Evangelical Women Celebrities: A Crisis of Authority

Erica Ramirez on Kate Bowler

The Preacher’s Wife. Kate Bowler. Princeton University Press, 2019. pp. 368 $29.95 (hardback)

In The Preacher’s Wife, Kate Bowler introduces readers to a group of powerful evangelical women leaders. Through this cohort, the book describes the rise of a new type of feminine power, one readily on display in the wives of some of America’s most prominent megachurch pastors—Victoria Osteen, for instance, who is married to prosperity preacher Joel Osteen. The power wielded by these high-profile women is impressive. But, Bowler argues, the authority that “celebrity” women leaders garner is “precarious” because this kind of influence requires that women constantly embody feminine ideals, and leaves them vulnerable to the whims of the market and dependent on the stability of a husband’s pastorate.

Though women leaders like Jen Hatmaker and Beth Moore are not household names outside Christian subcultures, Bowler admonishes that they “should not be underestimated.” Politicians court evangelical women celebrities “as powerful brokers of public trust,” and evangelical celebritydom (as a whole) is estimated to be an $8.5B enterprise.

In Bowler’s account, because many conservative churches subscribe to complementarian gender roles and prohibit women’s preaching, the authority won and wielded by women in conservative megaministry begins with a “professionalization” of the role of wife, mother, or daughter. To wit, as one leading author’s online biography reads, “Priscilla Shirer is a wife and a mom first. But put a Bible in her hand and a message in her heart and you’ll see why thousands flock to her conferences and dive into her Bible study series each year.” New York Times’ bestselling author Ann Voskamp’s biography similarly introduces her as “Wife to the Farmer: Mama to 7.” Proceeding from their familial roles, evangelical women channel their talents and ambitions towards accepted evangelical ideals and accompanying discourses, identified by Bowler as Preacher, Homemaker, Talent, Counselor, and Beauty. Leaders’ efforts to nurture an image in accord with one of these ideals, and to establish a level of public recognition based on that image is—in Bowler’s rendering— their active, savvy, difficult cultivation of evangelical celebrity authority.

Part of Bowler’s logic for naming these leaders celebrities stems from the size of their audiences. Many have book sales that put them on bestsellers lists, and some have half a million or more Instagram followers. But her definition of celebrity also characterizes the kind of relationship these women have with their followers: “In evangelical and Pentecostal subcultures, these women garner a level of adoration and scrutiny more often associated with the entertainment industry.” There is no question these women are in a bright spotlight, and not only for the women who “adore” them. Popular speakers Jen Hatmaker, Beth Moore, Glennon Doyle, and (before she passed in 2019) Rachel Held Evans have each been the subjects of numerous pieces in outlets like The New York Times and The Atlantic. Bowler writes with empathy and insight as she describes how hard female speakers work to make themselves market-ready. They must do so while negotiating a conservative evangelical culture that can be tricky for outspoken women. Together, Bowler explains, evangelicalism’s complementarian culture and capitalism present various conflicts and temptations: women have to be excellent speakers, model mothers and wives, but must also admit flaws, personal sins, or painful secrets so as to remain relatable. They must be pretty and in great shape, but also dress modestly, so as to disavow sexiness. A megachurch presents staff and resources for a woman looking to create her own brand, but she may not even be allowed the title “co-pastor.” If her husband leaves his post for any reason, her position in the church is most likely over too. Perhaps most importantly, women have to promote themselves without losing their inner compasses. Letting the market dictate who you will be, Bowler notes, is the way of madness.

