The Place of Popular Religion in Studies of Popular Culture: The Career of Aimee Semple McPherson as a Brief Test Case

Mark Hulsether (The University of Tennessee)

What is the place of popular religion in studies of popular culture? More pointedly, what is the place of hegemonic white popular religion within the sort of popular culture studies valorized in the American Studies movement? A not-so-brief essay could go deep into the weeds, debating definitions (“popular,” “religious,” and “secular”) in play and methods to analyze them.[1] Here I simply take up a smallish case study that is interesting for thinking about this matter.

In 2015 the cultural studies listserv [CULTSTUD-L] disseminated a call for contributors to an anthology on “women’s rights (broadly defined) in the U.S.A.” and representations of women’s equality in “various manifestations of popular culture.” It listed topics that in most cases had no direct relation to self-conscious religion, notwithstanding exceptions like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the film Persepolis, and Lauryn Hill’s music. However, since I have written a book that includes biographical and thematic sketches in this ballpark, I checked to see if something I had researched —perhaps a person like Jane Addams or an issue like LGBTQ ordination—could be reworked for a contribution.[2]

It turned out that the most promising (or least unpromising) candidate to surface was Aimee Semple McPherson, the preacher, entertainer, broadcaster, and empire builder based in Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s. With minimal effort I sent the editors a rough version of some of the paragraphs below and inquired whether they wanted me to polish a version for them. It is easy to understand why McPherson did not make their cut, since what made this idea interesting in the first place was its nature as a slightly counterintuitive borderline case. Still this episode raises a question worth pursuing. How should we decide where the borders fall when building anthologies or syllabi in light of implicit quasi-canons, background definitions, and approaches to religion that inform our judgments?

Whether McPherson really belongs in a book on women’s rights in popular culture depends on how we judge the importance of popular religion within “popular culture” and the importance within “women’s rights” of women’s prerogative to preach on an equal basis with men. Insofar as these are significant, then so is McPherson, who was innovative in building institutions of religious broadcasting (she worked before televangelism in radio and as a Hollywood celebrity) and what we would today call megachurches.[3] She was among the nation’s leading preachers in an era when few women were ministers, one of the top US religious leaders of the past century, and (alongside Dorothy Day) possibly the most influential of these who was female.

McPherson’s significance hinges on the importance of contestation internal to evangelicalism. Scholars have long established, although not consistently remembered, that liberal Christians like Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Frances Willard (leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union) were integral to first wave feminism—not its most radical parts, but among the most influential.[4] Leaders shaped by liberal Christianity and secularized Jewish tradition also contributed strongly to second wave feminisms and movements for LGBTQ rights.[5] The still incomplete embrace of moderate feminism and LGBTQ inclusion by a growing minority of evangelicals extends this story; for example, the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage is hard to imagine without support from a wide spectrum of mainstream Christians.[6]

Everyone knows that evangelicals are often anti-feminist.[7] This is all the more reason to consider McPherson’s legacies, since it was in the belly of the beast (approached from a feminist perspective) where she made her mark. She appealed to a direct calling from God as warrant, first to divorce her husband and travel unescorted as a revivalist, and eventually to build Angelus Temple in downtown Los Angeles and an entire denomination that grew from it. We can easily place her within a long-term movement toward women’s ordination, picking up speed after 1950 and becoming pronounced by the 1970s. Despite holdouts and continuing glass ceilings, today female clergy are approaching parity with men in mainline Protestantism and there is strong support for women’s leadership in grassroots Catholicism.[8] McPherson also helped create the conditions of possibility for religious celebrities like Tammy Faye Bakker, who although entangled with the prosperity gospel also became a champion for LGBTQ rights at least by (admittedly low) evangelical standards.

It bears emphasis that much of McPherson’s leadership was neutral, even inimical, with respect to women’s rights. Much was simple empire building in a tradition that overtly preaches gender neutrality or complementarity, but with anti-feminist practical effects—leading more toward conservatism than evangelical feminism. McPherson’s theatrical “illustrated sermons,” although exceedingly interesting for how they introduced a strong female voice into Pentecostal preaching, sometimes read as publicity stunts with stereotypical content. Also easy to discount as a stunt (although in those terms a huge phenomenon, garnering more news coverage than the Scopes Monkey Trial) was the media frenzy that ensued when she claimed to be kidnapped and suffer Christ-like persecution at the hands of Mexican gangsters—although evidence pointed to an extramarital tryst with an employee. Still, the internal tensions of such phenomenon are noteworthy, and she set precedents for female religious presence in popular media. Her career is a classic case of how evangelicalism is contested around gender, carrying potential for empowerment and self-expression despite awkward baggage.

If we undertook a less brief analysis, widening our frame to how popular Christianity relates to multiple issues, the fascination of McPherson holds steady. She was important in shaping expressions of Pentecostal populism, making alliances with Los Angeles elites during its boom years and with right-wing populists—including the Ku Klux Klan—in mobilizations against the left. Here again, the majority trajectory of Pentecostalism is disturbing in any feminist or intersectional framework. She helped create a tradition of California-based religious populism that brought people like Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, and Tim and Beverly LaHaye to power.[9] For American Studies canons, this is a case of “bad guys” triumphing in debates about religion and society. (That would not disqualify her from all anthologies!)

