Jim Bakker misses his days as the head of Heritage USA—especially the amphitheater, the water park, and the train.
On a recent episode of his TV show, the televangelist complained that the government had unjustly taken his Christian theme park away from him in 1989, after he was convicted of mail and wire fraud. But now things are looking up for Bakker. For the first time in years, he explained, “I can honestly say the vision I had fifty years ago is now. God said he’s going to restore what the cankerworm has eaten.”
The evidence? Bakker is building again. His new complex in rural Missouri, called Morningside, includes RV parking, cottages for rent, cottages for sale, a home for unwed pregnant women, and, at its heart, Grace Street, a near-perfect replica of the kitschy Main Street USA that was once the center of Bakker’s theme park empire.
Clearly, someone is sending Bakker some cash—or at least advancing him a loan.
These seem to be flush days for the apocalyptic preaching business. The reason? Donald Trump and the whole electoral carnival of 2016. The presidential election has proven to be excellent fodder for Bakker and his guests, most of whom are Trump supporters.
One guest told Bakker that he’s known since April 2011 that Trump was going to the President of the United States. On that same episode, Dr. Don, founder of the Divine Wellness Center, and Mary Colbert, author and prophet, said that the spirit of the anti-Christ is on Hillary Clinton.
Little of what Bakker and his guests are saying about Trump is unique. Where Bakker stands out from the crowd, though, is his willingness to use the election to hawk his goods. Certainly, media outlets—most notably Breitbart, but also CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC—seem to have profited from Trump’s headline-friendly candidacy.
But no one else has used it to sell condos, cabins, Hobbit homes, or buckets of freeze-dried food. In this, Bakker represents an illustrative extreme—the reductio ad absurdum of America’s politics-as-entertainment culture, and the extraordinary fulfillment of all the ways that faith, apocalypticism, and the politics of fear can combine to help someone raise cash.
Bakker has always had a nose for spectacle. In 1977, he started the PTL Satellite Network, making him one of the first religious leaders to recognize the potential of satellite TV. Then, using his fame and profits from the network, he started Heritage USA. Built on more than 2,300 acres on the border of North and South Carolina, the park was nearly twenty times larger than Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando. It featured campgrounds, an RV park, a water park, a television studio, an amphitheater, a 500-room hotel, shopping centers, and restaurants. In 1986, the park welcomed six million visitors, making it the most attended non-Disney theme park in America.
The bonanza didn’t last. In 1987, news leaked that Bakker had had a one-time sexual encounter with a 21-year-old in a Clearwater hotel room, and that he had paid her $265,000 in hush money. Then in December 1988, a federal grand jury indicted Bakker on twenty-four counts of fraud and conspiracy, based on a dishonest scheme he had used to raise capital for Heritage USA. He was found guilty of fraud in October 1989 and sentenced to forty-five years in prison.
He only served five. After being released from prison in 1994, Bakker wrote I Was Wrong (1996), in which he renounced the prosperity gospel and apologized for preaching a false message.
Then he turned his gaze to another lucrative arena: the apocalypse industry.
Here, Bakker has found a niche. As he put it on the show, his goal now is both “preaching the gospel” and “to get people ready.” But this twin mission runs into a problem—and a sales opportunity—because “there’s only four companies that make twenty-year shelf life food.” Of these four, only two pass Bakker’s supposed quality requirements. Bakker’s show is dedicated to making sure you have plenty of opportunities to buy these top-grade survival rations.
The up-front costs are high. For example, the Time of Trouble Tasty Food Offer, which can apparently feed you for seven years, costs $2,800. Bakker also offers survival gear like a portable fuel-less generator and filter-equipped water bottles.
The show offers plenty of reasons that would-be shoppers should stock up on all these survivalist goods. Bakker spends most of his time on-air discussing how current events match up with biblical prophecy, and the 2016 election has been a frequent theme. He’s voiced concern that if Hillary Clinton is elected the government will shut down his ministry and all other religious activity. In a recent sermon series, “Leviathan Has Come to America,” he warned viewers that Leviathan has become “king of America,” that the government is coming against the Gospel, and that if the wrong person is elected (Clinton), the Constitution will be destroyed by a newly liberal Supreme Court.
In a June 2016 episode with Gary Heavin, founder of the fitness chain Curves International, and Mike Norris, son of actor Chuck Norris, Bakker admonished evangelicals who said they were going to sit out the election rather than vote for Trump. “Well, let me tell you something,” Bakker said. “That may be the last president you ever not vote for because…if America continues on the direction it’s going, we don’t have much time left.”
Bakker has also used fears of an inevitable catastrophe and oppressive federal government to pitch Morningside as a refuge.
On a recent show, Bakker said that “It’s going to go ‘bam’ one of these days…and I’m telling you, people are going to say, ‘my God.’” After issuing this warning, the show cut to a nearly five minute commercial for a portable fuel-less generator.
What’s interesting is that, in the past, Bakker has shied away from politics. He broke ranks with televangelist Pat Robertson over the latter’s political turn, and he didn’t endorse Reagan in 1980, even as many of his peers were tripping over themselves to praise the candidate. Even in 2008 and 2012, Bakker didn’t make the election a major part of his pitch.
But it seems that Bakker is more willing to play partisan games this time around. Even his wife, Lori, has come out in support of Trump, claiming that he’s the best candidate for women.
Apocalyptic preaching isn’t new, and Bakker is appealing to a very particular subculture. Still, his long career points to a market for these messages, and his invocations of the 2016 election point to the way that political unease can offer a marketing opportunity. In 2016, Americans clearly feel a lot of confusion, uncertainty, anger, and fear about whatever lies ahead. For someone like Bakker, that could turn out to be great for sales.
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