One Punk Under God

The son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker says that Jesus loves you, tattoos and all.

On a good Sunday, Jay Bakker’s storefront church in Brooklyn may attract as many as 30 worshippers. That’s alright with Bakker, the founder and pastor of Revolution, a nondenominational congregation that might be described as an anti-megachurch. Intimacy trumps grandeur in this “church for people who have given up on church.” It got its start in an Atlanta bar, luring wayward skaters and punks with a gospel of “ultimate grace,” a come-as-you-are theology that holds that God loves you, combat boots, body art, and all. Bakker, a pierced and heavily tatted 31-year-old, takes a casual yet passionate approach to his role, delivering sermons with titles such as “Nobody Likes a Selfish Bastard,” “Jesus: A Friend to Porn Stars,” and “Galatians Baby!”

Revolution’s modest message and alternative aesthetic are a far cry from the glitzy religious empire built by Bakker’s parents, televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. At its height in the early 1980s, their Praise the Lord ministry boasted 13 million viewers, raked in millions in donations, and ran the world’s largest Christian-themed resort. It all came crashing down in 1987, amid a sex scandal and accusations of greed and embezzlement. The Bakkers divorced, Jim went to prison for fraud, and Tammy’s tear-streaked mascara and fake eyelashes became a punch line. Jay Bakker, who was 11 at the time, hit the bottle, dropped out of high school, and felt that God had forsaken him.

Twenty years later, Bakker is a sober, self-taught preacher with a epiphany. “Whenever I went deeper into the Bible and went into the Greek or the Hebrew or the historical background,” he explains, “I was always afraid like, ‘OK, I’m gonna prove that God doesn’t love me.’ But it seemed that every time I studied deeper, it was actually good news. Sometimes it seems too good to be true.” For many mainstream Christians, Bakker's beliefs are too good to be true. Just ask Ted Haggard.

Bakker’s quiet revolution is the subject of “One Punk Under God,” a six-part documentary series that debuts on the Sundance Channel tonight. The series catches Bakker at a crossroads. As the first episode opens, his Atlanta church is humming along nicely, but he wants to officially accept gays and lesbians—a move that threatens his relationship with his financial backers and his co-founder, a conservative Boomer who’s been a father figure. Meanwhile, he’s trying to close the emotional distance between himself and his real dad, who’s remarried and launched “The New Jim Bakker Show.” He’s also tending to his mom, who’s battling colon cancer. And to complicate things, his wife isn’t so hot about his decision to be a preacher, and wants him to move to New York City, where she’s starting grad school.

“One Punk Under God” reveals the human side of a godly man without superhuman aspirations. Bakker has none of the punk-rock bravado suggested by his appearance nor his parents' showbiz chops. Instead, he comes off as unpolished, humble, and painfully honest about his family and his faults. “I don’t have a phone line to God anywhere in my house,” he says. Yet Bakker’s unassuming style is forceful in its own way. In one of “One Punk”’s most touching moments, Bakker reconnects with his father after two years, appearing on his dad’s show to talk about his philosophy (and show off his PTL tattoo). The elder Bakker tearfully declares that his once-estranged son “is what I should be but can not be.”

Jay Bakker spoke with MotherJones.com by phone from Brooklyn.

MotherJones.com: What lessons did you learn from your parents about what to do and what not to do as a preacher?

Jay Bakker: My parents always taught me to love people no matter what. My mom was reaching out to people with AIDS in the early ’80s. My parents always taught me to put other people first. But I saw my parents get in this trap where they created this huge ministry. They created a monster and they had to feed it. They had all these employees and facilities and bills, and all of a sudden they had to raise money all the time to keep all this stuff running. They got themselves between a rock and a hard place and I think that’s why, from a young age, I’ve been taking stands that haven’t been that popular. I didn’t want to have to compromise and I think there were times when my parents had to compromise some of their beliefs and ideas in order to keep their church going. [As a preacher] I just feel like I have to be honest; I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t. I think that’s why I’ve been able to reach some people who don’t feel comfortable in churches. I do make mistakes and I can be goofy and quirky sometimes. I’m not the world’s greatest speaker. I don’t try to hide that.

MJ.com: One thing that struck me is how you’ve put yourself in a leadership position where you freely admit you don’t know all the answers. And people literally embrace you for that.

JB: I don’t have all the answers. I grew up around people who told me they did, and then in the long run I found they didn’t. So I figured I better start out honest with people and stay that way. I think there’s pressure when you’re a pastor that you have to have all the answers, and if you don’t, your faith is built on sand. For me, faith is about believing in those things you can’t see and at times can’t understand. I’ve been really blessed to have people who are open to that and stick around. Not everyone does stick around, though.

MJ.com: So people have left Revolution because they realized you didn’t have all the answers?

JB: Well maybe not exactly that, but maybe not the answers they were looking for.

MJ.com: How do you describe Revolution in a nutshell?

JB: We’re really just a small church. We meet in bars. We’re a come-as-you-are-whoever-you-are kind of church. We’re a church about love and grace and acceptance and caring about people and at times agreeing to disagree.

MJ.com: You and [Revolution Atlanta pastor] Stu Damron have a fundamental disagreement on homosexuality but there’s been no split.

JB: I’ve seen churches split on the color of the paint on the walls. With me and Stu, we have a great love for each other and our love is bigger than one particular misunderstanding. I don’t think we can write someone off because they don’t see what I see or we haven’t gotten to the same place yet. Church splitting is ridiculous most of the time.

MJ.com: Have Stu’s views about being a gay-affirming church changed at all?

JB: I definitely think they’ve changed some. I think he’s become more open and sensitive to the issue. I don’t know exactly where he stands at this point. I do know he’s become more open, and that’s pretty cool.

