The Rise and Fall of Evangelical Influencers

By Katie Gaddini | March 15, 2022

(Getty Images/The Good Brigade)

In early 2021, social media influencer and pastor’s wife Caressa Prescott made the startling admission that she had just come out of rehab. Prescott told her followers on Instagram that her ongoing mental health struggles, including an eating disorder and substance abuse, had led her to seek help in a treatment facility for several weeks.

Prescott’s audience of nearly 50,000 followers received the news with equanimity. Many wished her well and applauded her bravery in coming forward with such a personal and vulnerable admission, especially as a prominent and public Christian woman. At the time, Prescott had a significant social media following due, in part, to her husband, Ben Prescott, the affable, somewhat goofy Australian pastor of Free Chapel Orange County in California. On top of that, her father, Jentezen Franklin, is a well-known televangelist who was one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers and serves as senior pastor of the multi-sited Free Chapel Church in Georgia. In evangelical Christianity the role of pastor’s wife (and to a lesser extent pastor’s daughter) carries its own authority and prominence.

A few months later, Prescott made another shocking revelation: She was divorcing Ben. Her followers reacted to this news less positively, as divorce is highly discouraged within evangelicalism and generally considered a valid option only in cases of infidelity and abuse. Since then, Prescott has deleted and restarted her Instagram account several times, a series of stop-starts that hint at her uncertainty around where she fits on the internet these days. Whereas her Instagram feed once featured photos of personal training sessions, Parisian shopping trips, and holidays with Ben at five-star resorts, her account is now very simple, understated, and mostly comprises photos of her children.

Prescott’s story of evangelical fame and destruction, played out through real-time photos, highlights the vicissitudes of social media—that one can be loved and then hated at lightning speed, that behind each perfected photo lie countless imperfections. It also reveals a curious shift in evangelical culture over the past five years, as believers now turn to digital media for religious engagement, potentially changing evangelicalism at its core and raising the question: What else are these women influencing?

Over four years of in-depth research, I learned about the many struggles and joys of being a single woman in evangelicalism today. I document these findings in my new book, The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church, which also includes everyday women’s reactions to Christian social media stars. Having grown up in the faith, I knew most of these gendered norms already, including the importance of modesty and purity, the unspoken codes of conduct around socializing and “accountability,” the value placed on heterosexual marriage and children. But I quickly realized that many aspects of evangelical womanhood had changed since my time. Although female-specific books, magazines, and Bible studies still flourish in evangelicalism, the advent of social media has changed the way that women live out their faith. Especially during the last two years when the pandemic has moved many churches online, devout Americans now practice their faith digitally. Evangelical influencers represent a new avenue of religious engagement for women. Although female evangelical influencers existed before the pandemic, the shift online means that they have gained even larger followings and become even more savvy with how they use social media.

Evangelical influencers share a few traits in common: Most are pastor’s wives or “co-pastors” with their husbands, they belong to evangelical churches, and many are charismatic evangelicals, meaning they believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and healings. Their posts fuse fashion with faith, a luxury lifestyle with Christian values of family. Kids feature often in their social media, and their identity as “mother” reigns supreme. They are beautiful, polished, and well-presented, like social media influencers everywhere, yet they also convey Christian messages; whether by quoting Scripture, thanking God for their blessings, or posting photos of themselves at church worship services.

Most importantly, as I have argued in the journal Religions, social media has afforded evangelical women a newfound authority. Only 3 percent of evangelical churches in the U.S. have a female senior or lead pastor, according to the latest National Congregations Study from Duke University. It’s an ongoing battle within evangelicalism that has re-emerged recently with author and teacher Beth Moore’s public rebuke of the Southern Baptist Convention. But even in the “co-pastoring” model, popular with many of evangelical influencers, it’s the male counterpart who holds the power. He’s the visible figurehead, the one who primarily preaches, who makes the decisions, and who leads the church. Social media presents a loophole, a backdoor through which evangelical women can gain authority on their own terms, while still respecting Biblical mandates of female submission. Through social media, women gain their own following, and exercise their voice, without violating church doctrine or usurping their husband’s position.

One such influencer is Holly Furtick. In her early forties, with light brown hair and an easy smile, Furtick maintains a significant online presence. She’s married to Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church, a megachurch with multiple campuses in North Carolina. In addition to her large Instagram following of almost half a million, Holly runs an online book club, hosts a YouTube channel with 60,000 subscribers, and creates Bible study guides for women, available for purchase on her website. Her website also features an index of her favorite recipes and a shop where customers can buy merchandise, such as grey joggers with Bible verses printed down the side.

Furtick’s devotion to her husband is a consistent theme across her digital media platforms. On Valentine’s Day, she posted a TikTok of them on Instagram, which included photos from holidays, selfies of tender embraces, and older pictures standing on-stage at church. “Love this life with you,” she wrote, adding a heart emoji.

Influencer DawnCheré Wilkerson’s Instagram feed looks similar. In one Instagram post, DawnCheré and her husband Rich Wilkerson are embracing in the ocean. DawnCheré wears a strapless white one-piece and Rich is shirtless in the waist-high water. She captioned the post with one simple word: “Us.”

