The Good-Time Gospel: Heritage USA

By Donnie V. Rader

I rarely watch the television evangelists. So, when I received my assignment (latter part of February) to examine the work of Jim and Tammy Bakker, my first response was “Who are Jim and Tammy Bakker?” Within three weeks the whole world not only knew who they were but also watched as their empire crumbled.

Who are Jim and Tammy Bakker? What have they accomplished in TV evangelism? What do they teach? What is Heritage USA and how does it relate to their philosophy? What has happened to them recently? We shall attempt to answer these questions in this article.

Heading An Empire

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, identified with the Assemblies of God, headed an empire that they had built over 13 years. Their enterprises include the PTL (for Praise The Lord and People That Love) network that is carried by cable into 13.5 million homes and a daily talk show (“Jim and Tammy”) broadcast over 178 stations. PTL is a 500,000 member (“prayer partners”) ministry. In addition they had the Heritage USA amusement park.

All of this brought in $129 million for the Bakker’s last year. The financial statement that was distributed by PTL’s new head, Jerry Falwell, revealed that PTL has assets of $172 million and total current liabilities of $42.1 million. Another long term debt was $28.2 million. Falwell said that the new board is considering a $50 million loan from an unidentified source in Great Britain to consolidate its debts.

In addition to the above programs Bakker has a Heritage home for unwed mothers, a new home for handicapped children, 819 “People That Love” centers to aid the needy and outreach programs in 52 countries.

Obviously with all of this Bakker’s real job is to beg for more and more money to operate and enlarge his empire. This is very much in contrast to the work of Christ and His apostles. I don’t recall reading a word about anyone of them begging their listeners for large sums (making them “partners”) to service a large empire.

The Bakker’s have obviously lived like people who headed an empire. They have lived in luxury and sanctified the use of diamonds and riches. They own a Spanish-style home near downtown Palm Springs, another home just ten miles away in Palm Desert, CA for which they paid $449,000 a few years ago. They have bought a houseboat, mink coats, sports cars, a $375,000 condominium in Florida and $60,000 worth of gold plumbing fixtures to put in it and matching Rolls-Royces. Tammy Faye also markets her own line of cosmetics and hosiery.

Without a doubt this couple has glamorized wearing flashy clothing and the show of riches (a striking contrast to the attitude of Christ and His apostles). They did not give such emphasis to material wealth (Phil. 4:11; Matt. 19:16-22; 6:19-34).

Their Teaching

If you watch their shows you find very little teaching. Most of the time is spent in singing, giving of testimonies and begging for more money. However, they are basically Pentecostal. They believe and teach that believers today are baptized in the Holy Spirit and thus miracles are performed today. As true of practically all Pentecostals their concept is that the miracles are for the betterment of mankind. To the contrary Jesus stated that the purpose of miracles was to confirm the message (Mk. 16:20). If miracles were merely for the good of man, why were there so many that were not healed (cf. Phil. 2:25-ff; 2 Tim. 4:20)?

Their philosophy goes further than just the belief in miracles today. Like many of the TV evangelists, the Bakker’s teach a “health and wealth” gospel. They believe that those who have faith and are cheerful givers can expect material prosperity as a reward. Jim Bakker has said, “Jesus does not teach poverty.” Part of the theology is that good health is also a reward for faithfulness. Thus, faith not only solves spiritual separation, but also physical disease and financial distress.

The Bakker’s are supposed to be examples of what faith and cheerful giving can accomplish. When their listeners see the affluent lifestyle they have and desire the same, they are promised both health and wealth if they believe and give.

When we look to the Bible, instead of Jim Bakker, we see that faith and salvation does not promise prosperity (Acts 4:34; 11:29). Neither is there any promise that the faithful will not be sick. In fact, there are examples of faithful Christians suffering because of their faith (Heb. 10:35-39; 11; 12:6; 1 Pet. 4:12-16).

The consequences of the “health and wealth” theology would be that if you are either poor or in bad health you either do not have faith or are not giving as you should.

But Bakker takes his philosophy a little further than some of the others in building the Heritage USA amusement park as a work of God.

The Lord’s Amusement Park

What is it? It is a 2,300 acre spread just south of Charlotte, NC that cost about $175 million. It has the luxurious Heritage Grand Hotel. Inside just above the registration desk golden gothic letters proclaim “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Mornings begin with a wake up call that says, “This is the day the Lord has made.” The rooms are decorated with pictures of Jesus and Mary. You can stay three nights for free if you are a Lifetime Partner (one who has donated $1000). Otherwise, a double occupancy room would cost up to $140 per night.

One of the biggest attractions is Heritage Island, a $12 million water park that has the world’s largest wave pool and a 52 foot water slide which sends people sliding at 40 miles per hour. Like other resorts, Heritage offers tennis, horseback riding and camping. In addition they have baptisms every Tuesday night in the hotel swimming pool, a Christian dinner theater, a high-tech Passion play in the Heritage amphitheater and a wafers-and-grape juice communion service at 2 in the morning.

Bakker was not through building. He had plans to build a multimillion dollar theme park and a king size Wendy’s restaurant shaped like a sand castle and a full-scale replica of Jerusalem as it was in the time of Christ.

In 1985 five million people visited Heritage USA. In 1986 there were six million.

