As the son of preeminent Christian televangelist Jim Bakker in the 1980s, Jay Bakker’s life felt blessed and blissful. But as his parents’ empire publicly imploded in the wake of the biggest scandal of the decade, young Jay’s life suddenly took a series of difficult turns. In his new book, “Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society,” Bakker describes the troubled road he had to walk in order to attain peace and recover his faith. Here’s an excerpt.
We are punished by our sins, not for them.
You know you’ve reached a new level of fame in American culture (or infamy) when there’s a casting call to play you in a movie.
In my case, it was a second-rate made-for-TV movie called "Fall from Grace," starring Kevin Spacey as my dad and Bernadette Peters — face painted like the side of a barn — as my mom. Somewhere in Hollywood a bunch of chubby white kids lined up, hoping to get their big break playing the part of little Jamie Charles Bakker, son of disgraced televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye.
What those other kids might not have realized was that being the son of the picture-perfect Christian family was a role for me too. Twice a week I would don a child-sized suit, tame my cowlick, and brandish my jack-o’-lantern grin for an audience of millions on my parents’ Praise the Lord (PTL) television ministry.
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The network’s supporters were my extended family. All through grade school, my yearbook picture (no matter how humiliating) was mailed to six hundred thousand PTL faithful around the world. They knew of my birth even before my dad did. He was on the air preaching when the producers flashed the words “It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” across the bottom of the screen like a severe-weather warning. On December 18, 1975, Hurricane Jay made landfall.
For those readers who don’t know my family story, or have assigned those memories to the junk pile of 1980s trivia, let me lay a little groundwork here. It’s not that I take pleasure in retreading this territory (believe me, I don’t). But I do think it’s important that you understand what I’ve lived through to learn grace.
My family set the standard for televised crack-ups. Before O.J. on the interstate, before Michael Jackson dangled babies over balconies, before Britney went all bald and strange, there was the Jim and Tammy Faye “mascara meltdown.” But prior to being pariahs my parents were pop-culture pioneers. They were the first people to bring down-home, family-friendly Christian worship into America’s living rooms through television. They paved the way for the best-selling mega-church stars of today. For good or ill, it all started with my mom and dad.
And it all started humbly enough. In 1964, my parents made their first appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the station of future Christian television mogul Pat Robertson. They debuted with a kids’ show featuring handmade puppets: Susie Moppet (a Porky Pig bubble-bath cap refashioned with braids, voiced by my mom) and Allie the Alligator (a leopard-print sock with teeth, voiced by Dad) would sing Christian songs and explain God’s Word.
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One thing led to another, and by the mid-1980s my parents owned one of only four satellite TV networks in the world, along with a sprawling theme park and the largest TV ministry the world had ever witnessed. At its height, PTL was carried on twelve hundred cable systems around the globe, broadcasting into more than thirteen million homes.
Dad became a global figure — a new breed of Christian businessman and a friend to presidents and movie stars. He convinced himself that it was all in keeping with God’s plan. He told Time magazine in 1986 that if Jesus were alive today, “he’d have to be on TV. That would be the only way he could reach the people he loves.”
Dad preached a soft version of the prosperity gospel, one that said: Do good and you’ll do well — then give some back. He didn’t run commercials on the network, so his whole ministry became a kind of on-air appeal. He was constantly raising money to keep PTL going — and growing. At its height, PTL had to raise $500,000 per day to keep the lights on. (Dad would later admit that fund-raising got in the way of his relationship with God and led to some of the decisions that would be his undoing.)
PTL spawned a family-friendly theme park, Heritage USA, which my parents constructed across an expansive 2,300-acre campus in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Only Disneyland and Disney World drew bigger crowds.
The main difference was that everything in our magical kingdom was Christian-themed. Dad had the childhood home of his hero Billy Graham relocated to the Heritage grounds. There were daily Passion plays and a “Heavenly Fudge Factory.” There was even a “Noah’s Toy Shop” (run by a guy actually named Noah) that sold disciple action figures and other Bible-themed toys.
My personal favorite was the “Armor of God,” a child’s bodysuit and arsenal of plastic weaponry that was inspired by a quote from the book of Ephesians. With the “Shield of Faith” in one hand and the “Sword of the Spirit” in the other, I ran around Heritage USA like it was my own personal fiefdom. But even the molded-plastic “Breastplate of Righteousness” was no protection against what was coming next...
Both the rise and the fall of PTL reinforced the idea that God metes out rewards and punishment based on behavior. For the longest time it seemed that God wanted us to succeed. Everything went right for the Bakkers. Until it didn’t.
