Charlie Sheen, Hannah Montana and God

Of all the areas where media coverage of religion seems weak, celebrity news has to be up there. For a recent example, you can read this Associated Press account of Billy Ray Cyrus lamenting the effect of his daughter’s fame on his family. He apparently says, in a recent interview with GQ, that the Disney TV show “Hannah Montana” destroyed his family, caused his divorce and is sending daughter Miley Cyrus spinning out of control. At the end of this brief story, we learn:

He said the Cyruses and their six children were all baptized before leaving Tennessee for Los Angeles to inure themselves against evil and he believes Satan is attacking his family.

The reader who sent this story in says he wishes Cyrus’ actual quote had been included. He notes that he’s never heard of “inure” being used in association with baptism. To “inure” means “to accustom to accept something undesirable.” It seems to be the wrong word choice no matter what the reporter was going for. I notice that other versions of this story use the word “protect” in place of “inure.”

Either way, in what church is this taught? Particularly, as the reader points out, in a church where children are brought to baptism? The thing is that Cyrus sounds like he really wants to talk about the role religion played or could have played in his family. It’s a shame it’s not handled with more care.

For a really interesting piece on celebrity and religion, you might be interested in this Wall Street Journal article “God at the Grammys: The Chosen Ones” by Neil Strauss. He looks at the particular phenomenon of musical superstars thinking that their careers are part of a divine plan. He says he used to think those shout-outs to God were either signs of humility and gratitude or affections of the same. The truth, he says, is more interesting:

Before they were famous, many of the biggest pop stars in the world believed that God wanted them to be famous, that this was his plan for them, just as it was his plan for the rest of us not to be famous. Conversely, many equally talented but slightly less famous musicians I’ve interviewed felt their success was accidental or undeserved–and soon after fell out of the limelight.

As I compiled and analyzed these interviews for my new book, I reached a surprising conclusion: Believing that God wants you to be famous actually improves your chances of being famous. Of course, from the standpoint of traditional theology, even in the Calvinistic world of predestination, God is much more concerned with the fate of an individual’s soul than his or her secular success, and one’s destiny is unknowable. So what’s helping these stars is not so much religion as belief—specifically, the belief that God favors their own personal, temporal success over that of almost everyone else.

It’s not that the media never notice the way celebrities talk about God, but usually we just see either bland acceptance or snarky dismissal. This piece argues that what these celebrities — including sports celebrities — are doing is a “competitive theism, a self-styled spirituality that can be overlaid on any religion and has nothing to do with personal morality.” The faith gap is what sets the merely famous apart from the ridiculously famous.

There’s much more in the piece, full of reported commentary.

Finally, I wanted to highlight this NPR article on Charlie Sheen. In “The Charlie Sheen Problem, Now Thrown Into Stark And Public Relief,” Linda Holmes notes the tremendous ethical problems surrounding the addiction problems of the actor.

There’s no way to deny these problems or the fact that many, many people have careers that are reliant on the success of his (inexplicably popular) sitcom. In a piece also backed up with lots of interesting reportage, she writes:

But when your producer is openly fearing that your star is killing himself and he’s saying as much on screen — those two vanity cards are not just about personal problems; they are both about dying — and when your star is calling up radio hosts to say he might not have that much sanity left, so you’d better get some of it while you can, do you just bring everybody back to work and move on?

Don’t get me wrong: The crushing power of money in Hollywood is not a new phenomenon. The cynical “they’ll use him up until he’s dead” argument is the easiest one to make, and the most obvious. …

Maybe it’s an old story. Maybe it’s just the way these things always go. But it’s interesting to wonder how much money is spent on PR and image management and meticulous handling of one’s persona when, in fact, for some people, it doesn’t matter at all. Why does Charlie Sheen even have a publicist? What, at this point, would he really need a publicist to fix? Is there anything that would put a dent in him?

