Why Is TikTok Turning a Hateful Radical Evangelist into a Viral Star?
Ironic “fans” on TikTok laugh at Sister Cindy’s poisonous message targeting rape survivors and the LGBTQ community. But she and others like her only profit from the attention.
Usually, when a crowd forms on a college campus, students can expect to find a protest or performance at its center. But every so often, they will be bombarded instead by sign-toting radical evangelists who promise eternal damnation for “porno freaks,” “fornicators,” “non-Christians,” “feminists,” “masturbators,” and “baby killers.” While a rotating cast of characters have taken up the mantle of preaching to America’s college students, none are more infamous or persistent than Campus Ministry USA, an organization headed by Brother Jed Smock and his wife, Sister Cindy.
Many current and former American college students have unwillingly become familiar with the evangelical stylings of Brother Jed and Sister Cindy. The Smocks, sometimes accompanied by their five daughters and other open-air preachers, roam the country, attempting to proselytize students to abandon their lives of sin. They have gained notoriety for their intentionally aggressive and inflammatory style of preaching in which they attempt to draw a crowd by getting a rise out of students.
The Smocks’ presence on campuses has always garnered attention, as students are equally horrified and entertained by their sensationalized sermons. But thanks to social media and the deep irony of stan culture, their religious zealotry has gained a much larger audience than they could ever achieve on foot. Now, as Sister Cindy has amassed nearly 320,000 TikTok followers, a Cameo account, and a merch store, the joke is growing not only stale, but poisonous.
Though Brother Jed may be the ringleader, Sister Cindy is undoubtedly the star of the family’s traveling circus. Her grotesque descriptions of sexual acts and other “sinful” behaviors (notably one recurring fable about the dangers of taking college women to a Mexican restaurant) have turned her into a meme both on campuses and the internet. On TikTok, the hashtag #SisterCindy has amassed over 178.9 million views and scores of videos raking in millions of likes.
It was really only a matter of time before Sister Cindy reached internet virality. She carries a sign that demands, “Stop the war on anuses,” and has adopted the catchphrase, “Be a ho no mo.” She exudes youth pastor energy but sprinkles in her own personal brand of Bible-thumping theatricality that makes it nearly impossible to believe that she isn’t carrying out an extreme act of satire.
But Sister Cindy’s zealotry comes at the expense of students. Many of her sermons paint women as harbingers of their own doom and deserving of sexual and gender-based violence. “You are an accessory to the crime,” she told one student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, referring to rape. “You are causing people—boys—to get their passions stirred up.”
Students are rightfully concerned that Sister Cindy’s victim-blaming and slut-shaming rhetoric may be harmful to survivors of sexual violence, who comprise around 26.4 percent of undergraduate women, according to the anti-sexual violence organization RAINN. “The first thing I think of is a sexual assault survivor, because Sister Cindy’s main thing is that because of what you wear and what you act like, you’re going to burn in hell and you deserve whatever happens to you,” says Sara, a college student from Indiana. “I can’t imagine being a student who survived that and then seeing all of my peers sit down and listen and absorb that kind of message.”
Sister Cindy’s preachings also demonize members of the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to her homophobic rants, she also singles out individuals for appearing to be gay. “Are you a homo? You kinda act a little effeminate there,” she inquired of a passerby in one video. Though she claims to love the LGBTQ+ community (“but not in a gay way”), her actions are clearly contrary. There is an entire section of her family’s website devoted to “Homosexual Acts and Sodomy” which includes horrific scare tactics, such as the supposed “medical consequences'' of homosexuality. When asked by one TikTok user about her feelings on gay people, she said, “Well if you’re gay, you need Sister Cindy to help you pray the gay away.”
Yet Sister Cindy has become something of a “gay icon,” according to TikTok and Twitter users. One video, captioned “SISTER CINDY IS A GAY ICON,” raked in comments such as, “I don’t think she’s completely aware of how much of an ICON she is,” and “The only homophobe I like.” One Twitter user wrote, “I’m so obsessed with the campus preacher lady who became a gay icon.”
Frey Miller, a student at Texas A&M University, and a leader of one of the university’s queer organizations, says they are disturbed that a known homophobe is being ironically viewed as a “gay icon.”
