What's behind the newfound Jesus-friendliness of "American Idol"?

“American Idol,” which concludes its seventh season tonight, has always been touched by God. Each year, there’s at least one contestant who sways through a gospel song, jams out to a song by a Christian rock band, or performs a number about how Jesus loves you (so call in to vote!). It’s “American Idol,” for crying out loud, so it’s no surprise that Jesus would pop up here and there. But Christianity was never a show-sponsored policy, nor was its promotion a popular position. Two years ago, contestant Mandisa Huntley famously sang a song called “Wanna Praise You,” announcing, “This song goes out to everybody that wants to be free. Your addiction, lifestyle, and situation may be big, but God is bigger.” After the performance, Simon Cowell--producer, judge, voice of amusingly brutal and bitchy honesty--rolled his eyes and called Huntley “indulgent.” Viewers also seemed to disapprove of her preachy (not to mention slyly homophobic) tone, and she was voted off two weeks later. That was the closest “Idol” ever came to being a forum for proselytizing. If anything, the producers have tolerated very un-Christian-like behavior from contestants, including lewd photos (Antonella Barba last year and this season’s Ramiele Malubay) and backgrounds in male stripping (David Hernandez’s pelvic thrusts made it all too obvious). Sure, second-season contestant Frenchie Davis was kicked off after a nude photo scandal, but only because the shots appeared on an illegal website promoting sex with underage girls. But showing skin on MySpace? Not a problem. And “Idol”’s penchant for dressing female contestants in crotch-grazing skirts and plunging halter-tops doesn’t quite jibe with fundamentalist values, either. So how--and why--did this season turn into such a Jesus-fest?

To start, it has to do with this year’s crop of contestants. Both 17-year-old front-runner David Archuleta (he of the controlling stage-father, recently banned from rehearsals) and perky blonde Brooke White, who came in fifth, are practicing Mormons. Though they didn't speak explicitly about their faith on the air, their religious beliefs have been widely reported, and they’ve both alluded to them onstage: Archuleta talks about his church performances as a child, and White, before she was sobbingly given the hook, shared her aversion to R-rated movies and alcohol. Archuleta, easily the fans’ favorite performer this year, hasn’t shied away from spiritual song choices: He’s sang “Angels,” “When You Believe,” and “You’re the Voice”--a trifecta of pro-God pop songs for which the audience has cheered (and cheered ... and cheered). Did Cowell or the other judges deem Archuleta’s selections “indulgent”? Not in the least. They absolutely loved it, in fact. Cowell called “Angels,” which Archuleta chose because he was moved by the song’s “message,” the “best song choice of the night so far.” Huh? Since when did Cowell become a proponent of songs about religious faith?

Archuleta, whose fan club calls itself the Arch Angels, has no doubt mobilized the Bible Belt voting base, and the producers of “American Idol,” faced with an average ten percent ratings decrease this season, are perhaps resigning themselves to the fact that the U.S. is, indeed, a very religious country. A guest appearance by Dolly Parton reinforced the new idea that “Idol” is open to getting in touch with its spiritual side. Parton belted out "Jesus And Gravity," and then the Clark Brothers came onstage to sing "This Little Light Of Mine/Jesus On The Mainline.” “American Idol” used to be a home mostly for top-40 hits, from Britney Spears to Maroon 5, and the Jesusified combo was more than a little jarring.

Some chalked up the show to the God-heavy country music genre instead of seeing it as a reflection of “Idol”’s changing core values. After all, country week is usually “Idol”’s most religious (and most hastily fast-forwarded through by me). But the Jesus-happy tone this season has gone beyond a few outlier shows or contestants.

Take April’s heavily-hyped “Idol Gives Back” charity extravaganza, in which the contestants, dressed all in white, sang a group version of “Shout to the Lord,” accompanied by a full-blown gospel choir. The song began “My shepherd, my savior,” with the word “shepherd” a substitution from the original version. As if the show’s new politics weren’t clear enough, the next episode started with a group version of the same song, only with the original version: “My Jesus, my savior.” Whoa.

Will “Idol”’s Christly makeover continue? The Fox executive who oversees the show, recently declared, “‘Idol’ is all about cast and controversy.” The goody-goody makeover certainly doesn’t bode well for controversy. Little David Archuleta’s not getting into any sex scandals, and Brooke White would sooner be caught dead than in Internet porn. Can the show live on Christian values alone? I have my doubts. Carly Smithson, a tattooed Irish rocker girl, was eliminated after a lively performance of the title song of Jesus Christ Superstar. Fans speculate that a contributing factor was the song’s seemingly heretical stance--in the musical, it’s sung by Judas. The Bible Belt’s gain is “Idol”’s loss. A wholly wholesome music competition produces a lot of Pat Boones, but no Elvises or Chuck Berrys. It’s no coincidence that the most Jesusified season of “Idol” has been its most boring one yet. If “Idol” wants to get back its former glory, it should once again show some sympathy for the devil.

Emma Rosenblum is an editor at New York magazine.

By Emma Rosenblum