One Punk reveals an unlikely minister

PTL upbringing gives Jay Bakker an unconventional view of religion

McClatchy Newspapers/December 12, 2006
By Aaron Barnhart

For Jay Bakker, the son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, loving God meant always having to say you were sorry.

"I had this idea of an angry God, that everything I did was bad and wrong," he says about his childhood, which until the age of 13 was spent living, literally, in a theme park, Heritage USA, built by the millions of dollars the Bakkers raised through their Praise the Lord ministry.

Despite his seemingly idyllic upbringing, "I thought I was losing my salvation," Bakker says. Those feelings of guilt only intensified in 1987, when a sex and accounting fraud scandal brought the PTL empire crashing down.

Eventually his parents would divorce, Jim Bakker would go to prison and Jay would spend his teen years adrift in a haze of drugs and alcohol.

Now rehabilitated and married, Jay Bakker, who turns 31 later this month, is a minister of the Gospel himself. Tattooed, pierced, unordained, unshaven and unconventional, Bakker preaches out of storefronts to mostly 20- and 30-somethings who, like him, find the old-time religion has nothing to say to them.

And like his father, Bakker is on TV, though only for a few weeks. One Punk Under God, a documentary about his life, airs for six weeks beginning at 8 tonight on the Sundance Channel.

Q: What was it like growing up inside Heritage USA, a theme park with a 500-room hotel?

A: My life was very guarded, but we had a lot of fun at Heritage, too. We'd run all around playing cops and robbers. Some little old lady would come around the corner, and we'd be like, "Freeze! Miami vice!"

Q: You don't seem to have a lot of traumatic memories of that time.

A: I have traumatic memories of when we lost PTL.

But, you know, I was heavy as a kid. I got made fun of a lot. That was hard.

There were kids who said stuff. There was this (DJ) who would always make fun of my mom on morning radio.

There were still tough times. I got in trouble, got punished, spanked. I had to go pick my own switch once.

Q: What was that year like for you, the year it came apart?

A: I was losing my friends. I wasn't able to go back to school. I wasn't able to play with some of my friends because their parents worked for my parents, and Jerry Falwell (who was brought in to run the church) didn't want anybody to be seen with the Bakkers.

We went to live in Gatlinburg, Tenn. My dad owned that house in Gatlinburg. He owned the parsonage. Jerry Falwell kicked us out. They had the (Heritage) security guards make sure we didn't take anything out. I remember sitting in my room as a little kid crying because I couldn't stay in my house anymore. We were forced to leave, and I couldn't understand why.

I saw my dad cry for the first time. He was on the phone with Jerry Falwell, and he was saying, "I'm only asking for one thing. Take care of the partners. Just make sure you take care of the people." And he was bawling, and that scared the daylights out of me. My dad always had a heart for people, but I never knew how much.

Q: When you look at other TV evangelists, was your father like them or not?

A: Well, in some ways he was, and in other ways he wasn't. I mean, (there were) the constant telethons because you have to pay television bills and staff bills. But if you put his show next to Christian television today, there weren't a lot of gold and white and red Las Vegas-looking sets. It was, like, stucco and a couch (on the set). My mom did shows on penile implants and did interviews with people who were dying of AIDS in the 1980s when nobody was. They did comedy. They had a live band. It was almost like Johnny Carson.

Q: Your dad also hopped off the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell political express.

A: He did. I remember he was asked by George (H.W.) Bush to be mentioned because he had a lot of pull at the time. And he was like, "No." People were so fed up with all that stuff (preachers in politics) that a lot of people's anger was pushed toward my family. But they weren't involved in politics.

Q: I would think after all you went through, the one occupation you would cross off your career list would be "minister."

A: See, me and my dad and my mom, we've all had our downfalls and our conflicts, but my dad instilled in me to help people. I remember after PTL fell, he took me to the toy store and said, "I want you to pick out a bunch of toys. They're not for you." We went and spent Christmas with this really poor family. It made a huge impact on me. When I realized what grace meant — the unconditional gift, the undeserved favor, the reflection of God in our lives, and that God loved me no matter who I was or what I'd done — I realized I was going to be a minister.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.