The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, by Kate Bowler, Princeton University Press, xxi + 338 pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-06911796 12
Do women exercise more power when they stay in their own female spheres, or when they try to compete on an equal level with men in worlds constructed by and for men? This highly readable and absorbing book is an extended reflection on what it means to be female and famous and religious in the United States of America over the past forty or so years. As the title suggests, the main focus is on Protestants, and on women who are not ordained clergy in their own right, but who enjoy a high profile either because of their relationship to famous ministers or their association with a particularly media-friendly brand of Christianity. Bowler ‑ herself a practising Christian and an academic theologian at Duke Divinity School ‑ profiles some ordained clergywomen, like Susan Gillies and Barbara Brown Taylor, who have risen to positions of authority in what she calls “mainline” Protestant churches – Episcopalian, Presbyterian, mainstream (not Southern) Baptist, Lutheran. These female ministers usually shun self-promotion not only because they are treading new ground and afraid of drawing hostile attention to themselves but because they find such publicity inimical to Christian humility. Brown Taylor, an Episcopal minister, remembered her rise to media fame in the 1990s as “the moment when my preaching life took a turn for the worse”, because “ … being Christian calls for a certain self-forgetfulness that celebrity makes difficult to achieve”. The preachers’ wives of more traditional churches, or the women in the new mega-churches, white, African-American or Latino, have no such diffidence. They go on “stage” before thousands, and on TV before millions. “Bible teachers” rather than preachers, if they have theological qualifications they keep quiet about them. If they have counselling credentials, they prefer to foreground God’s healing power. If they are ageing, they get facelifts because, as prosperity gospeller Joyce Meyer puts it, “I want to look my best for God.” If they or their husbands commit adultery or engage in fraud, this gives them the chance to boast about their “vulnerability”. “The new saints of megaministry … prosper by confessing that they were never saints at all,” Bowler comments. This sarcasm is unusual: Bowler is much kinder than this normally, even in her attempts to understand the roots of the repellent prosperity gospel (the belief that if God loves you, you will be successful in every way) in her earlier book Blessed: a history of the American prosperity gospel (Oxford University Press 2013), and in this book. She believes, for example, that Victoria Osteen did not assault a flight attendant in 2005 (a court found her not guilty in 2008), a verdict which Barbara Ehrenreich completely dismisses in her condemnation of prosperity churches in Smile or Die: how positive thinking fooled America and the world (Granta 2009). Osteen is one of the most powerful female religious celebrities, and the church of which her husband Joel is pastor, Lakewood in Houston, Texas, is the biggest prosperity megachurch in the USA. Barbara Ehrenreich criticises these churches for reducing God to “a kind of majordomo or personal assistant. He fixeth my speeding tickets, he secureth me a good table in the restaurant, he leadeth me to book contracts.” There are certainly huge sales of female-authored Christian books, magazines and DVDs, and even a magazine, Today’s Christian Woman, whose slick production values remind us that Christianity is very much in the marketplace in modern America. The fact that some of the biggest evangelical churches (and, by the way, only two of the top ten megachurches are prosperity churches as such) meet in buildings that look more like shopping malls or stadiums than places of worship seems to reinforce the connection between God and mammon, and indeed, God and entertainment – Ehrenreich, born and reared an atheist, suggests that religious transcendence must be hard to achieve in such commercial-looking premises. But Christians believe that God is everywhere, and the brightly dressed African-Irish who flock every Sunday to soulless-looking units in industrial estates and suites of office above shops no doubt find what they are doing meaningful and valuable. Ehrenreich also objects to churches with add-ons like coffee-shops, creches, counselling centres and so on. But really, what is wrong with this kind of spiritual/social one-stop shop? Many churches (Protestant and Catholic) in English cities and even some Dublin churches have little cafés attached where homeless people, unemployed men, mothers and toddlers and other people who feel marginal in the big city (including tourists) can come and sit and feel welcome.
And there is nothing really that is new or unfamiliar about the idea of the megachurch as such, at least not for somebody reared a Catholic in twentieth century Ireland. The five biggest non-denominational megachurches in the United States, according to figures supplied by Bowler in one of the many fascinating appendices to this book, have an average attendance each of 31,500. Any reasonably sized Catholic town anywhere in the mid-to-late twentieth century would have had similar numbers at worship every Sunday, spread out over a number of churches. As for the criticism that American Protestants can select a church most congenial to their values and lifestyles, urban Irish Catholics up to the 1980s could attend either their parish church, or one of a selection run by religious orders; there were Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans, Redemptorists and Jesuits in Limerick city alone. My parents’ generation compared the preaching styles and religious emphases on offer in different churches, and picked the ones they liked best, much like the American religious consumers described by Bowler. The message preached in Ireland at that time was every bit as strong and as certain as the religion promoted in the American megaministries that Bowler describes. Of course that message was more “feelbad” than “feelgood”, but theologians would argue that a God whose main function is to police and punish is every bit as heretical as a God whose main function is to applaud and reward. Both, indeed, are sides of the same coin.
