Lady Gaga is everyone’s godparent

Earlier this week I came across this tweet from some etiquette site:

@Debretts How do you choose a godparent? Is it for their contacts and status, their talents or personality, or their friendship? http://bit.ly/qrR1Ab

I responded “Um, their faith?” It reminded me of that discussion we had about a month ago, where we looked at some curious media treatment of godparents (See: “Cracking the godparent code“). Readers kept sending in stories about “godparents” who seemed to have no actual godparent relationship. Frequently these folks weren’t Christian or otherwise religious. It was a weird thing to observe.

Godparents are a very important part of my life and the lives of my children. In my confession of faith, baptismal sponsors or godparents serve as eyewitnesses to the sacrament. They are encouraged to pray daily for their godchildren and help with their religious instruction. I have several godchildren and am so pleased to serve in the vocation of godmother.

But apparently there’s this whole other country (and I mean that literally and figuratively) where being a godparent can either be an ever-so-slightly religious relationship or a completely irreligious relationship. Or that’s how it looks to the media, at least.

The Guardian explains, in light of the news that Tony Blair is godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, godparents are about power, influence and networking. Now, the first thing that’s interesting about this is that Murdoch was made a papal knight and Blair rather famously converted to Catholicism back in 2007. The baptism in question happened in 2010. So are we sure this wasn’t a story of the traditional spiritual role of godparent?

The story begins with a description of the 2010 christening of the Murdoch girls and explains that Blair and Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng are “closest friends” before we learn:

In that same Vogue article, Jackman says that Deng wants her children “to have a spiritual life … They go to church and Sunday school regularly.” But the appointment of these godparents whiffs of dynastic positioning and the soldering of a relationship that might be of as much use, if not more, to the parents as to their children. Not so much a spiritual calling as a way of toadying your way to the top table.

And then we’re off to the conjecture races, totally certain that this Blair as godfather business is all about power. I do not know these people. For all I know, these claims are true. But the story completely conflates the stories of Christians baptizing children and asking friends to serve as godparents — a rather time-honored tradition — with famous Hollywood types of the Jewish persuasion being called godparents for other famous non-Christians.

Here’s a sample of what the author means by “power godparenting”:

Of course, this kind of positioning has been going on in the aristocracy for centuries, and the celebrity world for decades. Prince Charles apparently has 33 godchildren, and approaches the role with quirky consideration; one of his goddaughters, India Hicks, recently remarked that, “for many years, I would receive a china teacup or a gravy dish – confusing, at times, for a young child, but now, as an adult, I have complete sets of beautiful china”. Elton John has 10 godchildren, including Sean Lennon, Damian Hurley, Brooklyn and Romeo Beckham. (Suggestions that some friends might have been put out when he had his own child, Zachary, last year, thus creating a more immediate heir to his fortune, are surely wide of the mark.) John embraced the world of celebrity godparenting again this April when he announced, to some astonishment, that Lady Gaga, wearer of meat dresses and lobster hats, was being appointed Zachary’s spiritual guide. “When you get to the real person under there,” he explained, “there’s a real simple person who loves her parents.”

The author of the piece ever-so-lightly mentions that godparents used to serve a religious role but says that “The situation of one of my close friends – a secular lesbian feminist with two Muslim godchildren who call her “auntie” – is not all that unusual now.” I bet it’s still pretty unusual.

In fact, paragraph after paragraph avoids discussion of religion in favor of this power godparenting thing of British elites. It’s a very odd piece in part because it doesn’t talk to people who simply hold a traditional posture on godparenting. If you only read this article, you would be led to believe that the Steven Spielberg-Gwyneth Paltrow relationship of doling out gifts is what being a godparent is.

Image via Wikipedia.

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  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    Choosing a godparent for reasons other than faith is not a new trend — it’s been going on for generations, if not longer. Particularly in U.S. immigrant communities, there’s a tradition of choosing godparents for connections/influence/financial reasons, to give the child cultural guidance, in a sense, rather than religious instruction. (On a related note, there’s a little film trilogy that reflects this point.)

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Nicole,

    Right, except that fiction and Hollywood movies typically aren’t descriptive of the typical Christian godparent experience.

    And I’m pretty sure we can all agree that the Godfather trilogy doesn’t “reflect” a typical or average situation of what happens when someone is baptized into the Christian faith.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    I don’t know — is there a study on this? Speaking anecdotally (and specifically from Orthodox Christian and Catholic perspectives), most godparents I know aren’t picked strictly for religious reasons.

  • Suzanne

    Even among us hoi polloi, godparents are chosen for all sorts of reasons, some relating to faith, some not.

    I’ve never really met my godparents — they were close friends of my parents when I was born but we’ve never kept in touch with them much since and certainly I’ve never had any kind of relationship with them. In some families, it’s a way to honor relatives. Some godparents don’t consider themselves religious guides, but more like doting aunts and uncles, giving generous gifts at Christmas and First Communion. And all of the examples I’ve given have been people who practice their faith. These aren’t people who were just going through the motions of baptism.

    I think it’s less common in this age to believe that you should take an active role in the religious upbringing of a child that isn’t your own. Most people assume that the parents are going to do that, and if they don’t, then it’s not their place to step in and do it.

    I am the godmother of a young man whose family stopped being Catholic years ago; they are now very enthusiastic Protestants. I would not consider it appropriate to step in and try to redirect his path away from the one his parents have chosen for him.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Sure, and I don’t think anyone would say that religion is the only criteria in any case. Obviously all sorts of things go into it.

