Opinion | Influencers Are the New Televangelists

On Instagram, I follow 700 people, mostly women. One hundred of those women follow Glennon Doyle, whose memoir “Untamed” has been on the Times best-seller list for 51 weeks.

Fans of Ms. Doyle’s gospel, an accessible combination of self-care, activism and tongue-in-cheek Christianity (“Jesus loves me, this I know, for he gave me Lexapro”), can worship at any time of day or night at the electric church of her Instagram feed. By replacing the rigid dogma of religion with the confessional lingua franca of social media, Ms. Doyle has become a charismatic preacher for women — like me — who aren’t even religious.

Twenty-two percent of millennials are not affiliated with a specific religion. We are known as religious “nones.” The Pew Research Center found that the number of nones in the population as a whole increased nine percentage points from 2009 to 2019. The main reasons that nones are unaffiliated are that they question religious teachings, or they don’t like the church’s stance on social issues.

But are we truly nonreligious, or are our belief systems too bespoke to appear on a list of major religions in a Pew phone survey?

Many millennials who have turned their backs on religious tradition because it isn’t diverse, or inclusive enough, have found alternative scripture online. Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology and Dolly Parton.

And we’ve found a different kind of clergy: personal growth influencers. Women like Ms. Doyle, who offer nones like us permission, validation and community on-demand at a time when it’s nearly impossible to share communion in person. We don’t even have to put down our phones.

In February Ms. Doyle posted a virtual sermon to her followers on Instagram, encouraging them to “embrace quitting as a spiritual practice.” More than 100,000 members of her congregation liked it. Followers responded with prayer hands emojis, “God bless yous,” and one “Hallelujah, sister.”

I spoke to Kimberly Ciano, a 31-year-old health practitioner on Long Island who found Glennon Doyle via her “discovery” feed. Ms. Ciano has followed a spiritual path that may sound familiar to other nones: She grew up Roman Catholic, but became alienated from her faith by what she saw as the church’s hypocrisy. In her 20s, she studied yoga and Eastern philosophy. During a year when she lost a job, a 10-year relationship, and her grandmother, the message she absorbed from Ms. Doyle helped sustain her: “It’s OK to not be OK.”

Ms. Doyle and other quasi-spiritual influencers are the latest iteration of an American institution that has been around since the second half of the 20th century: the televangelist.

These women are Instavangelists. Our screens may have shrunk, but we’re still drawn to spiritual counsel, especially when it doubles as entertainment.

The original televangelist, Oral Roberts, began television broadcasts of his services in 1954. Millions of Americans were captivated by his dramatic onscreen healings and his message that positive thinking (and donations to his ministry) would lead to prosperity. Instavangelists like Gabrielle Bernstein (916,000 followers on Instagram) have rebranded the prosperity gospel as manifesting abundance, and she, Ms. Doyle (1.5 million followers), Brené Brown (3.3 million followers), and Gwyneth Paltrow (7.5 million followers) have become the neo-religious leaders of our era.

These women look and sound radically different from conservative evangelical male televangelists like Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen. And while they don’t brand themselves as faith leaders, this is the role they play in many of their secular fans’ lives. The size of their devoted, ecstatic, largely female following shows how many American women are desperate for good vibes, coping skills for modern life, and proactive steps to combat injustice and inequality.

During the years of the Trump administration, I watched two movements collide: an extremely online mode of social justice activism and the rebranding of diet and beauty culture as wellness and “self care.”

I was once one of those millennials who made politics her religion; I lasted three years as a feminist activist and organizer before I burned out in 2017. That’s when I began noticing how many wellness products and programs were marketed to women in pain, and how the social media industry relies on keeping us outraged and engaged. It’s no wonder we’re seeking relief.

I have survived the pandemic (so far) by performing the role of tough cookie and shielding myself with cynicism. The only times I’ve cried have been when religion has punctured the bubble I live in. I cried when the Rev. Raphael Warnock spoke at John Lewis’s funeral. I cried when Garth Brooks sang “Amazing Grace” a cappella at the Biden inauguration.

transcript

Garth Brooks Performs ‘Amazing Grace’ at Inauguration

Following President Biden’s inaugural speech that called for unity, Garth Brooks sang “Amazing Grace,” asking the audience, both in attendance and watching on television, to join him for the final verse.

Amazing grace, how sweet The sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, Was blind, but now I see. When we’ve been there, 10,000 years Bright shining as the sun We’ve no less days To sing God’s praise Than when we first become. I’m going to ask you to sing this last verse with me, not just the people here, but the people at home, at work as one united. Amazing grace, How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but Now I’m found, was blind, But now I see.

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based around us thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.

My mom is an influencer in the old-school sense — at 72, she still works full-time as a psychotherapist, she’s a lay minister at her church, and she fills her free time with volunteer work. Her sermons are a combination of therapeutic tips, references to current events, and lessons from scripture about having compassion for the other even during times of intense polarization.

I told her that I find myself craving role models my age who are not only righteous crusaders, but also humble and merciful, and that I’m not finding them where I live (online). Referring to the influencers who have filled the void religious faith has left for people like me, she said, “They might inspire you to live your best life but not make the best use of your life.”

I thought of Ms. Ciano, who has been following Ms. Doyle for solace during this dark period. Even though Ms. Ciano doesn’t see Ms. Doyle as a neo-religious leader, I was struck by the vulnerable comment she left on one of Ms. Doyle’s Instagram posts in which she unloaded the litany of hardships she’d experienced last year. I noticed it went unanswered. A confession without a confessor.

There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can possibly provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

Leigh Stein is the author, most recently, of the novel “Self Care,” a satire of the wellness industry and influencer culture.

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