The “Real” Reason Televangelist Jim Bakker Went to Jail

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Jim Bakker is hauled off to jail in 1989

Here is an excerpt from University of Missouri historian John Wigger’s book PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017):

…on March 19, 1987, Jim Bakker resigned in disgrace from PTL after his December 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public.  Hahn described Bakker forcing himself on her in an article in Playboy, while he claimed that she was a professional who knew “all the tricks of the trade.”  In the wake of the Hahn revelation, stories appeared about Bakker’s invovlement in gay relationships and visits with prostitutes, sometimes wearing a blond wig as a disguise….

The 1987 scandal was initially about sex, but it soon turned to money after it was discovered that PTL had paid Hahn and her representatives $265,000 in hush money.  When he resigned, Bakker turned the ministry over to fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell.  He and his team quickly discovered that PTL was $65 million in debt and bleeding money at a rate of $2 million a month.  That summer workers boarded up the unfinished Towers Hotel, which never opened.  Falwell and his entire staff left PTL in October 1987, less than seven months after he took charge of the ministry.  When he took over, Falwell praised PTL as “one of the major miracle ministries of this century.  I doubt there’s ever been anything like it in the 2,000-year history of the church.”  When he left he declared that Bakker had turned PTL into a “scab and cancer on the fate of Christianity,” a disaster unparalleled in the last 2,000 years.  By then PTL was already in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation.

Two years later, in 1989, Bakker went on trial for wire and mail fraud, accused of overselling “lifetime partnerships” to Heritage USA and misusing the money donated for its construction.  The trial unfolded in a circus-like atmosphere before US District Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Potter.  A witness collapsed on the stand and Bakker himself had a psychological breakdown, crawling under his lawyer’s couch as federal marshals  came to get him.  He was convicted and initially sentenced to forty-five years in prison, serving nearly five years before his release.  For millions who watched the scandal unfold in the press and on television, PTL and the Bakkers became a national symbol of the excesses of the 1980s and the greed of televangelists in particular.

As many of you know, Jim Bakker is now out of prison and has his own cable television show.  We have covered him here.  Apparently, Bakker now has a different story about why he was convicted and sent to jail, and it has nothing to do with fraud.  Watch:

 

Why a $45.00 Prayer Coin is Actually a Bargain for Trump Followers

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Here is a taste of my piece today at Religion News Service:

For centuries, Catholics have used rosary beads to aid them in the practice of prayer.  Some American Protestants view their Bibles as a kind of talisman or amulet that transmits supernatural power.

And today some American charismatic Christians pray using a coin emblazoned with a picture of Donald Trump.

On Monday (May 13), a charismatic preacher named Lance Wallnau appeared on the program of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker to hawk a Donald Trump/King Cyrus gold coin.

He claimed that the coin can be used as a “point of contact” between Christians and God as they pray for the re-election of Trump in 2020.

Bakker’s show, which is syndicated daily on his PTL (Praise the Lord) Television Network, is known for selling his viewers products to help them survive the coming apocalypse. With the click of a mouse, a Christian who wants to prepare for the end of the world can buy buckets of freeze-dried food (the “30 Day Fiesta” Bucket appears to be popular), duffel bags that can withstand electromagnetic pulse attacks, flashlights and generators.

Wallnau and Bakker are selling the Trump/Cyrus coin for $45, but charismatic Christian viewers — many of whom identify as evangelical — can also drop $450 on a “13 Trump Cyrus Bundle” that includes 13 sets of the coin, the booklet explaining the connection between Trump and the former Persian king and the DVD of Wallnau conducting a religious service.

Read the rest here.

The Influence of Christian Media

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Jason Bivins, a Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State, reflects on the power of Christian media to shape American evangelicalism.  Here is a taste of his op-ed syndicated at The Conversation:

The power of these programs is more than simply the stories covered or guests interviewed – it is their social impact on religious beliefs.