The cracks began to show in January 1987, when my mom accidentally overdosed. I was eleven years old. We checked her into the Betty Ford Center (thus beginning a proud tradition for the Bakker family), only to discover that she was addicted to enough over-the-counter drugs to tranquilize a gorilla. She’d been using them to cope with the stresses of business and stardom.
The story was too tantalizing for the press to resist: the perky Christian poster mom was a drug addict! The media descended on us like something out of Revelation. Swarms of cameras surrounded the clinic. Media vans staked out our home. Photographers rented U-Haul trucks to use as step stools so they could take pictures over the walls and through the windows of our compound. The white sheets we hung in the windows to obscure their view did little to discourage them.
From that moment on, we were no longer hosts of our own TV show but unwilling stars in everyone else’s. Being a Bakker was a prime-time media spectacle, one we couldn’t turn off.
Things went from bad to worse in 1987 when the Charlotte Observer broke the news that my dad had had an affair seven years prior with a comely Christian secretary named Jessica Hahn. The story was everywhere: CNN, Nightline, Johnny Carson. My parents forbade my sister, Tammy Sue, and me to turn on the TV, but that didn’t stop us from catching Phil Hartman’s devastating imitation of my father on Saturday Night Live (which included a scolding at the hands of Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady”).
Adding a sleazy taint to an already humiliating affair, it came out that someone from PTL had paid Hahn hundreds of thousands of dollars in hush money to keep the secret all those years. If God had favored us before, He now had clearly changed His mind.
In an attempt to save PTL, my father turned the network over temporarily (or so he thought) to Jerry Falwell. Falwell had advance knowledge that the Hahn story was going to break and promised to look after things while my father rode out the storm. The man he chose to shepherd his empire turned out to be a wolf. Falwell immediately began denouncing my parents from their own pulpit. Others joined in on the chorus. “Jim Bakker is a cancer in the body of Christ,” proclaimed Jimmy Swaggart to Larry King on CNN. Pat Robertson, who had helped launch my parents’ career, would also play a part in its undoing. They got their just deserts, he pronounced.
Falwell accused Dad of everything he could think of: not just thievery and having “an unrepentant heart,” but of homosexuality too. As you can imagine, that last charge was especially damning in evangelical circles. We lost the TV network, Heritage USA, and our home (which was owned in the name of PTL). To add insult to injury, Falwell auctioned off what he considered our most humiliating personal items in front of the media: a mini go-kart, my parents’ bed, and the notorious “air-conditioned” doghouse.
From the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy, the free fall was dizzying. One minute I was the scion of a famous family. The next I was a social leper with the most notorious last name in Christendom (besides Iscariot). I was so radioactive that my friends were literally forbidden to play with me.
Unfortunately, my faith was cold comfort in those days. My parents weren’t fire-and-brimstone types, not by any means. (They signed off every episode of their show with the catchphrase “God loves you. He really, really does.”) But they did subscribe to the standard-issue Southern evangelical beliefs of the day. Heaven and hell were the carrot and the stick of our faith. It was turn or burn, baby. Either you followed the rules or you went straight to H-E-double-hockey-sticks.
I didn’t have grace to lean on then. I didn’t know where these rules came from, or what to do with them. Despite spending my whole life in church, I had hardly opened a Bible. I hadn’t read Christ’s words highlighted in red, let alone Paul’s letters to the Romans or Galatians — books that might have given me some comfort and perspective on grace.
My family crises were compounded by my problems with classwork in junior high. I had severe dyslexia, a condition that would go undiagnosed until seven years later, long after I’d dropped out of school. It made learning virtually impossible for me. And when I couldn’t keep up, I gave up and did what any frustrated son of fallen televangelists would do ... I rebelled.
In cigarettes and wine coolers I finally found something at which I could excel. I was only twelve years old, but they were easy enough to come by. When I started partying, I told myself, I’ll just have wine coolers. It’s cool. Jesus had wine. But I always feared there was more to it. You see, the way I was brought up, sipping a wine cooler wasn’t just a youthful indiscretion — I was sipping strawberry-flavored hellfire!
It seemed there was always someone around to remind me of the flames nipping at my heels. On one occasion, I was at an outdoor party in high school when a girl I went to Christian summer camp with drove by and saw me holding a bottle. She pulled over the truck she was driving, rolled down the window, and yelled: “I knew you wouldn’t last!” It was straight out of the movie "Saved!" Today I have some appreciation for the complicated mix of guilt and anguish that drives someone to lash out as she did, but back then it was just a punch in the gut.
