October 15, 2017

Justin Bieber has found one, Leah Remini has left one.

Religion, that is.

There’s been huge excitement about Bieber’s involvement with the Australian-founded charismatic Hillsong Church – the church even had to issue a denial to clarify that they hadn’t pressured him to cancel recent tour dates. The Sun reports:

Justin Bieber takes his girlfriends there to get the Pastor’s approval – including Paola Paulin. His ex-girlfriend’s Selena Gomez and Hailey Baldin have also attended services, while stars such High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens, Hailee Steinfeld, Nick Jonas.”

At the same time that the Canadian pop star has been recommitting himself to the faith of his upbringing there’s been a significant lawyering up from the Scientologists after Leah Remini (of the US comedy series, King of Queens) didn’t just exit the church after 30 years of membership but put together audience-rousing documentaries explaining why she had departed. The Church has even set up a series of websites to undermine the credentials of other former Scientologists featured in Remini’s “Scientology and the Aftermath”.

Justin Bieber has 102 million followers. That’s 62 million more than Donald Trump and 88 million more than the Pope! Quite useful if you believe that your mission is to “go everywhere in the world and tell the Good News to everyone”.
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It’s no secret that a celebrity endorsement helps promote a brand and religious groups can be as excitable about the stardust as anyone else. And quite understandably. Taking just one possible measure of their ability to spread religious (or other) messages, look at Twitter. Justin Bieber has 102 million followers. That’s 62 million more than Donald Trump and 88 million more than the Pope! Quite useful if you believe that your mission is to “go everywhere in the world and tell the Good News to everyone”.

Almost no-one is in the same social media league as the 23 year-old singer and songwriter but as someone who worked in corporate communications for Christian charities for nine years, I well remember the reaction every time someone off the telly outed themselves as a Christian. In one corner a colleague would call for urgency “before the charity down the road snaps them up”. Wiser sages would urge caution – in case, for example, anything came to light about the public figure’s background that might complicate the reputation of any charity willing to be associated with them. And – at an extreme – a cause (fairly or unfairly) risks the “Remini treatment” if celebrities feel used in any way. Even if the charity-celebrity relationship is healthy, the spotlight generated by an association is not a comfortable place for some religious leaders. Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, for example, asks difficult questions about Justin Bieber’s pastor at Hillsong and his approach to confidentiality, to gay people and to celebration of ‘hot wives’.

Famous believers

Religion and fame is often a strange combination in the West, and we don’t always know what to do with a disclosure of belief, especially when a celebrity converts. A fundamental lack of religious literacy means many journalists write about religious groups as though they’re some sort of sideshow. Facing such reporting, Madonna used a Harper’s Bazaar interview to counter some of the claims made about her practice of Kabbalah – claiming that her efforts to become a better person “made people nervous”.

Some of the most thoughtful analysis about a high profile person’s belief often comes from commentators who aren’t afraid to write themselves and their own religious background into the story, and who spend some time getting to know people involved in the faith community. Check out the poignant account of Hillsong by Jewish NYC mum Taffy Brodessa-Akner and atheist Michael Marsden’s experience of the Alpha course, following Sam Fox and Geri Halliwell’s participation in what is an introduction to the Christian faith that occurs during ten weekly sessions.

Raising the issues

Because celebrities have access to platforms that the rest of us don’t have, they can be formidable educators about religion. British comic and actor Stephen Fry, for example, provoked public debate about blasphemy laws when he criticised the notion of a loving God. Sadly, despite this being the 21st century with greater levels of education than ever before, we need to be reassured by Sir Mo Farah and others that not all Muslims are out to kill us. And Sir Mo spoke out against the US President’s executive order on immigration earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Mayim Bialik (of Blossom and Big Bang Theory) describes herself as “socially conservative” and uses her YouTube channel to discuss modesty and women’s empowerment:

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