Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Faith in Kanye | Righting America

by Larry Smith

Larry Smith is Founder & President of Leading Edge Advisory Firm (LEAF LLC), a consultancy that he founded in 2009.  LEAF helps academic, non-profit, for-profit, and faith-based organizations improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Larry is also the former Managing Director of Indiana University’s Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. He received the Indianapolis Business Journal’s “Forty Under 40” award, “Indy’s Best & Brightest Award” from Junior Achievement, was named to the inaugural class of NextGen Fellows by American Express and Independent Sector, and was selected for the 2010 class of Tobias Fellows at Indiana University.  Larry also serves as Associate Pastor at New Direction Church, and is the proud parent of three wonderful children.  Larry earned a BA from Williams College, where he was a Lehman Scholar, and an MS from Stanford Business School, where he was a Sloan Fellow.

Donald Trump and Kanye West meeting in October 2018. Official White House Photo, Public Domain.

Now John answered Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not forbid him… For he who is not against us is on our side. Mark 9:38-40 (NKJV).

The question of who has the authority to act or speak on behalf of Jesus has been controversial since He walked the earth. All but a tiny percentage of historians acknowledge that Jesus, at a minimum, was a real historical figure. That does not prevent Jews, Muslims, and Christians – as well as atheists and agnostics – from arguing about the exact nature of His identity. Scholars engage in “textual criticism” regarding what Jesus actually said, as well as the general reliability of Scripture.

Such debates would be much easier to “win” if Jesus had simply copyrighted (or otherwise legally protected) His intellectual property. If we had to gain permission from His estate in order to use and promote said intellectual property, we could end at least a few of the arguments. (Maybe.)

I raise this thought exercise as hip hop impresario, businessman, fashion designer, and Trump whisperer Kanye West has re-imaged himself as a modern-day preacher, pundit, and psalmist. West seems to have caught the Spirit – or at least a spirit. Is it a mere zeitgeist that allows him literally to capitalize on a major global market (i.e., Christians)? Or is it something more… spiritual? Is it a bit of both? 

The sad fact is that, if Kanye is a charlatan, he’s far from the only one. (For example, there is no shortage of “prosperity preachers.”) Still, the astronomical level of his celebrity means that he could lead millions to salvation – or to perdition. Thus, even if Yeezy’s conversion is genuine, such would not necessarily exonerate him in God’s eyes. Preachers must be relevant, but they also must be right.

The man who boasted that “Jesus walks with (him)” – while demonstrating little evidence thereof – is drawing thousands of people to his “Sunday Service,” which is both the name of a gospel/rap group that he founded and the name of the religious gatherings that he has conducted every Sunday since January of this year. 

West also performed on Friday, September 27th. Presumably, it is no accident that this “service” coincided with the announced release of his ninth album, Jesus is King.

Speaking of which, Jesus Is King is not only West’s ninth straight album to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 200; every song on the album debuted on that list. (The album is also #1 on Billboard’s Christian and Gospel music charts.) A few months ago, Mascotte Holdings, which has filed several trademark applications for West, applied for one regarding “Sunday Service.” Apparently, Yeezy wants us to be cozy in his socks, shirts, pants, scarves, and other apparel. Understandably, this has caused people to wonder whether he is more interested in building his brand than in saving souls. Considering one of the lines from Jesus Walks, one can now definitively say that Yee’s foray into Gospel is neither taking away from his “spins” (i.e., radio play and streaming) nor his “ends” (i.e., money). But will it take away from his sins?

West is the rare major celebrity who has no qualms about sharing his faith. He admitted on Keeping Up with the Kardashians that he has long wanted to have a church of his own. (Of course, given our tax laws, that could lead to a nonprofit organization that generates a lot of, well, profit.) Yet, assuming that he is sincere, he conceivably could be responsible for converting people everywhere from Rodeo Drive to Main Street.

However, we should not expect a steeple to be raised any time soon. In an interview with Elle magazine, spousal unit Kim Kardashian-West stated that “Sunday Service” is not a church. She revealed that it is “more like a healing experience” for Yeezy. She said, “It’s just music; there is no sermon. It’s definitely something he believes in – Jesus, and there is a Christian vibe.” 

As a minister of the Gospel, I struggle with nebulous notions of “spirituality” (or “Christian vibes”), which generally connote that one wants to receive blessings from God (or at least “be in relationship” with Him), but does not want to obey His commands. The only thing that God wants is for us all to feel good about ourselves, right? Hogwash…

Celebrity branding expert, Jeetendr Sehdev, has said, “It’s great that Kanye is putting his faith front and center and showing us what really matters to him. It’s a brave and unapologetic move that should be lauded.” 

This is in line with the lauds – and jeers – that West has received for his close relationship with President Trump. He has even engaged in “reverse code switching”, which keeps social media outlets ablaze with arguments as to whether he is a “sellout” in order to keep literally selling out stadiums and streaming services.

One fan tweeted about West’s apparent conversion, as well as hers:

I used to strip dance to the song “Gold Digger” by Kanye West. Now, years later, I am praising and worshiping the Lord while listening to his album ‘Jesus Is King… You are never too far gone. God will call you, appoint you and work through you to bring him glory. 

The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways.

(A version of this  post appeared in the  Indianapolis Recorder.)