Today’s Super Bowl halftime show will undoubtedly be a provocative spectacle, but it will also be a form of religious devotion for some. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta will step on the world’s biggest stage as Lady Gaga, the Catholic schoolgirl turned chart-topper. Along with the electropop and theatricality, she will deliver an overt, yet often unnoticed, faith.
In an American context where the media equates religion with social conservatism, Lady Gaga represents a welcome, non-fundamentalist Christianity. She is the closest pop culture version, in values if not tone, to her fellow Catholic, Pope Francis. She champions Christian values not of exclusion and discrimination but of empowerment, grace and self-acceptance.
Lady Gaga’s most unapologetic hit is also one of the most culturally influential contributions to the theology of human sexuality. “Born This Way” is the hymn for LGBT Christians that is sorely missing from your average church hymnal.
I’m beautiful in my way
‘Cause God makes no mistakes
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way
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.
But what then do we make of Lady Gaga? The result is that her strong religious and progressive convictions get ignored.
Yet she seems content to hold her faith and LGBT cards in the same deck. She’s posted several times on Instagram about attending church and came under fire for supposedly feigning religious convictions as part of a publicity trend. She responded to her critics, “We are not just ‘celebrities,’ we are humans and sinners, children, and our lives are not void of values because we struggle. We are as equally forgiven as our neighbor. God is never a trend, no matter who the believer.”
Lady Gaga’s faith is not a trend and it’s not something that can be ignored. When was the last time you heard a call to prayer and seek the Lord on Top 40 radio?
I bow down to pray
I try to make the worse seem better
Lord, show me the way
To cut through all his worn out leather
She not only advances progressive Christian values through her music but also has been the de facto pastor to her Little Monsters. These are the “Bad Kids” she sings about: “I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it / Pump your fist if you would rather mess up than put up with this.” She reassures them, “Don’t be insecure if your heart is pure / You’re still good to me if you’re a bad kid, baby.”
The Little Monsters who flock to her concerts resemble the group of outcasts and misfits who flocked to Jesus. The religious authorities then are the same as they are today in prioritizing the policing of boundaries and fearing any threat to their authority. The church bells Gaga features on “Marry the Night” ring especially loud for LGBT Little Monsters who have been systematically targeted for discrimination by the nice church folk gathered under the local church steeple.
Lady Gaga has also played the part of prophet. She publicly came out as bisexual and spoke at an LGBT rights march on the Mall in 2009. Her appearance at the Super Bowl will be particularly prophetic due to her advocacy for survivors of sexual assault. (Vice compiled a list of 44 NFL players who have been charged with physical or sexual assault in recent years.)
Gaga co-wrote and performed “Til It Happens to You” for a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses. In the American context where churches are more known for committing sexual assault than preventing the epidemic, Lady Gaga’s voice as an influential Christian leader sticks out even more.
America and the world will witness not just a pop star but a prominent Christian take the stage at NRG Stadium on Sunday. The prophet and pastor will lead us all in worship. It may not look like your grandparents’ church service, but her values do reflect those of Jesus Christ. “There’s only three men that I’mma serve my whole life,” she sings on “You and I,” “It’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.”
Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons writes at the intersection of faith, public policy and pop culture. He completed his master of divinity degree in 2016 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he led a chapel service on the “Gospel According to Lady Gaga.” Follow him on Twitter @GuthrieGF.