This dissertation illuminates how sex scandal coverage has changed religion in the United States. Focused on Protestant ministers, the project traces the long history of American scandal—from silence to sensationalism. It investigates what cultural work scandal performed, what demands the public made of church bodies in response to revelations of pastoral misdeeds, and how religion itself changed in the process. At first hesitant to report on sex crimes in order to protect the reputations of Protestant ministers, U.S. newspapers embraced the genre of scandal in the 1870s, when the biggest celebrity pastor of the era stood trial for adultery. Scandal reporting escalated in the following decades, creating multiple publicity crises, the likes of which continue to plague churches to this day. Using the understudied intersection of scandal and religion, this project argues that scandal coverage allowed the press to compete with the pulpit as a source of moral authority, forced denominations to restructure, and emboldened sustained public scrutiny of religious piety.
This project makes several interventions in the fields of U.S. religion and sexuality. First, it uncovers the significant role of scandal as a motivator for change and restructuring within religious denominations and institutions. Second, whereas other studies have mostly focused on single instances of scandal’s reach, this dissertation traces long-term trajectories of pastoral sex scandal coverage, thereby presenting a more comprehensive picture of how scandal shaped American religion. Finally, whereas the bulk of recent scholarship has focused on inter-denominational debates about what counted as appropriate sexual behavior for clergy and adherents, this project positions the press and the reading public—armed with the details of ministerial missteps—as key interlocutors. Scandal coverage enabled public discussions of contentious subjects and created space for cultural negotiations of what counted as sexual morality outside of church walls and seminary halls.