Most subcultures get a thrill from seeing one of their own make it big, and evangelical Christians experience this thrill a lot since they forgo any formal conversion process: If a person convincingly announces they’ve embraced the faith, then bam, they’re in the club. So days after releasing his album Jesus Is King, Kanye West is very much in the club. He may have lost some mainstream mojo in the year since he sauntered into the Oval Office wearing a red MAGA hat. But he has gained a new population of fans among evangelical Christians who see him hitting all the right notes.
West has arguably been a “Christian rapper” for years; “Jesus Walks” is 15 years old. But both the substance of Jesus Is King and the publicity around it have convinced many evangelicals that something different is happening now. Focus on the Family praised the album’s “distinctly Christian message.” (“Bravo Kanye, bravo!”) An anti-abortion activist wrote a listicle of the album’s 10 best lyrics for the Federalist. (“Where he would’ve continued making music glorifying sin, West now glorifies God.”) Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network now covers his concerts regularly. Online, evangelicals have praised his biblical conversion story, his interviews, and the album’s clean language (“I never thought I’d be able to play a Kanye album with my children in the car.”) Others have picked up on more subtle signs of change: West is talking about his father more now, perhaps suggesting a healing relationship with God the father.
Some Christians remain skeptical. As New Testament professor Esau McCaulley wrote in the Washington Post over the weekend, Christians can celebrate West’s faith without elevating him to spiritual leadership too quickly. Others, like writer Danté Stewart, are wary of West’s new embrace by white evangelicalism in particular. But even the positioning of such objections as counterintuitive suggests that many Christians are indeed ready to welcome West to the fold.
West’s conversion didn’t happen overnight. About a year ago, he started hosting traveling invitation-only “Sunday services” that looked awfully like church services. West has plenty of ties to the circle of young, stylish pastors in Justin Bieber’s social circle; one of them performed his lavish wedding in 2014. But he has chosen a theologically rigorous Calvinist pastor as his latest spiritual mentor. The Rev. Adam Tyson is pastor of a small church outside Los Angeles and has close ties to the Master’s Seminary, known for its conservative theology. (Its students and teaching faculty are all male; one of the Duggar sisters’ husbands is a current student.) Over the last several months, Tyson has been on the road with West and has conducted Bible studies with West and his team in Wyoming. He told Christianity Today earlier this month that West is “a new brother in the faith.” Church Clarity, a crowdsourced database of churches’ positions on gender and sexuality issues, reports that Tyson’s church is “non-affirming” on LGBTQ issues and non-egalitarian on the question of women’s leadership.
But West’s new faith goes beyond theology to cultural affinity. One song on Jesus Is King reads as an ode to Chick-fil-A. West has spoken about kicking an addiction to pornography, and he has also said he sometimes asked people working on the album to fast or to avoid premarital sex. Other interviews have revealed his hopes that his wife would dress more modestly, and his new discomfort with letting his 6-year-old daughter wear makeup. Reporting on the evangelical community’s reconsideration of West in the summer, Christianity Today quoted one writer saying, “Kanye seems to feel much more like an insider to Christianity now.”
And yes, there’s the politics, too. Last fall, West visited the Oval Office and told President Donald Trump that wearing a red MAGA that made him “feel like Superman.” West called Trump supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. recently about performing at Liberty University. And anti-abortion groups including the Susan B. Anthony List and Live Action picked up on a radio interview this week in which West lambasted Democrats for taking advantage of black voters even though the party was “making us abort our children,” a popular argument in pro-life circles. West is hardly the first artist to flirt with religion as an artistic phase. But he has provided plenty of signals that he is not just dabbling in God-language as a motif, but plunging into the distinct values and practices of 21st-century American evangelicalism.