The first time viewers of ABC's hit drama Scandal see Olivia Pope go to church, she's there to oversee the success of a "fix" she negotiated for the wife of a prominent pastor who died on top of his mistress. Pope spends much of the episode counseling and empathizing with the mistress, while the long-suffering wife—still reeling from the depth of her husband's betrayal—has to accept both his lover and her secret child.
The second time we see Olivia in a pew, she's mourning the loss of a corrupt mentor her own married lover murdered. She's also there to hook up with that lover of hers—until she discovers that he knows she's betrayed him. Then, she's there to seek forgiveness—not from God, but from her man, President Fitzgerald Grant.
In short: Olivia Pope uses church for surprising reasons. Perhaps the same could be said for how the church uses her. Since Scandal's debut (its second-season finale airs Thursday night), its rapidly growing audience has taken to Twitter to live-tweet the series along with its stars. Pastors are capitalizing on the series' success by live-tweeting with the rest of the viewership, and even crafting sermons and conferences around the show and its protagonist.
It's a familiar technique. Churches, to remain engaged with popular culture, have been name-checking television shows, films, and pop songs for ages. The more risqué or controversial the media, the more rousing the congregational response. For better or worse, scandal—in all its varied forms—grabs attention.
But it can be tricky to pull off this tactic for connecting with congregants, and some ways of going about it can be more helpful—or hurtful—to churchgoers than others.
Dr. Tejado W. Hanchell, Senior Pastor of Mount Calvary Holy Church of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is one of many ministers to use Scandal as an object lesson. In the May 2 episode, "A Woman Scorned," Olivia growls the instant-classic line, "You want me? Earn me!" to Fitz. In response, Dr. Hanchell used the hashtag #DearSingleSister to dispense a bit of admonition to any women who may have been looking to Olivia as a relationship role model. "#DearSingleSister," he wrote, "A married man can't 'earn you.' His assets are tied up in another investment." Other advice from that week includes: "#DearSingleSister, you can get free from your 'Fitz' but you can't do it alone. Seek help." And then there's this observation: "Fitz is acting like those pastors who lose their church over a side piece."
For faith leaders who use the show primarily to address the perils and fallout of adultery, useful commentary seems limited. Lessons along these lines assume that there's a great need for addressing extramarital affairs in church—and there very well may be. But these quips also place the bulk of blame on Olivia Pope. She—and by extension, the female contingent of a church's Scandal-viewing audience—become whipping girls for the Purity Police. The message is: Don't end up like Olivia Pope, the mistress who will most assuredly received her well-deserved comeuppance. And, apparently: Don't be a "side piece" who causes a pastor to lose his church. Beyond that, there isn't much of a faith message to be gained.