This election year, more than most, the anointed are wringing their hands over the prospects of religious intrusion into the realm of politics. And, indeed, it is cause for alarm. Religious belief can be dogmatic and intolerant: There is no arguing with someone acting on faith, so there is no tempering his impassioned belief with fact and reason, which may lead to a zealous and immoderate politics. Indeed, for proof, look no further than the alliance between celebrity and the Democratic party, a party far more in danger of being hijacked by the cult of celebrity than the Republican party is by the “religious right.” The alliance will likely be in full display at the Emmy awards this weekend, as stars pontificate while accepting their honors.
Let’s be honest. In our day, celebrity is the religion of much of America. We worship it, and stand in awe of it more readily than any Catholic taking instruction from the pope. After all, American Catholics often feel free to reject this or that teaching of their church. But celebrity pontification on politics is met with the resounding silence usually reserved for church. Or, alternatively, one is likely to be accused of heresy (i.e., trampling upon free speech) for questioning celebrity dogma. The result is a muddled theology proselytized by celebs to the laity. Taken together, all this smacks of the sort of indoctrination and faith-based politics that we are continually warned against. Indeed, invoking the authority of celebrity with a direct call to political action brings to mind precisely the kind of intrusion into the political realm that Thomas Jefferson warned against in his oft-quoted, if less often understood, “wall of separation” metaphor.
Start with the Democratic Convention in Boston where Morgan Freeman, last seen playing God, narrated John Kerry’s bio. A scan of the audience on the night of Kerry’s speech alone included Leonardo Di Caprio, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Ed Harris, John Cusack, Steven Spielberg, one of the Baldwin Brothers (though not Stephen, who was at the Republican Convention), and I’m sure some others that I missed as I wondered whether John Kerry had really just consecrated himself the anointed (“I was born in the West Wing”). Not to mention the ubiquitous Ben Affleck, dusting off his role as an angel to play St. John the Divine as he rides beside Kerry to give the campaign his blessing. Glenn Close the Elder introduced the sisterhood of faithful senators, while Natalie Portman the Younger bore witness by sporting a “Date.Dem” shirt. There were also the theological heavyweights whose tomes provide the scriptural foundation for the party: Al Franken the radio Apostle, Joe Wilson the Martyr, and Moore the Evangelical. But where was Babs the Sacred? Well, in fact, Streisand has already performed for a Kerry-Edwards fundraiser alongside Willie Nelson and Neil Diamond–with Billy Crystal of the Academy Award’s denomination leading the liturgy.
But this barely gets us started. The Kerry-Edwards fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall a few weeks before the convention raised more money in a single night than any other in American history. The Dave Matthews Band, John Bon Jovi, John Cougar Mellencamp, and Wyclef Jean (of Howard Dean fame) performed hymns, while Paul Newman, Jessica Lange, Meryl Steep, and Chevy Chase were on hand to beatify Kerry and pass the collection plate. All hosted by Whoopi Goldberg (like Crystal, also from the Academy Award’s denomination). To pile it on, Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews (again!) Pearl Jam, and REM (whose Michael Stipe speaks in tongues) are taking the hymnal on the road with a multi-city “Vote For Change Tour.” Other celeb crusaders include: Matt Damon (playing St. James to his brother Affleck’s St. John) Julia Roberts, Sheryl Crow, Michael Douglas, Alec Baldwin, Paul Simon, and Lenny Kravitz; it could go on longer than a Reverend Lovejoy sermon.
Now, consider this. Celebrities are much more likely to vote Democratic than religious “fundamentalists” are to vote Republican. Despite all the talk of “artists” being iconoclastic and independent thinkers, they all share the same politics (far more than any set of traditional religious believers). Worse, their faith and their politics are one and the same–giving us a handful of dissidents such as Governor Schwarzenegger. What happened to the vaunted “wall of separation”? Or Jefferson’s fear of “the alliance of church and state?” But it’s not just that the celebs view themselves as the elect in our politics; it’s their dogmatic and intemperate faith. Put aside the silly sort of dogmatism that loathes religious fundamentalism in America, while indulging it abroad because it is “multicultural.” Never mind, too, that Christian fundamentalists are often staunch supporters of the separation of church and state precisely because they don’t want politics to intrude in to the realm of belief. (Consider the recent Supreme Court case, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, where a Mormon and a Catholic brought suit to enjoin a school policy that allowed for student-led and student-initiated prayer before a football game.) No, I’m speaking of how the religion of celebrity fosters a dogmatic theology that demands a leap of faith, yet seeks to insulate itself from traditional political criticism by cloaking itself in religious authority.
Thus questioning celebrity dogma is an errant, even heretical act that leads to apostasy. So when the Dixie Chicks use their religious-like stature to take shots at President Bush, and some members freely choose to walk out on their sermon, others speak out against them, and still others abandon their old faith altogether, they preposterously claim that their First Amendment rights of free speech are being violated. Ditto Whoopi Goldberg, Linda Ronstadt, and Moore. Apparently celebrity pontification is the equivalent of the Pope speaking ex cathedra. Celebrities expect to wade into the thicket of politics, Babel whatever nonsense strikes their fancy, and walk away on water. When “non-believers” pose vexing questions, putting the knife to the gospel according to Hollywood, they are accused of heresy–taking the (apocryphal) form: “you’ve violated the First Amendment!”
And here Michael Moore is the most egregious sinner. In weaving his numerous lies and deceptions in the apocalyptic-fantasy-cum-documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, he conjures up imagery to move the faithful. Appearing before his disciples, he extols them to go forward and spread the gospel. And impervious to fact and reason, Moore’s apostles go forward and spread the word. This religious awe of Moore, bordering on idolatry, seemingly extends to high-ranking Democrats up to and including Kerry himself. Is rejecting Moore an act of sacrilege? At the Democratic Convention not a single office holder distanced himself from Moore’s religious vision. On the contrary, Moore’s film has been praised to high heaven by the likes of Bill Clinton, Terry McAuliffe, and Tom Daschle. And the praise of Moore’s film bears a striking resembles to debates over Scripture. Sure, one could quibble about “facts” and logic. Yes, dates were moved around or ignored. No, this didn’t literally happen. Yes, this is wrested from context. But, but . . . it inspires believers. And they digest it whole, as if taking communion.
Moore was even given a plumb seat at the DNC next a former high-ranking politician who also happens to be a well-known Christian; one, in fact, who has confessed that his foreign policy was driven by his faith. Isn’t there any concern that these secular office holders are beholden to a non-elected religious nut-job? Where is Jefferson’s “wall of separation” when you need it? Even the once secular Teresa Heinz Kerry has gotten into the act. Did you not witness her speaking in tongues at the Convention? Did you not catch her warning that you will be condemned to Hell if you don’t cast a vote for her husband? Is she not preaching the imminent eschatology of “help is on the way”?
May God have mercy–or merci, as the Kerrys say.
–George Thomas teaches constitutional history at the University of Oklahoma.