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FIRST-PERSON: Cult of celebrity turns toward Schwarzenegger

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Fred Grandy went from playing “Gopher” on ABC television’s “The Love Boat” to serving as a congressman from Iowa. Ben Jones rebounded from the role of “Cooter” on “The Dukes of Hazard” to serving in Congress from Georgia. The late Sonny Bono, who was hosting a variety show with then-wife Cher in the 1970s, was making speeches from the well of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1990s.

And now, California voters are set to choose among gubernatorial candidates that include action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, melon-smashing comedian Gallagher and washed-up “Diff’rent Strokes” actor Gary Coleman.

Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura brought out scores of new voters in his successful 1998 gubernatorial campaign, many of these supporters enthused by the novelty of voting for a famous wrestler.

It looks as though Schwarzenegger may receive a similar boost from voters who know nothing about his economic plan to save California from bankruptcy. Next year’s presidential campaign is sure to be a star-studded affair, with pop divas advising the Democratic nominee and Grand Old Opry stars stumping with President Bush.

Celebrity candidates are not necessarily failures in the public square. Congressman Grandy, for instance, was a serious legislator, respected for his work on such issues as agriculture policy. And yet, there is something awry in a public that clamors for glitz at the ballot box.

What is behind a celebrity-obsessed citizenry? A left-leaning theologian suggests it just might be an American flight from the biblical idea of human sin.

In his recent book, “Blessed Are the Cynical: How Original Sin Can Make America a Better Place,” Mark Ellingsen notes the contemporary blurring between the lines of Hollywood and Capitol Hill, the way the entertainment industry has become politicized and the political system has turned into entertainment.

Ellingsen argues that this is due to a culture of narcissism in American society, a culture fed by a therapeutic ethos and grounded in an optimistic view of our own goodness. “The idea of celebrity, the veneration of one whom we yearn to be like, presupposes a veneration of human goodness or at least a positive assessment of human nature,” Ellingsen writes. “Celebrities are a little like us. We know them so well that we (at least secretly) aspire to be like them. Besides, the media provide us with opportunities to experience their fame and glory, sparking in us the craving for such titillating experience.”

The celebrity craving of American culture suits our political system well, Ellingsen argues, because the entertainment industry feeds off of packaging images to a fickle public. “For celebrities, who you seem to be is more important than what you say or believe,” he notes.

Ellingsen sees the antidote in a little dose of biblical cynicism about human nature and original sin. If we really understood fallen man’s selfishness, we might be more inclined to move “away from concentrating so much on the personality of the messenger of our political commitments and toward the message, the political issues themselves.”

Ellingsen is wrong on quite a few of his prescriptions for American politics, but he seems to have hit the target on this one.

Could it be that Americans are so obsessed by glamorous celebrities because we secretly wish we lived the lives they live out before us on television and movie screens? Are Americans so bored with the living of life that we pine away for the latest gossip about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez? Have we become so vapid that we would rather have candidates who can chat effortlessly with Jay Leno than those who can negotiate a just and fair solution to a budget deficit crisis?

It might be that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the next Ronald Reagan — an actor with a coherent political philosophy and gut conviction. His past articulated positions on abortion rights, gay adoption and other social issues, however, suggest otherwise and will cause evangelical voters significant alarm.

But evangelical Christians also should be alarmed by the reasons behind the celebrity circus on the ballot in California. We should do so by modeling lives that demonstrate a different set of priorities — a rejection of the boredom that leads to the cult of celebrity.

This means churches that point their people to truth, not just image. It means churches that magnify the eternal sanctity of the various callings of the people of God (Genesis 3:26-28; Revelation 21:26-27), not just those that are of interest to Us Magazine. It means churches that call their people to see the vision of the Kingdom that surpasses the images of the Hollywood paparazzi. And it means churches that cultivate both cynicism and optimism-cynicism toward the packaging of contemporary Hollywood and K Street image mavens and optimism toward the ultimate triumph of the humble yet exalted King (Zech 9:9), before Whom even Arnold Schwarzenegger will one day bow the knee (Phil 2:9-10).
Russell D. Moore is assistant professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He also serves as executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Moore’s commentaries can be read at the Henry Institute website, www.henryinstitute.org.

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  • Russell D. Moore