In her just-released book, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities, Kate Bowler, associate professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, describes how the women married to evangelical megaministry pastors achieve their own power, celebrity and influence through their personal connections and charisma, all the while maintaining the façade of submission and the appearance of the beautiful, devoted sidekick.
Evangelical women’s access to (limited) power within constrained agency is something I’ve witnessed time and time again among the much-less-famous Southern Baptist women I know and interviewed for my book, God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society. Bowler’s subjects negotiate power on a much bigger stage, but it still looks an awful lot like what I saw growing up in West Rome Baptist Church in Georgia.
One of the women I interviewed explained that the man is the head of the house, “but woman is the neck that turns him.” Even so, most women in my study described their actual relationships in much more egalitarian terms. Couples usually make decisions together, and roles are much more determined by practical issues such as time and ability than gender.
While their lives are constrained within the language of submission, most of these women have developed a knack for getting what they want. One participant talked about witnessing women explicitly teaching each other how to get around submission. She said that often happened in Wednesday night prayer circle: “how to pray your husband into the right decision.”
“In many ways, their power is actually built on the backs of other women they send back home to submit.”
These subtle forms of influence allow conservative women access to power at home. Depending on how we look at it, their gift for getting what they want can been seen as manipulation or resourcefulness. One progressive participant explained this ability as a “by-product of oppression.” She explained that manipulative tactics become “a way of carving out their own agency.”
In many ways, the superstar women of evangelicalism use the same tools to access power, not just at home but also in the public arena – the rhetoric of submission, conformity to gender norms and resourceful influence within the constraints of patriarchy.
Bowler, notes, however, what access to power costs megaministry women within this evangelical framework. For most, the pressure to be thin and beautiful (and even blond) is clear, just in looking at them. What they can actually do is limited by gender – their ministries are to women only – and what they do must be couched in the language of submission.
I remember Dorothy Patterson talking about her role as (of all things!) a professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She explained that her teaching, speaking and writing were all a form of submission because that’s what her husband Paige (then president of the seminary) wanted her to do.
Beth Moore is a clear example of what can happen if one of the celebrity evangelical women steps, even in the slightest, outside the well-defined expectations that are part of this bargain for fame, power and influence.
Earlier this year, Moore sent out a tweet that suggested she was preaching. The backlash was swift. Moore had already upset conservatives when she spoke out against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. As Bowler points out, even some of Moore’s women fans deserted her: “Attendance at her events dropped, and some women swore they would never buy another of her Bible studies again.” A prominent conservative evangelical leader recently took another swing at Moore, declaring at a Southern Baptist conference that she should “Go home.”
Not surprisingly, while Moore has shown some willingness to challenge the men in charge, she mostly avoids direct confrontation or theological debate with them over women’s roles. This may well be because Moore’s convictions do actually align with theirs. More likely is that any overt rebellion against gender norms could very well cost Moore her audience of women who deeply believe in submission and need Moore to keep telling them that they’re doing God’s will in submitting to their husbands and pastors.
That’s the bargain of fame and influence for women leaders in the conservative evangelical arena. They may achieve notoriety and stadiums full of adoring fans, but the possibility of falling from grace always lurks around the edges of controversy over women’s roles (or any other theological discrepancy men in power may see in a woman’s work).
“While their lives are constrained within the language of submission, most of these women have developed a knack for getting what they want.”
I can appreciate that these women earn a small portion of power for themselves. They carve out more room to achieve what’s often reserved for evangelical preachers, pastors and authors – vast audiences, influence, wealth.
As a feminist, however, I have to ask, at what cost to other women do these evangelical luminaries attain their status? They achieve greater power than most evangelical women, but it’s still constrained by gender roles defined by evangelical men, and their ministries reinforce women’s subordinate status. In many ways, their power is actually built on the backs of other women they send back home to submit.
I don’t blame them for seeking greater power within the limited constraints of evangelical patriarchy, but I do question the notion of any kind of real sisterhood with the star-struck women whose lives are even more constrained by the very theology that fuels these evangelical women celebrities’ fame and influence.
“At what cost to other women do these evangelical luminaries attain their status?”
I imagine the women who go to the Bible studies, conferences and workshops led by these evangelical superstars do experience powerful positive emotions. I imagine they go home feeling better. I’m just not sure that helping women feel better about the bonds of their submission is a very good thing.
Unfortunately, as Bowler notes, liberal women may have attained access to ordained leadership positions in mainstream denominations, but they do not have the widespread influence of evangelical celebrities. Hordes of women are not lining up to hear progressive women’s messages of equality, resistance and transformation of unjust structures. And even access to ordination has not led to significant numbers of progressive women serving as senior pastors.
Ironically, Bowler ends the book with a story about Amy Butler, whom Bowler identifies as “one of the only solo women in megachurch leadership.” She tells the story of Butler putting on Henry Fosdick’s preaching robes. “I didn’t think they would fit,” Bowler quotes her as saying. “But wouldn’t you know. They did. Perfectly.”
While the book ends there, we now know that for Butler the story didn’t end happily. This summer she was forced out as senior pastor at New York’s famed Riverside Church after confrontations with a church council member who repeatedly harassed her and other female colleagues, her insistence on compensation comparable to her male predecessor, and the church council’s investigation of reports that Butler had inappropriately taken several staff and a church member to a sex-positive shop during an out-of-state trip to a conference. On the same day of her departure, two women on the senior ministry staff resigned. Controversy about the council’s decision continues.
For women, as Bowler observes, megaministry is fraught and fragile. In much of American Christianity, superstar women gain access to limited power on a narrowly circumscribed stage that is always subject to male approval and fidelity to the language of submission. At any moment, however, that stage and its attendant limited power can be taken away at the least hint of heresy, expectations for equality or challenge to the power of the men in charge.
Related BNG Opinion:
Alan Rudnick | Sister, don’t ‘go home’; go preach!