The Rev. Jim Bakker is still here and my grandmother is long gone. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.
Bakker, that old tele-evangelical scoundrel is back in the news for fleecing the flock again, some 30 years after a judge and jury locked him up for using his show, “The PTL Club” (which stood for “Praise The Lord” to true believers or “Pass The Loot” to drive-time radio DJs who roasted him), for personal gain. He illegally sucked millions of dollars out of the pockets of good folks who fell for the slick words that rolled off his forked tongue.
The Charlotte Observer dove deep into his fundraising back in the 80s and the law soon followed. In 1989, a judge sentenced him to 45 years in federal prison for his financial misdeeds. An appeals court overturned that or he would still be getting his exercise in the yard. He served about five years before a parole board cut him loose and he—I thought —faded into obscurity.
“The PTL Club” was on local TV from 1974 to 1989. My grandmother, known to all as Mama Ethel, resided much of that time in a cozy mobile home in suburban Charlotte—close to the Fort Mill, S.C. location of Bakker’s sprawling Christian-themed amusement park, Heritage USA, where “The PTL Club” beamed to millions.
Here are two facts about Mama Ethel: She watched “The PTL Club” and she believed in the nutritional value and healing properties of Tang, the artificially flavored drink mix consumed by astronauts.
Those two facts are unrelated but they are some of my strongest memories of Mama Ethel.
A third fact is my grandmother was there for me when I needed her. Around 1979 or so, a bunch of 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old with a license piled into a car that was older than any of us and drove two hours to see Jimmy Buffett play at the Carowinds Palladium.
That car broke down on the way back and we sought refuge in the living room at Mama Ethel’s mobile home. We drank Tang.
Four years later, when I was a student at UNC Charlotte, I would visit Mama Ethel when I ran out of quarters for laundry in the dorm or needed a home-cooked meal (washed down by Tang).
Through it all, I was dismayed at the attention she gave “The PTL Club” blaring on her TV. To me, here was an obvious charlatan with a sly-fox grin and a water-works wife in clown makeup, yet she tuned in. I don’t know if she ever sent him any money. We didn’t talk about it. Maybe she just liked it for the entertainment value. I’m not sure.
But she was a woman who lived through The Great Depression, raised three young ‘uns, tended to hundreds more working at an orphanage and married the same man twice. If she wanted to watch Jim Bakker strut his stuff, that was her business.
And now, some 15 years after my grandmother passed to the other side at the age of 96, Bakker is back to strutting and making headlines.
Inexplicably, he emerged in the 2000s with a new TV show, a new wife and a new message about the importance of giving him and his faux-vangelical cronies money for various foods and survival manuals to prepare for End Times.
And as if manna from heaven, here comes the coronavirus and—what do you know—Rev. Jim has a preventative tonic and/or cure for sale on his TV show.
According to The Washington Post, he’s now under scrutiny by attorneys general for at least two states, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
So I’ll pass on Bakker’s tonic. I think I’ll stick with the nutritional value and healing properties of Tang. It hasn’t let me down yet.