Change has been among the few constants in the pop star’s meandering religious odyssey. Does it have any meaning beyond her brand?
In a now-deleted post featuring herself twirling in a flowery blue dress, Britney Spears stated, “I just got back from mass . . . I’m Catholic now . . . let us pray 🙏🏼 !!!” Out of surprise and curiosity, Catholic and other religious news outlets quickly circulated the news. Catholic members of the “Britney Army” were quick to welcome her into the faith, and Catholic Answers triumphantly tweeted, “Ladies and gentlemen, we got her.”
Whether she created the post sincerely or in jest remains uncertain, but one thing is clear: Britney Spears’ declaration of faith adds a new chapter to a surprisingly eventful religious biography. Like much of her career, Spears’ religiosity has been subjected to intense examination, suspicion, and ridicule—and shrouded in gossip and secrecy. Through it all, Spears’ faith journey reveals much about the artist’s complex life—and about the strange society of which she is a part.
In the early stages of her career, Spears’ traditionalist Christian faith played an important role in cultivating her status as a paragon of American innocence. While much of this persona was tied to her years as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and her schoolgirl getup from the 1999 hit single “. . . Baby One More Time,” Spears’ vibe of conservative religiosity undoubtedly helped to cultivate this public image. Raised in Kentwood, Louisiana as a Southern Baptist, Spears spent much of her youth singing in church choirs and participating in Christian-themed pageants. For her audition with Jive Records she sang “Jesus Loves Me”. Rolling Stone described sixteen-year-old Spears as adhering to her Baptist faith, sharing details about her prayer life and regular church attendance.
Given her international fame, Christian leaders were divided on what to make of Spears and her influence on America’s youth. The Center for Parent-Youth Understanding called Spears a “confusing post-modern mix of spirituality and teasing schoolgirl sexuality.” Much of the discussion revolved around her provocative style and her sexually charged lyrics, with Christianity Today portraying Spears as an icon of a “hypersexualized youth culture.” But her virginity and her intention to save sex for marriage also dominated the discussion. While Spears did not cite religion as her reason for abstinence, the links with Christian purity culture were hard to miss. In declaring the importance of her virginity, Spears became a champion for pro-chastity movements like True Love Waits. Members of the Church of England also praised her for her “strong principles and religious views,” describing her as “a great ambassador for virginity.” The obsession with Spears’ virginity correlated with an evangelical purity culture that admired Joshua Harris’ (now regretted) I Kissed Dating Goodbye, handed out abstinence pledges, and sold purity rings.
Yet as Spears’ music became more sexualized, particularly with the release of “I’m a Slave 4 U” and her 2001 MTV Video Music Awards performance with an albino Burmese python, ongoing discussion of her Christian faith virtually disappeared. The Christian community lambasted Spears as an emblem of America’s moral decline. By early 2002, it seemed Spears had lost her religion, or at least interest in it, trading Southern Baptist Christian innocence for a supposedly godless LA hedonism.
But in November 2003, Spears graced the cover of Entertainment Weekly with an angelic costume and a prayerful pose. Visible on her left wrist was a red string bracelet, a talisman associated with Kabbalah. Though connected with Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah became fashionable in the late nineties and early 2000s within New Age circles. In an email, Boaz Huss, an expert Kabbalistic, describes how modern “forms of Kabbalah often combine contemporary New Age cultural themes and practices with traditional Kabbalistic doctrines and customs.” Prominent celebrity converts, most notably Madonna (who introduced it to Spears), raised Kabbalah’s profile in the early 2000s. According to the San Francisco Examiner, during the 2003 MTV VMAs, Madonna talked Britney’s “ear off about the Kabbalah.” While working on her album In the Zone, Spears wore the Kabbalistic red string bracelet and regularly visited the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center.
Spears denoted her increased devotion to Kabbalah in 2004 with a Hebrew tattoo on the back of her neck. In a rare comment about her religious beliefs, Spears declared on her website that, “Through Kabbalah, I was able to look within myself, clear all the negative energy and turn my life around.” Despite this apparent devotion, Spears had left Kabbalah by 2006. According to Today, Spears grew frustrated with the Los Angeles Kabbalah Center’s mounting pressure to donate funds beyond an ongoing tithe of her salary. Following her exit from Kabbalah, Spears explored Hinduism for a brief time before later proclaiming on her website, “My baby is my religion.”
Spears’ departure from Kabbalah coincided with her most tumultuous years. Negative paparazzi attention increased scrutiny on her personal life. Culminating in the infamous head-shaving scene in 2007, Spears’ public meltdown was regularly met with glee by TV personalities, comedians, and celebrity news magazines. Yet amid the chaos, a megachurch in Lexington, Kentucky, offered the fallen star support through a letter-writing campaign. Imploring compassion from his 8,000-member congregation, pastor John Weece asked, “If she were your next-door neighbor in the same situation without the money and success, wouldn’t you care about her problems? Wouldn’t you pray for her and offer her support and encouragement?” Spears thanked them on her website. The Passion of the Christ director, Mel Gibson, reportedly also reached out to her, claiming that “Christianity would save her.”
Under her father’s conservatorship since 2008, Spears launched a musical comeback that coincided with a return to regular church attendance. She also began to pray before performances and tweet favorite Bible verses. Her social media posts are now frequently peppered with thanks to God for her friends and family and requests for prayers in times of need. Her Instagram bio includes a personal motto, “Pray Every Day 🙏🏼✝️.” In another deleted Instagram post, upon taking questions from fans about her religion, Spears responded, “I’m Baptist. I grew up Baptist. But I studied Kabbalah, so I go back and forth—but I do believe there is a God.”
Although the post is now deleted, Catholics met the news of Spears’ conversion with enthusiasm Kaya Oakes, a writer for the Jesuit magazine America, comments in an email that “Catholicism has a history of making room for visionary women, women with mental health issues, women who were troubled in one way or another. So, in some ways, it’s a natural landing place spiritually for Britney right now.” Ed Condon, editor and co-founder of The Pillar notes in an email that “she’s in a line of pop culture icons whose religious flirtations or awakenings get seized upon, and I think it’s a cautionary tale for believers too. We all hope to find grace and healing, but the journey of faith takes time, and those making it need the quiet space to make it. That’s not something you get on Instagram.”
Like many artists before her, from Bob Dylan to Kanye West, Spears’ very public religious journey is blurry. But even in its ambiguity, religion remains an oddly constant feature in the pop star’s biography. Now with her conservatorship coming to an end, giving Spears more autonomy than she’s had in years, one wonders how this freedom might next express itself religiously. What becomes of Spears’ faith will no doubt be subject to intense scrutiny both from the media and from her devoted fans. The truth may have set Britney free, but after shining a light on her complex religious life, people will be eager to know if she does indeed “still believe.”
Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University in American Religious History. He is a frequent contributor to The Bulwark, and his writings have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Hill, National Review, and The New Criterion. He is also the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.