I’m still trying to get used to seeing Jim Bakker in the news again. I’m old enough to remember when his initial scams were alive and well. I remember how painfully obvious his deceits were. I remember the outrageousness of it all, not just his own lies, but the utter gullibility of his followers. I distinctly remember realizing with some degree of sadness that his followers must not merely have been fooled. To say they believed in this man (and his wife Tammy Fae) required a trace of dishonesty in itself. They couldn’t simply be fooled. They had to be lying too. I remember the scandal that finally broke Bakker’s financial empire, and I remember his statements about Jessica Hahn. Like so many of those uttered by God’s top salesmen, Bakker’s confessions were littered with excuses and self-serving narratives that showed little contrition and plenty of bad faith all around. It may have been a sex scandal that broke his old over PTL ministries, but it was fraud that sent Bakker to prison, fraud perpetrated in the name of Jesus and sold primarily to retired pensioners who could ill-afford to bankroll the lavish lifestyle this man enjoyed at their expense. But here we are. Bakker is back, and he is selling Jesus once again.
Because people never really seem to learn from history.
Not the lessons that matter anyway.
Is this a newer an wiser Jim Bakker? Can we trust him now? Is he a better man than the one who clearly did have an affair, and quite possibly raped the woman he had the affair with? Is he more honest than the one who bilked his followers out of millions with the promise of lifetime memberships in PTL and membership benefits he never even tried to deliver?
That’s not really the question to ask though, is it?
Bakker is who is he, who he always was. That should be perfectly clear.
Better to ask if we are a better and wiser society?
Have we done anything to protect ourselves from the likes of Jim Bakker, or is America just as wide open for this sort of scam as we were back in the gullibility jubilee that was the Reagan era? Are we still going to humor two-bit huxters with the miraculous power to turn thoughts of Jesus into perfectly material cash? Do we have any means of holding the likes of Bakker accountable for their perfectly antics?
Or are we still unable to do anything about them?
Take no solace in your own intelligence!
People like to imagine that those who fall for the likes of Bakker are simply stupid, that the sort of crime in which he engages amounts to a sort of poetic justice. “Anyone dumb enough to fall for that sort of thing deserves what they get,” so I am often told. But that’s just an evasion.
Critical thinking skills won’t save any of us, especially not in our twilight years. Televangelism is a business that works by catching up on the tail end of our own better judgement. Many of those who give to the likes of Bakker better might have known better at some point in their lives. Many would have laughed him out of the room in their younger days. This is one of the main features of televangelism. It’s a business model that can wait for us to lose our our intellectual edge, to give up some of our skepticism, and to embrace hopes we might once have shunned.
…and to accept the token promise that giving our hard-earned money to some perfectly mortal human with grifter written all over their every word and deed we can somehow make good with a divine force capable of making everything right in the end.
We may know better now.
Make no mistake.
The likes of Bakker can wait until we don’t.
Does it need to be said?
Bakker is hardly alone. I don’t know about you, but I’ve long since lost track of the number of times one of God’s surrogates has been caught making off with money meant for him, …pardon me, Him. I can’t easily count the number of His faithful who’ve been caught in the wrong bed, hotel room, or sex club either, to say nothing of the number of those denouncing homosexuality, or offering some cure for it, who found their way into the arms of someone of the same sex. Time and again, it turns out that the message of god just doesn’t fit well in the mouth of its mortal medium.
No, the problem isn’t simply that Christians are just as human, and just as flawed as the rest of us; it’s that Christianity (or at least some versions of it) often proves to be the worst thing about these people. Left to their own vices, many of these people would prove little less than perfectly human, but high on God, they are a hazard to others, and a constant threat to many more harmless than themselves.
I can understand someone whose love life is a train wreck, but when that person makes a living promoting a more perfect vision of what that life should be, damned right I expect them to live up to that vision. Or to give it up when that vision proves fatally flawed. When selling that message becomes a multi-million dollar business, I am just a little less forgiving about the whole thing.
Bakker isn’t a fluke. He is poster boy for a type of business that has always been fraudulent to its core.
Yes, I said ‘business’. Televangelism is a business. It may enjoy non-profit status, and it may generate all kinds of god-talk, but it is absolutely a business. The likes of Bakker prove this time and time again. These men are in it for the money. That should be perfectly obvious to all concerned.
Jim Bakker is a business man. His business is Televangelism.
Right now, that business is good. With Kanye West celebrating his new Jesus-flavored branding scheme in Texas with Joel Osteen and Paula White enjoying a gig as the spiritual advisor to Donald Trump, it does seem to be a good year for huxters with open wallets and talk of God falling out of their open mouths. Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklin Graham have certainly been enjoying their renewed access to the worldly powers made possible by the Orange man in the White House. Of the course the common element in all these sordid stories (and countless others) is Donald Trump himself.
Few things could be more odd than the way conservative Christians have embraced Donald Trump, this man who has never shown the least bit of interest in anything but worldly pleasures and worldly powers. The allegiance that so many of America’s entrepreneurial Christians have sworn to this man seems like a clear and loud confession to their own hypocrisy. You couldn’t possibly ask for a more blatant condemnation of conservative Christian politics, than the support these charlatans have shown to Donald Trump. It makes no sense at all.
Well it makes no sense if you take their messages seriously.
On another level, it should come as no surprise at all that a man who once bilked countless pensioners out of their life-savings in a fake university would find common cause with an entire industry that thrives on the life savings of the old and infirm. It should come as no surprise that people who spend their entire lives talking about an absolute authority with perfect power to determine matters of right and wrong would jump at the chance to support a man who recognizes no authority other than his own whim. That those who conceive ultimate authority in the form of a ‘Lord’ would prove unwilling to defend the checks and balances of a constitutional republic from a political movement recognizing no power capable of saying no to ‘The Leader’. If you pay any attention to the way that America’s political Christians think about power and authority, their willingness to support Donald Trump should prove no more surprising than the fancy cars and homes enjoyed by evangelical leadership. The Televangelists who turn this mentality into big business are acting in perfect concert with their normal MO when they line up to bend the knee before their perfectly mortal savior. With or without Jesus, Donald Trump is the answer to their prayers, and they know it.
Jim Bakker is back, and he is now enjoying a resurgence of his own media popularity. Much like the Reagan era, this is his time. He isn’t back because he has changed his ways, much less because he or any other televangelist gives a damn about Jesus. He is back because the rest of us haven’t done anything about the particular kind of crime at which he excels. If we had, Hell trump would be in jail right now, as would so many other big business pastors.
America is still wide open for any thief smart enough to allude to the promise of eternal salvation instead of foolishly offering a quid pro quo in explicit and concrete terms. We are still willing to watch the elderly lose their life savings to these crack-pot con artists, just as we are willing to tolerate so many other crimes whose victims don’t have enough power and money to matter. They have an ally in the White House now, and these people who sell Jesus for a living grow bolder every day. What they deliver to Donald Trump is a political base willing to take his word (and theirs) on any of the controversial issues of the day. What Donald Trump offers them is the support of worldly powers, powers left unchecked by the very gullibility of a political base that would donate money to the likes of Jim Bakker or spend it on an institution like Trump University. It’s a good time to be shameless. So, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me to see the likes of Bakker back in the news.
No doubt, we will see much more of him in the future, and of others just like him.