Tish Harrison Warren lit up the internet with an essay for Christianity Today that asked, “Who’s in Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” In her piece, Warren addressed “a crisis of authority” resulting from so much de facto discipleship occurring on social media rather than in the church—a phenomenon that, for a variety of reasons, women have experienced most acutely.

Even before Warren’s essay was published, Kate Bowler, associate professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School, was compiling years of research on the conditions within modern American evangelicalism that helped lead to this state of affairs. She discovered that evangelical women, denied traditional means of authority within the church (and sometimes the culture), were becoming increasingly adept at tapping into newer forms of authority brought about by the age of mass media and the cult of celebrity it has wrought. In The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, she examines how Christian women—within both conservative and liberal church traditions—have exploited the power of beauty, therapy, family, and pop art to exert authority of their own. Author and Liberty University English professor Karen Swallow Prior spoke with Bowler about her book.

One of the unique qualities of your research and writing is that you bring the sort of personal experience to your subject that many scholars, particularly in the field of religion, lack. You have roots in a conservative Christian tradition—but you’re not mad about it. Can you talk about that?

I grew up among the Mennonites in the plains of Manitoba in a broadly evangelical tradition, which meant that we talked a lot about loving Jesus, but because we’re Canadian we had absolutely no idea why InterVarsity Christian Fellowship was urging us to pray around the flagpole. We have no civil religion. But I was raised with a fair amount of VeggieTales and Focus on the Family, along with theological vagaries around why I would never be allowed to be a pastor. That was pragmatically fine with me, because I was already committed to a life of poverty as a historian. But I became pretty feisty early on when I realized that the spiritual gifts I saw in women did not always find expression in the church.

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Despite the title of your book, The Preacher’s Wife, your work is not solely about pastors’ wives. In a larger sense, it’s a metaphor that gestures toward the way in which the influence of evangelical women is almost entirely dependent upon men, whether those men are husbands, pastors, or the gatekeepers of the marketplace. Can you explain your thinking behind the title?

The title is a shorthand for my thesis: Modern megachurch ministry does not authorize women to be spiritual leaders based on their education, credentials, or experience. Instead, they are billed as wives and mothers, famous for spiritual gifts that do not directly interfere with pulpit preaching (like singing and leading other women or children). As such, the easiest path to fame is to be the wife, mother, or daughter of a famous godly man—someone, in other words, who offers complementary spiritual sustenance to audiences that he is not directly targeting. For instance, megachurches frequently need a woman to run their women’s ministry, and the pastor’s wife is one of the most obvious choices.

Just look at the small gestures, like her Twitter bio or the way she is announced as she goes on stage: Taffi is Creflo Dollar’s wife. Dodie is Joel Osteen’s mom. Priscilla is Tony Evans’s daughter. There are many scrappy women who built ministries from scratch, but it is a far smoother road to be married to the ministry.

Speaking of the marketplace, your analysis sheds light on what you describe as “the dark logic of the marketplace,” one based on a “limited spiritual economy” that encourages women to create platforms built on competition, resentment, and comparison. Can you talk about how the sexism and entrepreneurism present in both evangelicalism and the broader American culture have turned insecurity into a source of power for evangelical women?

When conservative women are barred from the pulpit—or any situation in which they appear to be teaching men—they must find other ways of reaching an audience, ways that center on stereotypically gendered tropes. For this reason, women in ministry might build their platform on their expertise in parenting, cooking, nutrition, weight loss, or beauty. Those who directly take on the work of preaching and teaching will call themselves “Bible teachers” instead. No matter how closely their work resembles that of a senior pastor, women in megaministry will be introduced as authors or speakers, television hosts or parachurch founders. It is a delicate balance of professed submission to authority and implied independence from it.

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One might think that the power and influence of women within mainline denominations is less precarious simply because those traditions tend to embrace more egalitarian views. Yet you point out that the absence of “celebrity culture” within these denominations is also a factor. Can you elaborate on the difference that celebrity culture makes for women’s power and influence within evangelicalism?

The role of celebrity culture in the mainline is muted for a few reasons. First, mainline seminaries care very little about charisma and are far more focused on a procedural form of vetting for theology and prose. (I say this with ambivalence as a mainline seminary professor myself. Surely we want more engaging people in the pulpit?) Second, while there are numerous mainline megachurches, they are typically smaller and more denominationally focused, so they are not leaders in engaging the broader culture. And lastly, their cosmopolitanism makes them reluctant evangelists for their own “brand,” unwilling to engage in the marketing and promotion that the market requires.