Ah, the ghosts! It’s taken as a given that Hollywood’s god is making money. But I was hoping to find quotes from religious scholars — and others — about the ethics of this belief system and whether other belief systems have something to say about it. In every paragraph of this story, I was thinking about what my church would have to say about how to handle such a thorny situation. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how these perspectives are rarely included in stories.

Still, a super interesting piece about the intersection of ethics, celebrity and capitalism. And if you want an overtly religious discussion of Sheen’s travails, you could do worse than this piece over at the National Post, riffing on Chesterton’s observation about men looking for God when they knock on a brothel door.

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  • Bruce G

    The whole GQ piece is online.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t see the word “inure” anywhere. Looks like it was the AP reporter’s interpretation.

  • FzxGkJssFrk

    “Inure” is almost certainly a typo for “insure”. Has to be. Among Christians who evince a greater concern for activity in the spiritual realm, that wouldn’t be a terribly weird turn of phrase, though “protect” would probably be more common. As you point out, the really interesting question is: what Christian denominations practice baptism for that purpose?

  • Stan Duncan

    Another interesting perspective on the Charlie Sheen piece that could have helped it is the fact that his father, Martin, is quite religious. Not in the in your face, right-wing style so popular in Mega churches and on the air, but in the far more modest, “Walk in the footsteps of Jesus” style. I don’t know how strong their relationship is, but a little look into how the father views the troubles of the son through the eyes of his faith would be interesting (though it probably would be handled in a flip, snarky style)).

  • Ray Ingles

    But I was hoping to find quotes from religious scholars — and others — about the ethics of this belief system and whether other belief systems have something to say about it. In every paragraph of this story, I was thinking about what my church would have to say about how to handle such a thorny situation. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how these perspectives are rarely included in stories.

    I’m curious. Can you offer a list of perspective you would have included, had you written the article? Which perspectives would make the cut, and why?

  • Mollie


    Hard to answer as it would take some research to get to that point. I’d include Catholic since I believe that’s how Sheen was raised and, at the very least, his father is a devout Catholic. I’d include whatever religion he identifies with currently or, if there’s some governing philosophy he identifies with. I’d probably include the perspectives of Jews. And then I’d just call around and see if anyone has anything particularly interesting. Maybe that would include objectivists, Scientologists, atheists, secular humanists, etc. As for making the cut, I think it would have to be decided by the reporting. If everyone says the same thing, that’s one thing. If some have a unique take or interesting riff, that’s another.

    I think we like celebrity news because of what it tells us about our own lives, fantasies, hopes, fears, etc. This story about Sheen is dramatic and big but we all have people like this in our lives and I think it could be a good hook to explore our own responsibilities and how we’ve come to view these responsibilities.

  • Stan duncan

    By the way, thank you very much for deleting that hateful diatribe against Obama’s religion. It was dishonest and inappropriate.

  • Matt

    Here is the relevant quote from page 5 of the GQ article:

    Just before moving out to Los Angeles, the whole family had been baptized together by their pastor at the People’s Church in Franklin, Tennessee. “It was Tish’s idea,” he remembers. “She said, ‘We’re going to be under attack, and we have to be strong in our faith and we’re all going to be baptized…’”

    The People’s Church of Franklin TN is Southern Baptist. Other googling I just did indicates that Cyrus was raised Pentecostal and now attends a Nazarene church in Pasadena. None of those church bodies baptize children. On the other hand, 4 of the 5 children in Cyrus’ family were of double-digit age when Hannah Montana began, so maybe that’s consistent.

  • Mollie


    Thank you very much for the additional info.

  • Matt

    Wow, am I missing something, or does the GQ article almost totally ignore the fact that Cyrus is going through a divorce?

    Yeah, they note it in the subhead and the second paragraph, but I see no mention after that. They want to frame his angst as if it were all centered on Miley’s waywardness, and hopefully conclude that “maybe in time to come he’ll just seem like an overanxious, melodramatic worrywart”.

    But Cyrus is saying that his Hollywood experience “destroyed his family.” Don’t you think he means that literally? Shouldn’t his relationship with his wife be the focus of the story? Or do they assume readers don’t care about anyone in the Cyrus family except Miley?

