Last week, pop megastar and dangerous hat wearer Justin Bieber took an uncommonly bold step to reclaim his soul, and perhaps his career: he got baptized.
According to TMZ, The Biebs started participating in an “intense” Bible study a few weeks ago after two videos were released showing a much younger Bieber giggling while making deeply offensive racist jokes. The Bible study culminated with his baptism at the hands of Carl Lentz — the influential “celebrity pastor” of the Hillsong New York City evangelical church — in a bathtub in New York City.
The move may seem unusual, but Bieber’s decision is actually somewhat logical given his background and recent events, and more common than one might expect in American culture. Bieber, after all, is a very public Christian: There are entire books written about the importance of religion to the megastar’s success, highlighting his fan base that includes a significant number of young evangelical Christians, his collection of religiously-themed tattoos, and his tendency to use his celebrity as a platform to voice his religious views.
But Justin Bieber’s image has looked increasingly less-than-Christian of late. In January, news broke that the young pop star was arrested in Miami Beach for drunken driving, resisting arrest, and driving without a valid license. A few days later, he surrendered to the Toronto Police Services, who charged him with assaulting a limousine driver in the country a month prior. In February, X-rated photos were released of him in illicit contact with an adult dancer. Then, of course, came the two videos in which he told racist jokes. This avalanche of scandals would be problematic for most celebrities, but they are especially damaging to a someone like Bieber, whose faith is a key part of his fame.
So while the personal aspect of Bieber’s faith is between him and God, his public persona as a devoted Christian is not only something he clearly wants to reclaim, but also a potential vehicle for redemption among his fan base. During the immediate fallout around the racism-themed videos, Bieber posted a photo to Instagram that depicted a page from a book about Jesus and forgiveness. And while Bieber and company reportedly wanted the keep the religious ritual a low-key affair, baptism is, by definition, an inherently public act—especially among American evangelicals. Unlike some Christian traditions that baptize infants soon after they are born, most evangelicals base their baptismal theology around the biblical account of Jesus’ adult baptism. They cite the fact that he was baptized as a grown man as proof that a person must be fully cognizant to be able to fully accept Jesus Christ, and only then can they be baptized into the broader community of believers. Thus, within evangelicalism, baptism typically functions as a symbolic, public affirmation of one’s personal commitment — or sometimes recommitment — to following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
So when Bieber took the plunge last week with Lentz, the young crooner’s message to his fellow Christians was clear: Jesus forgives me, and you should too.
Bieber is part of a long line of Americans to appeal to religion — indirectly or directly — as a way to survive a scandal. In fact, seeking divine forgiveness as a way to better one’s public image is not only distinctly evangelical, it’s quintessentially American. When Mark Sanford, former governor of South Carolina, was caught using taxpayer money to support his affair with an Argentinian mistress, he retreated to his family farm to engage in “a spiritual time” where he reportedly recommitted himself to his Christian faith and practiced Buddhist meditation. He then used his story of spiritual renewal in his stump speech during his run for congress in 2013, and when Sanford miraculously won that election, his victory speech included the line, “I just want to acknowledge a God not just of second chances, but of third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth chances.”
Other celebrities have also claimed similar “come to Jesus” moments when mired in controversy, some of whom have rebuilt their celebrity status over time. NFL quarterback Michael Vick famously “found Jesus” after he was charged with dogfighting, Paris Hilton “found God” after enduring jail time for driving while banned, and Lindsay Lohan became a “very spiritual person” and began reading the Bible daily while in rehab. The trend isn’t even restricted to Christianity: when Tiger Woods was caught in his marital infidelity scandal, his public apology included an admission that he had “drifted away” from his Buddhist upbringing, and he pledged to rededicate himself to Buddhist beliefs that called on him to “stop following every impulse and to learn restraint.” They, like Bieber, wanted to reassure their fans that as long as God was on their side, forgiveness was possible.
But not everyone who appeals to religion necessarily wins back their audience, particularly when violence or racism is involved. When it was revealed in 2013 that Food Network star Paula Deen, a baptist, made a number of racist comments in the past, actress Stacey Dash attempted to defend her by tweeting “God does everything for a reason @Paula_Deen. Only God can judge your heart.” But the tweet did little to better Deen’s situation, and resulted in a fierce backlash for Dash. Similarly, when Chris Brown was embroiled in controversy after he assaulted his ex-girlfriend Rihanna, singer/rapper R. Kelly attempted to defend him by comparing his struggle to that of Jesus, saying, “He got knocked down a little bit and he climbed up.” Unsurprisingly, that attempt also didn’t fare so well for anyone involved.
Baptism and other appeals to religion are communal acts, but are felt most deeply by the individual. When politicians and celebrities like Justin Bieber appeal to a higher power, the most important part — whether or not they feel right with God — is a question only they get to answer. But when religion is a key component of a person’s base of public supporters, symbolic returns to religious roots may not win back fans lost. And given how quickly racist comments have ended careers in recent months, Bieber might require more than a little divine intervention.