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When Justin Bieber Talks To God

A look at the role of prayer in his public persona

In February 2011, a 16-year-old Justin Bieber made headlines with a controversial statement.

“I don’t think you should have sex with anyone unless you love them,” he told Rolling Stone's Vanessa Grigoriadis in a now-infamous cover story. “I think you should just wait for the person you’re ... in love with.”

Which, admittedly, paled in comparison to the revelation a few paragraphs later that he was strongly opposed to abortion. He explained both stances as rooted in his belief in Christianity — a declaration that surprised some, even though close observers of his career knew his faith had been a major part of his identity from the start.

In fact, Bieber’s relationship with God has been one of the only consistent things about him as he's grown from an adorable teen star to a slightly older teen rebel to a purposeful adult apologizer to a guy who thinks Instagram is literally Satan. In 2009, Justin’s mother told the New York Times how she’d pray that her son would end up a leader, youth pastor, or Christian singer. (This led to some confusion on her part when manager Scooter Braun entered the picture: “I prayed, ‘God, you don’t want this Jewish kid to be Justin’s man, do you?’") In 2011, Justin prayed over pizza with his pals in Never Say Never, and released a song called “Pray,” just to make it extra clear.

More recently, in 2014, Biebs quietly moved in with Pastor Carl — one of the lead pastors at the hip church Hillsong NYC — for a month and a half as an apparent means of escaping his reality at the time. Now he’s been leading Bible study courses behind the scenes on his Purpose tour. Which brings us to an eternal question: Why?

Anonymous British tabloid sources offered that Justin’s Bible studies are about paying his belief system forward — a means of helping those around him, since he feels that turning to Jesus has helped him in the past. That makes sense. But it doesn’t answer the question of why we’re hearing about it at this moment in time. When news of Justin’s Christian endeavors bubbles up, should we see it as a savvy plot device in his evolving public persona — sort of like how assorted early-2000s celebrities followed Madonna’s lead in publicly embracing Kabbalah, making them seem super cool and spiritual, only for many of them to eventually take a step back? Or is it his way of reminding us where he first came from — the way, years after her stint as a Christian singer, Katy Perry’s relationship with faith remains a big part of her personal narrative?

Justin’s faith has never been a secret. From those early days to his prayer stance on the cover of last year’s Purpose, Biebs has consistently positioned himself as a young man who believes in God. I mean, long before tattooing a cross onto his face this past May, he inked Jesus’s name in Hebrew along his rib cage, put the man himself on the calf of his leg, and then added angels, scripture verses, and a crucifix to the mix. He’s thanked both God and Jesus during acceptance speeches.

But while his tattoos and his thank-yous are obviously public displays of devotion, they lack the broadcast, “hey, guys, check this out” quality that tends to accompany news of, say, his backstage Bible studies.

Or the 2014 news that Justin had begun attending Bible study with ex Selena Gomez.

Or the 2015 declaration that Baby B wants “to live like Jesus.”

Or Bieber’s decision to bring a journalist with him to church — while actively promoting an album rooted in finding oneself in the wake of personal disaster.

Public prayer and acts of dedication are obviously genuine components of Justin’s belief system, but it’s interesting that his Bible study stories began circulating via “sources” and TMZ at the height of his Most Terrible Year™ — or that news of his rejection of the RNC came out this July, around the same time he’d been served a notice of violation after allegedly exhibiting lions. In fact, it’s interesting that Justin’s most public presentation of his relationship with God tends to accompany moments of faltering. When he needs to be redeemed, he reminds us that he subscribes to a religion (and entity) willing to do it. He reminds us that he is good, and that he is trying.

Justin’s Christianity is as much a part of him as his affinity for new hairstyles and ability to hit high notes. But he should know that true fans should already know that — and he doesn’t need to give us a PR lesson in God stuff for us to remember. In his own words, “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco.”