more than 20 counts of financial fraud, was one of the most high-profile celebrity scandals of the era. Bakker’s indiscretions left a permanent stain on televangelism and the concept of the Moral Majority, giving an early hint that white evangelicals tend not to be quite as concerned with personal virtue as they let on.
Bakker was released from prison in 1994 after serving five years. (His cellmate at one point was recently deceased cult leader Lyndon LaRouche.) In 2003, he and his second wife, Lori, returned to televangelism with The Jim Bakker Show, which is syndicated to nearly every Christian television network in the U.S. After watching, for some reason, 10 or so hours of this show, I can conclusively say that latter-day Bakker is infinitely more fascinating than Bakker at his peak. His activities in the 1980s were mainstream and perfectly in line with societal trends — plutocratic rapaciousness under a veneer of irritating holier-than-thou moralism — but his current activities, separated from the evangelical mainstream, are more inexplicable.
The Jim Bakker Show exists in a world set apart from our own. The opening, the theme of which bears a striking resemblance to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” shows drone footage of a modest chapel under construction deep in the Ozarks, funded entirely by viewer donations (a donation of $500 or $1,000 gets you a kitschy Kinkade-esque painting of a different chapel.) The chapel, which pretty much resembles any small-town church, is a brilliant attempt at visual symbolism. Its geographic isolation and artificially slowed-down construction process (it has been going on since last August) recall classic American images of pioneers clearing the wilderness to start morally pure Christian communities. Those of us not watching in-studio may not realize that this is happening 30 minutes from downtown Branson, Missouri, and the drone doesn’t pan out to show the rest of Bakker’s enormous, donation-funded Morningside compound just down the road in beautiful Blue Eye, MO. We never get an overhead view of the much bigger church next door, or the TV studios, or the sprawling gift shop, or the luxury rental condos, or the Morningside Beauty Salon, all of which are proudly exhibited on Bakker’s website.
The show, which is broadcast Monday through Friday, is often little more than an extended infomercial for alternative medicine, Christian paperbacks, and, most infamously, two-to-six-gallon buckets of end-times survival food. (All of it tax-exempt, filtered through the euphemisms of “free gifts” and “donations.”) Bakker’s buckets were the centerpiece of video editor Vic Berger’s Bakker compilations a few years back, which slowed down and emphasized the show’s creepiest moments. Berger didn’t have to do much — the buckets are about as disgusting as you would expect bulk food aimed at the generation that invented Jello salad to be. A 2015 NPR article about Bakker’s survival food contained phrases like “felt like eating wet cement” and “one of the worst things I've ever eaten in my life.” Buckets contain either one type of slurry in bulk, like the $290, six-gallon “Cheesy Broccoli Rice” offering, or an assortment of dried foods in a particular style, like the $79 “Thanksgiving Feast” bucket. (The latter’s description says it recalls “the sounds of family visiting,” somehow making Thanksgiving-in-a-bucket even more depressing.) Typically, Bakker will let the pictures on the buckets do the work, but on the rare occasion they are dumb enough to pop the tops, the results tug at, and occasionally resemble, vomit.
The coming apocalypse looms over The Jim Bakker Show, but in that peculiar Christian way where their actions don’t match up with their words. Any headline about a disaster or political unrest is happily taken as evidence of imminent rapture, even as Trump is praised for bringing lasting stability and prosperity to the world. The tone is eternally cheery even as the subject matter alternates between pitches for herbal weight-loss products and exhortations to buy $79 buckets of freeze-dried pizza toppings for the coming Starving Time. The contradiction here seems obvious, but Bakker wouldn’t still be advertising both product lines at once if people weren’t buying. The buckets themselves proudly claim to have 30-year shelf lives, which seems to call Bakker’s revelations about the upcoming rapture into question. When the current crop of buckets expires, it will be 2049, I will be 56 years old, and everyone who has ever been in Bakker’s audience will be dead.
The diet-pill pitches venture into territory even Dr. Oz avoids, specifically targeting the elderly with dubious products that, at best, do nothing at all. One frequent guest is Dr. Don Colbert, M.D., who sells the products “Thyroid Zone,” a multivitamin containing several herbal remedies, “Hormone Zone,” a multivitamin containing the cabbage-derived supplement DIM (diindolylmethane), and a wealth of literature instructing 85-year-olds how to dive into the keto diet, all of which could be dangerous and should be discussed with a non-television doctor. A $79 donation gets you a bottle of each, a book and a DVD. Interestingly, Dr. Colbert received his M.D. in 1984 from the medical school at Oral Roberts University, an evangelical Christian college which banned students from wearing jeans to class until 2009. In 1989, the university’s medical school was closed due to a lack of doctors, patients, and funds. A Washington Post article about the closure noted that “[Roberts’] ministry has been plagued by a steady decline in financial donations over the past two years — a drop that he attributed to the ‘spirit of skepticism’ after scandals in the ministries of television evangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart.”
