Jim Bakker was once the biggest name in televangelism. Now he spends his days selling survival supplies through an online Christian shopping channel. I spent an entire day watching it.
Images via YouTube and Shutterstock. Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Disgraced televangelist, ex-con, and soup salesman Jim Bakker paints a bleak portrait for the near future: North Korea will release a series of electromagnetic pulse bombs above the earth’s atmosphere, completely disabling all US electronic technology. Counter-attacks will leave the planet in ruin. 95 percent of humanity will die in the first six months. “Woe to those who are pregnant or nursing babies in those days!” he says, quoting the Bible as he hosts The Jim Bakker Show.
But, thankfully, you are prepared. You have purchased your Tasty Pantry Deluxe Food Buckets, guaranteeing you over ten thousand servings of pizza, mac and cheese, and chocolate pudding while you wait out the apocalypse. You have purchased your solar generator with compatible microwave and electric blanket, “so you don’t freeze to death,” says Bakker. You have your collection of “end times” literature with titles like The Islamic Antichrist and The Trump Prophecies, which will guide you through the bloody tribulations to come.
I’ve only just begun my 24 hour binge of the newly revived Praise the Lord (PTL) network, Bakker's apocalypse-themed Christian home shopping channel. As a child I marinated in doomsday prophecies like these, as my parents (and those of my poverty-stricken friends) gave ten percent of our yearly income to conmen like Bakker—about as much as I’ve spent on therapists attempting to treat the PTSD caused by spending 20 years waiting for the world to end.
From their website, it's difficult to work out exactly what the new PTL is (and the network didn't respond to my requests for clarification). It could best be described as a sad buffet of conspiracy theorists, bigots, doomsday prophets, and old school religious hucksters—all of whom have something to sell. It seems to be exclusively broadcast online, but syndicates some of its content for broadcast by other networks.
It's a far cry from the operation Bakker had in the 80s, when he and his then-wifeTammy Faye Bakker were the most powerful couple in televangelism, and PTL was the biggest name in the industry.
“In about thirteen years they went from absolutely nothing to this empire that included a $129 million a year budget, the first satellite TV network—a year before ESPN—which reached 14 million homes, and an amusement park that was the third most-visited attraction in the country,” explains John Wigger, author of the recently published PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Evangelical Empire.
Jim and Tammy Faye’s wholesome family life was regularly on display on The Jim and Tammy Show, and millions of Christians around the globe sent their ministry generous donations based on their moral exhibitionism. But behind the scenes Tammy Faye was chomping down Ativan, their son Jay was on his way to alcoholism at age 11, and Jim Bakker was running a ponzi scheme and allegedly having sex with men.
This was all kept secret until church secretary Jessica Hahn went public with claims that the pastor drugged and raped her in Florida hotel. He admitted having sex with her, but said it was consensual—yet the accusation set off a domino effect of public revelations about Bakker’s sexual proclivities and white collar crimes, leading to him being stripped of his company, publicly humiliated, and eventually sentenced to 45 years in prison (he served five) for a series of profoundly shady fundraising tactics used to bankroll his lifestyle and pay off Hahn.
Bakker has been attempting to kick his career back into motion ever since he got out of prison, and restarting PTL as some kind of online, round the clock infomercial for apocalypse survival supplies is a particularly depressing thing to watch for 24 hours.
“Today his ministry is much smaller,” says Wigger. “He’s trying to recreate the glory days. Many of the buildings on his new set outside of Branson, Missouri look just like the old ones. But he has no comparable way to raise money the way he did when he got in on the ground floor of satellite television.”
Despite the sunny day, I’ve drawn the curtains and am hours-deep into my ill-advised Bakker-binge, my skin already crawling from the cheap scare tactics, broadcast to susceptible geriatrics the world over. It’s never exactly clear what I’m watching. The broadcast drifts from sermons to a talk show to an announcement that they’ve, yet again, lowered the price on a bucket of 19 years worth of enchiladas (a clip I will see around once every ninety minutes during this marathon).
There are also “news” segments that are so poorly produced they make Infowars look like the BBC. They inform me that Jews are fleeing Europe for Israel (due to a Muslim invasion) and that there is an unprecedented rise in floods and hurricanes (which are due to Biblical prophecy, not climate change). They seem to mostly exist to stoke fear and sell products. The Jim Bakker Show co-hosts (his new wife, Lori, and two of his children) make valiant attempts to keep the energy high, but 78-year-old Bakker is so slow and chaotic in his storytelling, they just end up nodding vigorously with wide eyes that seem to plead "tell me this is going somewhere."