“When people say Sister Cindy is an icon, they’re confusing the solidarity with our own communities with Sister Cindy’s discrimination triggering that solidarity,” Miller (who uses he/they pronouns) says. “Because when radical evangelists come to campus, people do come out to protest and show that [queer] people do have a space on this campus.”
It is clear Sister Cindy has gained online popularity for the same reason she has in person: entertainment value. “A lot of students have talked about how it’s just a fun and lighthearted thing that happens and how they sort of view [the visits] as entertainment, because no one really takes them seriously,” Miller says. “But in my personal experience, as a leader of student organizations for queer people, it is very disconcerting because people do actually feel a lot of fear and actually do feel a lot of discomfort when these people come to preach on campus.” Sara concurs. “I remember in fall 2019, it was just kind of listening to them rant, laugh at them, move on. But now it’s shifted to it being an event.”
In addition to the scores of accounts that post one-off videos of her ramblings across the country’s campuses, Sister Cindy has even become the muse of multiple stan accounts. One account’s bio proclaims “Stan Sister Cindy for clear skin,” while other TikTok accounts create fancams. TikTokers laud her outlandish rants and behavior. “Sister Cindy should run for president,” one user commented. “NO LIES WERE DETECTED,” another wrote under a video of Sister Cindy imploring young women to watch out for “the diseased penises.” Some seem to wear Sister Cindy’s disapproval like a badge of honor. Several TikTok users have requested Sister Cindy slut-shame them or critique their outfits in order for their videos to receive more interaction.
Despite going viral on TikTok several times over, Sister Cindy did not join the platform until March 2021; since then, she has accumulated over 2.5 million views and nearly 320,000 followers. Though her fame may be rooted in irony, every view, follower, and video benefits the Smocks and Campus Ministry USA, helping to grow their audience and reach people who will actually respond positively to their beliefs. Thanks to her massive uptick in popularity, she is able to use the platform to peddle her merch and Cameo videos, all of which directly fund her family’s travels to perform more campus ministry.
Sister Cindy’s antics have gathered larger and larger crowds since she went viral. Now, students are beginning to invite her to their campuses. “It’s really shifted to be more like a celebrity meetup, where people gather just to listen to her, whereas before it was more people telling her to go away or people actively disagreeing with her,” Sara says. “But now people just sit and listen and give her the attention she wants.” Miller also believes that attending her sermons has lost its meaning. “If there was an intention of irony or an intention of some sort of protest derived through mockery and online community, we lost the plot a long time ago,” they say.
Miller—who personally advises students in his organization not to attend Sister Cindy’s events, even as a form of protest—believes that the presence of radical evangelists is diminishing the voices of LGBTQ+ students, as well as legitimizing the efforts of Campus Ministry USA. “Personally it feels very alienating because when we speak out against [Brother Jed and Sister Cindy], our voices are not heard,” Miller says. “And yet as the second largest university [in the country], our entire student body continues to give these two very hateful, very loud people an audience.”
College campuses have long been bastions of free speech, which is why Sara believes that the Smocks should be allowed to remain on campus. Forcing them off, she fears, could set “a bad precedent when it comes to First Amendment speech. What would happen if a student wanted to protest against an injustice on campus? Well, [the university] would obviously enforce a policy like that to silence them,” she says.
Miller disagrees. They believe that while free speech and protest are crucial, people like the Smocks should not be allowed on campus. “The issue that I have, specifically with radical evangelists like Brother Jed and Sister Cindy, is what they’re saying is not productive in any way and does not have a goal except to cause a disturbance,” they say. “They go out to college campuses to make people upset and to make people feel unsafe and uncomfortable with their authentic selves.”
Sister Cindy’s growing fame has created a vicious cycle: the more famous she becomes for her message of hatred, the more her and her family’s behavior is accepted and legitimized. “Multiple student [Christian] organizations on Texas A&M campus posted on their social media pages that they had brought Brother Jed in to speak with their student organization, as an event,” Miller says. “It completely breaks down the narrative that there’s a following because no one takes these people seriously.”
Though Sister Cindy may seem like just a (somewhat) laughable village idiot, her fans are setting a precedent to allow more dangerous people to profit from misplaced attention, Miller warns. “Stan culture specifically fixates on one specific person and their actions, and I think that’s why Sister Cindy has been allowed to blow up and have a platform on TikTok,” they say. “All of the TikTok videos are focused on what she’s doing, as opposed to the structures and the policies within different university campuses that allowed her to be there in the first place.”