A petite, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman originally from Louisiana, DawnCheré co-pastors Vous Church in Miami with her husband Rich. The Wilkersons achieved a new level of fame in 2014, when Rich officiated the wedding of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. A year later, they starred in their own reality TV show, Rich in Faith, which ran for one season. Now the Wilkersons have their own YouTube channel, called “Official Rich & DC,” where they post videos such as a dating advice special with celebrity couple Justin and Hailey Bieber. Like Caressa Prescott, Wilkerson also attained evangelical celebrity-status through her family: her father-in-law, Rich Sr., is the pastor of Trinity Church, a megachurch in Miami.

It’s no surprise that female evangelical influencers promote marriage and motherhood, given how highly valued heterosexual marriage remains within evangelical Christianity. Marriage forms the foundation of the family, which forms the cornerstone of the church, according to evangelical leaders, who often draw on Bible verses to re-enforce this point. In this sense, female evangelical influencers provide a visual accompaniment to a core evangelical value, which also proliferates through other forms of evangelical culture. These women serve as role models and visual examples of what it means to be a good Christian woman. At the same time, marriage and motherhood are key to achieving influencer status in the first place.

But that’s not all. In addition to exercising their authority on Christian values such as marriage, female evangelical influencers also influence politics.

A few weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Caressa Prescott, who had just had her son Luca, posted on Instagram: “There are things that are apart [sic] of the foundation of my faith that I can’t ignore. The sanctity of life … If this was the only reason why I have decided to vote it’s enough of a reason to me. I understand there are many other important issues facing our country today, but I choose to vote on the one most important to me … my precious innocent baby and his future, along with all future babies just like him.” She also referenced Psalm 139, which reads in part, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” and is one of the Bible verses often used by evangelicals who oppose abortion. Two and a half years later, in May 2019, Prescott posted a picture of herself with her mother, Cherise Franklin; Ivanka Trump; and Pastor Paula White-Cain, the former chairwoman of Trump’s evangelical advisory board—the same group where Prescott’s father Jentezen Franklin also served. Caressa Prescott wrote: “This administration is doing more than any other has in history to invest in women’s economic empowerment and the next generation. I am so honored to have had the opportunity and seat at the table.” The next day, Prescott uploaded a photo of herself standing alone in front of the White House in a brown dress and heels.

Prescott’s connections aren’t just evangelical; they are also political. In addition to her father serving as a Trump faith adviser, her brother Drake Franklin worked for Evangelicals for Trump and now works as a policy analyst for the America First Policy Institute, which boasts many staff members who worked for the Trump administration.

Prescott’s White House post received thousands of “likes,” some from other evangelical influencers, including Esther Houston. Originally from Brazil, Houston is a model living in New York City with husband Joel Houston, a singer songwriter with the Hillsong United band, and the son of Bobbie and Brian Houston, founders of Hillsong Church in Australia. Houston also posted her own White House photos in May 2019 during the Trump administration. In one, Esther stands inside an elegant room, wearing a floor-length red jumpsuit and black blazer. She gazes out of a window next to an oil painting of Thomas Jefferson. An American flag emoji and the words “Love you ‘merica” caption the post. Among the many comments she received, one follower wrote, “You seriously would be an incredible President!” Others wrote: “You got my vote,” “YOU for President!” and “Esther Houston 2024?” The conservative activist and Christian streetwear brand owner Erika Kirk, who has a large social media following of her own, liked all three photos in the series. “So much yes in this photo,” she wrote beneath one of them.

Here again evangelical influencers have found a loophole. Whereas pastors technically cannot campaign politically for a candidate from the pulpit due to churches’ tax-exempt status and IRS rules, female evangelical influencers, freed from the formalized authority of a senior leader, hold more freedom to communicate their political beliefs without violating norms that discourage mixing church with electoral politics.

Such loopholes have caused some scholars to wonder if digital media introduces a threat to male religious authority. Does the rise of female evangelical influencers challenge traditional authority structures within the faith? Just how much influence do these women have and could it sway politics on a larger scale? The analysis in my book shows that for now, the spheres where evangelical social media stars exert influence are limited; rather than disrupt the teachings of their fathers and husbands, their platforms buttress these messages, serving as examples of the ultimate Christian “help meet.” Even their political posts are covert rather than overt, and they accord with mainstream white evangelical political trends, such as opposing abortion and supporting Donald Trump.

But perfect comes at a price. The pressure heaped on pastors’ wives multiplies under the gaze of social media, and some influencers are starting to crack. In the aftermath of her visit to rehab, Caressa Prescott wrote on Instagram: “If I’m not perfect and I don’t have it all together then what right to [sic] I have to speak into someone else’s life, right? … No matter what is happening, our only option is to put the brave face on and get in the car and go to church and sit on the front [row] and have everyone else looking at you.” The last few words in her post are particularly interesting. They reveal the reality of being a pastor’s wife and pastor’s daughter, that everyone is always watching to see what you wear, what you say, how you move. The scrutiny can be unbearable, and yet it is part and parcel of these roles. As an influencer, the same dissecting gaze fixes on you, though at least social media affords more control of the narrative, of what can be seen. The pressure is the same, though, and as Prescott reminds us, there is a dark side to evangelical digital culture, the meeting place where Christian ideals and online voyerism collide.

Katie Gaddini is a sociologist and writer at University College London. She is the author of The Struggle to Stay: Why Single Evangelical Women are Leaving the Church.

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