Bakker claims God directed him in building Heritage USA. He claims to be doing a work of God in his amusement park adventure. While Jim Bakker may think God told him to do this work, in actuality it was all his own dream. Bakker, a third-generation preacher in the Assemblies of God, spent his summers as a youngster at Pentecostal camps meetings where families vacationed in cabins and swam, among other activities. Bakker told Newsweek magazine, “Many of our campgrounds were built during the touristcabin era and that’s where they stayed. But society went to the Holiday Inn, and our campgrounds didn’t keep up. My dream was to bring the Christian campground up to the 20th century” (Aug. 11, 1986).

Heritage USA has received its criticism. Jimmy Swaggart, also with the Assemblies of God, has been critical of Bakker’s project for some time. Recently when accused of trying to take over the PTL organization Swaggart replied that he was not in the water slide business (700 Club, March 24, 1987). He told the Associated Press, “The Gospel is not entertainment. It is very sober. It has no place for amusement parks” (March 27, 1987).

I talked to one young man whose mother is a lifetime Partner which enabled him to take his family to Heritage for a week last year. He was critical of the high cost of just eating and participating in the activities. That was with his stay at the hotel being free. His comment was interesting and worthy of consideration. He said that if God directed Jim Bakker to build this park it looks like God just left the poor man out. If God wants people to have fun in the name of religion, why charge $140 per night to stay at Heritage? Why not provide it free so all can enjoy and benefit?

Heritage USA ministers to the physical side of man. It is the social gospel concept. While I disagree with much that Swaggart says, I must say amen to his statement that the gospel is sober and is not entertainment. It is directed to man’s spiritual needs. Jesus rebuked some who were following him just for the food he had given them and pointed out that their real need was to labor for the meat that “endureth unto everlasting life” (John 6:27). Jesus also said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (v. 63). His gospel is spiritual in application. He told Pilate that the kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). The gospel calling is an “heavenly calling” (Heb. 3:1). The church at Corinth was rebuked for doing social and recreational things in the name of religion (1 Cor. 11). The apostle Paul said that the kingdom “is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17).

While Jim Bakker spends his time building theme parks you will not hear him preaching the kind of sobering sermons you find recorded in the book of Acts. Hotels and water slides don’t do one thing for saving souls. The preaching of the pure gospel will (Rom. 1:16).

To give, visit and buy is doing service to God. Heritage vice president Neil Eskelin said, “Bible-believing, Christ loving people think they’ve found nirvana here.” A visit will bring spiritual renewal. As they plug the park on their TV shows you are made to feel that you are doing a service unto God if you will give $1000 or visit their “holy Disneyland.” I enjoy a visit to places like Kings Island or Opryland as much as anyone. But I never thought of that as a part of my service unto God. If the Bible is to be our standard for determining what we believe and do in religion (as it is Col. 3:17), then a search for anything even similar in the New Testament would be in order. I must confess that I haven’t found anything akin to Heritage USA. I don’t remember anything about Paul’s “Antioch Fun Park.” Can you imagine such? “The Antioch Grand Inn: donate 1000 gold shekels and you can stay three nights free; otherwise it would cost 30 gold shekels a night. Ride the waves and swim in the Mediterranean Sea. Camel rides are also available.”

Recent Shakeups In The Empire

Tammy Faye announced March 9 that she has a drug problem. She became dependent on drugs she had taken for a sore throat and pneumonia. This, she confessed, went back for 17 years. She blamed the doctors who asked her to stay off the TV for one year.

Jim resigned from PTL March 19 over a sex scandal. He said he was “wickedly manipulated by treacherous former friend who “conspired to betray me into sexual encounter.” He confessed that he “succumbed to blackmail.” He referred to an 1980 incident in Florida with 21-year-old Jessica Hahn, a church secretary. Apparently, PTL had paid Hahn $115,000 in 1985 and was paying her another $150,00000 in $800 to $1200 payments to keep the story quiet. It is interesting that Jim blamed his former friends. However, his successor, Jerry Falwell said Bakker’s actions were “wrong, wrong, wrong.” He also told Cable News Network (March 20), “It doesn’t really matter whether someone seduced you or you raped someone. If you’re a man of God, a leader of the flock (and) you yield, as far as I’m concerned, you’ e out of the ministry.”

Because Jimmy Swaggart had asked church officials to investigate Bakker, he was accused by Bakker’s attorney of trying to take over the PTL ministry. Swaggart has denied, but charged that Bakker was “a cancer on the body of Christ” that had to be removed.

Jerry Falwell is now chairman of the PTL board which is interesting because Falwell is a fundamental Baptist. He preaches a more sober gospel and is not carried away with the “health and wealth” and “good-time” gospel that Bakker has preached. Falwell has been uncomfortable with the Pentecostalism that has characterized Bakker, Oral Roberts and others.

What effect will this have? Falwell said that this might create a “backwash that could hurt every Gospel ministry in America, if not the world” (Time Magazine, March 30, 1987). George Gallup Jr. (of Gaft Poll) warned: “There have been extravagances and questionable tactics, and surely this has soured people’s attitudes toward giving, and toward Christianity” (Time Magazine, March 30, 1987). To say the least, the general public will be more skeptical of religion.

(A special thanks to brother Ted Mitchel of Frankfort, KY for supplying some magazine articles which were very helpful.)

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, pp. 362-364
June 18, 1987