Perhaps what makes evangelical female celebrity feel new—Bowler situates its rise in the 1970s—is this cohort’s cultural prominence. But female showmakers are some of Pentecostalism’s (most in this cohort are evangelicals and many are Pentecostal) most beloved founders. Leah Payne’s excellent Gender and Pentecostal Revivalism (2015) demonstrates how Aimee Semple McPherson built an empire— and the authority to rule that empire— through the canny performance of feminine ideals like “bride” and “companionate wife.”  McPherson built Angelus Temple to showcase her theatrical performances, but Joyce Meyer and Paula White built their empires on television. Still, while televangelism has reached hundreds of millions, its aesthetics were inferior to broadcast television and did not draw in viewership from the wider, secular culture. In today’s social media landscape, evangelical women have access to a more level playing field. They masterfully use Instagram to grow engaged audiences. And they have reached a new level of cultural dominance. Candace Cameron Bure, an outspoken evangelical, is reigning queen of the popular Hallmark channel. Baptist Joanna Gaines, who first rose to prominence on HGTV’s Fixer Upper, now has her own line at Target and Magnolia Journal magazine. Her shop, Market at the Silos, has put Waco, Texas on the map. Hollywood celebrities like Kristen Bell and Natalie Portman follow Glennon Doyle’s instagram and promote her newest book, which went to number one on Amazon and stayed there for weeks.

Bowler insightfully situates her subjects’ ministries in relation to prior contexts of Protestant women’s authority. For example, before evangelical female celebrities “ruled the marketplace,” women commanded foreign missions’ councils, managing thousands of personnel and millions of dollars. Then Bowler traces a transformation in the channels of women’s authority. In the second half of the twentieth century, denominations took over the budgets of foreign missions boards and churches shifted from having a women’s missionary auxiliaries to having women’s ministries– programming largely dedicated to women’s homemaking. Bowler deftly locates this shift writ small in the ministry of Elisabeth Elliott, who was first a missionary and then reinvented herself as a voice for domestic femininity.

Yet, there are two additional historical contexts that I would have appreciated seeing Bowler factor into her interpretation of the genealogy and character of celebrity authority: the disestablishment of denominational Christianity in the U.S. and the concomitant rise of female religious authority. Bowler supplies a short history of American Protestant women’s relationship to institutional authority and therein depicts the rise of heartfelt, home-based religion as a confinement to the domestic sphere that deprived women of access to institutional authority. A “true woman” of the nineteenth century, Bowler writes, “found her worth in the home as a model of purity, piety, and wifely submission…she was assumed to possess innate moral superiority and yet confined to a narrow set of roles: child rearing, housekeeping, and building her home into a refuge from the world of work.”

But this was less a confinement away from institutional authority and more the development of a parallel source of authority that was, at the same time, premised on the rejection of institution-based authority. While many women willingly symbolized the purity of the home, some also took up the pen and successfully targeted the church and a clergy class whose authority had been increasingly rejected by many from the early republic onward. For these women, the home was not a site of confinement or deprivation, but a source of religious authority all their own. In The Altar at Home (2014), Stokes illustrates how women sentimental writers “used their literary writings to acquire religious authority for themselves. In telling readers what they should believe, feel, and do, sentimental writers assumed ministerial duties and positioned themselves as important cultural arbiters of religious opinion.” Women’s sentimental texts often depicted clergy as unnecessary and even obstructive to religious observance, a belief Stokes notes was carried over from the prior Second Great Awakening. In their writings, such sentimental women authors constructed a domestic piety that explicitly negated the value of institutional goods of salvation and displaced them with the, to their minds, superior experiences of the spiritual hearth.

Thus, where Bowler sees the home in terms of confinement and deprivation of authority, and portrays the pulpit to be “the most important symbol of spiritual power,” Stokes differently observes a relocation and reconstruction of the sacred, now no longer the pulpit but the home itself. “The female centeredness, emotionalism, and anti-clericalism characteristic of the Second Great Awakening became distinguishing generic traits of sentimental literature”— a literature that arose from and valorized the pious home. Women who narrativized sentimental convictions won recognition as higher cultural authorities than clergy. Harvard professor, diplomat and abolitionist James Russell Lowell encouraged Harriet Beecher Stowe to have faith in her own literary endeavors by extolling “the author’s writing desk” as something “infinitely higher than a pulpit” and her stories as “grand preaching and in the right way.” Thus, female sentimental writers became overt competitors with male clergy, and the home the rival of the institutional church. This development of the home into a source of religious authority over which women in the main presided and from which basis of authority they successfully competed with male institutional clergy, to my mind, challenges the idea that women in megaministry “professionalize” their domestic roles because that is what they have to work with. In building their ministries on a domestic discourse that showmakers like Aimee Semple MacPherson (as “bride and wife”) and sentimental authors before her have developed into a cache of authority, today’s evangelical female celebrities perpetuate a time-honored tradition of domestic authority in evangelical circles.

