Fall to Grace: An Excerpt

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...

The Crack-up

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.2 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.

1/19/2011 5:00:00 AM
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