If we take seriously Daniel Vaca’s argument in his forthcoming book, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America—and we should!—much of evangelicalism’s self-understanding is internally shaped by its consumer practices. Evangelicals are what they buy. And conservative Christian women have created a coherent set of consumer products—books, music, conference tickets, podcast ad buys, and so on—that give the culture its worldview. The mainline utterly lacks this consumer identity that animates the conservative subculture. By contrast, conservative Christian women are stepping into a capitalist wonderland when they decide to set up shop there.

Do you see “celebrity culture” seeping into more liberal and progressive Christian circles?

Without a doubt, we are all drowning in a celebrity culture. Any society that can make wealthy “social media influencers” out of the common clay of every Bachelor contestant is one that screams for recognizable characters around whom we can spin stories and on whom we can pin our expectations.

The growing visibility of the Christian Left has made new stars in recent years. Bestselling authors like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Glennon Doyle, and the late Rachel Held Evans have brought renewed energy to the progressive speaking circuit by breaking out of religious silos and drawing attention to questions around sexual and racial equality. But for the most part, the mainline has failed to reproduce the star quality it used to possess in postwar celebrities like Norman Vincent Peale.

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In the book, you state that in the last 20 years, Christian women “have staked their reputations and their ministries on their imperfections, their ‘junk,’ and their brokenness,” until “most Christian women in ministry were famous not for what they had accomplished, but for what they had endured.” How did this happen? And do you see it changing any time soon?

Because these women are rarely credentialed in the way that male clergy traditionally have been, they need a story, a brand, a way to broadcast their authenticity. Since the 1970s, when psychological language became the de facto way to present the Christian message to mass audiences, megaministry women have found that they could justify their authority on the grounds that they stood on the ultimate foundation of psychological insight—experience. Female celebrities billed themselves as veterans of life itself. So they will speak with embarrassing openness about their problems with weight control, miscarriages, or their reaction to a husband’s unfaithfulness.

The situation is unlikely to change, because “brokenness” is such a compelling story. That’s why you have “Comeback Player of the Year” awards in professional sports. People respond positively to shiny, flawless objects, but they also revel in the narratives of those who have fallen and been rebuilt. Christianity is, after all, the religion that tells people that what is broken can always be fixed.

Your findings are largely qualitative and anecdotal. What are the strengths and limitations of your research methodology?

I like to keep the story moving, so that what appears to be anecdotal is actually a story chosen to highlight a larger trend. For instance, readers might expect a book with “evangelical” in the title to focus exclusively on white women. Instead, I first analyzed all 1,600 American megachurches by race and structured my narrative according to the demographic breakdowns I discovered. While whites make up around two-thirds of the megachurch population, there is a substantial black minority (around 23 percent), and Latino and Asian believers have a presence as well.

I created elaborate spreadsheets to track women’s positions in all seminaries and megachurches, tracked 30 years of conference data, visited 30 megachurches, attended 15 of the largest women’s conferences, and interviewed over 100 Christian celebrities and industry leaders. I will never make sociologists happy, but I can convince any historian that my endless appendices outlining my methodology are, if anything, overkill.

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Do you think there is something inherent within evangelicalism that fosters the desire for power? If so, how might this be tempered?

Well, we are suckers for charisma and obsessed with metrics. We love anything we can measure, and the effect is, of course, that we end up celebrating anyone who can play a Christian version of “Show and Tell.” There is nothing inherently wrong with large ministries or powerful leaders, except that we have built institutions with weak accountability on the grounds that getting our books into Target will win the culture wars.

When it comes to women in the Christian marketplace, I’m less concerned that they desire power and more concerned that they have been asked to accept the substitute of “influence” instead. Without significant institutions to lead, they are forced out of titled and credentialed leadership and into a capitalist system to peddle their wares. In a system like that, women will be required to be Instagram gold, perfect mothers, and sexy wives, with a bevy of spicy stories to pump out book after book. We are missing out on the spiritual wisdom of so many women who want to lead without first having to become celebrities.

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The Preacher's Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities
The Preacher's Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities
Princeton University Press
368 pp., 25.04
Buy The Preacher's Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities from Amazon