There is good reason to think that the sacred home and its female authorities, having won some share of the religious market early in the 19th and 20th centuries, now have religious institutions on the ropes. Never actually confining, the pious home is now hypermediated into new and prime spaces. I meet today’s hierarchs of the hearth on Instagram. I walk into the virtualized sanctum of Joanna Gaines in Target’s aisle 13. In one of forty such Hallmark movies, I head home for Christmas with a career woman played by Candace Cameron Bure, only there to confront an evangelical version of what really matters, which always takes the form of a heterosexual marriage plot. The evangelical hearth has enlarged beyond all foreseeable proportions, courtesy of women. As Bowler sublimely notes, evangelical women leaders embody an idealized domestic arrangement, and forward a reassuring sense that  “the domestic sphere for women [was] reborn in an American culture that had muddied divine roles for husband and wife.” Today’s matriarchs of the hearth offer that sense to the masses, even as gender roles continue to undergo revision.

To see home-based and institutional forms of authority as highly gendered, and as in competition, could allow for each form to diagnose the advantages and limits of the other. Bowler’s account readily reads the pitfalls of evangelical female authority against the benefits of institutional authority. She offers, for example, that when these celebrity women make mistakes, unlike clergy they don’t have institutions who are invested in them to shelter them from the fallout. In a similar vein, Bowler notes that women without clear institutional belonging don’t have ready access to health care. Additionally, as noted earlier, not having a job title of their own means that megachurch pastor wives depend on their husband’s job security.

But this mode of comparison is misleading when it seems to imply a preference for institutional authority in these women leaders themselves, their audiences, or assumes such a preference for the reader. For example, Bowler suggests that evangelical women lack theological credentials and in their absence are “forced to rely on the authority of charisma… building brands based on experience or, worse, tragedies.” Why should readers interpret the absence of certain theological credentials as a lack? Why assume that charisma is only a consolation-prize, inferior form of authority? Bowler similarly asserts that “women in evangelical and Pentecostal circles who could not claim ‘pastor’ reached for other titles;” such quotes impose a hierarchy of desire the top of which women are prevented from reaching. Unless this quote reflects actual and unsolicited reflections on the part of leading evangelical women celebrities, such an interpretation may be reading against their own value system. Pentecostal culture, from which many mega-ministry wives hail, does not value institutional authority over and against charismatic authority– a preference based on their genealogical tie to revolutionary-era Methodism. Like sentimental women authors, American Methodism too sprung from early American Protestantisms’ anti-institutional, anti-clerical, revivalist strains. In symbolic parallel to the aforementioned literary, sentimental valorization of the hearth (over the church), A. Gregory Schneider’s The Way of the Cross Leads Home (1993) portrays American Methodism as a deeply affectionate religious community that understood itself as “a family set against the world.” As descendants of this strain, evangelical women leaders and readers alike often prioritize charismatic authority, one version of which is predicated on family and the home. Katelyn Beaty is right: “when evangelical women identify as wives and moms, it’s because a lot of them genuinely believe family is more important than professional accomplishments.” Where evangelical female authority is, essentially, charismatic domestic authority, this is most likely a good fit between “celebrity” leadership and enduring evangelical culture.