Christian news is effective in conveying its views because it repeats claims that viewers already believe, and provides them with particular emotional experiences that are described as facts. This way of viewing the world has moved closer to the center of conservative politics since the 1980s, a period of time when the Christian right acquired more influence in American politics.

Consider how in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan began to be depicted as God’s agent on Earth. In the 1990s, the growth of multinational corporations and trade deals was decried as part of a demonic “new world order.” And today, when Islamophobia is on the rise, Christian television channels depict and celebrate President Trump as the fighter-in-chief, who defends Christians despite his personal faults.

The growing regularity of such examples has significant implications for American politics.

By presenting itself as authoritative, trustworthy journalism, Christian news reassures viewers that they do not need to consult mainstream media in order to be informed. More dangerously, it authorizes a particular, often conspiratorial way of viewing the world. It denounces neutrality or accountability to multiple constituencies as burdensome or even hostile to Christian faith.

Sadly, tens of millions of its viewers are left without a sense of two of democracy’s most necessary foundations: the value of multiple viewpoints and shared political participation.

Read the entire piece here.

Trump Has Given More Interviews to the Christian Broadcasting Network Than to CNN, ABC or NBC

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Trump shakes hands with Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network

Ruth Graham has a great piece at Politico Magazine on the love affair between Donald Trump and Christian broadcasting.  Here is a taste:

When “Huckabee” made its debut on TBN last fall, it immediately became the network’s highest-rated show, with more than a million viewers for a typical episode. Unlike every other show the network has produced, it is overtly political and squarely focused on current events. It has a variety component, with musical guests and comedians, and Huckabee occasionally breaks out his own bass guitar on stage. But in its six months on the air, Huckabee has also interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump-defending Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, anti-abortion activist Serrin Foster and former Senator Joe Lieberman. The very first guest on his very first show, last October, was President Trump.

A generation ago—even a few years ago—this would have been unthinkable. Christian TV was largely the province of preachers, musicians, faith healers and a series of televangelism scandals. Politicians were leery of getting too close. To establishment evangelicals, not to mention the rest of America, Christian TV was hokey at best, and disreputable at worst.

But in the past two years, largely out of view of the coastal media and the Washington establishment, a transformation has taken place. As Christian networks have become more comfortable with politics, the Trump administration has turned them into a new pipeline for its message. Trump has forged a particularly tight marriage of convenience with Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, which since early in the 2016 campaign has offered consistent friendly coverage and been granted remarkable access in return. Trump personally has appeared 11 times on CBN since his campaign began; in 2017 alone, he gave more interviews to CBN than to CNN, ABC or CBS. Trump’s Cabinet members, staffers and surrogates also appear regularly. TBN has embraced politics more gingerly—it is still not a news-gathering organization—but Trump has made inroads there, too, starting with his kickoff interview on “Huckabee.”

Read the entire piece here.

Donald Trump, a politician, is now shaping the agenda of conservative evangelical television.  Another example of how politics and culture influence and shape the character American evangelicalism.  Trump should be getting credit as an unofficial producer for these shows.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker

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Check out Martyn Wendell Jones‘s piece at The Weekly Standard on the disgraced preachers.   The article is framed around John Wigger‘s recent book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire.

Here is a taste:

Following Bakker’s conviction, Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Potter sentenced him to 45 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. The sentence was reduced on appeal, and he was released on parole in 1994, having served about five years behind bars. During his sentence, Bakker has said, he spent a great deal of time trying to find his “real” self.

He remarried after he was released and found his way back into television in 2003. Based in Blue Eye, Missouri, his current ministry is called Morningside. Bakker hosts a talk show in an indoor complex that resembles Heritage USA; recently, Trump supporter and charismatic televangelist Paula White was on the show with her husband, Jonathan Cain, the keyboardist from Journey.