It’s not that I didn’t try to get right with God. I just didn’t know where to start. Throughout my teenage years I got saved what seemed like every other week. I’d come down to the altar call with the rest of the guilt-stricken and confused junior high kids, bow my head, close my eyes, and shazam! — wait for God to transform me.
It never lasted, of course. Not for very long, anyway. Before I knew it, I’d do/think/feel something sinful and start looking for the next opportunity to bleach my soul clean. Instead of bringing me back into the fold, my guilt — reinforced by the judgment of those around me—drove me further from the church.
If a lousy Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler was all it took to separate me from God, then I was gonna accept my one-way ticket to hell ... Reserve me a seat in the bar car!
I now realize that this was the classic dynamic of religious law at work. It wasn’t the Ten Commandments per se, but it was a set of religious rules nonetheless: do’s and don’ts that would decide whether God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice applied to me. (Or so I thought at the time.)
If my struggles with school and faith weren’t complicated enough, there was still more Bakker family fun to be had. In December 1988, almost two years after the outing of my dad’s affair, a long-running federal investigation into the finances of Heritage USA went public. The accusation came down to overbooking: PTL had sold more lifetime memberships to Heritage USA — complete with the promise of three nights’ lodging — than it could possibly accommodate at once. Dad was indicted on twenty-four counts of fraud and conspiracy.
The trial began with a bang in August 1989. Three days into it, my dad had a Xanax-fueled emotional breakdown in front of the press. Dad was paraded, sobbing and shackled, through a gauntlet of TV cameras to the mental ward. It may have been great television, but it was torture for me to watch.
United States vs. James O. Bakker was about more than one organization’s sloppy accounting or one man’s malfeasance (though there was plenty of both to go around). The whole era of televangelism was on trial, and my dad was already guilty in the highest court in the land: the court of public opinion. The judge (nicknamed “Maximum Bob” for his draconian sentencing) made it official when he sentenced my dad to forty-five years in prison. He would ultimately serve five, but it was long enough for my parents’ marriage to unravel.
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The very night of my dad’s sentencing marked the beginning (or radical acceleration, anyway) of my own downward spiral. I was thirteen years old when some older kids decided to take pity on me and take me out partying. I never looked back. Wine coolers quickly gave way to stiffer stuff: vodka and Gatorade (bad combination), pot smoking, even gas huffing. By the time I dropped out of school in tenth grade I was punching above my weight (using acid, psychedelic mushrooms — whatever I could get my hands on). It went on like this for years.
Separation from my dad was my excuse for drinking, but his release from prison five years later wasn’t reason enough to quit. If anything, his being out made things harder as we tried to navigate new dimensions of our father-son relationship. A lot had changed in five years. When he went in, I was little Jamie Charles: thirteen, chunky, and scared to death of losing my dad. When he came out, I was Jay. Just Jay, thank you very much: eighteen, pierced, and a raging alcoholic. Needless to say, things didn’t go smoothly between us.
Dad did what he could to steer me back toward Christianity. When all else failed, he shipped me off to Arizona to a young ministers training camp called Master’s Commission. As advertised, it was all about control. They had been forewarned about what a hellion I was, so the counselors (all in their mid-twenties) mapped out roles for dealing with me: One person would be good cop; another the bad cop; a third the flirtatious fellow rebel. It was like a bad John Hughes movie, and I saw right through it.
I did meet two kindred spirits in the place, however, and we decided to break out together. Mike Wall was a tall, charismatic hard-core-punk kid; Kelli Miller, Mike’s partner in crime, was a free-spirited hippie throwback. They had the idea of starting a ministry that would cater to skater and punk kids in a language and style they could understand. With me as the requisite skater brat, we had our outcast bases covered.
For a while, it worked like a dream. We bailed on Master’s Commission and started putting on punk shows under the name Revolution Ministries, using great local Phoenix hard-core bands to attract a crowd. We took no small amount of pride in the fact that our preaching was the wildest part of the night. We had all sorts of antics: Mike would smash TVs with a sledgehammer; I’d pretend to puke onstage. We got ourselves banned by some local youth groups, which did wonders for our street cred.
I was in so much personal pain that I had no trouble relating to the suffering of the troubled teens our ministry attracted. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to change. Not yet. I kept slipping back into old behaviors. I resumed partying with a vengeance and left Revolution behind. My “weekend benders” soon stretched from Wednesdays to Mondays. I began blacking out every time I drank.
If there was one thing I was sure of, it was that God was through with me: I had even failed at the burnout-and-misfit church!
From the book “Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society” by Jay Bakker, written with Martin Edlund. Copyright © 2010 by Jay Bakker with Martin Edlund. Reprinted by arrangement with Faith Words, a division of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.
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