February 2019

The Nation Reviewed

From Hillsong to the Bible Belt

By Elle Hardy
Christine Caine’s Australian brand of evangelism has found its flock in America

“It’s going to be a day of miracles here in Jackson, Mississippi,” an exuberant Australian voice whoops into the microphone. “We came here to do business. This is not your grandmother’s church conference – we’re gonna kick some arse today!”

This rockstar cry is emanating from Christine Caine, a diminutive 52-year-old star of America’s evangelical circuit. Caine and her “girlfriends”– nine speakers and singers – are entertaining a crowd of 3000 at Propel Women Activate, Caine’s female empowerment extravaganza that sells out theatres and megachurches across the country.

Caine is a prodigy of Sydney’s Hillsong Church, which counts pop singer Justin Bieber among its international worshipers. She rose through the ranks as a youth leader before branching out on her own, and remains close to founders Brian and Bobbie Houston. Though Caine still regularly preaches with the Houstons, she has swapped Western Sydney for a beachside community south of Los Angeles, where she lives with her fellow Hillsong member husband, Nick, and their two daughters.

“Immaculate conception is a bit cray-cray,” she continues in her thick Greek-Australian accent. “But conservative, orthodox Christians – of which I am one – believe in it.”

Mississippi is a long way from the Lalor Park housing commission complex where Caine was brought up, and the auditorium in the whitest white-flight suburb of the blackest state in the union is heaving with identical-looking women. Caine knows her audience, leading – through waves of laughter – a prayer for Jesus to “bind our bladders” so we won’t need to take a bathroom break. These women are here to feel God – and feel good.

“It’s her realness,” says 40-year-old attendee Renee Mason of Caine’s appeal. “A lot of people are gravitating to leaders who are real and transparent, who don’t make their lives seem so much better even though they’re at the top with God.”

Wearing a simple, all-black ensemble, Caine is nothing like the coiffured prosperity theologians of the past. She emphasises the rough edges of her accent, while her social media channels sandwich posts about the Good Book between dating advice and tips to avoid burnout. If your grandmother wouldn’t recognise her style, she probably wouldn’t recognise her charismatic Christian beliefs, either. In their nebulous glow, they are closer to self-help pseudoscience than to St Augustine: good things will come to you if only you believe.

And one only needs look at Hillsong’s rise in the United States in recent years to see the power of self-belief. “The main reason they have been so successful is because of their music,” says Richard Flory, senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

“Whether it was marketing genius or just having good bands, the majority of evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal churches in the United States play Hillsong.”

Flory believes that Hillsong’s – and Caine’s – style of entertainment has broken through to become the next incarnation of a megachurch, which came to prominence in the Bible Belt during the 1970s and ’80s.

“If megachurches were a low bar to entry into the Christian scene, then Hillsong has lowered it even further,” he adds. “This is what capitalism does to religion, it becomes just one other thing vying for your time. They’re all about the experience and the show that is put on – you feel good when you leave, and that’s about it.”

Well, there’s a little more to it than that. For the bladders that didn’t receive Jesus’s blessing, venturing outside the auditorium shows that it’s not only what’s on the inside that counts. A row of merchandise stands sell Caine’s books (Undaunted, Unstoppable, Unashamed, Unshakeable), several branded clothing lines, and invitations to form Propel Women chapters – a kind of spiritual Tupperware party for God-fearing gals.

The chapter curriculum isn’t free, and alongside the price of admission for the show, which ranges from US$50 to $100, it’s a significant earner. Tax documents in the US show that Propel Women’s parent company, Equip and Empower Ministries, led by Caine’s husband, made US$1.9 million last financial year. Similarly, the Caines’ anti–human trafficking organisation, The A21 Campaign, with 14 offices across four continents, brought in US$3.5 million in the US and $1.6 million in Australia. The family of Vice President Mike Pence are supporters of the charity, donating a portion of the sales from a series of children’s books written by Pence’s wife and daughter.

Such moral entrepreneurship does raise some issues. A21 is part of a trend in the US of not-for-profits that claim to target modern slavery – although they almost exclusively focus on “rescuing” women from working in the sex industry, as opposed to forced labour practices.

Caine’s people withdrew their participation in this profile, citing “legal reasons”. Tanya Levin, who wrote the book People in Glass Houses about her time in the Hillsong Church, suspects that Caine’s involvement with the Hillsong-affiliated Mercy Ministries – which was shut down amid allegations of widespread abuse of vulnerable young people – has made her extremely wary of scrutiny.

“From what I can see, A21 is about regurgitating their brand, and giving her things that she can tweet about. We have little idea who ‘the victims’ are, and whether the staff have appropriate training to deal with traumatised people.”

Levin knew Caine as a teenager, when they were both members of the Church, and sees her as a canny operator. “Christine is the cleverest out of all the Hillsong alumni, and has endless energy,” she says. “She saw a gap in the market: no one else was catering to intelligent, successful evangelical women.”

While the Caines call themselves “abolitionists”, there is little available information on the organisation beyond its awareness and fundraising activities. “It’s framed as human trafficking, but it’s really about the sex trade. That fits with the larger evangelical history of concern about sexual ethics – and in their minds, they can take some action on it,” Richard Flory says.

Claiming authority in the spiritual realm for money and power in the material world is a trick as old as God himself. And with the advent of feminine Christianity, Christine Caine is proof that the evangelical movement will sooner change its face than give up its power.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at www.ellehardy.com


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