Last Friday mass market painter Thomas Kinkade was arrested on the suspicion of driving under the influence. In light of previous allegations of “seamy personal conduct,” he is destined to remain a controversial figure.

In the past, Kinkade has stirred controversy among American evangelicals for reasons that have nothing to do with drunk driving.  In a religious community that remains divided by social class, he has served as a Rorschach test for evangelical attitudes about artistic taste.

In a 2000 profile for Christianity Today, historian Randall Balmer described Kinkade’s Nazarene childhood and current evangelical commitments, noting the artist’s desire to “sabotage Modernism by painting beauty, sentiment, and the memory of Eden.”

Kinkade came up again in Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power (2007), a study of “how evangelicals joined the American elite.” One of the things evangelical elites have in common is their disdain for Kinkade’s sentimentalism. According to Lindsay, such aesthetic judgments separate cosmopolitan evangelicals from their populist brothers and sisters. In a review of Lindsay’s book, I suggested this was evidence of emerging class boundaries among upwardly mobile evangelicals.

Earlier this week, Joe Carter provided an ambivalent assessment of Kinkade’s career over at First Things, bridging the cosmopolitan and populist divide. Comparing some of the painter’s better and worse efforts, he came to this conclusion: “This is what makes Thomas Kinkade exasperating. He is both a creator of some of the most inspiring paintings of the past two decades and a producer of some of the worst schlock ever manufactured by a talented artist.”

Long after Kinkade’s driving incident is resolved, scholars will continue to argue about his significance. While occupying a chapter in the fourth edition of Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture, Kinkade also shows up in Lynn Neal’s book on evangelical women and fiction.

Last month Texas Board of Education member Don McLeroy recommended that the state’s social studies curriculum highlight the “optimism of immigrants including Jean Pierre Godet as told in Thomas Kinkade’s The Spirit of America.” Author Lauri Lebo reported on the proposed amendment for Religion Dispatches, noting Godet’s fictional status. In a subsequent piece, Lebo suggested that Kinkade’s nostalgic paintings were an apt symbol of the board’s approach to history.

Clearly, his work is already part of the collective memory of Americans. According to Kinkade’s web site, he is “America’s most collected living artist.”

Just as Warner Sallman’s images of Jesus helped launch David Morgan’s exploration of religion and visual culture, Kinkade promises to inspire future scholarship. It is only a matter of time before Kinkade Studies is off the ground.