Bakker repudiated his prosperity preaching after he got out of prison, where he claims to have read the Bible in full for the first time. In its thornier passages, he has found a new theme for his ministry: the imminent apocalypse. Wigger visited tapings of Bakker’s new show and describes an episode in which the second half of the two-hour broadcast was dedicated to selling giant buckets of freeze-dried survival food. A journalist for the Daily Mail who also visited the ministry reported that a year’s supply of pancake mix with a 30-year shelf life costs $550. As Ronald Knox wrote in 1950, “enthusiasm is not yet dead in countries where they understand salesmanship.”

Read the entire piece here.

 

“Trump plays him like a piano”

RobertsonIf you have not seen it yet, VOX is running Tara Isabella Burton‘s revealing interview with Terry Heaton, the former producer of Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club.   Heaton is the author of a new book on his experience with Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network titled The Gospel of the Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP.

Here is a taste:

Tara Isabella Burton:

In today’s political climate, it seems like there’s an even stronger relationship than ever between CBN and the current administration. Pat Robertson’s been landing exclusive sit-down interviews with Trump, and CBN’s new shows like Faith Nation are further blurring the line between news and opinion. What do you make of that?

Terry Heaton:

First of all, regarding Pat and his relationship with Donald Trump — I think that’s very, very scary. As smart as Pat Robertson is, and as good as he is at marketing, he is also highly susceptible to his own hype. In that way, Trump plays him like a piano. If you watch his most recent interview, some of the things that Trump says to Pat are really way out there in terms of manipulating Pat. He builds him up like a salesman would, and Pat is susceptible to that, I think. But he wouldn’t be susceptible if Trump didn’t speak the language that Pat wants.

There is such fear on the right about the Supreme Court. I remember one show that we were taping in which Pat prayed that God would kill the Supreme Court justices. We had to stop the tape and advise him that he couldn’t say that on TV. But that’s the way he felt. Trump really sings Pat’s tune when it comes to the Supreme Court, also on the issue of religious liberty. When Trump starts talking about how Christianity is going to be “great again,” people like Pat sit up at listen. And they’ll support him whenever necessary — even if it means blowing up North Korea!

Read the entire interview here.

 

Court Evangelical: “We Were Sent Here To Take Over”

I don’t even know where to begin with this video:

  1.  I need to figure out the difference between a “Saul anointing” and a “David anointing”
  2. White said that the fact that Trump is not a “polished” politician is a sign that he has been raised-up by God.  I assume that White is drawing here on the longstanding Christian idea that God uses the weak, poor, and uneducated to serve his purposes. But does he use the “unpolished?”
  3. White equates opposition to Trump with opposition to the “hand of God.”
  4. White says, “We were not sent here to be a part, we were sent here to take over.” After White says this, Jim Bakker equates “taking over” with “the church.”
  5. Bakker says that “God has raised [Paula White] up to the White House.
  6. Bakker says “Paula White…can walk into the White House any time she wants to. She has full access to the King…”  Are Trump’s Christian advisers “court evangelicals?” Bakker and White make the case for me.  They are there to serve the King.
  7. Somewhere along the way Jonathan Cain, the guy who wrote “Don’t Stop Believing,” started buying into this brand of Christianity.  He is married to White and is sitting to her left.
  8.  Jim Bakker holds the pen Trump used to sign the meaningless executive order that many court evangelicals believe repealed the Johnson Amendment. (It did not). White says that when Trump signed the order she felt like “the heavens had opened.”

And then there is this:

Why bother with this stuff?  Because these are the people who are apparently advising the President of the United States.

 

Author’s Corner with John Wigger

9780199379712John Wigger is a Professor of History at the University of Missouri. This interview is based on his new book, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write PTL?

