The List July/August 2006

Leaps of Faith

When pop stars get religion

In the year since Michael Jackson’s acquittal on charges of child molestation, the reclusive singer has abandoned Neverland Ranch for Bahrain, where he’s been a guest of the royal family. Jackson recently promised to build a mosque in the tiny kingdom, and he was spotted in a Bahraini mall wearing a flowing abaya robe, traditionally the garb of Muslim women. In March, CBS News reported that the King of Pop, raised a Jehovah’s Witness, might soon convert to Islam. Below is a selection of famous entertainers who changed faiths in midcareer, along with a few details on how well each conversion took.

1. Sammy Davis Jr. (Judaism)

This Rat Packer was born to Christian parents, but didn’t practice a faith until he lost his eye in a 1954 car crash. While recovering, Davis found himself poring over a history of Judaism. His eventual conversion prompted giggles and suspicion among Jews and Gentiles alike. But though his beliefs drifted over the years—toward reincarnation and even Satanism, briefly—he never gave up his adopted faith, and died with a rabbi by his side. And the jokes were great: “I’m colored, Jewish, and Puerto Rican,” he would say. “When I move into a neighborhood, I wipe it out!”

2. Cat Stevens (Islam)

Raised Greek Orthodox, the British-born Stevens converted to Islam in 1977, following years of spiritual searching prompted by a bout of tuberculosis. Taking the name Yusuf Islam, he gave up music entirely, entered an arranged marriage, and founded a Muslim school in London. He’s been dogged by controversy: in the late 1980s, he seemed to endorse the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; he was deported from Israel in 2000 amid allegations that he supported Hamas; and he appeared on a U.S.-government “no-fly” list after September 11. Of late, his anti-music stance has softened: in 1998 he released an album in support of the Bosnian Muslims, and he is reportedly working on a new pop album.

3. Bob Dylan (Christianity)

The Jewish singer-songwriter became a born-again Christian in 1979, after experiencing what he later described as “this vision and feeling” of Christ’s presence. His songs became explicitly religious, laced with fire-and-brimstone themes, and many fans and critics abandoned him (though some of the music from this era is now considered to rank among Dylan’s best). Then his zeal seemed to wane: he reportedly flirted with an orthodox Hasidic sect, the Lubavitchers, and became coy about his exact beliefs. In a 1997 interview, he associated his religion with the music of his youth. “Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book,” Dylan said. “I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs.”

4. Adam Yauch (Buddhism)

The trash-talking, Jewish-born Beastie Boys frontman became a Buddhist after encountering Tibetan refugees during a snowboarding trip in Nepal. He organized a series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts and donated royalties from Buddhism-inspired songs like “Bodhisattva Vow” to the Tibetan cause. He even briefly considered becoming a Buddhist monk; instead, he married Dechen Wangdu, a Tibetan-American woman he met at a speech by the Dalai Lama.

5. Madonna (Kabbalah)

After trading on her girlhood Catholicism for years, in the late 1990s the pop star embraced Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism repackaged into a Hollywood-friendly faith (or cult, to its critics) by the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre. Madonna reportedly took the biblical name Esther after being told she was a reincarnation of the biblical queen, and she has donated almost $20 million to her new religion. She has also drawn other celebrities—including Britney Spears, David Beckham, Demi Moore, and Ashton Kutcher—into its orbit.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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