The development of evangelical celebrity authority from much earlier forms of female domestic charismatic authority suggests–not the form’s precarity, as Bowler has termed it– but its durability and strength on the religious market. The prominence of Bowler’s cohort suggests that their charismatic authority can well reveal the limits and pitfalls of institutional authority at this point in Protestant history. Today, the undeniable success (and tenure!) of women like Beth Moore challenges the idea that pastor and pulpit are actually the apex stations of power in evangelical life. Such women’s success instead lends credence to the earlier notion that the pulpit is today inferior to the woman’s writing desk, laptop, or cable television channel. Women like Jen Hatmaker get chided by denominational hierarchs if they step out of line, but institutions are vulnerable to domestic authority critique as well. Early forerunner “Mother” Maria Woodworth Etter was a divorcée who stridently critiqued institutional authority– to her great success. Rachel Held Evans, in a similar fashion, was never a pastor’s wife, constantly critiqued evangelicalism and maintained a wide, vibrant audience. Women like Evans and Jen Hatmaker, who used family discourse to communicate her support for gay Christians, illustrate how readily female charismatic authorities assume a prophetic discourse, critiquing what they perceive to be the misuses of institution-based authority. It is hard to imagine that institutional leaders are not concerned when a woman with hundreds of thousands of engaged listeners critiques their doings as wrong or immoral.

The durability and even dominance of female domestic authority over the last two hundred years can be an important position from which to diagnose the instability of institutional religious authority in American life, but a more ambitious reading might go further. Virginia Burrus’ The Making of a Heretic (1995) brilliantly demonstrates that the institutionalization of Christianity, in the fourth century, began by decentering Christianity from the home and featured, at the same time, the concomitant masculinization of its structures of authority. Burrus highlights that middle class women were largely the losers in this process, as the rising Catholic hierarchy disallowed such women the leadership roles they enjoyed in home-based early Christianity. Today, the overwhelming success of Pentecostalism, and of (mostly middle-class) charismatic women writers and speakers, suggests that the Catholic church’s violent, forcible institutionalization of Christian authority—as a project—may actually have been a less successful effort than Bowler’s read of the institutional pulpit suggests. 

If these charismatic and institutional forms of authority in Christianity have, sometimes, been in outright (and highly gendered) competition, at other times they have been combined to create a very advantageous fusion of powers. The most powerful discourse in 1990s-era evangelicalism was licensed professional counselor James Dobson’s radio show titled “Focus on the Family.” Therein, Dobson used a relatively new form of institutional authority (psychology) to transform domestic family life into a man’s territory. I would suggest that Bowler’s treatment powerfully illustrates how actual marriages serve to broker a union of institutional power and domestic authority, in the persons of the pastor and his wife, that together bolster the overall success of evangelicalism. Wives like Victoria Osteen bring female, familial authority to the sprawling megachurches of their husbands and, Bowler’s work shows, submit it to the still rival authority of the pulpit. We heard such tensions just last fall, when Calvinist John MacArthur unironically and publicly told Beth Moore to “go home,” arguing that women should not preach. In her 2017 op-ed, Anglican priest and bestselling author Tish Harrison Warren problematized “spiritual bloggers” who write “from the comfort of their living rooms…disembedded from any larger institution or ecclesial structure” as harbingers of a “new” crisis of authority in church life. But, as Bowler’s work shows, the indispensability of the acquisition of female domestic authority for institutions is clear: there are very few, if any, single male megachurch pastors. If one is to build an American megachurch empire, it seems that empire must often be covered in the softening symbolic repertoire of sentimental family bonds.  

Bowler asks whether Americans will ever be comfortable having women “in the main seats of power, in the pulpit, in the corner office, or in the White House.” While there is no woman in the Oval Office, there are at least two very influential, and visible, women in the White House. One, the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, in her role based on family credentials, and the other, a Pentecostal female celebrity. Televangelist Paula White is currently using her celebrity authority to sacralize Trump’s presidential administration–a stunning marriage of charismatic religious authority to institutional power –which makes Bowler’s work indispensable to understanding the oversized import of evangelical female celebrity authority today.


Erica Ramirez is Director of Research at Auburn Seminary. She grew up in Texas, where faith seems to shape public life in innumerable ways. She has recently published articles in The Washington Post and Religion News Service, and is currently at work on her first book, a cultural sociology of American Pentecostalism.