Secret conversions and the celebrity double-standard

Secret conversions and the celebrity double-standard June 30, 2016

The whole Dobson-says-Trump-is-secretly-born-again thing seems to have come and gone without Donald Trump himself ever commenting on it directly (or perhaps even noticing).

I doubt Trump wanted to respond to that claim, because it would have meant denying his earlier insistence that he was already a Christian — or, at least, some kind of Presbyterian. You know, with, like, the little cracker and the Sunday school and the Christmas and Easter and all that.

Trump’s nominal, vestigial Presbyterianism was also what made the secret conversion story necessary for people like James Dobson. For white evangelicals like Dobson, all mainline Protestants are like that — nominal, vestigial Christmas-and-Easter types whose rote church membership is meaningless. They’re not really Christians — not real, true Christians — not even the ones who attend every Sunday. They don’t have a real, personal relationship with Jesus the way we evangelicals do. They may be Presbyterians or Episcopalians or United Methodists or whatever, but they still need to get saved. (After all, just look at how they vote.)

This is a key part of the narrative that evangelicals tell themselves about who they are. That narrative wouldn’t allow white evangelicals like Dobson to accept Trump’s mainline Protestant associations to count for anything. What’s the point of being real, true Christians if we can’t tell ourselves we’re the only real, true Christians? So the only way to make Donald Trump one of us was to invent a story in which he secretly abandoned his former mainline apostasy and joined the RTC tribe.

Any hint that a celebrity might be One Of Us is met by white evangelicals with arms wide open.
Any hint that a celebrity might be One Of Us is greeted with arms wide open.

But part of what’s going on with this secret-conversion story is also, I think, the usual double-standard white evangelicals employ when seeking vicarious legitimacy through celebrity. The slightest vague reference to God from any popular white* celebrity is fiercely embraced as affirmation that our sub-culture is Right About Everything and that others should be jealous of how cool we are by comparison to them. It doesn’t matter how flimsy the pretext might be. Thus when Matthew McConaughey mumbled something about God while accepting the Academy Award (for his work in Dallas Buyers Club — a movie those same white evangelicals didn’t watch and wouldn’t have liked), evangelicals squee’ed with delight that this highly regarded, very famous, handsome man was thereby confirmed as One Of Us!

The joy of such vicarious affirmation is too great to allow for any further inspection, so McConaughey’s remarks — and the rest of his public utterances or the rest of his life — are never subjected to the level of theological scrutiny that every public figure within the evangelical subculture must endure. That’s why after U2 released the song “Forty,”** Bono became the object of white evangelical adulation — even while, at the same time, Christian-label recording artists were having their every lyric and off-hand comment scrutinized according to an 87-point theological catechism, and folks like Amy Grant and Sandy Patti (!) were being condemned and ostracized for their personal lives failing to meet the highest of high standards.

(To be fair, I don’t think white evangelicals are the only insular subculture that does this. We can see the same sort of double-standard at work in lots of fandoms. If some celebrity makes a passing reference to their world, that person is celebrated and embraced as One Of Us. Meanwhile, within the subculture, claims of membership are rigorously and routinely scrutinized to weed out posers and bandwagon fans.)

This double-standard plays out in weird ways. Celebrities celebrated for vague God-talk tend to retain evangelical admiration even after it becomes very clear that they don’t share anything like our evangelical understanding of God. But if they fully embrace that evangelical understanding, fully establishing themselves as, truly, One Of Us, then that admiration becomes conditional and they become subject to all the same litmus tests and catechisms that every other member of the tribe must endure — with the same consequences for any failure to maintain purity. Former members of the subculture, meanwhile, get no credit at all for any kind of God-talk, even explicit evangelicalese (e.g., Katy Perry).

If you want to be beloved by white evangelicals, then, your best bet is to never become one of them. Stay an outsider, but occasionally say things about God that they can celebrate and feel affirmed by. Smile in their direction, but from a distance. (See, for example: Reagan, Ronald.) If you never join, they can never kick you out. But if you fully turn into one of them, they will eventually turn on you.

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* This is pretty much true only for white celebrities. A scripture reference penciled in on Tim Tebow’s eyeblack counts. A scripture verse tattooed permanently onto a (more successful) black quarterback doesn’t. One can think of black celebrities who are exceptions to this, but they are exactly that — exceptional — top-tier superstars and not mere all-stars.

** Two years after October came out, but white evangelicals weren’t yet paying attention. It took an actual Psalm for us to notice the religious themes in the band’s music.

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