With millennials being the least religious generation yet, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that televangelism is a 20th-century relic fading into obscurity. But as John Oliver’s 2015 segment on modern “prosperity gospel” hucksters and the recent news of televangelist Jesse Duplantis asking—and likely convincing—his followers to buy him a fourth $54 million private jet, it's clear that large swaths of America have yet to lose faith in these airwave evangelists.
No one better exemplifies this archetype, Christianity’s fraught relationship with celebrity, and America’s love of a rebrand than disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker.
Having served a prison sentence at the end of his headline-grabbing sex, drug, and money-filled late-80s downfall, Bakker is now a free man and back on the air, attempting to re-grow his flock and bank account with The Jim Bakker Show. Part sermon, part infomercial, the daily shows are similar to his pre-conviction programming, albeit with a modern, millennial twist. However, despite being back on both TV and his bullshit, it’s apparent that Bakker 2.0 is a husk of his former self, reduced to little more than a Rapture-themed infomercial salesman.
As highlighted in Vic Berger’s video series for Superdeluxe, the most eye-catching and unsettling of the products peddled on The Jim Bakker Show are his “emergency food buckets”—pails filled with non-perishable vittles, produced by a company called Augason Farms.
It took only a few online videos of Jim demonstrating the yield of his buckets by mixing up entire bathtubs of gruel before my curiosity was piqued enough to order some to try myself.
A veritable cornucopia of bucketed international tastes were on offer at The Jim Bakker Show website, but I decided to go with the Mexican-themed “30 Day Fiesta Bucket.” As an Angeleno surrounded by some of the best Mexican food north of the border, my natural impulse was to test its autenticidad. Also it was on sale for $85, making it one of the cheapest on the site.
I set out on a mission to have no solid foods other than those whipped up from the bucket for as long as humanly possible, knowing full well I wouldn't last more than a week. Beverages were my sole salvation for the mere five days I was able to choke down the musty meals.
The breakfast tacos, nachos, enchiladas, and other Mexican dishes I prepared from the pail’s powdered and freeze-dried ingredient baggies were flavorless at best and vile at worst. While the bucket boasted a 30-year shelf life for the 196 servings of foodstuffs inside, it didn’t take too many test meals before I’d resolved myself to an existence of scavenging and cannibalism in the event of a real apocalypse.
Over the course of my hell week, I tried all manner or ingredient combinations, sauce addition cheats, and fancy plating to try and trick myself into enjoying the stuff, but it was no use. Eventually I came to the conclusion that VICE wasn't paying me nearly enough to endure further suffering, and I tapped out.
These miserable buckets are a sad end for someone who once had so much power. Bakker’s story is America’s story—one of success, failure, piety, sin, punishment, reinvention, and sexual misconduct.
Like so many villains, Bakker started with a presumably pure heart and intentions. After graduating from a bible college where he met and married Tammy Faye, the newlyweds began work at Pat Robertson’s fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network. The charming couple spent the next decade helping to grow the network, initially appearing on its flagship show, The 700 Club, before branching out to found their own cable network and host its immensely popular talk show called The PTL Club (for “praise the lord”). Unsatisfied with the steady stream of checks his prosperity gospel sermons were convincing his couch-locked flock to mail in, Bakker opened Heritage USA, a wholesome, Christian-themed (and thusly tax-exempt) water park. In a move that would contribute to his eventual downfall, Bakker began selling lifetime annual four-day stays in a hotel tower proposed for the park to any viewer who donated $1,000 to the ministry. Over 165,000 people took Bakker up on the ludicrous deal, though few were ever actually able to capitalize on it. There was only a 500-room hotel built at the park, a far cry from the 1,800-plus room resort that simple math dictates as necessary for fulfilling this promise. The catalyst that led to Jim Bakkers’ downfall and PTL Industries' spiral into bankruptcy was a December 1980 accusation of sexual assault from Jessica Hahn, a woman who worked as his church secretary. Hahn was later given a $265,000 hush money settlement, paid through the PLT ministries. When this tryst eventually came to light and the settlement money was revealed, the focus of the scandal shifted over to PTL's finances and Bakker's house of cards began to fall down. The obvious parallels between this and the Donald Trump/Stormy Daniels imbroglio even resulted in some being duped by a satirical article in which Bakker claims Trump was simply "sharing the gospel" with Daniels.
The ensuing investigation into PTL's shady bookkeeping practices highlighted by the Hahn scandal revealed that Jim Bakker had defrauded his flock of over $158 million. In 1989 he was convicted of 5 of 24 charges of wire and mail fraud and conspiracy and sentenced to 45 years in prison. He would only serve about five of those years.
In 2003, nearly a decade after his release, Bakker and second wife Lori began broadcasting his new daily program, The Jim Bakker Show, from their Branson, Missouri production compound. Like many a right-wing show born in the post-9/11 era, this new venture subsists on fear-mongering and propaganda to push its narrative. Whether decrying Obama as a “representative for the antichrist" or urging viewers to pray for their “chosen by God” president, Donald Trump, Bakker and his gang of Christ-loving cohorts stay on top of the latest trends and catchphrases of the right, all to sell the idea that the End Times are near.
Be warned all you would be Bakker bullies. As seen in the video above, Jim also says that if you make fun of him and his sermons, God will not be pleased. It's hard not to feel that Bakker’s warnings of an imminent apocalypse come not from a selfless place, but from an insatiable capitalistic hunger. Bakker first courts the doomsday prepper crowd with his apocalyptic prognostications, then follows up with infomercial-style segments that sell not just food buckets, but all the additional gear one could need to weather the impending rapture. Bakker offers the survival products you’d expect like water filtration systems, solar panels, and flashlights, but his online store also stocks a variety of items suited to hyper-specific and hyper-unlikely worst-case scenarios. Take, for example, this $250 duffel bag that can weather a solar flare, lightning strike, or EMP blast.
Jim is also dipping his toe back in the waters of vacation real-estate, selling cabins or stays in them at his Ozark mountain community, Morningside, which he (predictably) touts as "the safest place to live." Then there’s the supplement section of the shop, boasting a collection of tinctured wellness hokum marketed with enough questionable health benefit claims to make Gwyneth Paltrow blush.
As if things weren’t already QVC enough, The Jim Bakker Show also sells cheap jewelry, forcing the man who used to travel the world in luxury meeting with all manner of celebrities to debase himself by pretending he gives a solitary fuck about tacky cross bracelets.
Let me be clear, Jim Bakker is a snake. But now that he's a defanged one, it's easier to feel a little sad on his behalf. Bakker's latter-day grind, absent all the excess of the PTL era, is proving to be the unserved remainder of his prison sentence. When I see him covering his bald spot with an embroidered cross dad hat and pitching Islamophobic DVDs that keep his cycle of fear-based consumption alive, I see a scared animal with his back against a wall, a desperate man turning back to the only grift he’s ever known, clawing to stay alive no matter who he harms in the process.
Ultimately, Bakker can’t tread this water forever. He will likely die relatively soon, still regarded as a heel by most who know his name. And if the hell he believes in exists, he’ll likely wind up there, force-fed his awful meal buckets for all of eternity. But I hope Jim’s wrong. I hope for his sake and ours that when he dies he’s simply dead, afforded the cosmic freedom of ceasing to exist. I hope when he dies he’s finally just gone and the universe can be rid of him, this time for good.
Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.
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