It was not long ago that the Rev. Jim Bakker was drifting off to sleep in his cell at the medium-security federal prison in Rochester, Minn., listening to the inspirational sounds of Christian music on earphones. Suddenly he heard the voice of his wife, Tammy Faye. “Tam, I didn’t know where I was,” Bakker told her later. “I thought maybe I had died and was in heaven. And Tam, it was you on the radio singing, ‘Don’t Give Up, We’re on the Brink of a Miracle.’ ”
Bakker, 51, may have had his miracle. Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned the onetime televangelist’s 45-year sentence for defrauding supporters of his Praise the Lord ministry. Ruling that U.S. District Judge Robert Potter had made biased, unsuitable remarks about “money-grubbing preachers” while handing down the term back in October 1989, the panel ordered Bakker’s return to Charlotte, N.C., where a new federal judge will resentence him in the coming weeks.
For Tammy Faye, 49, who has been trying to launch a new ministry and TV show from her fledgling New Covenant Ministry Church near Disney World in Orlando, the news seemed heaven-sent. She and Jim have been in touch every day for 15 months, either by phone or letter. “I am just delighted,” she told reporters. “I talked to my husband, and the whole prison was excited for him. He was in his non-smoking class, and they broke in and said, ‘Jim, Jim, you’ve won your appeal!’ ” Alan Dershowitz, the high-profile appellate law whiz who jumped into the case only last October, was pleased for his client—and for himself. “Jim is thrilled,” says Dershowitz. “Tammy says this is a great victory for Christians. I told her it was a Jew that did it, so let’s call it a great victory for religious freedom in America. She agreed.”
Not so everyone. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jerry Miller, who persuaded a jury to convict Bakker on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy, now plans to ask for the same sentence at the rehearing. And Jerry Nims, the former Moral Majority president who took over the PTL’s Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill, S.C., after Bakker’s resignation in 1987, is outraged at the possibility, however remote, that Bakker might be paroled. “It would be like turning Caligula loose in Disney World,” says Nims. “He stole millions from people who trusted him…and he should have the same sentence as a bank robber.”
There are those, however, who insist that life behind bars has helped make Bakker a better man. “Jim has rebounded and come back. His spirit is soaring,” says Dr. Basil Jackson, Bakker’s psychiatrist, who has visited him repeatedly at Rochester. He reports that Bakker spends his time praying, exercising, making pottery and reading theology. After his first job, cleaning toilets, the former heavy smoker now teaches his fellow inmates how to kick the habit themselves. “He has become the one guy the other prisoners actually look up to for strength and compassion,” says Jackson. “Jim told me he has met the nicest people in prison. The pilots, politicians, bankers and doctors are some of the greatest men he has ever known.”
The reverend, though, shows no signs of remorse. “He has denied wrongdoing time and time again,” says Jackson. “What he did say was that after he is out, he and Tammy will begin a new TV ministry in Orlando.”
Though Bakker will probably not be released, as he has requested, pending resentencing, it is almost certain he will do less time. “If he gets out soon, that is scary,” says Don Hardister, Bakker’s onetime bodyguard of 12 years. “Jim will hit the ground running. Once they get back on TV, the Bakkers will have a record following, far bigger than before. It will be awesome for Orlando—Jim Bakker and Mickey Mouse as lifetime partners!”
—Linda Marx in Miami