JW: I was fascinated by how fast PTL grew and how quickly it fell apart. What I really wanted to know was how PTL’s rise and fall were connected. How does deep religious devotion become so entwined with money, sex, and celebrity on a Hollywood scale? A short synopsis might help:

Jim and Tammy started the PTL network with half a dozen employees in a former furniture store in 1974. By 1986 PTL had annual revenues of $129 million, 2500 employees, a 2300-acre theme park, Heritage USA, and a private satellite network that reached into fourteen million homes in the US. That year, six million people visited Heritage USA. Jim and Tammy lived in luxury, buying vacation homes, expensive cars covered with One Sure Insurance and clothes, and traveling first class with an entourage. Then it all came crashing down. In March 1987 Bakker resigned in disgrace after his 1980 sexual encounter with Jessica Hahn in a Florida hotel room became public. Stories emerged about gay relationships and visits to prostitutes. By the end of the year, PTL was in bankruptcy, headed for liquidation. In 1989 Bakker was convicted of wire and mail fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of PTL?

JW: PTL helps to explain the persistent connections between religion and popular culture in American life, a connection that runs much deeper than politics alone. PTL grew so quickly because of its embrace of consumer and celebrity culture, much of it through the prosperity gospel, but along the way the money and fame undermined the religious convictions of those at the top.

JF: Why do we need to read PTL?

JW: It’s a story full of human drama, sincere faith, innovations both cultural and technical, financial fraud, secret affairs, and the allure of television cameras. But it also says a lot about why faith continues to be vibrant part of American life. Many of the central characters in the story—Jim and Tammy Bakker, Richard Dortch, David Taggart, John Wesley Fletcher, and of course Jessica Hahn—seem almost too improbable for a novel. But together they helped first to build one of the largest ministries in recent American history and then to bring it down.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JW: History and academia are a second career for me. My undergraduate degree is in Petroleum Engineering. After college I drilled oil and gas wells in California for about six years. Part of that time I lived a few blocks from the beach. One day I woke up and thought, I’m having too much fun and making too much money, what should I do? Grad school seemed the obvious answer. Okay, more seriously, I’ve always been interested in the connections between religion and culture in American life and how those connections have persisted and shifted over time. That’s what led me to switch careers and what this book is about.

JF: What is your next project?

JW: I’m not exactly sure. Hopefully something surprising that will make a good read.

JF: Thanks, John!

The Author’s Corner with Phillip Luke Sinitiere

salvationwithasmilePhillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. This interview is based on his book Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: I wrote Salvation with a Smile out of a long-standing interest in the history of American evangelicalism. After completing a chapter on Joel Osteen in my first book Holy Mavericks (NYU Press, 2009), I wanted to write a larger story on the smiling preacher that considered his place in American religious history. As a life-long Houston resident, I also wanted to explore Osteen and Lakewood Church in relationship to Texas, and to the Sunbelt.

In my research, I found that everyone I spoke with had an opinion about the smiling preacher; folks either loved him or hated him. I wanted to investigate Osteen and Lakewood Church beyond the binary responses I was hearing. After all, there’s a reason why 40,000 people attend Lakewood weekly, millions of people read his New York Times best-selling books, and millions of people tune into his television broadcast. I wrote Salvation with a Smile to figure out why.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile argues that Joel Osteen, and by extension Lakewood Church, is America’s most powerful twenty-first century evangelical minister; it explains how Lakewood became America’s largest megachurch and Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen. While neither represents the sum total of American evangelicalism, the history of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen explains significant developments that illuminate connections between neopentecostalism, the prosperity gospel, televangelism, and religion in the American South.

JF: Why do we need to read Salvation with a Smile?

PLS: Salvation with a Smile shows that Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, along with post-World War II neopentecostalism and the prosperity gospel movement helped to make the smiling preacher. In this regard, I hope the book adds another chapter to the broader history of the prosperity gospel that scholars such as Kate Bowler, Gerardo Marti, and Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, among others, have brilliantly documented. Furthermore, Osteen’s nearly two decades of religious television production and broadcasting experience before he became Lakewood’s full-time pastor in 1999 helps to contextualize how in the early 2000s Joel harnessed emerging social media platforms in the service of propagating his prosperity message. In this sense, Osteen and Lakewood’s story connects to the history of American televangelism. Finally, Osteen’s ascendance in American evangelicalism during the Internet Age—and his presence on television and social media—has generated a flurry of criticism, much of it from American evangelicals. Thus, Salvation with a Smile historicizes New Calvinist critiques of the smiling preacher as both an index of his notoriety and as a way to understand the fractures and fissures within contemporary U. S. evangelicalism; in other words, the account of Osteen and his detractors reflects the “crisis of authority” about which historian Molly Worthen has beautifully written.