With a white beard and shiny bald head, Bakker is nearly unrecognizable from his glory days as the adorably twee preacher he was in the 70s and 80s, whose round dimpled cheeks and soft-brown eyes melted the hearts of little old ladies the world over.
Around five hours in to my marathon, the network plays “Classic PTL,” airing a vintage episode of The Jim and Tammy Show, featuring Bakker in a powder-blue leisure suit and Lego man hair, chatting with puppets operated by Tammy Faye. The thousands-strong audience stands in stark contrast to the only handful of retirement-age guests attending his show today. I could see how airing this would make viewers sentimental for a more wholesome era (#MAGA!) and possibly loosen up their wallets to place an order of food buckets, but to me the move felt reminiscent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a washed-up hack obsessively watching her old movies, unable to let go of the past, delusionally thinking she’s as relevant today as she ever was.
Watching this makes me feel both nostalgic and triggered, reminding me of days spent in my pastor’s rumpus room, watching PTL on satellite TV, wondering if I was righteous enough to be saved from the carnage about to befall the earth in Armageddon.
Throughout my childhood, I thought about the coming apocalypse and eternal torment in Hell around once every ten minutes. Today, as I enter hour ten of my Bakker-bender (which has just switched back to a modern day sermon about the Book of Revelation, which segues into a pitch for vitamin supplements), I am still familiar with terms he uses like “Mark of the Beast,” “The Tribulation,” and “Lake of Fire,” and can easily visualize the carnage he warns his audience is coming. As a kid, I was repeatedly told that one day we would have to live off the grid of society, hiding from the Antichrist army that was hunting down and exterminating all Christians.
Hours of this stuff as an adult is making me nauseous and paranoid. While I’ve long-since abandoned my Christian identity and fear of the rapture, it isn’t difficult to find evidence of a coming societal collapse in today’s headlines. That same electric buzz in my stomach, the anxiety of possible famine, violence, and worldwide plague, can be easily roused by all this bomb-shelter hyperbole. For comfort I hold my dog close and gobble a THC cookie.
Outside of The Jim Bakker Show, the newly revived PTL network streams a dozen or so low-budget shows that feature similar end-times rhetoric, peppered with classic conservative tidbits like “how to convert your Muslim neighbor” and “why the spirit of Jezebel thrives in PC culture.” Despite their conspiracy-theorist-in-a-basement production style, the hosts of these programs at least have plenty of focus and momentum, unlike Bakker, who pinballs incoherently between ISIS, the Baltimore riots, and free shipping on Spanish rice all in the same sentence. By midnight, I’m thinking of recommending this experiment to the CIA as a disorientation tactic for terrorist interrogations.
Still, I have to admit, there’s something therapeutic about seeing all this doomsday hot air—which used to torment me on an hourly basis as a child—now couched in such a limp and pathetic format.
Throughout the 24 hours Bakker is constantly lowering the prices on his products, offering free shipping and extra gifts. At points he claims his accountant doesn’t want him to drop prices, that they've been losing a lot of money lately, “but that’s OK, because we’re investing in people’s survival,” he explains. It's almost certainly a sales tactic, but it feels sad nonetheless.
He’s like the rusted-out robots in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, ancient relics of another time, still speaking and walking around yet barely functioning as they move through a world that has “moved on.” I begin to imagine what current evangelical superstars like Joel Osteen, Robert Jeffress, and Paula White will be like if they’re still on TV when they're Bakker's age. If they'll have been robbed of their intellect, respect of their peers and source of income—yet still wheeled in front of a camera to try and frighten America’s wallets open.
Around dawn, as Bakker talks about how kids today like to cut themselves and 9/11 was a warning from God, I begin to feel sorry for him. He’s like Ted Haggard, the Colorado megachurch pastor who once had the ear of President George W. Bush on a weekly basis, but lost everything because of a male prostitute and a bag of meth. Like Haggard, it wasn’t any end times rhetoric or prosperity gospel hucksterism that lost Bakker his ministry, it was that he had the audacity to succumb to his sexual urges that made Christians turn away from him.
Still, I’m grateful when my experiment is up and I can finally turn off the TV, my ears ringing after a full 24 hours of Judgement Day hysteria. Did I learn anything from this journey? Other than a slowing of the earth’s rotation is causing earthquakes and A.I. collective-conscious technology is attempting to replace God, I suppose I learned that things which seem confusing and irrational to you when you’re a child sometimes only appear more so as an adult—and when that happens, you should give yourself permission to declare them what they are: the tools of cheap conmen desperate to get their sweaty hands in your pocket.
Follow Josiah Hesse on Twitter.