Back in January, it was hard to imagine a single media event that could rival Barack Obama's inauguration. But less than six months later, Michael Jackson's passing has come very close. Jackson's death stopped the clock—and the news cycle—overshadowing even the president's trips to Russia and Italy. Everything else was a blur: Auto company bailouts? California budget crisis? Bernie who?
From TMZ to Anderson Cooper, the media dropped everything, flew out to Tinseltown, and camped out on media platforms outside Staples Center. ABC News sent their dream team, which had not been assembled for any event since the inauguration: Charles Gibson, Barbara Walters, Martin Bashir, Cynthia McFadden, and Robin Roberts. They all reminisced about the Thriller days.
But now that cash-strapped L.A.'s clean up crews have restored Staples Center to its usual summer calm, we can recall what was happening before we dusted off the old Jackson LP's. On the religion beat, reporters were writing about surveys that suggested Americans were among the most fickle religious folks in the world. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that more than half of American adults have changed religions at least once.
Jackson was among them. But the coverage about his faith, both before and after his death was anything but conclusive. Over the years questionable reporting linked him to Islam, Kabbalah, and just about every other faith tradition. Jackson himself once spoke candidly of growing up as a Jehovah's Witness in a 2000 Beliefnet article. (“After all, even reporters are children of God,” he said.)
At his memorial service Tuesday, a stained glass backdrop hung behind a gospel choir as Jackson's gold casket was carried in. Other than Rev. Lucius Smith and Rev. Al Sharpton, no other religious officials presided at the service. Their comments shied away from Jackson's faith or religious practice. The Jackson family itself remains divided along religious lines. His mother Katherine is reportedly still a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Several of her children have fallen away from their childhood faith. Michael denounced the church shortly after the release of Thriller and his brother Jermaine converted to Islam in 1989. Like many American families, their family tree is a mosaic of different faiths.
Although religion played a small role in the memorial service, it played an even smaller role in the media coverage. Even ABC's dream team didn't give much background on Rev. Lucius Smith, calling him a “family friend.” Why did reporters shy away from asking these questions? As burial arrangements are made, there will be opportunities to discover more about Jackson and his faith, if reporters dig deep enough.
Blogger Juan Cole pointed out some of the reasons why Jackson's faith was never fully understood, and how that actually played into his status as a pop idol. “Jackson was a man of multiple identities,” Cole writes. “Toward the end of his life he bridged his family's Jehovah's Witness brand of Christianity with a profound interest in Islam. He was all things to all people in part precisely because of his Peter Pan syndrome. A child can grow up to become anything, after all.”
One religion angle on the story did seem to stick, and that was the devout love of his fans. Get Religion called him St. Michael, the pop angel, and chastised coverage that seemed to worship the man himself. “How do you find substance — journalistic, moral, religious, political — in this kind of show-business event? The family couldn't really decide what faith tradition to emphasize, so the default was a vague, sanitized version of African-American gospel music, crossed with MTV.” The problems that Get Religion pointed out could be addressed with solid reporting into the religious complexity of the family, and why the memorial was structured the way it was.
Scholar Gary Laderman expanded on how Jackson's image has become sanctified since his death. “Like Elvis, or even Oprah, his life story now in death has a moral valence… about being human with weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but also being superhuman and immortal in the eyes of devoted fans who invest body and soul in their idols.” Now that the memorial is over, we can ask these deeper questions about the religious aspects of American pop culture, including mourning a celebrity.
The story of Michael Jackson's death has captivated billions of people from around the world, and from every major faith tradition. It's a fascinating angle on a story about a man who had so many eccentricities.