 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PLS: While I had designs on pursuing a career in professional golf—I was a student-athlete on the golf team at the University of Houston, and later at Sam Houston State University—in college several professors brought history to life and I found that my passions shifted. The late Terry Bilhartz, one of my mentors at Sam Houston State, was one of the most engaging lecturers I’ve ever seen. At the University of Houston, James Kirby Martin always emphasized the importance of writing clearly and accessibly, Kairn Klieman helped me to understand the power of history beyond the classroom, and Gerald Horne modeled the centrality of archival research for academic scholarship. Reconstructing the past at its best tells a story and the ways that my professors and mentors conveyed history in lively, compelling, and comprehensible ways drew me in. Additionally, I found, and still find, archival research both enjoyable and exciting. Sure, the work at times gets tedious, but the detective sleuthing so vital to the art of reconstructing history is great fun. Connecting the dots between past and present is both challenging and exhilarating whether it is in the classroom with students or in moments of solitude when I’m writing. While I may be a professional historian according to industry standards, I remain very much a student of history with many questions for which I continuously seek answers.

JF: What is your next project?

PLS: For Rowman and Littlefield, I’m completing a short biography of 20th century writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin. I am also editor of and contributor to two essay collections on the twilight years of W. E. B. Du Bois between the 1930s and 1960s. One volume, under contract with Northwestern University Press, examines Du Bois’s career in global perspective; the second volume, which the University Press of Mississippi will publish, explores concepts of American freedom in Du Bois’s intellectual and political work.

JF: Thanks, Phil!

The Decaying Ruins of PTL

Most of you know the story of PTL (Praise the Lord) ministries, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker‘s television ministry that collapsed under a sex scandal and subsequent revelations of accounting fraud. Jim ended up in jail.  He and Tammy Faye got divorced.  Tammy Faye started making appearances on television reality shows.  Jim remarried and returned to television, albeit briefly. Tammy Faye also remarried.  She passed away in 2007.

I recently learned that University of Missouri historian John Wigger is writing a book about the whole thing.

One of the pieces of the PTL empire was Heritage USA, a Christian theme park in South Carolina. Have you even wondered what happened to this complex?  Emily Johnson has.  Over at Religion & Politics she has a very interesting essay about the “ruins” of PTL.  (Time also did a piece on the ruins back in 2011).

Johnson teaches religion at the University of Tennessee.  Here is a taste of her piece:

To see what remains of the park today, interested explorers can take exit 90 off I-77 in South Carolina. Driving southeast on Carrowinds Boulevard for a mile, you will pass subdivisions and townhouses that have sprouted up on much of Heritage USA’s former 2,300 acres, courtesy of a local real estate developer. Pass by the refurbished golf course and stop a moment to notice the brass-capped pyramid that once held PTL’s main offices as well as the PTL World Outreach Center. It is now the U.S. headquarters of Welsh textile company Laura Ashley, a fully owned subsidiary of the Malaysian MUI Group.

You will eventually come to a crumbling parking lot, with the still-unfinished Heritage Grand Towers ahead of you and the remains of Heritage USA on your left, bordered by a chain-link fence and overgrown with weeds. If you peer through the fence, you can see the lake that sat at the center of the park and you can make out the island on which the Heritage USA waterpark stood. You are unfortunately too late to see the fiberglass “King’s Castle” that had become emblematic of the park’s excesses. Intended by Jim Bakker to be the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, it was eventually repurposed as a go-cart track but was demolished last year.