And the famous women discussed by Bowler do not always peddle mindless positivity. The ninth largest megachurch in the US, Saddleback, in California, is run by Rick and Kay Warren; he sold thirty million copies of The Purpose-Driven Life (2007) and she was an international activist for AIDS/HIV orphans. In 2013, however, after their twenty-seven-year-old son committed suicide and Kay began to speak out about mental health, including her own struggles with depression, she alienated the 48 per cent of American evangelicals who believe Bible study, prayer and exorcism, rather than medication and therapy, are the only cures for mental illness. When Beth Moore, the hugely popular Southern Baptist evangelist who believes quite strongly in separate religious spheres for men and women, spoke out on Twitter against Donald Trump’s objectification of women, she was heavily criticised by some male leaders, and deserted by many of her female followers. One can only imagine the courage it took for black pentecostal celebrity Juanita Bynum to speak out about the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her bishop husband, and the criticism she took from other African-Americans for “letting the side down” by doing so. But Bowler’s book is respectful to all the women it profiles, not just those who stick their necks out. Every time a judgment or even a sneer is in the offing, the rug is pulled from under the reader. Tammy Faye Bakker might seem to be the epitome of commercialised artificiality, but the author has a soft spot for her, describing her as “utterly transparent, unpretentious and chipper” and seeing her as part of an older tradition of travelling preacher’s wife as warmer-up of the crowd before the minister got started. YouTube clips of Tammy Faye show how genuinely funny she was in her 1980s TV show, a kind of evangelical Lucille Ball. Religion of all denominations is, after all, a kind of showbusiness ‑ priests and preachers perform, and are judged to a great extent not only on performance, but on appearance.
Some religious celebrities take this to alarming extremes, in their promotion of sexy Christian marriage and female beauty – Bowler explores this quite thoroughly. (Gay and transgender women find a cautious welcome in some mainstream Protestant churches ‑ several have been ordained ‑ but there is no place for them in celebrity evangelical culture.) All secular authorities on marriage in the postwar period insisted on the importance of mutual sexual pleasure, so it is hardly surprising that Christians of all denominations would do so too. Marabel Morgan in The Total Woman (1974) used scriptural authority to reinforce her promotion of the sexy (and strangely child-free) marriage (“Never let him know what to expect when he opens the front door: make it like opening a surprise package.”). In 2012 Ed and Lisa Young promoted their book on “marital sex as God intended”), Sexperiment, by going to bed for twenty-four hours on the roof of their Texan church, in a kind of double Beatles reference that slips by Bowler. “My wife is intelligent, sophisticated, my wife is spiritual, but that girl is fine, too,” said Wayne Chayney, pastor of a large California church. African-American churches, while culturally distinctive, are every bit as fond of slick image and razzmatazz ‑ and no strangers to the prosperity gospel either. There is a glossy unreality about the appearance of most of the female religious celebrities (of all races) pictured in this book; burnished, soft-focus, sculpted. Tammy Faye Bakker’s heavy eyelashes and pancake make-up are an extreme parody of the look, but the picture of big-haired and panda-eyed Laura and Gina, whose Total Woman Ministries promised in 1996 to give women “a greater level of effectiveness as ambassadors of Jesus Christ” is almost as startling. Nearly all the female religious celebrities, Bowler points out, are considerably thinner than the average American woman. This foregrounding of sexiness and attractiveness does away completely with the the pious spinster with her hair in a bun, glasses and flat shoes who held such authority in Protestant parishes in days gone by. (Miss Milton in Richmal Crompton’s William books comes to mind here.) There are a few unglamorous women in high-profile celebrity religion, but they are in a minority, just as single women are in a minority, and like single women, they make a “thing”, or a USP (unique selling point) out of being unglamorous and/or single.
One resolutely unsexy female “evangelical” was Mother Angelica Rizzo of the Eternal Word Network. The late Mother Angelica, although she was neither a Protestant nor a preacher’s wife was, Bowler argues, comparable to Protestant female celebrities in her TV appearances, cult of personality, conservatism, and of course her huge audiences, and that is why Bowler includes her. Although Bowler name-checks some of the groundbreaking feminist theological work of Catholics like Mary Daly, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, and Rosemary Radford Reuther, she completely ignores campaigning nuns like anti-death-penalty activist Sr Helen Prejean and human rights advocate Sr Joan Chittister, sometime president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and active in the Global Peace Initiative. Bowler would probably argue that neither woman commands the huge audiences that Mother Angelica did, but neither do some of the non-conservative female ministers/ministers’ wives she profiles, like Gillies and Brown Taylor mentioned earlier, and Donna Miller, Sandra Stanley and others. Mother Angelica’s deep conservatism, exemplified by the resolutely pre-Vatican II regalia she adopted in her later years, was unpalatable to many ‑ perhaps even most – Catholics in the United States, including many priests and religious. By using her as the only example of a high-profile Catholic religious woman, Bowler comes close to caricaturing Catholics. This is the only fault I can find with this excellent book.
Caitriona Clear teaches history at The National University of Ireland, Galway.