MJ.com: “One Punk Under God” catches you right as you make the decision to make Revolution a gay-affirming church. How did you get to that point?

JB: It took me a long time to get there. I had a lot of gay friends and even had some congregation members who were gay, and I just wasn’t sure where I stood. In my heart, I was like, “How can I condemn these people for their love of one another?” I started looking deeper into the Bible and studying and then I went to a [gay-affirming] church. It all came together at one point. One of my friends came out, and I ran into one of my old camp counselors who had come out. I was like, “This is so strange—all these people who have been important parts of my life are all coming out and are being asked to leave their church or not having anything to do with their church anymore.” It kind of took a while because I knew I’d be risking everything. I knew this particular decision would cause me to lose a lot and would cause the church to hurt.

MJ.com: Has the church been just as strong since that decision?

JB: The church is going well, but we haven’t been supported. We lost a lot of financial support and I’ve lost most of my speaking engagements. News traveled fast.

MJ.com: Can you talk more about the founding principle of your church, the idea of grace, and what that means?

JB: I always thought I had to earn God’s love and approval; I always thought I had to please God. I kept trying, but it never seemed like I could do it, and I thought, “Man, what’s wrong with me?” A friend of mine was like, “Man, you’re full of it. You’re trying to do what Christ has already done: You’re trying to earn your salvation and you can’t—it’s a free gift.” It sounded too good to be true. He said, “You need to start reading the Bible for yourself and stop taking everyone else’s word for it.” When I really started to do this, I realized God loved me no matter what. His love for me wasn’t going to change no matter how good I was or how bad I was. There was something very liberating about that. It actually changed my heart and made me want to follow God more. I got into a 12-step program and have been sober for about 10 and a half years now.

MJ.com: So even though there’s this come-as-you-are philosophy, you’re trying to become a better person, just not in the way mainstream churches advocate.

JB: It’s like not having expectations on other peoples lives. It’s like trusting God in other people’s lives, which I think is a very scary thing for people. When it’s grace, it’s all about God. When it’s legalism or man’s religion, it’s more about what we can do to please God or what we can do to perform. It seems to be more about control, because just trusting God is a little bit harder. I try to love my neighbor as myself but I’m not trying to be a people pleaser. Sometimes that’s hard, because my human nature is to want people to be happy with me. But sometimes I feel my convictions are so great that it would be compromising the truth if I didn’t do that. So sometimes it’s a struggle to say, “This is what I think; this is what I believe, and if you don’t agree with me, oh well.” The hardest thing for people to accept is the gay-affirming issue. It’s hard for people to agree to disagree on that one.

MJ.com: Your dad was recently in New York preaching at Revolution. He seems to have adopted the idea of grace. What are the similarities and differences between his and your beliefs?

JB: We have a lot of differences. [Grace] is something that’s pretty new for him. The difference is, I’ve been talking about this for 10 years and he’s been talking about it for not even six months. He’s sitting with me saying, “Jay, God loves us,” and it’s funny, because those are things I was telling him years ago. I usually don’t get places before my dad does. It’s even helped our relationship; we have some more common ground to talk about. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs.

MJ.com: What appeals to you about punk culture and the punk aesthetic? How do you think they overlap with Christianity?

JB: In high school I had a lot of punk friends and have always been attracted to punk rock music. When we first started Revolution, I was a skater and we were reaching out to skateboarders and hippies. I like the loyalty that’s in the punk rock scene, but I don’t really consider myself a punk rocker. I’ve sung in bands; I’ve hung out in tattoo parlors a lot, so I got a lot of tattoos. A lot of my friends were tattoo artists. It was just the culture that I was in and was involved in; it wasn’t a premeditated thing like, “Oh, we’re gonna be a punk-rock church.” If you came to our church you’d realize there are only one or two people who consider themselves punk rock. [Punk’s] loyalty and not conforming to what everyone else is into—that’s definitely something that we are. That’s who Jesus was. He was crucified, in my opinion, because he didn’t conform; he loved everybody. He was inclusive rather than exclusive. And that made a lot of people angry. That’s the way I try to live. I don’t probably live that way all the time, but I try to.

MJ.com: In one episode, you say, “I hate Christian politics.” Were you talking about internal church politics or the church getting into politics?

JB: Probably the internal politics, but I’m not a big fan of the church getting involved in politics, either. I don’t think you can say there is a Christian party.

MJ.com: You preached about Ted Haggard a few weeks ago. What was your response to his scandal?

JB: Well, my response was that we may not see eye-to-eye with this guy, but he deserves to be restored. He deserves to be loved and helped. To me, it was sad because I felt like he was automatically kicked out of the church. Why do we keep doing this, when the church is about forgiveness? Jesus explains that the church is like a hospital. But this hospital doesn’t want to let any sick people in. I feel like people like that have had to lead these secret lives because they’re so afraid of how people will react. I think we have to get to the point where we’re restoring people and caring for them, and when they fall, we pick them up. My thing is that we need to love this guy and pray for him and his family and open our homes to him if need be. I don’t know if he wants to come sleep on my futon here in Brooklyn, but he’s welcome to if he’d like.

MJ.com: How is New York treating Revolution?

JB: It’s the best it’s ever been. I’m really happy here. I love New York. It’s made me realize that God’s a lot bigger than I thought he was. It’s a really interesting crowd. We have an agnostic person who comes on a regular basis, a transgender person who said that they found our church because they we’re looking for a church that wouldn’t hate them. The congregation is really great. My mom is really sick with cancer, so I’ve been gone a lot and members of the congregation have been getting up and speaking. I’m starting to realize that we’ve become a church of people instead of a church with this head guy. There’s something really neat about that because I don’t think it’s fair for them to think that I have this hotline to God. Too often we put these pastors up on pedestals and make it all about the man of God. That’s something I’m really excited to be getting away from.