Harvard Professor Marla Frederick visited Brandeis on Tuesday, Nov. 10 to present her research on televangelists and the help they provide to women who have experienced sexual trauma.
Her research focuses on how American religious leaders speaking on television
affect women in a Kingston, Jamaica community. Televangelists are evangelical preachers who speak on television to offer spiritual guidance and ask for money from their audience to promote charitable causes.
Frederick, a professor of African American studies and religion, decided to investigate this topic in the early 2000s when she was interviewing a community of African American women in eastern North Carolina. When she asked the women about their church experiences and the work their churches were doing in the community, many of them spoke about the televangelists they watched. It was at this point that she realized she needed to pursue televangelism.
“When I did begin to follow up, I started to just watch the televangelists and try to figure out where they were most popular,” Frederick said. “There was a tremendous presence of American-based televangelists in the Caribbean in particular, so I decided to do my field research in Jamaica.”
Frederick’s work led her to American female televangelists like Joyce Meyer, Dr. Juanita Bynum and Paula White; women who “have gained tremendous national and international followings based on sharing their experiences of sexual trauma and redemption,” Frederick shared.
All these televangelists have experienced some sort of past sexual trauma, and they speak candidly about their individual stories and how they have used their pain to make themselves better people, according to Frederick. They “offer gospels of sexual redemption to their audiences through their narratives of transformation after experiences of both sexual abuse and sexual indulgence,” Frederick said. She believes the women watching them find solace because they feel they can relate.
Frederick recounted the story of one woman she met during her research in Jamaica, Valencia, who shared how televangelism had helped her overcome her feelings of shame, guilt and self-hatred after she had been raped at gunpoint three times.
“This shattered me, and I hated myself. I hated everything about me, and I hated everybody,” Valencia admitted. “I thought I was guilty, and I lived with that for years … Even being a Christian there was still hurt, and I never knew how to deal with it.”
Valencia watched Bynum on television as she recounted her personal struggles.
“The strength along with the erasing of shame Valencia distilled from Bynum’s tale of personal struggle and eventual triumph was precisely what Valencia needed in order to move from a place of self-hatred,” said Frederick.
Televangelists like Bynum do not only offer the opportunity for women like Valencia to heal, however. Frederick explained they appeal to women because they help them find solace in turmoil and provide affirmation for each woman’s spiritual journey, whether she is single or married and challenges the church’s silence on matters of sexuality.
“Televangelists, it seems, bare their souls, helping people to navigate these new terrains by narrating their own landmine experiences,” said Frederick. Women appreciate someone who “identifies with them and traverses alongside them as they find their way through the shifting realities of sex.”