In America, “celebrity culture” carries a great deal of weight and influence, especially among young people. When a famous person dons an ensemble, sales for the same dress or shirt often see a spike. Unfortunately, celebrities have a fair amount of influence in negative ways, too.

A 2014 survey found that 80% of teen girls compare themselves to celebrity photographs although “almost half say (doing so) makes them feel dissatisfied with their own appearance.” For better or worse — almost always it’s for worse — Americans see the pronouncements of celebrities as carrying a great deal of weight. 

Even in matters of faith, celebrity beliefs are highly influential. When Madonna started to flirt with the Kabbalah Center, it meant a great deal to the organization, which is based on Jewish traditional mysticism. The Los Angeles Times reported, “The center’s assets grew from $20 million in 1998, the year after Madonna went public with her ties to kabbalah, to more than $260 million by 2009, according to the resume of a former chief financial officer and tax returns the center and affiliated organizations filed before becoming exempt.”  

While it shouldn’t matter what celebrities say and believe when it comes to religious faith, their influence on their fans and the wider public is undeniable and quite significant. Which makes what Britney Spears said recently all the more troubling.

Since emerging from a conservatorship controlled by her father, the entertainer has made daily headlines as she unloads her feelings about the experience, and her sons with former husband Kevin Federline have done the same.

In response to an interview with her son Jayden on the situation recently, Spears was distraught, explaining on social media in a message directed toward her sons, “It saddens me that not one of you has valued me as a person. You’ve witnessed how my family has been to me, and that’s all you know,” Spears wrote. “Like I said, I feel you all secretly like to say something’s wrong with me. Honestly, my dad needs to be in jail for the rest of his life. But like I said, God would not allow that to happen to me if a God existed.”

She went on, “I don’t believe in God anymore because of the way my children and my family have treated me. There is nothing to believe anymore. I’m an atheist, y’all.”

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Moments of grief and tumult are the ultimate tests of one’s faith and also when faith comes most in handy. A belief in a higher power is most tested at moments that seem deeply unfair. But for most people, it is that belief that there is, indeed, a God that helps them weather the storm they’re facing.

Spears’ pronouncement is childish and sends the message to her fans that a relationship with God is transactional and contingent on the behavior of our fellow man. It’s easy to dismiss, but still not a message that the faithful want to see proliferated by someone with a platform as large as Spears, especially with young Americans already leaving organized religion in droves. 

Thankfully, this week there was also more thoughtful commentary on faith by Shia LaBeouf.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the actor spoke about a recent feud with actress Olivia Wilde. The majority of the interview, however, centered on his recent conversion to Catholicism and was strikingly profound. That part was mostly ignored outside of his comments on Wilde, which were, in a way, also influenced by his new faith. LaBeouf shied away from fanning the flames more, saying, “It is what it is — every blessing to her and her film.” 

LaBeouf’s most powerful comments on his faith came in response to a question about his mother’s recent death. He explained:

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“My mother was full of fear in her last moments: asking the doctor what this tube was and what that machine did. She was frantic. She was deeply interested in God and spirituality her whole life, but she didn’t know (God). Hence her last moments. Her greatest gift to me was to promote, in her dying, the necessity of a relationship with God. Not an interest, not just a belief, but a relationship built on proof as tangible as a hug. Her last gift to me was the ultimate persuasion for faith.” 

This open and powerful interview on deeply personal questions of faith should be making headlines. Instead, in most news outlets, we’re likely to just see more of the petty feuds, like that between Spears and her family, or more hot takes about LaBeouf’s controversy with Wilde instead of deeper questions about his evolving faith and beliefs.

This is the way of Hollywood and the shallow and controversy driven media. For every Spears, there may not be a LaBeouf, but here’s hoping that faithful celebrities like LaBeouf are able to break through the noise and not just talk about their faith, but actively live it. 

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”

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