Importantly, religious populism does not always lead rightward, although sometimes this has been a path of least resistance. Pre-1945 evangelical “otherworldliness” could carry complex counter-hegemonic meanings.[10] Later, McPherson’s tradition of blending popular culture and revivalism set the stage for 1970s evangelical hippies who at times were a seedbed for Reaganism, but also (equally important) for an evangelical left that protested US militarism and helped to elect Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.[11] It is fascinating to relate McPherson’s legacy to studies of working-class Christianity and to explore her comparisons and contrasts—both to Charles Coughlin and William Jennings Bryan, both to conservative televangelists like Joyce Mercer and pro-LGBTQ discourses of Tammy Faye Bakker and her outspoken son, Jay Bakker.[12] During the 2016 Presidential campaign, when evangelicals informed by these legacies debated the populisms of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it was far from clear which direction their religious sensibilities would push them.

Although McPherson—like others in her networks and traditions—does not make the cut for every list created for any scholarly purpose, she dramatizes my major point. Contestation over popular religion in general, and in this case Pentecostalism in particular, warrants more and better treatment in American Studies: more attention to underappreciated innovators and better comparative analyses, framed by approaches to the “religious” and “popular” that focus on the dynamism and differences internal to religious communities.


1. I broach these questions in “Religion and Culture,” in Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, ed. John Hinnells (New York: Routledge, 2005), 489-508, and “Music,” in Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture, ed. John Lyden and Eric Mazur (New York: Routledge, 2015), 115-137—and refer readers to the extensive bibliography cited there. For lucid reflections on religion and secularity in American Studies, see essays by Janet Jakobsen and Michael Warner in Keywords for American Cultural Studies ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler (New York: New York UP, 2007), 200-204 and 209-212.

2. Mark Hulsether, Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (New York: Columbia UP, 2007).

3. On McPherson and her career, see Matthew Avery Sutton, Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007) and Edith Blumhofer, Aimee Semple McPherson: Everybody’s Sister (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993). To place her in wider contexts see Margaret Bendroth and Virginia Brereton, eds., Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002); C. Allyn Russell, Voices of American Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976); and Rosemary Ruether and Rosemary Skinner Keller, eds., In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writing (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995).

4. Ann Braude, Women and American Religion (New York: Oxford UP, 2000); Susan Juster and Lisa McFarland, eds., A Mighty Baptism: Race, Gender, and the Creation of American Protestantism (Ithaca: Cornel UP, 1996); ); Barbara Leslie Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth Century America (Middleton: Wesleyan UP, 1981. See also articles by Braude and Ann Taves in Thomas Tweed, ed., Retelling US Religious History (Berkeley: U of California P, 1996).

5. Braude, ed., Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: Women Who Changed American Religion (Palgrave McMillan, 2004); Sara Evans, Journeys That Opened Up the World: Women, Student Christian Movements, and Social Justice, 1955-1975 (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2003); Heather White, Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2015). David Hollinger argues that a high percentage of leaders of 1960s/1970s feminism were Jewish; he notes how much less this has been appreciated compared, for example, to the Christian influence in the civil rights movement in the same era. See his “Communalist and Dispersionist Approaches to American Jewish History in an Increasingly Post-Jewish Era,” in After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Studies in Protestant Liberalism and American History (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2013), 138-169, 144-146.

6. This was a tipping point in a long-term recalibration by evangelicals, first on anti-feminist fronts (where they have backpedaled on divorce and women’s place in the home for years) and later on LGBTQ issues. See Sally Gallagher, Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2003); R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley: U of California P, 2000; Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2004), 114-142; Judith Stacey and Susan Elizabeth Gerard, "'We Are Not Doormats': the Influence of Feminism on Contemporary Evangelicals in the United States" in Uncertain Terms: Negotiating Gender in American Culture ed. Faye Ginsburg and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990), 98-117.

7. Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990); Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (New York: Guilford Press, 1995); Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (New Haven: Yale UP, 1993). Gender contestation has been longstanding: see Nancy Hardesty, Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, 2nd edition (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1999).

8. For summary data see Braude, Women and American Religion, 86, 96, and 116.

9. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: Norton, 2010).

10. Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: an American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995); Ken Fones-Wolf, et. al., Roundtable on Class in the Study of Southern Religion,” Journal of Southern Religion 13 (2011):; Doug Rossinow, Visions of Progress: the Left-Liberal Tradition in America (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2008); Heath Carter, Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago (Oxford UP, 2015).

11. Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2014); Brian Steensland and Philip Goff, eds., The New Evangelical Social Engagement (New York: Oxford UP, 2014); Shawn David Young, Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock (New York: Columbia UP, 2015)

12. In addition to books already cited, see Donald Miller, Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium (Berkeley: U of California P,1997) and Lauren Sandler, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement (New York: Penguin, 2007).

Quarterly Horse 3 (2019),