I f anyone should recognize religion as spectacle, it is Jay Bakker, whose birth on December 18, 1975, was announced to America when “It’s a boy!” flashed across the screen of the Christian show The PTL Club (Praise the Lord). His parents first landed on Pat Robertson’s television network in 1966 with a puppet show for children. A decade later, Jim and Tammy Faye had created their own network empire and were fast on their way to becoming the country’s richest Christian ministry. Jim was filming live the moment Tammy Faye went into labor.
Jay grew up as prince of Heritage U.S.A., his father’s Christian resort and theme park. Opened in 1978 in Fort Mill, South Carolina, Heritage was meant as a one-stop shop for Christian indoctrination and rejuvenation, with campgrounds, TV studios, a church, school, shopping complex, and water park. Heritage attracted about 6 million visitors a year and, at one point, was the third-most-popular theme park in the nation (after the two Disneys). Jay and his older sister, Tammy Sue, went to church and school there, and they could go weeks without seeing a person who wasn’t connected to the PTL ministry. “The whole world was based around what my dad did,” Jay says of that time. “I thought my dad ran the world.”
Jim and Tammy Faye certainly weren’t the only ones who benefited from the prosperity gospel they preached; having a theme park fully at his disposal helped Jay win friends. But he was an insecure child, chubby, uncomfortable with being paraded in front of the camera every Sunday. He struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia and developed an ulcer when he was 9. Because his family received hundreds of death threats, he was constantly under the watch of bodyguards, and because his parents were busy running PTL, these handlers effectively raised him.
Then, in 1987, Jay’s world disintegrated. Tammy Faye overdosed on prescription medication. While she was still at the Betty Ford Center, news was released that Jim had had an affair, which led him to cede control of the PTL ministry to Jerry Falwell. Falwell confiscated the Bakkers’ home near Heritage, along with much of its contents, and the family retreated to their house in Palm Springs, where Jay helped his father hang sheets over the windows to deter the camera crews camped outside. “Everything I knew was just completely gone overnight,” he says. “At 11 years old, it was just like, ‘Okay, now I have to start a new life.’ ”
Meanwhile, a grand-jury investigation into PTL was being launched, and Jim was found guilty of 24 counts of fraud for selling more “lifetime memberships” to Heritage than the resort could accommodate. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Jay, desperate to help his father, cold-called other famous pastors, begging them to write letters on his father’s behalf (all but Jimmy Swaggart declined). Mostly, he felt helpless. He started drinking when he was 13, and would sometimes use his mother’s eyeliner—the most famous eyeliner in the world—to make himself look goth. He was suspended from school for punching a kid who said his father was being raped in prison. When Tammy Faye decided to divorce Jim, Jay was the one who told him. By the time he dropped out of tenth grade, he was smoking pot and dropping acid, which caused him to have terrifying flashbacks until he was put on the antipsychotic medication Thorazine. He gave up drugs but upped his alcohol intake.
When Jim Bakker left prison, after serving a reduced sentence, in 1994, his son was spending up to $400 a week in bars and frequently blacking out. Jim arranged for him to attend Master’s Commission, a boot camp of sorts in Phoenix for kids considering joining the ministry. Jay dropped out after a week, convinced that his family had been excommunicated and that he was cursed for having the last name Bakker. He had no desire to sign up with mainstream religion again.
But it was at Master’s Commission that he first heard about Revolution, a new ministry being formed that seemed intentionally to be setting itself apart from anything staid. Sermons involved smashing a TV with a sledgehammer. Punk and hard-core bands played before services. The goal was to get past the posturing of religion and to make it relatable to people like Jay—kids who were turned off by the moralizing and cheesy melodrama of the Jim and Tammy Faye generation.
Jay offered to work for the fledgling ministry, helping to jump-start a church that was soon getting recognition for its unorthodox approach. By the time he was 21, he had moved to Atlanta and become minister of his own branch of Revolution. He held services in bars, inviting curious skate punks he met at his job at a record store and posting signs around town that said AS CHRISTIANS, WE’RE SORRY FOR BEING SELF-RIGHTEOUS JUDGMENTAL BASTARDS. It worked. Jay’s flock swelled to about 60 members, and soon he was managing a staff of five.