Another frequently advertised product on the show is Bee Alive Royal Jelly, a natural remedy derived from beehives that, according to the FDA, has no known health benefits but can cause adverse reactions like hives and anaphylactic shock. The Bee Alive company, which attributes its name to divine inspiration, has been targeted by the FDA for making false health claims as far back as 1989. On Bee Alive’s website, three jars of honey with trace amounts of royal jelly, which does not do anything, sell for $99. On the Bakker show, viewers get a lecture on how founder Madeline Balletta was told not to include prayer in her marketing materials but did it anyway, and a special one-time deal — three small jars of slightly adulterated honey for $85. (A kilogram of “pure royal jelly,” which would still not do anything, can be found elsewhere for $72.) Balletta recalls a period in the 1980s when she was bedridden with an unspecified illness, and attributes her recovery to both divine intervention (she says Jesus had been “sitting on her legs” as some sort of punishment) and her discovery of inert queen-bee goop. This, like the colloidal silver lozenges Bakker also sells, is marketed as a natural replacement for the flu vaccine, which resident generator salesman Frank Davis tells us “puts toxins in your body.” Sure, why not? Is the FDA under Trump, whose commissioner just resigned, going to intervene?
The central theme of the show, and what makes it so compelling, is its utter isolation. Nothing, not even the ridiculous shows on Fox News’ streaming service, can compare to the seemingly cult-like atmosphere of the Morningside studio. In that space, Bakker is able to keep his sordid past at a distance while conspicuously replicating it. His convictions and prison sentence can be waved away as a learning experience, even as he engages in the same profiteering behavior that brought him down the first time. He has a new show, a new bleach-blonde wife, and a new luxury compound, but the business model remains exactly the same, and no one seems to care. His audience, which is certainly old enough to remember what happened the first time, is willing to give him another shot now that he has scaled his aspirations back from a massive Christian theme park to a megachurch with a built-in hair salon.
The people watching are isolated. Audience shots show a sea of white hair. A desperate need for companionship in old age is part of why meandering Christian talk shows of this sort maintain any viewers at all. The producers seem to know this; guests trying to sell diet pills routinely bring up their children or grandchildren and display photos of them on the big screen for no clear purpose. The show is, in some sense, a surrogate social life for lonely, devout senior citizens who have pushed their adult children away and think Oprah and Joy Behar are tools of the Antichrist.
Though he has repeatedly referred to Trump’s election as a miracle, Bakker is similarly isolated from Trumpworld, rare for an evangelical leader of his stature. Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham have been full-throated Trump boosters for years, but Bakker — probably due to his high-profile conviction in the 1980s — remains on the outside looking in. Unlike Falwell Jr., whose father bought the PTL organization he founded out from under him in 1987, Bakker will never be invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference. This separation is a good thing, at least where his show is concerned, because it means the impromptu defenses of presidential tweets and dreadful second-tier Trump surrogates (Don Jr., Sebastian Gorka, Tomi Lahren) that plague similarly toned shows like Fox & Friends are nowhere to be found. Instead, we are introduced to a far more entertaining array of no-name lunatics with seemingly glued-on hair and eyebrows who want to sell us half-baked eschatology, silver lozenges and “Hormone Zone.”
Don Jr. really doing his best to suck the air out of the room pic.twitter.com/BT9hjsVXmF— jordan (@JordanUhl) March 2, 2019
In the current political context, Bakker’s exile from mainstream Christianity and conservative politics seems unnecessary. White evangelicals are head over heels for Trump, a man who also accumulated wealth through unscrupulous means in the 1980s, who has also weathered rape accusations, and who is also so obviously a con man that only the carefully cultivated marks of the megachurch demographic could fall for his scams. Seeing the comparatively uncontroversial and possibly Xanned-out Jerry Falwell, Jr. mumble his way through a painful panel discussion with Don Jr. and Charlie Kirk at CPAC this year drove this home for me. Falwell’s father loudly distanced himself from Bakker in 1989, hoping to preserve some of televangelism’s mainstream respectability. But what use is respectability when white evangelicals are willing to follow Donald Trump to the end of the earth? Why force people to listen to a scandal-free bore when the true embodiment of Trump-era Christianity — the guy who had the courage to act like 2016 Trump back when the real Trump was still donating to Democrats — is sitting on the sidelines?