Every week, tens of millions of Americans tune in religiously to "American Idol" to watch the trials and tribulations of their favorite singers.
This season, though, a large number of those faithful viewers have more than a casual pop-culture interest in the show: They're Christians who are also watching because more than half of this year's crop of finalists — including Danny Gokey, Michael Sarver, Kris Allen, Scott MacIntyre, Matt Giraud and Lil Rounds — either have a strong affiliation with the church or are worship leaders in their communities.
"I think that Christians probably watch the show all the time but maybe don't admit it. But this gives them someone to root for in this cast who is not just talented but also follows their faith, and people want to get behind contestants who align with their views," said Joanne Brokaw, who writes the Gospel Soundcheck" column for the spirituality Web site BeliefNet.com. "Christian music has always had this cheesy label attached to it, and this shows that a Christian singer can have artistic integrity and they are people who can really sing."
Brokaw, a freelance writer who contributes to a number of Christian media outlets, began live-blogging "Idol" this year for BeliefNet, and she said the show's inclusion of such worship leaders as front-runner Gokey and Texas roughneck Sarver piqued her interest early on. "I think someone like Danny Gokey allows mainstream audiences to see that Christian music is not scary," she said. "He's not preachy. And the story of how he lost his wife is so heartbreaking, but you can see there is a joy in his performance that speaks to people. He doesn't have to talk about God for people to see that he's a Christian and see past the stereotype."
According to Brokaw's research, at least six of the remaining top 11 contenders have ties to the church. Among them are Gokey, who she said ran two services in two different cities every Sunday for Faith Builders International until his wife's death; worship leaders Sarver and Allen; gospel-quartet member and churchgoer MacIntrye; Giraud, who has released two Christian CDs; and Rounds, who has said she "grew up in church."
At press time, a spokesperson for "Idol" had not responded to requests for comment for this story.
The show also built what Brokaw thought was an overt bridge to its Christian audience last season when the top eight sang the evangelical Christian tune "Shout to the Lord" during the charity fundraiser "Idol Gives Back"; the song was covered by season-two winner Ruben Studdard on his 2004 gospel album, I Need an Angel.
"Even if contestants don't come out and say it, we can all spot someone [who is Christian]. The more that there are contestants that we can connect with — who we can say, 'That person is like me' — the more it will probably help drive viewership this year," Brokaw said, pointing to a moment on Tuesday's performance show when the judges praised Allen for helping other contestants work on their songs, which Brokaw said brought a knowing nod from Christians who know of his church background.
"We see what kind of person he is, and if you talk to people in his church they'll say they're not surprised." Brokaw said. "But people who don't know that he's a worship leader or actively involved in a Christian church might say, 'Why is he doing that? This is a competition!' Those are the values people want. We love it as much as anyone when Simon gets snarky, but watching a contestant perform with integrity and treating fellow contestants with grace and dignity speaks to us."
Just as this season kicked off, freelance writer CJ Casciotta penned an essay for faith site ConversantLife.com titled "American Idol — Good for TV. Bad for Church," in which he questioned whether the show's shunning of the "awkward, the socially inept, the ugly, the difficult" during the often cruel early rounds shouldn't be a call to action for the rest of us to embrace those whose lives are a struggle.
Casciotta's interest was piqued when he heard "Shout to the Lord" on "Idol" last season, and he suspects that the inclusion was an overt attempt to court Christian viewers. "The people at 'American Idol' are not idiots. They realize that there's this huge percentage of America that watches TV as a family, and a lot of families go to church. ... [The viewers] know worship leaders and musicians in church, and why not bring that aspect to the show?" he said.
He suspected that the inclusion of so many people of faith on "Idol" this year is part of a trend Christian music has been undergoing over the past decade, growing out of its cloistered corner and going more mainstream without losing its core values. "People who are Christians have a platform through 'American Idol' to write their songs and share their stories, and it doesn't have to fit in with the traditional Christian or worship genre," he said.
In fact, Casciotta said, he thinks Christian voters could end up being the deciding factor in this year's finals. "I would hope for people of faith that they would judge solely by talent," he said. "But if it came down to it, and the two [finalists] were equally talented and one was Christian, people would vote for that person who shares our faith."
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