Televangelist Jim Bakker, who was once king of the false teaching known as the “prosperity gospel,” has shifted the focus of his messages to “the end times.” It is in that context that Bakker, who served several years in prison after defrauding his viewers out of millions of dollars in the 1980s, now finds himself the target of a lawsuit brought by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. But, before we rush to judgment, we must realize there is an important issue, perhaps unintended, that has surfaced in this case: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Bakker, now 80, rose to prominence four decades ago as host of The PTL Club (PTL is short for “Praise The Lord”), a religious television program he led with his former wife, Tammy Faye Bakker. He resigned from his ministry position in disgrace after it was learned he had an affair with an employee, Jessica Hahn. Bakker used $265,000 of donated ministry funds to pay her to keep their affair secret. Bakker was ultimately convicted of defrauding thousands of his viewers out of millions of dollars and spent five years in prison. The Assemblies of God stripped him of his ordination in 1987. Tammy Faye divorced him in 1992.
Bakker was released from prison in 1994, owing $6 million to the Internal Revenue Service. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz acted as his parole attorney, telling The New York Times that he “would guarantee that Mr. Bakker would never again engage in the blend of religion and commerce that led to his conviction.”
Bakker moved to Branson and launched a new television ministry under the name Morningside Church Productions. It was during these broadcasts that he peddled a product known as Silver Solution. Bakker is accused of claiming that Silver Solution could cure or prevent the coronavirus, which he suggested was a sign of the “end times.”
There is no evidence that Silver Solution cures or prevents COVID-19. Bakker’s actions prompted warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission. Those actions were followed by the attorney general’s lawsuit against Bakker and his production company in an effort to stop them from advertising or selling Silver Solution as treatment for the coronavirus. The attorney general’s concern for the safety of Missourians is commendable.
But shortly after the warnings from the federal agencies, Bakker’s website stopped selling Silver Solution. Nevertheless, the attorney general’s office continues to seek a temporary restraining order against Bakker’s ministry. “That way they can’t come back in months or years and start selling solution as a miracle cure again,” a spokesman for the attorney general told National Public Radio.
Enter former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat (the attorney general is a Republican). Nixon, now a partner with the St. Louis law firm of Dowd Bennett, advises businesses and corporate executives that are the target of government investigations. Bakker has retained Nixon as his legal counsel.
In a recent interview on the radio show, “St. Louis On the Air,” Nixon argued that Bakker has a First Amendment right to urge viewers to get their bodies ready for the end times, even if the methods of doing so might not withstand public scrutiny.
“Pastor Bakker was engaged in a religious practice and speech during his show, as he is in his daily shows out of Blue Eye, Missouri,” said Nixon, who acknowledges that Bakker’s criminal history does him no favors in the court of public opinion.
“We all recognize that Jim Bakker has made some significant mistakes,” Nixon said, “and he’s paid for those mistakes. But to me, I just believe that everyone, regardless of their background, deserves to be treated equally and fairly by the law.”
Nixon’s point should not be overlooked. Using the consumer fraud statute against a preacher whose beliefs we dislike seems misplaced, even excessive. Free speech lets us call someone a fraud. We can call a person a charlatan. We can call a person a con, but we cannot ask a civil court to call a preacher’s religious beliefs fraudulent, or else we sprint face-first into the “wall of separation” of church and state.
This is an important case for all of us who hold the First Amendment dear. Bakker may have misled viewers into believing Silver Solution will cure COVID-19, and the attorney general is right to act in the public’s interest. But to use consumer fraud statutes to deny a preacher’s freedom of religion and speech is troubling. There is a principle at stake here, and we best not lose sight of that.