March 3, 2008

Jim Bakker's back

We know people like a repentant sinner. But the new Jim Bakker bears a striking resemblance to the old Jim Bakker, and Morningside looks eerily similar to Heritage USA.

Heritage, as many local residents will remember, was Bakker's empire in Fort Mill, a religious theme park and resort built on the allure of Bakker's PTL ministry. He and his wife, the recently deceased Tammy Faye, coaxed tens of thousands of followers to pay $1,000 for "lifetime partnerships" in Heritage, which would allow them limited free lodging there.

But it was a scam. Bakker diverted millions of dollars in partnership fees for his personal use and sold more "free" lodging than PTL could ever have accommodated.

Bakker spent five years in prison for that.

But he's back. After broadcasting from a modest studio near Branson, Mo., he is close to returning to the big time with new TV show and a new financial plan. Bakker, with the financial backing of a follower who never lost his faith in the televangelist, now sits atop another empire, Morningside, an Italianate complex of 200,000 square feet of mixed retail and housing near Branson.

Sound familiar? It should.

Morningside's 115 condos are going for $80,000 to $350,000. About 40 of them already have been sold. Builders also are busy constructing single-family homes and small apartment buildings nearby, and Bakker hopes to have 2,000 families living there in the future.

Bakker and his partners hope to support his ministry through donations.

And the faithful are returning. Many of those who received checks for only $6.54 in the settlement granted the 165,000 lifetime partners are back, too, saying they have forgiven the fallen Bakker.

Apparently, they also have forgotten. This is just the way the flock was fleeced before.

Nothing Bakker has done so far is illegal. And perhaps he should be admired for returning, phoenix-like, from the ashes of his self-immolation. And if he returns for a successful second act, getting rich off his fawning followers, well, that's a typical American story.

But one can't help noticing the similarities of Morningside to Heritage, of the new enterprise to the old scam, of the new Bakker to the old Bakker. And we wonder if the returning adherents and the likely new ones shouldn't be just a little wary.

A truly repentant sinner probably would not try to rebuild his earthly empire. At least not one with the same tacky architectural flourishes.

Buyer, beware.


Bakker's financial trajectory looks a lot like the one that got him into so much trouble.

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