Lady Gaga: The Super Bowl’s Muse of Nationalist Catholicism

Lady Gaga: The Super Bowl’s Muse of Nationalist Catholicism February 9, 2017
(Lady Gaga, ARTPOP Ball Tour, Bell Center, Montréal, Author: proacguy1; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)
(Lady Gaga, ARTPOP Ball Tour, Bell Center, Montréal, Author: proacguy1; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Catholicism isn’t in decline in the United States. It is as loud and up-front as it has ever been in literature and political life.

I attempted to present the Catholicism of alt-right bête noire Milo Yiannopoulos. Now it’s the turn of the left with Superbowl halftime performer and pop-LGBT-activist Lady Gaga.

She was outed last year in The Jesuit Post as a Catholic (at least this was news to me) by a Polish Jesuit whose last name is almost identical to mine:

Let's do a little bit of this.
Let’s do a little bit of this.

Yes, that’s Gaga, wearing normal (non-edible) clothes, holding a Bible, and showing her affection for a priest who means a lot to her.

“Lady Gaga and a priest walk into a restaurant” sounds like the beginning of a joke. Instead, I think it has been one of the best lessons on mercy during this year dedicated to it.

She’s not saying she has it all figured out. She knows she’s not perfect. But she clearly understands something about the mercy of God. And I could learn from her.

All too often I can be like the Pharisee1 who follows the rules but closes his heart, the one who thanks God that he is not like the rest of humanity. I think, “Look at that terrible ‘Alejandro’ video that Lady Gaga made. I’m so glad I’m not like her.”

But Gaga is like the tax collector who prays, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And this is the example Jesus wants us to follow. Gaga quotes her priest,2 who is echoing Pope Francis in saying that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Can you still disagree with some of the things Gaga has done? Of course. But that’s not the point.

The Washington Post picked up on this aspect of her biography enthusiastically just ahead of the Super Bowl:

Her faith and values shine through not just in “Born This Way,” but throughout her discography. She wears no poker face about her love of God and affirmation of all people bearing the image of God. Her theology might best be summed up in the chorus of “Hair:” “I just wanna be myself / And I want you to love me for who I am … this is my prayer.”

Her prayer is the same as countless progressive Christians who recoil at the hypocritical judgment of fundamentalism yet still seek to follow Jesus. She prays to an affirming God with expansive love, not a narrow-minded magician in the sky who damns nonbelievers to eternal conscious torment.

Lady Gaga’s faith confounds a popular narrative of religion in America. She is considered both a practicing Christian and a passionate advocate for progressive values. She simply doesn’t fit in the controlling narrative, endorsed by both the secular left and the religious right, that relegates religion be the sole domain of social conservatism.

But some conservative Christians reject her as heretical. The dancing alone is enough to damn her. The secular left doesn’t know what to make of religious progressives, so they largely ignores her Christian identity.

Here we see a mirror image of Milo Yiannopoulos, where political values trump Catholic identity. There might be even an element of good ole’ American anti-Catholicism in the piece, since “Catholicism” is obsessively elided by the reporter to a mere “Christianity.” There is a difference.

Chad Pecknold, a political theologian who has written a handy history of the relationship between Christianity and politics, provides the following analysis of the Super Bowl show in the Washington Examiner:

It’s boilerplate coastal progressivism. You can just plug in the variables of sexual license as love winning, set a dramatic stage, fireworks, dancers and a big musical theater number, and set it on repeat. That much is predictable. What is unusual is the way she invokes God’s name and even classic Christian themes throughout her performances.

This was immediately apparent from the patriotic outset of her halftime show, in which she stood upon the roof of the stadium to sing in praise of “one nation, under God.” Before the dramatic rope drop into the staged gyrations of revolutionary progress, Lady Gaga invoked that great custom of our nation’s founders — often scorned nowadays by agnostic elites — of recognizing that politics is not the highest thing, but receives its power from the source of all power, namely “one nation, under God.”

This is almost a direct rebuttal of the Washington Post piece. What’s interesting, despite Pecknold’s title, “Lady Gaga’s fabulous, patriotic theology,” there’s no critique of American patriotism.

What I saw in the halftime show was . . .

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