The Preacher's Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities

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Release Date: 
October 1, 2019
Princeton University Press
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In 2016, Duke University Divinity School Professor Kate Bowler burst onto the media scene with a New York Times op-ed column called “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me.”

In the column, which instantly went viral, Bowler explained what it felt like for a 35-year-old mother with a young son; an academic at an elite academic institution, with a well-received first book; and, especially, as an expert on health, wealth, and happiness to suddenly learn that she had developed a Stage IV, life-threatening cancer.

Infused with irony, the piece led to a bestselling memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, and a podcast, “Everything Happens.” Both challenged the fundamentalist dogma in American religion that “all tragedies are tests of character.” 

Most scholars, however, would prefer to be known for their scholarship than for their personal lives and travails. Still, Bowler is nothing if not clear-eyed about the ambivalent opportunity her situation presented and the media flurry that resulted.

“In this world of Christian celebrity, a tragedy could be an opportunity for a new brand, a wider platform, and a new set of credentials,” she writes. “This was simply the dark logic of the marketplace.”

So Bowler is now back to her chosen field, evangelical Christianity, with The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities.

Notwithstanding, reality is not far away. Much of the research was done while Bowler was being treated in the hospital and undergoing chemotherapy. “This book was an act of hope,” she says.

A good deal of what Bowler has to say should be of interest to general readers. Hovering over the key questions about women evangelical celebrities and their domains, which she calls “megaministries,” is the larger issue facing all working women.

That is, are Americans willing to accept women in positions in authority? Polling of evangelicals suggests that the younger they are, the more likely they are to do so, having grown up in a changed world of women's places in society.

Thus, Bowler asks of her book’s subjects, "What kinds of roles are they permitted? What do these women gain and lose in order to be market ready?”

The initial breakthrough for women in ministry and denominational leadership began after World War II in mainline Protestant denominations. But even in these ostensibly liberal and progressive groups there were numerous roadblocks and persistent foot-dragging:  "Christian ministry was overwhelmingly a man's world."

Yet by whatever paths they took, and "boxed in by high expectations of modern Christian womanhood, these women both broke the rules and played their parts, winning wide recognition as the spiritual go-tos for millions of Americans."

For today’s women megaministry celebrities, the dynamic remains the same.

"That a woman's place is under her husband's authority has been one of the longest held and least challenged tenets in Christian history,” she writes. “Women in megaministry lived perpetually in its shadow."

What these women wear, their hair, the way they interact with their (usually) more famous husbands, are critical.

(At one point, Bowler wonders—perhaps tongue in cheek—if the best way to analyze the woman's role in a megaministry power couple might be to interview the lighting technicians, to see how often the spotlight landed on the wife, rather than the husband.)

This is no accident, Bowler writes: “The celebrity Christian women in these pages are simply the latest commodities of a religious marketplace . . . Within the evangelical and Pentecostal subcultures, these women garner the level of adoration (and scrutiny) more often associated with the entertainment industry.”

There are also theological barriers, especially in those fundamentalist churches that believe women are prohibited from preaching.

As a result, Bowler says, "female preaching was often renamed 'bible teaching.'"

So Ann Graham Lotz, the daughter of mega-star Billy Graham, prefers to describe herself as a teacher. She likes to tell the story that once, despite her father’s near-sainted status, some Baptist preachers turned their chairs around and showed their backs when she taught a lesson.

Despite these unfair standards and treatment, for over a century a handful of independent women evangelical leaders have emerged with mass followings. These include Aimee Semple McPherson, Kathryn Kuhlman, and, most recently, Paula White. All were and are known beyond the world of religion, to mainstream America.

Yet for the most part, Bowler argues, the best-known female names within the contemporary, male-dominated, evangelical world have been spouses in televangelist marriages: Tammy Faye Baker, Jan Crouch, Victoria Osteen, Gloria Copeland.

Separating these women leaders from famous male relatives can be dicey. Much as with conjoined twins, the wives’ celebrity rarely survives the death or disgrace of their more famous male partner.

Survival does happen in some cases, but usually only if the couple remains together. "Long after the specter of the scandals faded, the husband and wife brand prevailed."

One exception is Paula White, who first emerged in the pulpit under the tutelage of her preacher husband Randy, whom she later eclipsed and divorced after he was disgraced, going on to become one of Donald Trump’s favored evangelicals.

For women as for men, apart from the handful of these crossover mega-stars, “Christian celebrity was a tricky category to define because, to the average American, its stars were almost invisible . . . These were not household names in the same way as those of a politician, actress, or athlete might be.”

For example, most Americans have likely never heard of Miami's Ana Maldonado, who regularly fills 10,000-seat arenas.

Gender was not the only barrier for women evangelists of color. Among those who managed to crash through the ceiling there is "almost uniform whiteness on national platforms."

The few women who led megachurches who did not inherit their pulpits from their deceased husbands tended to have built them on their own, especially in the African American community.

However, Bowler argues persuasively that, unlike limitations of hidebound, fundamentalist dogma and conservative denominations, the modern commercial marketplace is open to all, offering a much more level playing field.

By dint of talent and clever merchandising, their books, speaking engagements and, ultimately, broadcast ministries, have allowed them to emerge. 

Thus it became possible for a few women to emerge as megaministry celebrities without the perch or launching pad of being a famous preacher's wife, but it remains a difficult route.

The reality is that independent female evangelical celebrities like Beth Moore have had to develop their own, women's megaministries, with little denominational support.

Joyce Meyer, the author of more than 100 books, who has six million Twitter followers can draw paying crowds of 30,000.

Almost single handedly, Mother Angelica founded and anchored the Alabama-based, Catholic Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). 

For More, Meyer, Angelica, and others, Bowler concludes, "There was no smooth path to God's house for a Christian woman celebrity, no steady march to equality or easy gains."