“Our little church is painted white
And in the safety of the night
We all go quiet as a mouse
For the word is out
God is in the house”
–Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “God Is In The House”
Last week, Tila Tequila…I mean, Tornado Thien, the reality show star turned (neo)Nazi sympathizer, has apparently made yet another whiplash-inducing transition: religious zealot, announcing on a rambling high decibel YouTube livestream that she would be starting a GoFund Me campaign to fundraise for her upcoming gospel album. Describing herself as the “obedient daughter of Christ and bride of Christ” (a strange combination), this gospel album, as ordered by God himself, will be “fantastically ridiculously outlandishly foolish and funny because that’s what God wants.” Wait, didn’t God like her other songs like “Stripper Friends” and “Fuck Ya Man”?
After seeing this mind-boggling display, I, like any good trash researcher, took a nutty spin around Tornado Thien’s YouTube channel that also boasts baffling and hilarious videos like “God’s Favor Surrounds Me Like A Shield,” long diatribes about time traveling to 1996, and my personal favorite “HOW TO DANCE TO WORSHIP THE LORD: HOLY SPIRIT-LED DANCE TO RELEASE BREAKTHROUGH AND VICTORY,” which apparently is just twirling around your living room with a tambourine. Before becoming a pious YouTube proselytizer, Tila had cozied herself up to the alt-right, making news for getting kicked off of Twitter after posting a photo of herself doing the Nazi salute at some white nationalist conference in D.C. She seems nice…However, Thien’s new transformation into, as she describes, “God’s mighty battle axe and weapon of war” begs the question–is recording a gospel album and diving deep into crackpot religiosity the next step for the alt-right?
It would seem so, since she isn’t the only alt-righter to turn to gospel. That not-quite-so-Dangerous, conservative camp Milo Yiannopoulos recently released his own gospel tune, a schmaltzy rendition of Kirk Franklin’s “Silver & Gold,” which is just so overwhelmingly cornball I can’t listen to it without bursting into tears…of laughter, of course, at its sappy backing track and soaring falsettos that make me want to force Milo to sing it live. There is also an accompanying music video, which is basically an iMovie-produced video tribute to himself. The video features slow motion footage of Milo’s antics and cheesy pans into photographs of Milo hugging a giant stuffed tiger and holding some likely disgusting Trump-branded liquor, as well as a dinner receipt for $7,558.92 and a close-up of some ruby red glittering loafers.
Now if you’ve been paying attention (why would you?), you’d know that Milo is apparently millions of dollars in the hole, which is why he’s been hocking items such as a crystal-encrusted microphone, a giant photograph of himself holding a rifle, and the same $4500 Louboutin red loafers that are seen in the video. Talk about cross-marketing! And apparently, this newly impoverished state inspired Milo to seek comfort in the Lord or Kirk Franklin, according to a laughably unreliable story he told in the caption of his Instagram post upon “Silver & Gold”’s release, a text I’m going to quote at length in awe of its audacity:
“If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you could probably tell that my life has been a struggle for the past few years. And that’s no understatement. I went from worrying about the next Louis Vuitton release, to worrying about how I will feed my family.
I can say this without embarrassment now, because I’ve accepted it: I have lost nearly everything. The rapid evolution forced upon me and my family by the hate of the left has literally transformed my life. But, right now, I can stand tall and thank them for that.”
Yes, it was totally the hate of the left that did it. Not all that expensive wine Milo drowned his sorrows in. So where did Milo turn? Let’s keep reading:
“My journey through these challenges took many paths: confusion, anger, contempt and desperation. But one cold Sunday morning, as I was taking a stroll through the streets of New Jersey, I was doubled-over by a sound. Through the thin walls of a local church, I could hear the choir bellow out the words, “Silver and gold, silver and sold, I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold.” I stopped dead in my tracks and sat down on salt-sprinkled steps and listened as the voices from a gospel choir surrounded me. The words, “What profits a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul” . . . they stung me. I was too embarrassed to even open the church doors because of the tears streaming down my face – but that moment changed the trajectory of my life.
My faith, my family, my work for freedom . . . that’s all I need in this world, and I now know, it’s something they can never take away. I want to share that moment with you and others, because it’s a lesson in life that we all need.”
God bless you, Milo! While the image of Milo walking all desperate and dejected only to have a religious epiphany on the mean streets of New Jersey is certainly cinematic, I have trouble believing that story actually happened, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?! And apparently, it also inspired others including a commenter who wrote: “My dad runs music at a Baptist church in Maryland. He’d live to have you as a guest soloist,” to which Milo responded, probably unintentionally ironically, “Hell yes!”
Are either Milo or Tila serious? Or is this just another grift? It’s hard to say. And it’s certainly not just the alt-righters that are moving toward wielding exaggerated shows of religiosity as a tool for attention-seeking and power. From evangelists like Franklin Graham traveling to Russia for some unknown reason to meet with prominent and sanctioned Russian officials, to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo only giving press conferences to “faith-based media” to the numerous evangelicals that have insinuated that Trump was chosen by God himself to be President (even though, Trump’s general aesthetic and showmanship always reminded me more of Marilyn Manson’s live performance of “Antichrist Superstar”), it feels as if we’ve entered into a new age of, what I’m going to call, trash religiosity.
Of course, maniacal displays of religiosity are nothing new to the United States sociopolitical system. In fact, that’s exactly what this country was founded on: religious nutsos who alienated themselves from the old country seeking to find religious freedom in new land. Wacko forms of religion thrived in America, from utopian communes that would die out in a generation to hellfire witch-burning psychotics. Religious batshittery is absolutely formative to the American way and is woven into the fabric of our country.
