Justin Bieber has the Hebrew word for Jesus tattooed on his side. He got that done in Israel, on a trip during which he complained on Twitter about overzealous paparazzi hindering his access to the country’s holy sites. He believes that Jesus died on the cross for his sins, that he talks to Jesus, that Jesus is the reason he's here. When was the last time a mainstream pop star was this openly religious? And yet it’s done very little to hamper his cross-market appeal. Nearly three years into Biebermania, and with a Christmas album around the corner, it’s clear how well his team has handled — and, when the time was right, took advantage of — Bieber’s faith.
His Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe (out November 1), is a no-brainer. The single, “Mistletoe,” is solidly constructed and sticks to of the kid’s formula. Over an acoustic guitar line cribbed from Jazon Mraz’s "I’m Yours," Bieber drops just a pinch of juvenile swag: “Imma be under the mistletoe, shorty, with you.” He makes a half-bar Bible reference (“the wise men followed the star ...”) — but mostly sings about puppy love (“... the way I follow my heart”). The whole thing is breezy demonstration of his faith-based M.O.: a release technically religious, and yet so innocuously centrist it risks offending no one. Representative press coverage: “Justin Bieber Holiday LP Inspired By 'Christmas Cookies.'”
From day one, Bieber has simultaneously sent strong signals to his Christian base while downplaying his religion to other markets. The small-town Christian values element was a big part of his original sales pitch. Any Belieber worth her bedazzled trapper keeper could probably tell you that his mother, Pattie Mallette, originally envisioned her son as a Christian pop singer. Things changed, though, when manager Scooter Braun signed Bieber, and set about on a plan for world domination. In a 2009 New York Times feature, Mallete says, “I prayed, ‘God, you don’t want this Jewish kid to be Justin’s man, do you?’” And earlier this year, the Times asked, “If a Christian music impresario had found him on YouTube instead of Mr. Braun, a hip-hop and R&B-minded one, would Mr. Bieber be touring megachurches, not arenas?” But Bieber broke out with “Baby,” an up-tempo, totally secular love song, and singing for God fell by the wayside.
But Bieber's faith came back this February with Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 3D, the documentary/concert film, and arguably the greatest success yet for Braun’s all-corners strategy. Directed by Jon Chu, best known for his work with the Step Up franchise, Never Say Never was a glitzy, slick, and highly effective bit of messaging: Bieber, underdog hero. At the same time, though, Braun and Paramount Pictures were pushing another agenda. As USA Today reported, “Paramount has screened the movie for faith leaders across the country and distributed spiritual discussion guides — the same tools used to promote The Passion of the Christ and The Blind Side as family-friendly fare.” Added Braun, “There are some stars who speak their faith because they're trying to do outreach to that audience and there are others who share that side of their lives because that's who they are. And I think that's just who Justin is." And, with the most chutzpah of all: “Braun … said the two regularly pray the Shema, Judaism's most central prayer, before the start of each concert.” On whether or not a Koran or the Bhagavad Gita make their way backstage, too, Braun did not elaborate.
Bieber, 17, is now attempting a transition. He’s been testing the waters by with more risqué material. He’s been photographed in public kissing his girlfriend, Selena Gomez. And that means his religious devotion will continue to be monitored. When he thanked "not only God but also Jesus" at the VMAs this year, the Christian Post semi-seriously wrote "Justin Bieber Sparks VMA Twitter Theological." Meanwhile, Mallette can operate as a default proxy for Bieber in the religious press. As she’s told the Catholic Herald, “Justin's faith is strong, but he is young and hasn't come completely into himself yet. So what I can do is pray and continue surrounding him with strong Christian influence.”
After Bieber, Kanye might be mainstream music’s most outspoken Christian. On “Jesus Walks,” he nods at the uncomfortable intersection of pop and God: “they say you can talk about anything except for Jesus.” But if Kanye is using it as a sales strategy, it’s a touch misguided. (Safe to say JB would probably never pose as Jesus on the cover of Rolling Stone.) In comparison, there’s Bieber’s “Pray.” It’s the most overtly Christian song of his career, but it’s extremely measured. Justin ticks off a litany of general societal ills, then prays for “a better day”; at one point, he goes so far as to ask “Heaven, tell me I can make a change.” It was a forgettable single in the kid’s oeuvre, but telling. “Pray” lands exactly at the edge of religiosity that Bieber feels comfortable with. And it's a short porch.
He attends a non-denominational church. He loves Jesus, but he’s flexible enough to trot out Jewish prayers. He’s about faith, not organized religion. Everything about Justin Bieber, down to this, has been carefully calculated to make his tent as big as possible.