A False “Idol?”

I admit it. I’ve never watched it. But bajillions of Americans have loved American Idol for the past fourteen years. It has been one of the most influential TV programs in our recent past. And it has proven particularly friendly to conservative evangelical Protestant singers. To this reporter, the life and death of American Idol seems to typify the paradox at the heart of American religious culture. Is America sexier and more secular now than it has ever been? Yes. And is America dominated now by fiercely traditional evangelical Protestantism? Also yes!

adam lambert

Would Adam Lambert have made it on the Ed Sullivan Show?

The face of conservative Christianity has changed a lot in the past century, but one thing has remained constant: Christian thinkers and pundits have consistently lamented the supposed fact that America has just kicked God out of its public life. As I’ve argued in academic publications here and there, evangelical Protestants, especially, have continually lamented the fact that their generation—whether that was the 1920s generation or the 1960s one—has witnessed the final prophesized turn of America away from its Christian roots.

There is no doubt that mainstream American culture has changed over time. Mainstream America was ferociously, even murderously hostile to homosexuals as recently as the 1950s. Public norms of dress and behavior have certainly loosened up in the past century. And public pronouncements have shed over time much of their explicitly Christian language. Some of them, at least.

Even granting all those major changes, it still seems remarkable to me that smart conservatives still lament the “loss” of America. Crunchy thinkers such as Rod Dreher call for conservative retreat, for a “Benedict Option.” And conservatives of all sorts recently howled over a perceived “War on Christmas.”

In each case, conservative Christians have insisted that the last straw had finally been laid, that American culture had finally transformed from a city on a hill to Babylon.

Now, it’s not my place to tell conservative Christians or anyone what to think. Anyone who reads their history, though, can’t help but be struck by the complicated truth. There has never been a single event or Supreme Court decision that finally kicked God out of the public square, but there has always been an outcry among conservatives that they were witnessing precisely such an event.

Today’s news about American Idol serves as a good illustration of this weird legacy. On one hand, we can see in the blockbuster show just how much America has changed. The stars wear intoxicatingly low-cut dresses. There is no defense of old-fashioned gender or racial hierarchies. Famous contestants such as Adam Lambert have been proudly gay. None of this would have happened on a TV show from the 1950s.

On the other hand, as the Christian Post reported recently, the show has also launched the careers of some of today’s top evangelical Christian performers. Singers such as Mandisa, Colton Dixon, Jeremy Rosado, and Danny Gokey all got their starts on the show.

Now, I admit it proudly: I have no idea who any of those people are. According to the Christian Post, however, they seem to have made a splash in the world of Christian pop music.

We might say, then, that as American Idol goes, so go America’s idols. The show is certainly not explicitly Christian or even religious. Its norms for dress, language, and behavior would certainly shock mainstream Americans from the 1920s or 1950s. Yet among all the hedonism, anything-goes morality, and sexiness, conservative Christianity still claims an enormous place.

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  1. American pop religion is a fascinating, bewildering pack of contradictions like these. Like “democracy” it is always in crisis, perhaps because it is a subset of the larger discourse about liberty and limits that defines modern republics in the west. The younger generations embrace more of “the world” and the older generations sound the warning; over time people change from on position to the other. Youthful liberality turns to aged conservatism — or vice versa. People fall in, fall away, and most stay pretty close to the sidelines. “God” is a political football that has to be kept in play. If it was to be kicked off the field, a substitute would be found. We must, of necessity, have a discourse of crisis and reaction to imagined threats. This allows imagined communities to evoke their identity, assert their power, and sustain their existence without having to acknowledge or take responsibility fully for what they are doing.

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