Mickey Rooney, Chris Tucker, Kirk Cameron, Bob Dylan, Mr. T. This list of celebrities, which you don’t see very often, represents some of the bigger names who reinvented themselves as born-again Christians. Of the group, only Cameron really left the mainstream entertainment business to star in Christian films like Left Behind and Fireproof. Many others made the transition with less fanfare. Mr. T mostly speaks at small community churches. Chris Tucker has said almost nothing publicly.
But together these celebrities show us something else. They represent a slow and broad turn towards evangelical Christianity that permeated American popular culture throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Their born-again narrative tapped into a broader cultural movement that by the 2000s had already found a place in American political life, in Jimmy Carter, the Moral Majority, and years later in George W. Bush’s oft-professed faith. Born-again politicians and born-again entertainers create a context for one another, and allow non-famous Americans to see their own decisions to join a church and have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as part of the mainstream.
That dynamic has been easier to understand since I began exploring it in the context of Egypt, a country that also saw a huge swing towards public religiosity at the same time that Islam found a voice — albeit a constantly repressed one — in the country’s political life. The US had Jimmy Carter, who talked about being born again only to lose an election to Ronald Reagan’s merger of the far right with evangelical Christianity. Egypt had Anwar Sadat, who bolstered his image as a pious Muslim just as he crushed radical Islamists. Carter lost a second term to his co-religionists. Sadat was assassinated by his.
Danish anthropologist Karin van Nieuwkerk, explores these dynamics of religion and public life in her new book, Performing Piety. A study of celebrities who publicly renounced “sinful” lifestyles as dancers, singers, and actresses, the book looks at how they reinvented their public images as beacons of worship,