The only place where One Punk Under God(Sundance, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) doesn’t have its theology screwed on right is its subtitle, The Prodigal Son of Jim and Tammy Faye. It’s the parents here—the Dennis and Karen Kozlowski of ‘80s televangelism—who wasted their substance through the riotous living, passing the collection plate on The PTL Club and scoring many earthly treasures, an air-conditioned dog kennel among them. At 30, their son, Jay, has shaped up into everything you could ask for in a kid, and this scrappy six-episode documentary series earns your affection by foregrounding his humility, generosity, and aggressive introspection.
Jay is a punk in the usual sense. He’s got gnarly tattoo sleeves and a ring through his lower lip; his wife, who works in mental health care, has hair of flaming orange. And that sort of bodily theater makes for good visuals, but what matters is that he’s a Christian rebel. Bakker emerged from the shame of the PTL scandal and the fog of his drug-addled teen years to start Revolution, a kind of indie-rock ministry dedicated to showing “all people the unconditional love and grace of Jesus” without regard to their pasts or the number of stylish holes in their faces. “Religion kills” is a key precept, and Revolution sells T-shirts and belt buckles that illustrate the concept by juxtaposing the slogan with a grenade. The ethic is DIY: The church’s Atlanta head office, seen in tonight’s episode, shares space with the SprayGlo Auto Body Shop. To peek in on a church meeting is to see Bakker slouching on a coffee-shop couch. He preaches his Monday-night sermons in a club called Masquerade, fidgeting as he interprets Scripture for hipsters and then reminding them to tip the bartender.
One Punk Under God touches on Jay’s concerns about balancing his ministry with his marriage and on struggles, of both the soul and the wallet, having to do with Revolution’s embrace of the gay community. But its central drama concerns Jay’s relationship with his past—the father infamous for sexing up a church secretary, the mother notorious for applying mascara to her lashes the way children put peanut butter on white bread. But—it’s a lot to ask, I know—let’s fight the temptation to mock Jim and Tammy Faye.
It’s affecting to see Jay, on tonight’s episode, politely endure an appearance on Air America’s Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow hammers away at the son for the sins of the father, railing on about the Bakkers as symbols of hypocrisy and corruption. A better host would have connected Jim’s failure with Jay’s goals, but this one, gleeful and obvious, simply screeches about why their story made for such a “satisfying fall.” Jay is left with little to do but dart his wounded eyes around and say, “Yeah,” and “Yeah,” and “Yeah, it’s really not fun trying to raise money for your church when you’re a Bakker.” Later, in a scene distinguished by its genuine pathos, Jay visits what remains of Heritage USA, the resort that once thrived as an evangelical Disneyland. “I grew up here,” he explains to an inquiring rent-a-cop, proceeding to romp (heartily) and slough (wistfully) around the ruins.
One Punk Under God is so observant and heartfelt that it can’t help but humanize Jim and Tammy Faye. The Bakkers are less important as icons of big religion gone bad than as parents who, now inching closer to the afterlife, are sincerely regretful that they missed their kid’s childhood. Black tears run down Tammy Faye’s face at the memory of going out to buy clothes for young Jay and realizing she didn’t know what size he took. Meanwhile, Jim, now with a new wife and a new show, gets an on-air visit from Jay and likewise gets choked up. We have to respect it as a genuine moment—or at least what passes for such in a place where the God of Martin Luther has melded with the church of Nielsen. Says Jay, “I think my dad’s a pretty sincere guy, y’know, when he’s on TV.”