Celebrity gods: The religion of stardom

Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday on Jan. 8, 2010, evoked the kind of devotion often associated with “the King” — as well as with the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, whose death in 2009 was accompanied by an almost worshipful outpouring. What explains this widespread cult of celebrity? Is it a religious phenomenon?

The secular culture has canonized any number of “saints,” from politicians like Abraham Lincoln to explicitly religious figures like Mother Teresa. But the bestowal upon an entertainment icon or pop culture celebrity, usually after his or her death, of a public reverence that rivals that of a religious figure appears to be a modern phenomenon.

From Elvis to Princess Diana, Heath Ledger to Michael Jackson, the public reaction to these deaths, and the persistence of their following long after their passing, have much in common with religious traditions and responses, according to experts.

So why is such idolatry lavished upon some and not on others? What carries a public figure beyond his or her foibles and fouls to infallibility? What does it say about our culture that we seem to need these secular saints?

Background

Observances of what would have been the 75th birthday of Elvis Presley on Jan. 8, 2010, prompted the kind of adulation the singer occasioned in death, as in life.

The events included an all-day marathon of Elvis movies on the TCM channel on Jan. 8, 2010, an exhibit of Presley’s impact on pop culture at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and a new Jailhouse Rock doll from the Barbie collection. Cirque du Soleil unveiled a tribute to Elvis with a Las Vegas show that premiered at the end of January, 2010. And there was a special exhibit of Elvis costumes at Presley’s Graceland home in Memphis, where his ex-wife and daughter cut a birthday cake.

The death of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009, also seemed to some to approach Elvis-like levels of mourning.

Gary Laderman, author of Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States, told USA Today that Jackson’s “life story, though troubling in many ways as it unfolded, will become a morality play of sorts. Like other saints, he will be forgiven by his public, and I expect, an inspiration and role model, in some ways, for those who want to make music, become famous, or leave a mark in this world.”

Apart from Jackson, 2009 saw the death of a number of other prominent celebrities. They include Farah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze, Walter Cronkite, Natasha Richardson, David Carradine, Karl Malden and, just before Christmas, the 32-year-old actress Brittany Murphy.

Whether any of the recently deceased celebs approaches the level of devotion given to the likes of Presley and Jackson seems unlikely. But their deaths can reflect the same phenomenon in smaller ways, experts say.

Why it matters

As religion and spirituality move beyond the confines of traditional practices, sanctuaries and denominations, journalists are increasingly asked to locate these ancient phenomena in their new expressions. Those expressions often emerge in popular culture, where journalists are well-positioned to make sense of them for the general public.

Stories and resources

National sources

  • Shmuley Boteach

    Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is an Orthodox rabbi from Englewood, N.J., who has become a nationally known figure through his writings and television appearances. Boteach (pronounced boh-TAY-ock) offers family and personal advice based in traditional Jewish wisdom. He hosts the Learning Channel program Shalom in the Home and became popular through his book Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy. Contact Boteach through his website.

    He has often concerned himself with the actions of celebrities. On the death of Michael Jackson, he issued a statement.

  • Shira Gabriel

    Shira Gabriel is an assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., who has conducted three studies on celebrity worship, one of which focused on how it boosts the worshipper’s self-esteem.

  • Gary Laderman

    Gary Laderman is associate professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta and author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2003).

    He has conducted three studies on celebrity worship, one of which focused on how it boosts the worshiper’s self-esteem.

  • Gerardo Marti

    Gerardo Marti is an assistant professor of sociology at Davidson College, Davidson, N.C. He teaches about race and ethnic relations and is the author of A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church (Indiana University Press, 2005). Marti is researching whether worship music matters for making congregations racially and ethnically diverse.

    He is the author of Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (2008). He blogs on religion, race and popular culture at Praxis Habitus.

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is professor in the religion department at Boston University. He is author of Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which looks at popular images of Jesus in film, television and print. He has also written about American Hindus.

    He writes frequently about the intersection of American popular culture and religion.

  • Christopher R. Smit

    Christopher R. Smit teaches mass media, including television, gender and sexuality, and popular music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Smit’s essays on disability, media, popular music and culture have appeared in Disability Studies QuarterlyStudies in Popular Culture and elsewhere. His current book project concerns theology, disability and the Christian faith. He is also a singer/songwriter.

    He is the editor of A Michael Jackson Reader: Essays on Popular Music, Sexuality and Culture.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Peter Colapietro

    The Rev. Peter Colapietro is pastor at St. Malachy’s Catholic Church in New York City. The church calls itself “the actors’ chapel” and ministers to a large number of actors who live and work in New York City.

    Contact: 212-489-1340.
  • Anthea Butler

    Anthea Butler is associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a noted African-American chronicler of the Pentecostal movement. She wrote the chapter “Unrespectable Saints: Women of the Church of God in Christ” in The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past.

    She contributed an essay titled “When the Gods Die” to the ReligionDispatches blog after the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

  • Kathryn Lofton

    Kathryn Lofton is a professor of religious studies, American studies and  history and divinity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. She has written about the religious content of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire and is knowledgeable about American religion and materialism, especially Christian kitsch.

  • Kurt C. Wiesner

    The Rev. Kurt C. Wiesner is an Episcopal priest in Littleton, N.H., and author of the blog One Step Closer: Religion & Popular Culture. See his blog entry after the death of Michael Jackson.

In the South

  • Alison Hill

    Alison Hill is a television and radio producer and contributor to the website AssociatedContent.com. She has written about the religion of celebrity in the U.S. Hill lives in Asheville, N.C.

    Contact: 828-633-0391.
  • John R. May

    John R. May, professor of English and religious studies at Louisiana State University, has written about Hollywood and religion, contemporary theories on the interpretation of religious film and religious visions in American classics. He is editor of the books New Image of Religious Film and Image & Likeness: Religious Visions in American Film Classics.

     

  • Conrad Ostwalt

    Conrad Ostwalt is Department Chair  of Philosophy and Religion at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. He co-edited a book with Joel Martin, Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth and Ideology in Popular American Film (Westview Press, 1995). He has written extensively about religion in the movies, with an emphasis on depictions of the Apocalypse, and is the author of Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Trinity Press International, 2003).

  • William Weston

    William Weston is a sociology professor at Centre College in Danville, Ky. At his blog, “Gruntled Center,” he wrote of Jackson, “Michael Jackson is being inducted into the musical pantheon of American civil religion.”

In the Midwest

  • Greg Boyd

    Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and author of The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, in which he says American Christians should seek to build the kingdom of God instead of building political power.

    In March 2008, he and Scott Boren delivered a sermon on the dangers of worshipping celebrities.

  • Bob Cornwall

    Bob Cornwall is the senior pastor at Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Mich., a Disciples of Christ church. He operates a blog titled “Ponderings on a Faith Journey” which includes his reflections about young voters of faith.

    He has blogged about the attention given to Michael Jackson’s death.

    Contact: 248-644-0512.
  • Erika Doss

    Erika Doss is a professor in the department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. She has written about popular culture religious expressions involving Elvis Presley.

In the West

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