One of the upsides of paying $19 a month for the Wall Street Journal is that you sometimes find real gems on the religion beat. Like there’s this piece by their Vatican correspondent on growing pressure from secular authorities to force Catholic priests to report evidence of child sex abuse heard in the confessional.
Then there’s this piece about the Catholic Archdiocese of New York suing its insurers, which are making noises about not paying out claims by people who said they were sexually abused by priests sometime in the past 50 or years.
Oddly, none of the above are by the paper’s national religion reporter, Ian Lovett, whose output seems rather low compared to most other national religion reporters. Why Lovett isn’t breaking stories on the beat is the topic for another day but let’s say that the most interesting material in the pages of the Journal is written by folks on other beats.
One of these is a howler of a piece that I knew I had to write up — a cute little number on “sneakerhead pastors” that I somehow missed when it came out in April. Yes, this is a deep trip into my “GetReligion guilt file.”
Written by Jacob Gallagher, the men’s fashion editor, it’s a comic look at how some of America’s hipper megachurch pastors are spending thousands of dollars for their footwear.
MID-LAST MONTH, an Instagram account was launched to catalog a very particular sort of modern style icon: the preacher sneakerhead. @PreachersNSneakers, which is run anonymously, documents the trendy and extravagant footwear choices of popular, social-media-savvy church figures. So far, it has featured photos of megachurch pastors like Relentless Church’s John Gray (wearing long-sold-out Nike Air Yeezy 2s that resale for $5,611 on the website StockX, as @PreachersNSneakers points out), Hillsong’s Nathan Finochio (new Gucci slides that retail for $1,100) and Zoe Church’s Chad Veach (Saint Laurent Jodhpur boots with a sticker price of $1,045). The account has also caused quite a stir, racking up over 123,000 followers and thousands of comments in its short existence. Click on any photo and you’ll find a string of fervid comments debating whether or not it’s OK for pastors to flaunt their conspicuous consumption as they preach the word of God.
Now the clothes worn by these pastors often look pretty commonplace and extremely understated. But please look at those shoes!
Since the dawn of televangelists in the mid-20th century, preachers like Joel Osteen, Billy Graham and T.D. Jakes have profitably leveraged their brands, acquiring private jets, slick suits and football-field-sized megachurches. Today, fresh-faced pastors like Rich Wilkerson Jr., Levi Lusko and Judah Smith are primarily spreading their gospel through YouTube, Instagram and Twitter , where some have hundreds of thousands of followers. With their designer clothes, precisely parted hipster haircuts, and plain-spoken way of preaching (often with a SoCal surfer drawl), they have become pop-spiritual superstars—with celebrity followers.
It was strange to include Graham in that megachurch set.
But you can see the larger point. The article wonders out loud how much materialism is too much materialism for men of the cloth. The Journal has written disparagingly about hipster pastors before, by the way, and why young evangelical reject churches that try to be cool.
Well, maybe some young evangelicals reject them. But lots of others embrace this stuff.
While Joel Osteen preached in navy suits and striped ties, this newer breed of hip pastors are donning ripped jeans along with their valuable sneakers. With the internet at one’s disposal, it is easy to ID those shoes and track their value on resale markets like StockX, as whoever’s behind @PreachersNSneakers does, often insetting screenshots from StockX in the posts. The StockX value of Pastor Mike Todd’s Off-White Jordans? $3,036. Though it is, of course, possible that Mr. Todd (and other preachers) were fortunate enough to get these ultra-rare sneakers at their far more affordable retail price, or even receive them as deductible gifts from congregants.
Hmmm. I somehow doubt someone is gifting these guys with sneakers. Jets, maybe. But the bigger issue here is how these pastors go overboard in trying to be hip, countercultural, cool and relevant. And they apparently have got the budget to at least dress the part.
The reporter made 14 attempts at interviewing various preachers for this piece with no success. So we don’t know why these guys are flaunting their shoe wear.
Some followers of @PreachersNSneakers see the pastor’s over-the-top sneakers as a reflection of the “prosperity gospel” many evangelists preach. As Eric Blythe, 31, the music director at a church in West Palm Beach, Fla., explained, “It’s basically the idea that if you’re obedient and you do all the right things you’re supposed to do and you tithe your money [give 10% of your annual earnings to the church], then God’s going to financially bless you. So when I see somebody wearing a $6,000 pair of sneakers, I would say that’s pretty on point with what I hear coming from the pulpit.”
How this squares with a religion whose founder never wore more than a pair of sandals isn’t really talked about in this piece, although it does end with a quote about expensive sneakers sending the wrong message when the preacher is all about self denial or sacrificial living. Then again, I’m not sure most of the preachers wearing these shoes really talk about belt tightening.
Next up? Shoes worn by female pastors or female televangelists. I wrote about Paula White’s black patent leather Christian Louboutin stilettos in my Washington Post profile on her two years ago and those were just a sample of her colorful footwear.
“I know I wear nice stuff,” she told me, “but I am the biggest bargain shopper. Jon picks out all my clothes,” referring to her husband Jonathan Cain, who was sitting nearby. He admitted he wanted her to look more like a “rock star wife,” as her wardrobe was mainly full of black dresses when he married her.
“Vibrant colors are urgent messages,” he said. “You attract attention with color. You get to be a cliché in black dresses.” So there’s got to be some great stories out there about the shoes the women are wearing.
But not just any women’s fashion writer will do. The writer of the sneakerhead pastors piece clearly knew who a lot of these pastors are, what churches they pastor and what kind of branding they’re trying to leverage. That article was crafted by someone who knows that religion terrain.
Then again, we need an Instagram that follows the women before the Journal can write about it with just the right dose of sarcasm. Any takers out there? And once again, here’s the link to that sneakerhead pastors Instagram page. Enjoy.
FIRST IMAGE: From the Relevant guide to sneaker theology.