By 1996, Jim Bakker had become world-famous and infamous as the archetype of a corrupt, hypocritical televangelist.
The gaudy empire he had built through his syndicated PTL Club broadcasts had collapsed when he was caught having a sexual affair in 1987 and was subsequently convicted of 24 counts of fraud, for which he was sentenced to eight years in prison. (The charges included a clumsy The Producers-style scam in which he sold more than 100% of the profits from a promised luxury hotel/ministry center.)
Jerry Falwell Sr. called him “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” If he wasn’t quite that, he was clearly a financial predator and scam artist who had enriched himself by exploiting the religious devotion of his followers.
So when he published a memoir in 1996 — titled I Was Wrong: The Untold Story of the Shocking Journey from PTL Power to Prison and Beyond — I gave it a read. Bakker sometimes came across in that book as defensive, but he also seemed to recognize that his instinct to try to justify his former criminal behavior was a problem he would need to overcome, and he seemed to be trying, at least, to bring himself to genuine confession, repentance, and a spiritual search for what it would mean to make amends for the harm his fraudulent “prosperity gospel” had caused to those who had made the mistake of trusting him.
But it didn’t take. Despite owing the IRS $6 million, Bakker somehow managed to hire Alan Dershowitz to finagle him an early parole, and he used the profits from I Was Wrong to set about rebuilding his brand and his lucrative fundraising operation.
Jim Bakker has, essentially, spent the past 25 years saying “I was wrong to ever say ‘I was wrong.'” He’s gone from describing his fall into disgrace, his criminal conviction, and his time in prison as “the wages of sin” to reframing it as an example of anti-Christian persecution due to his stellar righteousness: “I was probably one of the first examples of cancel culture” Bakker proclaimed on his fundraising show last week.
One one level, this claim is absurd because Bakker wasn’t “canceled” — he was convicted of multiple crimes after defrauding real victims of real money. But on another level, Bakker is right because this is all that the right-wing buzzword “cancel culture” really ever refers to — the possibility of consequences for crimes, the wages of sin and the reaping of what one has sown.
Jim Bakker wasn’t “canceled.” He was just exposed for being Jim Bakker. And you can’t be Jim Bakker without people treating you like that’s what you are.
If Jim were even remotely capable of introspection or self-awareness, I would challenge him to ponder why it is that he was “canceled” but his late ex-wife Tammy Faye is, for all her faults and quirks, remembered fondly.
Bonus: Here’s a 2011 video of a YouTuber exploring the ruins of Jim Bakker’s Heritage USA amusement park.