  • John M

    @Matt–I don’t have stats handy, but baptism ages in the SBC have been dropping for years. (Here’s a GetReligion post with a reference to it:

    Additionally, I read Billy Ray Cyrus’ impending divorce as a pall that hung over that entire article. It wasn’t referenced much, but it was enough to make me see it as part of the ongoing train wreck that is his life currently. I think he just happens to be working harder at his relationship with his daughter than his relationship with his wife. Some of that may be my own biases being read in, however.


  • Passing By

    After 8 years of The West Wing and a couple of events since, it’s hard to see Martin Sheen as anything but an in-your-face left-wing Catholic. I say that because it raises a question as to how, or whether Charlie’s religious upbringing is worth a mention.

  • Ray Ingles

    Passing By –

    After 8 years of The West Wing and a couple of events since, it’s hard to see Martin Sheen as anything but an in-your-face left-wing Catholic. I say that because it raises a question as to how, or whether Charlie’s religious upbringing is worth a mention.

    Could you expand on that? Are you saying that ‘left-wing Catholics’ hardly count as religious, or don’t pass on their religion to their kids, or what? I’m just not clear on your point…

  • Matt

    @John M, your link had an extra character that made it go astray, at least in my browser. Here is the link you meant. If you look at comment #5 on that page, you’ll see that I already challenged the reporter’s unsupported contention that Calvinistic Baptists practice infant baptism. If there is data showing that baptism ages in the SBC have been dropping, I’d be interested to see it, but the age of baptism is historically the defining issue that separates Baptists (including Calvinistic Baptists) from other denominations.

  • Jen G.

    I recommend the original GQ article (linked in 1st post). It is chock-full of touches illustrating the role of faith. One of my favorites from the first page:

    When he finishes, he fetches a black-and-white photo of his father’s gospel group, the Crownsmen Quartet, and tells me how his father ended up dying of mesothelioma from working in the steel mill, and about his Pentecostal-preacher grandfather and the Sunday-morning church music of his youth, and describes how shameful it felt back in Kentucky in the ’60s to have parents who got divorced, to be forced to confess in school that he had a half-brother and half-sisters and stepsisters and no telephone.

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  • Passing By

    Stan Duncan -

    I’m perfectly fine with describing some right-wing Christians as “in-your-face”. My only argument is that Martin Sheen is equally “in-your-face” on the left. And I said nothing about him not being a Christian. His baptism settled that. Would an article including a discussion of the family religion reveal much? Maybe, or it might get all mixed up with the reporters religious views. For example, a conservative reporter might use Martin Sheen’s modernist religion and attempt to blame Charlie’s problems on that. Declaring people’s faith “deep”, “healthy” or “devout” poses specific problems: what you can do at best is describe practice and publically stated beliefs. One would hope a reporter would be that objective.

    And the libcats in my family are wonderful people.

  • Matt

    I think a lot of confusion comes from mixing political liberalism with theological liberalism. Yes, Martin Sheen is politically liberal, by and large. That is not incompatible with believing the dogmas of his church, which he accepts at least enough to be pro-life.

    In conclusion, Martin’s political activism does not negate Stan’s point that it might be interesting to know how Martin’s religion affects Charlie’s life.

  • Bern

    Matt, thanks: I agree that political liberalism is not the same as theological liberalism–another example would have to be Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day–oftehn they overlap but are not necessarily always co-existent.

  • Passing By

    Martin Sheen is “pro-life” in the sense of personally opposed, but…, which has for a generation been how Catholics have protected abortion rights while claiming to be pro-life. In the linked article he also leaps straight into the generally discredited seamless-garment-of-life argument.

    I do agree that separating political views from theological views yields a more honest article, but it’s hard when you don’t understand the theology and, realistically, the politics and theology overlap, as the do on the life issues. A liberal Christian and a conservative Christian can readily disagree on the means of helping the poor, but how often do you read a newspaper article that reflects similar values but different means?