Jim Bakker and PTL

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The Case of Jim Bakker and PTL

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Jim Bakker created PTL, a Christian-oriented syndication network, in 1977. Prior to that time, Bakker had spent seven years working for the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) owned by Pat Robertson. Bakker was not well educated in theology; he had dropped out of North Central Bible College after only three semesters. However, he was a natural on television, where he preached seed-faith and prosperity theology. These theological philosophies had originated with Oral Roberts in the 1940s and by the 1980s were widely embraced by many evangelists. The seed-faith philosophy taught that if the believers served and gave to God, they would be rewarded by God with an abundance of material needs. Prosperity theology, also known as “health and wealth theology,” asserted that God wanted the whole man, including his finances, to be healed. Those practicing prosperity theology recommended that believers pray for a specific outcome or object. Indeed, Bakker recommended that if his supporters prayed for a camper, they should specify the color; otherwise, they were asking God to do their shopping. Bakker, then, did not preach hard work, saving, and responsible planning. Instead, he subscribed to the belief that the Spirit willed financial miracles as well as the actions of Its followers. Bakker sermonized only on the love of God and ignored the topic of sin.

This religious philosophy apparently appealed to a wide cross-section of middle-class Americans, as Bakker’s congregation grew rapidly. Only 20 percent of Bakker’s sup-porters came from his own Assemblies of God Pentecostal faith; the remainder came from other Pentecostal denominations, other Protestant denominations, and the Roman Catholic Church. Their contributions and support made PTL one of the three wealthiest and most popular media ministries in the nation. Consequently, by 1984, PTL served 1,300 cable systems of 12 million homes and had accumulated $66 million in revenues and $86 million in assets. PTL also had 900 people on the payroll and enormous operat-ing expenses and debt. Bakker often prayed, with his television audience, for the financing of specific projects, an evangelical university, a PTL show in Italy or Brazil, or the “Christian Disneyland” labeled Heritage USA. When the money for these projects poured in from viewers, however, Bakker would use the funds for something else because that was the way he had been moved by the Spirit. Because of this style of financial management, PTL debts mounted.

Thus it was in 1983 that Bakker conceived the idea of selling lifetime partnerships for donations of $1,000 or more. The lifetime partnerships entitled the contributors to three free nights of lodging and recreation at Heritage USA for the remainder of their lives—a package previously valued at $3,000. The funds from the lifetime partnerships were to be designated for completion of construction at Heritage USA. Unfortunately, Bakker sold lifetime partnerships to more donors than he could accommodate at Heritage USA. Further, as the number of lifetime partnerships sold escalated, contributions to the general PTL fund diminished. In order for PTL to continue, funds from the lifetime part-nerships had to be diverted for everyday operating expenses. Consequently, construction on the lodging facilities at Heritage USA were never completed. Bakker’s followers were aware of where their contributions were being channeled. The Charlotte Observer regularly reported the financial actions of PTL and the Heritage USA construction cost overruns as well as Bakker’s purchases, which included three vacation homes, gold-plated bathroom fixtures, an air-conditioned doghouse, and vast amounts of clothing and jewels. Indeed, Bakker would display the headlines on television to demonstrate the hostility of the press. His followers never wavered. They supported and even endorsed Bakker’s materialistic lifestyle and promise of financial miracles. After all, Bakker was only acting out what he preached—a religion with standards of excess and tenets of tolerance and freedom from accountability. As a televangelist, he was free to preach what he pleased, and people were free to listen or not. No one coerced monetary contributions from Bakker’s supporters—they willingly sent in funds and did not hold Bakker accountable for the disbursement of those funds. Further, the government was aware of Bakkers’ actions. Bakker and his PTL operation were extensively investigated on separate occasions by the Federal Communication Commis-sion, the Justice Department, and the Internal Revenue Service beginning in 1979. Even though the agencies had substantial evidence ofmisconduct involving millions of dollars, no efforts were made to stop Bakker, and none of the agencies moved toward indictment. Bakker was allowed, indeed, encouraged in his behavior because he personified the cul-ture of the eighties. No government agency or public outcry arose to stop him until after Bakker, fearing reprisal concerning his affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn, resigned from PTL. Bakker’s actions could hardly be called covert because they had taken place in plain sight, exemplifying the religious philosophy he and his followers had daily espoused. In 1987, almost a decade after noting apparent misconduct in the operations of PTL, the federal government charged Jim Bakker with 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy, alleging that Bakker had bilked his supporters. Bakker was sentenced to 45 years in a federal prison and order to pay a $500,000 fine. In 1992, Bakker’s sentence was reduced to eight years and the $500,000 fine was voided. In that same year, Bakker’s wife, Tammy Fae Bakker (known for her mascara-streaking crying sessions while on camera), divorced Jim. In 1993, Bakker was transferred to a minimum security prison where he was paroled in 1994.

Discussion Questions

1. What service properties inherent in religious groups contribute to consumer vulnerability?

2. Which types of moral philosophies could be argued to be the basis for Bakker’s actions?

3. What are the ethical issues involved?

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