However, this new crop of outlandish zealots seem in line with a more recent tacky past–the rise and grift of the televangelists of the 1970s and 1980s. This bygone broadcast era includes figures like Jimmy Swaggart, whose songs like “Jesus Got A Hold Of My Life” are in constant rotation here at Filthy Dreams. Swaggart began his preaching on the back of a flatbed trailer, and eventually rose in popularity on with his television ministry until he *ahem* got caught soliciting prostitutes. Whoops! But, perhaps the most notorious televangelist was Reverend Jimmy Bakker and his mascara-stained, bouffant-adorned wife Tammy Faye Bakker. As Nancy Isenberg writes in her history White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, “Bakker was described as a ‘Bible school dropout,’ and his story revealed a man who not only fleeced his followers, but let a grossly extravagant life. He owned numerous homes, a 1953 Rolls-Royce, a sleek houseboat, and closets filled with expensive suits. Jim and Tammy Faye had gone from living in a trailer to amassing salaries and bonuses in the millions of dollars.”
As Isenberg’s observation reveals, what seems to define these televangelists apart from other religious figures is not only their utter devotion to the Lord above, but their complete adherence to gaudy, outrageous excess here on Earth. In other terms, they’re prime examples of the trash aesthetic. Isenberg says as much in White Trash:“Bakker’s ministry preached the white trash dream of excess.” Bakker even acknowledged his commitment to trash by exclaiming in a service: “I’m excessive. Dear Lord, I’m excessive.” I can’t wait until Milo quotes that.
Of course, Tammy Faye was even more of a trash star than her husband. “There was something almost gothic in the exaggerated white trash image of Tammy Faye Bakker,” explains Isenberg, “She achieved the American dream not because of her beauty, education or talent, but because of having fashioned a cable TV personality that refused to partake in the fine manners of her social betters. Tammy Faye was the rejection of everything Pat Loud (of An American Family) and middle class propriety stood for: emotional restraint, proper diction, subdued dress, and obvious refinement. Nor was she rustic, or the embodiment of old-fashioned yeoman simplicity. She embraced her garish self from head to toe. Her tawdry excess made her beloved among the poor white fans and unredeemable in the eyes of Middle America.”
Sound familiar? The Bakker’s popularity, from the rejection of propriety to the embrace of trash to the dream of cable TV fame, mimics the rise of Trump and his cohort. It’s important to remember just how influential these televangelists were. I mean, they had such a cultural impact that they were given their own WWE character Brother Love, the ultimate white trash compliment. Today, though, instead of cable TV, our new era of trashy religiosity has turned to social media for its influence, whether Tila soliciting gospel-fundraising over YouTube or Marco Rubio tweeting random Bible verses like a subway preacher screeching non-sequiturs over the Internet.
And I know, it’s hard to think of Trump himself as having any sort of religious bent, even though he’s recently gone full-on Jim Jones at CPAC, grinding on the American flag and rambling for over two hours. In addition to the evangelicals’ adoring support, even with his obviously unrepentantly sinning ways because I assume they believe he’s going to usher in the apocalypse, Trump has even recently delved into his own form of trash religiosity by signing Bibles for survivors of tornados in Alabama, adding his grotesque Sharpie signature to the holy book as if he wrote it himself. It’s critical to also note that one of the Bibles he signed was a “Military Challenge Bible,” which after some digging, seems to contextualize the Bible into chapters like “The Commander’s Bio,” “Mail Call,” and “How It All Started,” which I assume goes through Genesis. You can even send in a pre-paid postage stamped envelope and get your own “Basic Training Challenge Coin.” If this combination of Christianity and informercials isn’t trash religiosity, I don’t know what is.
Trump isn’t the only one in the administration nailing the trash religiosity, though. Our very own Secretary of State once told a mega-church in Wichita, Kansas: “It is a never-ending struggle…until the rapture.” I’m sorry…what? Pompeo currently rivals VP Mike Pence in who the biggest God Warrior is in the administration. I hope they have a competition over who can yell the loudest about gargoyles, psychics and other dark-sided stuff.
Lest you think I’m just observing the Trump contingent going full-on Brother Love, it’s not only them. Kanye West is apparently holding strange cult-like Sunday services for friends and family (read: famous people), featuring a choir performing gospel renditions of Yeezus’ songs. Speaking of celebrity religiosity, we also can’t forget the rise of the Hillsong Church, that “cool” yet covertly anti-LGBTQ Australian Pentecostal mega-church that has taken Hollywood by storm. Known for its “hipster Christianity,” Hillsong has attracted congregants like Justin Bieber, Chris Pratt, who also bizarrely erected a giant cross for last Easter, and even, Lana went to a couple services. I hope she records her own gospel album. Imagine Lana doing “He Touched Me.”
Now is Hillsong as trashy as the rest of the examples I’ve provided? You be the judge. According to a GQ interview, Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz baptized Justin Bieber in a bathtub in NBA player Tyson Chandler’s apartment: “I said, ‘Bro, I’m in a jam here. I have JB with me, he wants to get baptized.’ He’s like, ‘Done. Easy.’” Though originally planning to baptize the Biebs in Chandler’s pool, GQ’s Taffy Brodesser-Akner continues, “But they arrive and there’s no access to the pool; it’s too late. Then Tyson realizes he might have another solution. He reminds Carl that he’s seven feet tall and that his bathtub was built to spec. Justin Bieber is slightly tinier than that, and so they go upstairs to Tyson’s place, and Tyson’s wife makes some food and lays down some towels and Justin gets into the tub, and down Justin Bieber goes, and he comes out of the water, and he is reborn.”
Do you think he’d baptize me in a mall fountain? Des Esseintes teaches us that the final decadent act one can do is to collapse into religiosity. And well, who are we to argue?