    My beef is with an article that way, way, way overemphasizes, say, non-Christians choosing other non-Christians to be “godparents” over the rather typical practice of Christians christening their children and choosing friends or loved ones as godparents for their children, with a mind toward the sacrament in question.

    I mean, that article just went on and on about how everyone’s choosing godparents as a means of social climbing. The religious element was ignored, downplayed or pooh-poohed while the reporter seemed to magically know the motivation of various people. Conjecture village.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    But perhaps choosing a godparent for non-religious reasons (turning a close friend into a family member, picking the person you want to raise your kid if you die, or for their connections, etc.) are actually more the norm than the religious reasons? That’s certainly been my experience and perception, both in America and parts of Europe. Again, is there a study on this?

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    Not to mention that in some Christian traditions, like my own Presbyterian/Reformed one, we don’t really do individual godparents – when a child is baptized, the whole church promises to help raise them in the faith, so in that sense, we’re all de facto godparents.

  • Jerry

    Nicole raises two key points. I also ask her question about a study on the use of how godparent is used.

    Further, her comment about the movies leads me to wonder if those movies changed the common use of the word. While godparent retains it’s religious definition, godfather has other meanings these days: http://www.wordreference.com/definition/godfather

    1 a male godparent.

    2 a man who is influential or pioneering in a movement or organization.

    3 a head of an illegal organization, especially a leader of the American Mafia.

  • R9

    Nicole

    “But perhaps choosing a godparent for non-religious reasons … are actually more the norm than the religious reasons? ”

    Yep. In modern Britain, I seriously doubt most godparents are inclined to “pray daily for their godchildren and help with their religious instruction”.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    My understanding is that, at least in Latin America, the traditional understanding of godparenting (compadrazgo) was, indeed, more about getting a powerful person in the community to share his protection and influence, rather than about faith. Marxist scholars have traditionally seen godparenting as a means of dampening class differences in society.

    In short I think Nicole is much more correct than Mollie here.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I completely understand that not everyone will be as pious as the Encylopedia Brittanica suggests a godparent ideally is:

    … One who stands surety for another in the rite of Christian baptism. In the modern baptism of an infant or child the godparent or godparents make profession of faith for the person being baptized (the godchild) and assume an obligation to serve as proxies for the parents if the parents either are unable or neglect to provide for the religious training of the child, in fulfillment of baptismal promises. In churches mandating a sponsor only one godparent is required; two (in most churches, of different sex) are permitted. Many Protestant denominations permit but do not require godparents to join the infant’s natural parents as sponsors. In the Roman Catholic Church godparents must be of the Catholic faith.

    But it’s a long trip from there to non-Christian adult’s relationship with non-Christian child for the purpose of some irreligious aim.

    Perhaps articles should make the distinction more clear.

  • R9

    Traditionally is. “Ideally” in your opinion only.

  • R9

    So the question is, is that tradition relevant enough today to dwell on at length? (although I’d agree the origins are worth a brief mention at least).

  • Chris Atwood

    The kind of situation Hector’s talking about assumes that everyone in society is of the same religion. In Mexico, back in the day, they were. If that’s the case, then, sure, you can chose a godparent solely on the basis of their religion, because that would include everyone. So then you apply the further qualification of how can they help the child.

    Mollie’s complaint seems to be that what are appropriate ranking criteria only for a mono-religious society are still being used in a multi-religious society.

    But ultimately, I think like a lot of “Style” or “People” articles, what’s really driving the coverage is the Man Bites Dog principle. Having a “secular lesbian feminist with two Muslim godchildren” is a Man biting a Dog. And “Style” pages will always insist that their reporting that because it’s the “new trend.” And it never is. And complaining about that type of reporting in Style pages is pretty much pointless, because that’s how they work.

  • Gail Finke

    “two Muslim godchildren who call her auntie”??? Do Muslims have godparents? I really don’t know.

  • Jerry

    Gail Finke asked what to me was an interesting question: “Do Muslims have godparents?” The answer is apparently no per http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081105121651AAkDf6Z

    There are no godparents as the whole family is seen as such.

    Generally the responsibility of being a guardian descends in order of seniority of grandparents and aunts and uncles. Usually the father’s parents have first responsibility.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    First, is this the article being discussed?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/sep/06/tony-blair-godparents-power-networking

    The link seems lacking in the post.

    Second, Gail, those two Muslim children do have godparents, ergo, Muslims can have grandparents.

    And third, I think that Mollie might be missing, in her complaints that the _Guardian_ article doesn’t give emphasis to godparenting as religious, the general secularization of the United Kingdom. With baptisms and church marriages having consistently fallen in the United Kingdom, and organized Christianity, at least, becoming more parenthetical than not, secular motives for godparenting will take priority.

    “For the average person, says Fraser, appointing a godparent is now a way of “rewarding your mates with some sort of quasi-family status. And people often have a combination, don’t they? A religious one, and the naughty one a kid can go to if they get someone into trouble.” Some have a bigger combination than others.”

    It isn’t as if these motives haven’t existed before. The desire to bond close non-blood relative friends into your family group, for instance, has motivated godparenting for some time. As others have commented, arranging potentially helpful connections between your child and more powerful people in the wider community is another motivation.

    Godparenting is a tradition that may have developed substantially for religious reasons, but it’s also a tradition than can survive without religion being particularly prominent. In a society like the United Kingdom’s where religion is significantly less prominent than in the United States, an article that focuses on the non-religious motivations as primary makes perfect sense.


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