We all tend to look for inspiration and a kind of validation for our own beliefs in the popular culture at large, whether it’s in the world of entertainment or corporate America. We want our celebrities and our car manufacturers to share our values. And it almost always disappoints. I do it myself, and when the reality of the world bubbles to the surface, I feel somewhat foolish for allowing myself to be suckered.

Companies are well-aware of this need in their customer base and have turned virtue signaling into an art. Huge, multinational oil companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising talking about their clean energy activities and goals. I have no evidence to suspect what they are claiming is not true, but true or not, I do know it has a lot more to do with commerce than it does to what a polar bear feels about the changing climate.

The wake of the “cancel” culture, where a celebrity can be set upon by pitchfork-wielding crusaders for suggesting such radical thought that men are men and women are women, puts us all on the lookout for allies. It’s a fool’s errand, but that fact doesn’t deter us from trying. As Super Bowl commercials barrage us and billboards make us cringe, we look for common cause in anything we can find.

One would think something as benign as the Hallmark channel and its flooding of the market with Christmas-Lite entertainment would be a place to seek some commonality, but there is already talk of next year’s spate of Yuletide-themed movies revolving around same-sex relationships. Is Hallmark doing this because they, as a company, believe it is the right thing to do? Or are they doing it because it is the most expedient thing to do when it comes to selling advertising? Again, if we are looking for altruism here, we are going to be looking for a long time.

It is no accident that social-issue causes of every stripe strive to attach a person with a cache of fame and name recognition for their cause. Some of these causes dovetail into sound Catholic social teaching, like anti-human trafficking and anti-cruelty to animals causes, but many more that possess a celebrity-endorsed imprimatur smash headlong against the Catholic conscience. This happens so often that when a celebrity says something that is not offensive on its face, we are lulled into a false sense of commonality.

British comedian Ricky Gervais may make strong points, and funny ones, too, when he lambasts the ramblings of Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix’s acceptance speech, but don’t think for a minute he doesn’t agree with about 98% of what the actor said; this is especially true when Gervais and Phoenix converge their thoughts regarding the meaning of human life in the universe, which isn’t much meaning at all. 

The only difference in their mutual belief that mankind is no better or worse than a centipede is that Phoenix sees it as something profound to contemplate and Gervais sees it has a hysterical cosmic farce.

We also want our stars to be part of our team. My parents came of age along with the movie industry, and it was an era when personal lives were kept hidden. So for a time both our mom and dad could look to some of the more famous Catholic movie stars with that sense of validation. Over time, things with most of these Catholic movie stars did not work out so well and my parents learned the lesson the hard way.

People are still learning. When Clint Eastwood, Hollywood icon and independent thinker, appeared at the Republican National Convention, those of a more conservative bent probably felt validated and not a little encouraged that they had Dirty Harry on their side.

I wonder how those same people feel now that Clint has endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate who was reported to have said, upon hearing that another one of his female employees would be going out on maternity leave, to just “kill it.” It’s safe to say the definition of a “conservative” in Hollywood is a libertine who understands how to balance a checkbook.

Investing spiritual capital in celebrities and corporate America is risky business with limited returns. This Lent, it would probably profit us all to keep corporate and entertainment culture in mind when it comes time to fast.