His name is forever linked to a seven-deadly-sins scandal that rocked Christian faith and captivated secular media. But Jay wears his last name like a purple heart. The name Bakker is pinned to his heart. He overcame Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s infamously fallen ministry to evangelize Christianity very differently than his parents did on The PTL Club, their 1980s television show that reached nearly 13 million viewers.
The Bakkers were an empire that we watched crumple like an aluminum can underfoot. A jury indicted Jim Bakker for defrauding his followers, and Christians condemned him for sins, including sleeping with church secretary Jessica Hahn and paying her $279,000 from ministry funds to keep quiet about it. The Bakker scandal made news headlines and late-night punch lines for years. Then it died down, like even the juiciest scandals do.
Years later, here came a grown-up Jay Bakker to excavate the past. Jay brought the Bakker name back, this time in a young man who thumps a loving, forgiving God of grace. A God who embraces everyone: sinners, Bible beaters, prostitutes, brain surgeons, and yes, even gays. But each time Jay appears, we remember the Bakker family’s downfall.
Time passes so slowly
Jay Bakker. Given name Jamie Charles Bakker. An ex-druggie and alcoholic. A high-school dropout. A 32-year-old with piercings, a lit cigarette, and tattoos that cover his arms like a tight shirt. Here is the punk-rock-pastor son of the deviant Jim Bakker. And this kid wants to talk about Jesus? Damn right.
“I wanted to end the dos and don’ts of Christianity, rather than Christianity based on faith,” Jay says when I finally reach him at home in Brooklyn.
In 1994, Jay Bakker and two like-minded friends started an anarchist church called Revolution, in Phoenix, where his imprisoned and broken father had sent a shackled and broken son to stop drinking and doping. It was eight years after his father’s ministry caved. America had nearly forgotten the Bakkers.
But Jay reminded us. And we reminded Jay. He wasn’t afraid. The name Jim Bakker opened doors, and Jay sung it out loud. After clearing clouds of rejection and addiction, in 2001 Jay wrote Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows, an autobiography about growing up a Bakker, facing the best and worst of Christianity, and founding the Revolution Church.
He starred in Sundance Channel’s 2006 documentary One Punk Under God, during which cameras followed unreturned phone calls to his father (they’re speaking again) and his heart-wrenching decision to announce Revolution a “gay-affirming” church.
Jay did interviews with Larry King and reporters from Mother Jones, Time, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. In every instance, Jay was asked some question about his parents and “the scandal.” Skeletons flew from the closet. Somewhere between drinking and finding God’s grace, Jay realized the Bakker name is a platform of sorts.
“I found out that the fame or the interest from the media has allowed me to talk about grace and allowed me to talk about my convictions,” Jay says. The demons are finally working for him.
What we forget
I didn’t know what to expect when I dialed Jay’s number. Would he be preachy like his father or flagrantly emotional like his mother, who died of pancreatic cancer last year? Strangely enough, I never knew of Jay Bakker until OutSmart gave me this assignment. I certainly knew his parents.
My mom sometimes watched Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker on The PTL Club. What people remember about the Bakkers is the fall and, before that, an extravagant lifestyle, a belief that giving money would bring you more—Jim Bakker has since renounced this theory. And, of course, Tammy Faye’s makeup.
What people forget is another message the Bakkers preached early on: acceptance of everyone, regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation. They forget that Tammy Faye met with, prayed over, and supported HIV-positive people and people with AIDS in the early 1980s, long before Elizabeth Taylor and Bono made it chic.
Perhaps this is why Jim and Tammy Faye gathered a colossal following. One devotee was my parent’s friend, who invited our family to visit his home in Heritage USA, a huge Disneyland-found-Jesus theme park the Bakkers opened in 1978. At the zenith of the Bakkers’ ministry, Heritage USA had six million annual visitors. It was the top vacation destination behind Disney World and Disneyland. It was also where Jay grew up.
I was maybe 9 or 10 when we visited. I remember water slides and the Passion Play and a huge make-believe city. Everything was big. So were the Bakkers. I thought their kids (Jay has an older sister) were the luckiest kids in the world to live there. Then a year or two later, it all imploded.
At that point, I wouldn’t have traded places with the Bakkers’ kids for anything.
When is judgment day?
Before a U.S. District Judge sentenced Jim Bakker to 45 years in prison, this is what he said: “Those of us who do have a religion are sick of being saps for money-grubbing preachers and priests.”
Jay Bakker, who was just 11 years old when his world crashed, grew to find more truth in drugs and alcohol than in the Bible that reared him.
“It was quite depressing to see how quickly people scattered and didn’t want anything to do with my parents in a matter of 24 hours,” Jay says. “One day everybody wanted to be around my parents, and the next day, nobody did. When I saw that, I became very disillusioned. The Bible preaches forgiveness, and I didn’t see that.”
Jay could have stayed in the background. He could have been a banker, a doctor, a musician—anything. But, then again, he couldn’t.
“When I was about 20, I took a good look at the Bible on my own, and I took other people’s actions out of the equation, and I took it for what it was,” Jay says. “I was happy with what I found in the Bible. Rather than seeing it as religious bondage, I found grace. I wanted to take that out to people, take the message of inclusive love and inclusive grace.”
Jay packages the message very differently than most preachers. Revolution’s website welcomes you with these words: “As Christians, we’re sorry for being self-righteous, judgmental bastards.” Members have buttons and T-shirts that say “Religion kills.” But they believe God revives.
“I guess all I can say is that I fell in love with God’s grace,” Jay says.
He invites the wayward, the sinful, the uncertain, the lost, and the defeated. He invites them because he knows them. They are his father. They are Jay Bakker.
Between 40 and 70 of the “Revolutionists” gather every Sunday afternoon in a dark Brooklyn bar called Pete’s Candy Store. The bar is open and Jay asks everybody to tip the wait staff well, although he hasn’t had a drink in 12 years. The Revolutionists talk about God and love and Jesus between swigs of Heineken.
People say they come to Revolution as a last hope for God. They follow a humbled young man who admits he doesn’t have all the answers or a back door into heaven. They trust him because he isn’t perfect. They trust him for reasons many conservative Christians wouldn’t.
And this is why Jay Bakker is proud of his family name.