Katy Perry, the Super Bowl...and American Religion

Jonathan Den Hartog

I promise that I had a very serious, historically grounded post on antebellum religion and reform prepared for this month. I'm sure it will make a come-back in March. Today, though, let me take advantage of blogging's ability for topicality and time-sensitive responses to reflect on the Super Bowl--and no, it's not to announce that my book will be retitled as "Patriots and Piety" for New England football fans.

Dancing Sharks!
Still, over 100 million Americans watched the Super Bowl--surely this cultural ritual demands some analysis. If so, even the Super Bowl half-time show holds the potential to prompt our thinking about contemporary religion. Leaving aside some of the show's pyrotechnics (mirrored tigers! dancing sharks! flying stars!), three things struck me as religiously interesting.

First, there was the presence of Katy Perry herself. Perry has a background rooted in the Pentecostal subculture of southern California. Both of her parents serve as Pentecostal ministers, and they continue an evangelistic ministry. They apparently kept a pretty strict household which maintained high tensions with the outside world. As Katy grew and developed her musical skills, she actually recorded a Contemporary Christian Music album in 2001 as Katy Hudson (listen to it all, here). The album received positive notice in Christianity Today online, where the reviewer gave the assessment that "Although her lyrics aren't quite brilliant, they're definitely insightful and well matched to the emotional power of Katy's music." 

Yet, Perry is clearly not in that same religious position currently. In interviews over the last few years, she has expressed an eclectic spirituality, unmoored from traditional Christian belief.

What to make of all this?  Should it be filed as an idiosyncratic biography? Or, is this part of a larger story about de-conversion or the rise of the Nones? Any readers care to weigh in?

Culturally, it seems that this story relates to issues of Contemporary Christian Music detailed in works such as Eileen Luhr's Witnessing Suburbia and Tom Bergler's Juvenilization of American Christianity. Attempts at cultural appropriation as part of youth outreach can lead to uncritical engagements that might transform religious individuals and institutions. Is this one of those moments?

Second, I was struck when, at the end of the performance, Perry belted out a very rough "Thanks! And God Bless America!" If this is Civil Religion, it's a dramatically diminished one from the 1950s. Who is this God that Perry invokes? There certainly had been no regard for a deity through the previous performance. Perry has little regard for a traditional deity. So, which God is this? Further, what does this God bless? Apparently, this God endorses extreme commercialism, an international entertainment industry, and massive sporting events. If this is divine blessing, I think quite a few people would ask whether there is a need for further reform--or perhaps less of this kind of blessing.

Is this "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," as an acceptable religious expression? Or, has this Civil Religion become so meaningless that it's an unthinking decoration in our political discourse and at major sporting events? Does such an invocation say anything about contemporary religious discourse in the public square?

Third--and here I have to credit my students--apparently Perry has drawn accusations that she's associated with "the Illuminati." These accusations arose when Perry used Eye of Horus/All-Seeing Eye imagery in a music video set in Ancient Egypt. Perry has subsequently joked that she'd like to be invited to join the Illuminati.

But where did Americans get their fear that a secret society of Illuminati were threatening their self-rule? It turns out the fear dates back to the 1790s. In the turbulence caused by the French Revolution, European writers groped to explain it. Two writers came to the belief that behind the violence of the French Revolution stood a secret society of the Bavarian Illuminati. These radical skeptics aimed to demoralize nations in order to destabilize their governments. In producing revolution, they would be able to seize unfettered power.

These works about the Illuminati made their way across the Atlantic and were picked up by several widely-read Federalist ministers, Timothy Dwight the President of Yale College and Jedidiah Morse of Massachusetts. In 1798, as the US considered going to war with France, Morse stood up and accused the Illuminati of operating in the United States to repeat the downward spiral of the French Revolution. Later in 1798, Dwight asked provocatively if his hearers would defend their religion and their republic or allow "our sons [to] become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat, or our daughters the concubines of the Illuminati?"

The Illuminati fear died out by 1800--the "evidence" that Morse claimed to support his case did nothing of the sort. Still, I think that moment reveals both how Federalists had linked religious concerns with defense of the infant republic and how far they were willing to go to defend it. Though that particular issue died, their larger, combative stance in defending the republic endured. (To read more, I have a book recommendation.)

Ever since, Americans have evinced fears of conspiracies, whether of the Masons in the 1830s or of domestic Communists in the Red Scare of the 1950s. As to where the recent recurrence of fear in the Illuminati comes from, I am a bit adrift. It seems to have come back in the fear of globalization and global government after the Cold War. And, of course, the internet can produce anything.

So, I invite readers to the comments section to respond to any of these speculations or to let me know I'm fully out to lunch and you want to hear about antebellum reform.


Kathleen said…
Here is an interview in which Katy speaks about selling her soul to the devil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10rx15v28yk

Katy Perry's Faustian bargain is the most recent version of an old story. Similar tales follow Robert Johnson and his deal with the devil in exchange for fame and creative success.

Patti Smith mentions that Robert Maplethorpe makes a deal with The Prince of Darkness in her autobiography Just Kids.
Woden'sNight13 said…
I always wonder, what is the 'thesis' of anti-illuminati groups. They always say what they are against, but never say what they are for, exactly.
L said…

Good question. I think part of the answer is Bill Cooper's 1991 book "Behold a Pale Horse" which is sort of the syncretic touchstone of modern conspiracism. Cooper just about had it all in Pale Horse -- UFO coverup conspiracies, Kennedy assassination conspiracies, the Illuminati, the Protocols, HIV/AIDs denialism, and more. Another person responsible for reviving fears of the Illuminati, who also cements the mythology to UFO coverup conspiracies is David Icke. Maybe there are bigger intellectual trends at play than just those two pop-conspiracists, but their impact is huge.
rjc said…
Many of us first learned of the Illuminati by way of Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminates! Trilogy in the 1970s and 1980s. FWIW. (fnord)

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