Q&A: How Celebrity Activists Are Changing Morality in America

Crowd on the streets celebrating

Are celebrities increasingly acting as our moral compass?

That’s the question posed in University of Virginia religious studies professor John Portmann’s new book, “Celebrity Morals and the Loss of Religious Authority,” backed up by a long list of celebrities who have taken up social causes.

This month, megastar songwriter Taylor Swift attracted both praise and criticism for her new album’s vigorous embrace of LGBTQ rights, and comedian Mindy Kaling celebrated her 40th birthday by donating to 40 charities of fans’ choices.  In a prominent example last year, reality television star Kim Kardashian visited the White House to argue for prison reform. Celebrities have appeared alongside politicians on the campaign trail, used Oscars speeches to advocate for moral or political causes, spoken up on social media and taken action on humanitarian rights at the border, racism, gender equality and a range of other causes.

Portmann argues that the trend began when Hollywood studios lost their vice grip on actors’ personal lives in the 1960s and continued as traditional moral authorities faced scandals and skepticism, from widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests to hypocrisy and polarization among politicians.

John Portmann headshot

John Portmann is a professor in UVA’s religious studies department specializing in moral psychology and moral history, Catholic theology, sexual ethics and psychoanalysis. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

We caught up with him to discuss the consequences – good and bad – of allowing celebrities to shape our collective social conscience.

Q. You argue that celebrities are increasingly expected to be moral activists. How did that shift come about?

A. In the late 1950s, early 1960s, things changed pretty suddenly for celebrities. Movie stars – as opposed to athletes, for example – used to work in a very carefully controlled studio system in Hollywood. People like Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman were kind of owned by a particular studio, which not only determined which films they did, but also carefully constructed their public persona.

That studio system collapsed and suddenly celebrities were going out and getting their own parts – and they didn’t have studios telling them what to do in public. That’s when more celebrities started taking political stances. Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, for example, marched on Washington in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a pretty bold choice for an actor at the time. Athletes like Muhammad Ali were taking political stances as well, fighting racism and becoming known as moral leaders.

By the 1990s and the 2000s – with the political arena seeing more and more scandals, as well as sex scandals among priests – celebrities like Oprah [Winfrey], Meryl Streep and many more were speaking out on a whole range of issues, and Americans were getting more access to these celebrities on social media.

Now, things have shifted so quickly that it’s almost expected for celebrities to do this – and notable if they do not.

Q. How did this shift parallel other political and social shifts?

A. Many polls have shown that Americans have less and less confidence in elected officials, the police, priests, rabbis and other traditional authority figures. Americans are looking for people they can trust, because we have had so many scandals indicating that people we trusted before were not very trustworthy.

Additionally, two major Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s played a role. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that official school prayer in public schools was unconstitutional, and in 1963 they ruled that it was unconstitutional to make children read the Bible in public school. Many parents had relied on this to teach morality and ethics and felt like that traditional platform was being taken away.

Q. What are some of the risks of viewing celebrities as moral authorities?

A. Many argue that celebrities have no right to speak out on these issues because they do not have traditional credentials in law, religion or philosophy. I do not believe that. While there is a risk that people will pay less attention to those traditional leaders, religious or otherwise, that might not be such a bad thing, given some of the scandals we have seen recently.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can now get on their soapbox and start making moral proclamations, often with little to back that up. Morality has become more of a free-for-all and the responsibility for determining morality rests on the shoulders of everyday Americans, who might find it easier to listen to celebrities they already like rather than conducting research themselves. However, this is arguably what we have done all along, with priests, rabbis, political leaders, etc. 

Q. What are some of the benefits?

A. One important benefit is that ethics becomes part of everyday life and everyday discussions. It used to be that people who studied philosophy or religion were kind of off to the side. Now that people like Taylor Swift, Oprah or Colin Kaepernick are talking about very important moral issues; those issues and debates have become mainstream and, if not cool, at least more frequently talked about.

Q. Politically, Hollywood is often assumed to skew more liberal. Could this tilt debates to the left?

A. Many celebrities tend to take stances farther to the left, which can certainly skew the conversation. However, there are examples on the right as well. Donald Trump is the biggest one – he leveraged his celebrity to run for and win the presidency. Figures on both the right and left can use their platform to start these debates.

Q. How could this sort of moral activism influence America’s future?  

A. It’s fascinating, because we are now listening to people who do not purport to be angels or perfect, upstanding citizens – as many politicians and priests have claimed before. Those claims turned out to be false – people had affairs, took bribes, did other terrible things.

Amid all that, celebrities started driving the discussion around morality, and my hunch is this will continue into the future. Some would say that is a bad thing, but I don’t see it that way. Americans are free to turn the channel and stop listening if they want, but I think it’s great to have these famous figures making ethical and moral debates important.