Jim Bakker's TV show amounts to spiritual abuse – so why is he still broadcasting?

If one thing is sadly clear from watching far too much late-night Christian television, it's that some believers are painfully gullible, and easily led. Perhaps a dark side effect of submitting ourselves to the authority first of God and then the human leaders he's apparently appointed, is that we inevitably open ourselves up to those who might seek to abuse that position. It's why a once-disgraced televangelist is still making a fortune selling 'miracle spring water' alongside rolling ads which claim it'll provide miraculous 'financial release'. It's why another has created an empire of books, bibles, albums, the sales of which (along with donations) are making him wealthier than ever in his old age.

At least the movement of 'seed sowing' prosperity theologians makes some kind of crazy sense. There's a belief system there which seems to me to be way wide of the mark set by Jesus, but at least the transaction has some logic to it. 'You can't out-give God', according to the extra-Biblical catchphrase, and the idea of God repaying more than you give does have its roots in Scripture. The so-called 'prosperity gospel' where a relationship with Jesus and a commitment to giving everything to him is secondary to the pursuit of wealth accumulation, is extremely dangerous and toxic. But asking for donations because God might choose to bless the giver isn't entirely mad as an idea.

There's one Christian Television player who goes further though: much further. He's 'evangelist' Jim Bakker, a star of US Christian culture in the 1970s and 80s who with his then wife Tammy was behind the growth of Pat Robertson's now-megalithic 700 Club show. In the 1980s, the Bakkers were so successful – drawing donations in excess of $1 million a week – that they even built a Christian theme park which at the peak of its popularity was the third biggest in America. You may be familiar with what happened next; a series of scandals rocked the Bakkers and Jim was defrocked and convicted of fraud, he was imprisoned and the couple divorced.

(Screenshot/The Jim Bakker Show)Pastor Jim Bakker

While in prison, Bakker appeared to renounce the prosperity theology which had characterised his ministry to that point, even going as far as writing a book entitled I Was Wrong. Yet after a period of quiet rehabilitation, Bakker relaunched himself 15 years ago, no longer a televangelist or a prosperity teacher. Instead, he had recast himself as a prophet of the end times, and along with second wife Lori, began to broadcast a daily Jim Bakker Show which focused almost exclusively on the issue of a coming apocalypse. It has aired almost unbroken ever since, on Christian networks in the US and, among other nations, the UK.

Here's the horrifying twist though: Bakker and his daily panel of 'experts' (assembled in a weird studio full of elderly people which looks a little bit too much like a garden centre cafe) don't just discuss how to prepare for the coming period of tribulation, they also attempt to sell viewers the resources they need to survive it. What follows might sound too bizarre to be real: Bakker and his team use the show mainly to sell huge buckets of powdered food; the sort that might potentially be used in an underground bunker after the world's food supplies have been destroyed. And when I say huge, I mean it: for example you can buy the 'Tasty Pantry Time of Trouble Deluxe' bundle, which will provide you with 7 years of eating, for just $3,700. Other bundles are even larger, and provide food a couple, or even a family.

According to the accompanying promotional films, these powdered products will almost miraculously transform into everything from buttermilk pancakes to Fettuccine Alfredo. Of course, the result isn't as delicious as the fresh food we take for granted above ground, but I suppose apocalypse-survivors can't be choosers.

By this point, I imagine your reaction is somewhere in the region of 'what on Earth?' On an individual level, it's hard to know how Bakker can sleep at night, spending the twilight of his career selling dried food to rapture enthusiasts. What's really hard to stomach however, is the thought that many vulnerable Christians, who believe Bakker to be a prophet and an authority on the subjects he talks about, are investing huge chunks of their savings – or their credit card bills – in his expensive plastic buckets. This is happening on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere around the world; the continued presence of his shows on television networks would make no financial sense otherwise.

The point is that we can't just laugh Bakker off as a weirdo, or as an idiosyncratic relic of the Christian sub-culture's glory years. Not only are his broadcasts damaging to the reputation of the Christian faith as a whole, but they also prey on the most vulnerable kinds of people – the sort who are statistically unlikely to be able to afford $3,700 for a bucket of dust, but might be led to believe they have no choice. Regular Christians – the sort who don't believe the main focus of our faith should be stockpiling for the rapture – must speak out against this practice and the mad pseudo-theology behind it. Jim Bakker's shameful, spiritually-abusive broadcasts have no place on our TV screens, and the only way to stop them is to stop buying the buckets.

Martin Saunders is a contributing editor for Christian Today and the deputy CEO of Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter @martinsaunders

Lifestyle