Celebrity Morals and the Loss of Religious Authority

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John Portmann
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
    , May
     168 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Portmann begins his book Celebrity Morals and the Loss of Religious Authority with the uncontroversial statement, “Many people like to believe in someone or something” (x). What follows is an attempt to understand the outcomes of this preference: How do people choose in whom and what to believe, and how has secularization affected the process? Furthermore, Portmann asks, when the object of one’s belief is a person who qualifies as part of the ambiguous group “celebrity,” can such a faith be justified?

This book sets out to understand why celebrities are increasingly admired not only for their fame but also for their moral guidance. It does so by moving between “three closely related themes: celebrity fascination, moral authority and the ethics of celebrity watching” (4). Ultimately, Portmann’s work is a defense of celebrities as moral guides and a call for a general morality. He ends with an entreaty to all—including those uninterested in celebrities, the ogling “star-makers,” the celebrity bashers, and celebrities themselves—to acknowledge the power that each party holds and to maintain goodness and respect in both deed and word.

The curious rise of celebrities as moral authorities—exemplified by talk-show hosts, Hollywood actors, and pop stars who dabble (or market) in the work of guiding public conscience—can be traced to the 1960s American classroom. Portmann argues that celebrity moral guides emerged following US Supreme Court cases such as Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, which removed prayer and Bible reading from public schools. “If public schools could no longer teach American children how to use the Bible to distinguish right from wrong, who would? If public schools would no longer compel children to pray daily, would they ever pray? And how would they even know how to pray?” (xi). Celebrities gradually stepped into the resulting moral vacuum as they became increasingly popular and thus granted the kind of trust and authority that had previously belonged to political and religious figures. This simple explanation for the shift of moral authority sets the stage for Portmann’s analysis of what he calls celebrity watching, which he theorizes is motivated by a range of factors.

Portmann emphasizes an approach to celebrity studies that is grounded in emotion, specifically attending to the relevance of hope and fascination, but also “pride, envy, anger, and Schadenfreude” (xiv). This approach is driven by the recognition that the desire for fame originates as an emotion and that therefore emotion should also be centered in the study of that phenomenon. The author’s other intervention in the nascent field is his emphasis on what he calls celebrity moralism, which, contrary to celebrity activism, is “a campaign to change hearts and minds, as opposed to a crusade to march loudly through the streets” (4).

Celebrity moralism can provide insight into the way that figures such as Lady Gaga have contributed to shifting public sentiment. In Gaga’s case, the artist opened hearts toward LGBTQI people with her song “Born This Way,” released “on the eve of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize same-sex marriage … in a country that has only allowed sexual minorities privacy a decade earlier” (7). Rather than being an anthem specific to the relevant court case, Lady Gaga’s moralist message was one of general love and toleration, which arguably helped to bring the issue of sexual difference into the mainstream. Portmann acknowledges that the extent of Gaga’s influence in this cultural shift is indeterminate but nonetheless impossible to ignore. He then goes on to claim that not only can one observe celebrities instigating cultural change, but also that “celebrity moralists are our best weapon against cruelty” (8), advocating for an acceptance of these forms of moral guidance as they are the chief remaining form of public morality.

Given the first section’s attention to Christian conceptions of sin, the audience for this work seems to be those who would condemn celebrity watching from a biblical perspective. It is likely that the same group would also agree with the claim that taking the Bible out of schools led to a moral vacuum—and furthermore, that it was a mistake. As a result, this work seems at times to be an apologetics for the shift of moral authority onto celebrity shoulders, attending to the concerns of traditionalist Christians. The equation of moral guidance with Christian prayer and Bible reading will likely alienate many nontraditionalist readers from this section of Portmann’s analysis. However, the focus shifts in the second and third sections, which open the work to a broader audience with a general interest in American celebrities of the past and present, from Harry Houdini to John F. Kennedy to Ellen DeGeneres.

Portmann’s work draws on a range of ideas from various Western thinkers. He also includes details about the lives of specific celebrities and sections of historical and biblical analysis. There is a wealth of relevant literature brought to bear on the topic, and there are fascinating points made in each of the sections. However, the breadth of cited material also results in shallow analysis, which leads to far-reaching claims that weaken the author’s credibility. One of these is particularly striking and comes from the hasty assessment of the moral vacuum in schools: “Gone are the days when children took moral cues from school teachers, religious authorities and elected politicians” (21). This claim fits Portmann’s picture but is as unconvincing as it is unthorough. The cursory nature of much of the analysis, the author’s tendency to meander, and the lack of clear structure and audience diminish the effectiveness of the work as a whole. The strengths of this book are in the author’s thoughtful incorporation of emotion and in the compelling concept of celebrity moralism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anaïs K. Garvanian is associate lecturer at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts.

Date of Review: 
March 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Portmann is professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. He has written seven previous monographs, including Women and Gay Men in the Postwar Period (2016), The Ethics of Sex and Alzheimer's (2013), and Catholic Culture in the USA (2009) and has edited an anthology on sin.


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