Lady Gaga's Guilt-Free Gospel

Examining the role of religion on Born This Way, the singer's latest opus

Reuters/Paul Hackett

Lady Gaga appears on the cover of the latest Rolling Stone with the cutline "Monster Goddess," which isn't quite right: When you get down to it, Gaga is not her own deity but rather a congregant, a preacher, an apostle. She calls her intense, theatrical concert performances "church." She wears large, costume-piece crucifixes.

Given her looming, still-growing presence in pop culture, we all have a stake in wondering: an apostle for what? Few would say Jesus, even though she believes in him; we know this because she told Larry King. We also know this because she says so in a few different places on the newly released Born This Way, which just enjoyed the best-selling first week for any CD in the past six years. Gaga will not call herself a Christian, and while it's clear that her reverence for the man who was Christ isn't a pose (no one gains anything if she's feigning a line like, "There's only three men that I'mma serve my whole life / It's my daddy, and Nebraska, and Jesus Christ"), it also comes across as mere biography. The human formerly known as Stephanie Germanotta was raised Catholic but is now searching: "I'm a quite religious woman that is very confused about religion," was another line she used on King.

Out of this confusion comes Born This Way's cobbled-together but coherent personal theology. Throughout, Gaga latches onto Christian tropes but ups their approachability with statements like, "It doesn't matter if you love him or capital H-I-M." The religious redecorating starts on the very first track, which stars Gaga in a non-traditional wedding. "I'm going to marry the night," she tells us repeatedly, first over space-fantasy synth twinkles and then over a skyscraping, fuzz-swathed club pulse. She's a "loser" and a "sinner," but in the late-night streets of New York City, in the fishnet-friendly bars and on beat-up backseats, she has found the guy--wait, girl--wait, moment in time and space--that she wants to be with for eternity.

"Marry the Night," and most of the tracks that follow, posit that salvation comes by taking charge of one's own identity and remaining unapologetic. The references are often biblical, yet the message plays as new-agey. This is why Born Your Way may end up being as culturally significant as Gaga--never coy about her ambitions of importance--wants it to be. Through her lyrics, she promotes living with religion in the same way that kids-these-days increasingly seem to live: holding onto the trappings of how she was raised, but embracing a philosophy of unquestioning acceptance and strident self-determination.

This contrast between the Christian specificity and love-yourself boilerplate in Gaga's lyrics and public persona has, of course, has gotten her called a blasphemer, megalomaniac, and faker. But more weirdly, a common reaction from Christian critics (Westboro Baptists not included) has been a tired "meh." The Catholic League's Bill Donohue, who's built a career on pooh-poohing shock-art interpreters of the crucifix, seemed bored when he came on Fox News in April to chat about Gaga's deliciously abrasive single "Judas." He said he recognized that Gaga wasn't corrupting kids, and that her use of Christian iconography was fairly empty. "I don't like the copycatting of Madonna," was among his more-potent complaints.

Gaga-Madonna comparisons like Donohue's are played out--yes, both singers are ethnic Italians, raised Catholic, and artistically chameleonic--but remain instructive. For example, compare Born This Way with 1989's Like a Prayer. Both are self-consciously artsy statements that lean heavily on their creators' Catholic backgrounds. But Like a Prayer was about relationship politics, with the psychodrama stemming from Madonna's bouts with unwanted guilt: On "Oh Father," Madonna excoriates her emotionally abusive dad, and then, at the end, starts singing that she may have been too harsh on the guy.

Gaga, on the other hand, luxuriates in the absence of guilt. Again and again on Born This Way, she encourages her "Little Monsters"--these are her fans--to reject, defy, outwit, and ignore external judges of behavior: parents, boyfriends, kids at school. But internal shame--vestigial Catholic guilt, held over from Sunday School--for, say, premarital sex, dressing funny, hooking up with members of one's own gender? For Gaga, such feelings are incomprehensible. She is certain of her own righteousness; her emotional enemy is not shame but insecurity.

And crucially, for all of Gaga's talk of universal love, Born This Way promotes tribalism. Search for the right clique, she says, to validate your own weirdness. "The album is about rebirth in every sense," Gaga recently told the Financial Times' Stephen Fry. "It's about being reborn again and again until you find the identity inside yourself that defines you best for who you are and that makes you most feel like a champion of life." It's both fitting and shocking to hear Gaga describe her own message this way. In the end, pop's reigning provocateur is her own breed of born-again.