Civil religion and St. Michael, the pop angel

michael-jackson_47719987For generations, presidential inaugurations have served as the high holy days of civil religion for scholars studying the intersection of faith and public life. Want to know about the lowest-common-denominator faith that unites the muddy middle of the American marketplace of ideas? Dissect the religious language that presidents use when standing at that big pulpit on Day One.

However, anyone who has ever compared American Idol vote totals with election day numbers knows that pop culture is now the biggest show in town. It’s stunning to even talk about the Barack Obama inauguration (37 million viewers) in the same breath, historically speaking, with the Michael Jackson farewell concert (31 million viewers is current estimate), but there you have it.

But how do you find substance — journalistic, moral, religious, political — in this kind of show-business event? The family couldn’t really decided what faith tradition to emphasize, so the default was a vague, sanitized version of African-American gospel music, crossed with MTV. It was moving, I admit it, but what did it mean?

The A1 feature in the Washington Post showed all of these tensions and more, beginning with a lede that broke free of all previously known forms of journalistic gravity and threatened to float away into ether of creative-writing class exercises. Hang on.

The final, posthumous performance of Michael Jackson was in the transcendent tradition of his previous shows: part musical feast, part religious experience, part examination of a man who seemed not a man, but something else his public was always trying to figure out. Boy? Demigod? Alien? It was, at times and fittingly, odd. There was deep, heartfelt, intimate emotion at the public memorial, but it was mixed with the fantasy and the sequins and the Mariah Carey and the Al Sharpton.

It was very sad. It was very long.

What, pray tell, is the purpose of the word “the” in front of “the Mariah Carey” and “the Al Sharpton”? And if we are going to get picky about issues of religion and Associated Press style, as your GetReligionistas do from time to time, shouldn’t that second reference be “the the Rev. Al Sharpton,” since the man is ordained?

This feature was not marked as an editorial or even as a work of analysis, yet it wandered all over the place and crossed many journalistic boundaries. Perhaps it was written for the Post’s sister publication, nonNewsweek, and editors decided to use it in two locations.

Still, let’s give credit where credit is due. This Post piece managed to ask some of the logical questions about the role of religious faith in this remarkable global event.

What a spectacular show it was, performed against a backdrop of simulated stained-glass windows and drifting clouds. … Was this a concert or a memorial? An arena or a church? The mood of the fans swung between celebratory and morose, interrupting moments of silence to scream, “We love you, Michael!” and gasping, “Oh my God, it’s him!” when the casket appeared. …

The biggest cheers and sighs did not come after the platitudes, or the superlatives, or even the Jesus-like comparisons to the divine (“As long as we remember him, he will be there forever to comfort us,” said Pastor Lucious Smith). The biggest cheers came after the assertions that he was just like us, that he was not weird at all. …

But Michael Jackson was strange. … The public’s transformation of Michael Jackson, from mutant to messiah, took less than two weeks. “Michael … made us love each other,” Sharpton called out. “It was Michael that made us … feed the hungry.”

Say what? Are we talking about a saint, an angel, a demigod?

Meanwhile, at the heart of Jackson’s strangeness were confessions, rumors and allegations about sins, struggles and even crimes that violated the teachings of all of the faiths that, at one time or another, he claimed or investigated. But that’s kind of the point I am trying to make. It’s hard to know, as a journalist, what to make of a civic faith that calls forth powerful emotions and symbols, yet has no content or doctrine that can be defined and discussed.

The faith that blew through the Jackson farewell concert-rally-rite was like a hurricane of fog. It was there. You could describe it. But what was it? That’s an important question, if you want to take seriously what this event meant to the people who performed in it, mourned in it or simply watched it. How do journalists dissect fog?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • David

    the whole thing was surreal.

    How we venerate and deify our pop stars and then do everything we can to humanize and minimize The Almighty.


  • Pingback: Civil religion and St. Michael, the pop angel

  • Davis

    I love how TMatt complains about snarky and vapid by being snarky and a little vapid.

    The Washington Post piece was trying to be interesting and “provocative.” Maybe it failed at that or maybe it succeeded. But picking it apart in an orgy of snark doesn’t really help the case that it wasn’t serious enough or didn’t take religion seriously enough.

  • Dave

    Terry, you’ve written often about America’s civic religion. Perhaps this event gives you the most accurate picture of its nature, after all.

    (31 viewers is current estimate)

    Um, I’ll bet that was 31 million. ;-)

  • Chris

    I was a little taken aback by the title of the post. The content didn’t really clarify things for me either. In what way is this civil religion? To me, civil religion is co-opting of private religion for support of the state. I would classify the Jackson spectacle as slice of folk religion, albeit tinged with the influence of a particular group of social elites. In that respect, I suppose it qualifies as an expression of civil religion in that it does emphasize values that a particular power group want to normalize. All in all, though, I can’t help but see it primarily as an expression of the piety and (fuzzy) theology of ( a segment of) the masses.

  • tmatt


    Thanks for the correction. Done.


    I could not figure out what the article WAS, in terms of journalism issues, such as form and the attribution of basic info etc. I actually liked — as my post SAID — the issues that were addressed. The Post had some of the right questions. The team just didn’t seem to think they needed to talk to anyone (as in journalism) do discuss the questions and to try to answer them.

    Me, snarky? Sure, I guess.


    vap·id (vpd, vpd) adj.
    1. Lacking liveliness, animation, or interest; dull: vapid conversation.
    2. Lacking taste, zest, or flavor; flat: vapid beer.

    How does one manage to be vapid and snarky at the same time? I’m not that talented.

    Vapid is the last thing I would call that WPost piece. I was saying that the expression of civil religion covered — halfway — in the article was vague and undefined, thus, similar to fog.

  • Chris

    It seems much of the official commentary on this site regarding these events seem to be directed at the “un-orthodox” nature of the phenomenon. Hence the need to label it civil religion, etc. While, there is an aspect that can be attributed to the public consumption side of the issue, I think the generally-perceptive writers here have some blinders on. Much of what I see in the Jackson memorial, whether it is intentionally homogenized or not, reflects the beliefs and practices of many, many people. I referred to it as folk religion earlier. However, the more I reflect on it, much of it has become institutionalized in some denominations. That would tend to disqualify it as folk or civil.

  • Chris

    31 million may have viewed the memorial service, but what isn’t clear is how they viewed it–or how long they actually tuned in. It’s possible they watched more out of curiosity than a desire to participate. Many in the media seem to be sure, as the authors of the Washington Post article state, that “Everyone wanted…to Be There”–but who’s everyone?

  • Julia

    This morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, journalist Mike Barnacle castigated a representative from Time magazine for having the effrontery to put Sarah Palin on its cover instead of Michael Jackson. Another news person said that Sarah Palin’s resignation and what she would be doing now is news and Michael Jackson is still dead – no news – it would just be entertainment coverage. Got a little heated.

    Looks like the news folks are divided on how much coverage Jackson should get. Was the funeral part of our civic religion and that’s why Barnacle was upset it wasn’t the big thing in Time?

    Mythos is a fancy word I’ve never quite grasped. Is it useful here? Is Michael part of US mythology?

  • Helen

    It turned out to be true.
    Michael Jackson is St. Michael, the Archangel Michael.