The Wilson Quarterly

Modern cults have become corporate enterprises, writes Daniel Harris, author of Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic (2000) and other books. They grow by successfully recruiting celebrities, trying to “hijack” a star’s fan base and transform it into a worldwide franchise. For new religions, famous people become “brand ambas­sadors,” using their glamour and reputations to give the cults their identity and ­coherence.

Madonna lends her allure to Kabbalah, Tom Cruise to Scientology, Harris writes. Celebrities do not describe themselves as religious; they are spiritual. But as Holly­wood’s spiritual tourists reject the “despotism of pontiffs and preachers,” the designer religions they embrace are far more demanding of their bank accounts and personal lives than the most domineering clergy of the past. “Repelled by the atrocities committed in the names of Jesus, Jehovah, and Muhammad, most stars turn their backs on or­tho­dox beliefs and cobble together their own sui generis theology, a spiritual Esperanto so unspecific and inclusive that it offends no one.”

What do you give a celebrity who has everything? A god.

The religions of celebrities are the ultimate expression of an ancient spiritual impulse, the worshiper’s desire to eliminate the middleman, the clergy, and achieve direct contact with the divine. Famous people are egomaniacs, gods in their own right, and they do not want to be kept waiting, Harris says. They want God to be accessible, a name in their ­BlackBerry.

Spirituality is the opiate not just of the masses but of the powerful. Hollywood stars have reached the summit of fame and fortune. They have achieved their culture’s highest aspirations in difficult careers but, at their very moment of triumph, have come face to face with feelings of meaninglessness. What do you give a celebrity who has everything? A ­god.

* * *

THE SOURCE: “Celebrity Spirituality” by Daniel Harris, in Salmagundi, Fall–Winter 2008–09.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore

Read Next

The Lullaby of Taxis