Evangelical Stephen Baldwin’s Imitatio Christi & “Reality” TV

Over the last year or two, I’ve become an unironic, unapologetic fan of reality TV. I know the criticisms—they dumb us down, they elevate public humiliation—but what I’m really interested in is the way shows like Spike’s Joe Schmo Show or VH1’s I Love Money turn into morality plays about the value of friendship and loyalty. In the best reality shows, the initial rush of schadenfreude is gradually replaced with a genuine affection for the “good guys,” and righteous frustration at the machinations of the villains.

I’m also fascinated by the villainous machinations of Stephen Baldwin, the D-list actor turned A-list skateboarding evangelist who covers a very old brand of conservatism beneath a veneer of “radicalism” that is less than skin-deep—indeed, the only thing “radical” about it is that that skin is tattooed, and occasionally utters such beyond-the-pale words as “crap.” So when I learned that Baldwin would be a contestant on NBC’s jungle-themed reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, that initial rush of schadenfreude hit me bigtime. (As with most reality shows with “Celebrity” in the title, it’s a bit misnamed, but it wouldn’t bring in as many viewers if they called it I’m Marginally Famous… Get Me Out of Here!) The man who embodies the polar opposite of my own approach to religion, trapped in the jungle for three weeks with the likes of Janice Dickinson and Sanjaya? And it’s live, four nights a week? Sign me up.

Baldwin is no stranger to reality TV; he’s previously appeared on everything from Celebrity Apprentice to Ty Murray’s Celebrity Bull Riding Challenge. But I’m a Celebrity has given him an unprecedented opportunity to bring his current evangelical career to the forefront. The reality shows on which he appears generally downplay his high degree of visibility as a professional Christian in favor of his past acting career, which includes appearances in The Usual Suspects and Bio-Dome. But on I’m a Celebrity, he’s had ample opportunity to evangelize, mostly thanks to the unlikely spirituality of Hills stars Spencer and Heidi Pratt (collectively known as “Speidi”).

Spencer, who has made clear his intentions to be the show’s villain, is a recent convert to a very Hollywood sort of Christianity. Spencer sums it up best by recounting his first prayer: “‘God, please, the one person I want to go on a double date with is Miley Cyrus. If you’re so powerful, make me hang out with Miley Cyrus.’ He did it within a month.” Mysterious ways, indeed. When Baldwin learns that Spencer has not yet been baptized, he launches into a sermon that shows (or has been edited to show) some dubious scriptural knowledge: “John 3:16: What does Christ say to Nicodemus? You must be born again.” Heidi helpfully adds: “Jesus was baptized!”

Baldwin invites Spencer into his form of faith—“Non-denominational, born again Christian, spirit-filled, charismatic”—and Spencer, no doubt misunderstanding the specifically religious meaning of “charismatic,” replies: “This is so me in, like, two years.” Before long Baldwin is baptizing his protégé in the river near their camp. Janice Dickinson is an unlikely voice of wisdom: “You’re hurting the religion. Stephen is not an ordained minister… I think he’s a joke.” Spencer claims to be a new man after his baptism, but his attitude—which had previously included such statements as “I could care less about anybody at that camp eating tonight”—seems unchanged. The Pratts quit the show immediately after the baptism, but by the following episode were begging to be allowed back on; their fate will be determined on Monday’s episode.

Baldwin, however, is in for the long haul, and his faith is likely to remain visible. It comes out in his apparently honest concern for the well-being of his fellow contestants, but even that can quickly turn from friendly neighbor-loving to paternalistic smothering. Witness his advice to a fellow contestant making her way over some slippery rocks: “The more you worry about falling, the more you gonna fall. So what you do is just walk.” The concern seems genuine, but that is without a doubt the worst hiking advice I’ve ever heard. Perhaps more telling is his homophobic discomfort at Sanjaya’s offer to give Lou Diamond Phillips a foot massage; one wonders what he thinks of foot-washing.

On a deeper level, his performance on the show has involved a lot of physical suffering—he burned his hand on a pot sitting near the campfire, and has twice been bitten by bullet ants, so named because their bite is as painful as a gunshot wound. Are these unfortunate accidents, or is he deliberately seeking out public suffering as a vain form of imitatio Christi?

Like most prime-time network reality shows, I’m a Celebrity is obsessed with deliberate humiliation, primarily in the form of insect-eating (something its cable counterparts, which I prefer, tend to avoid). Are the bizarre self-abasements of shows like this some kind of public expiatory suffering? Does it heal the body politic to see Patti Blagojevich—without a doubt the strangest name on the show’s roster—trapped in a tank filled with snakes? It may be too early for that kind of deeper-meaning analysis—for now, let’s all just sit back and enjoy the schadenfreude stage. I wonder what exotic jungle creature will bite Stephen Baldwin next?

I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! airs Monday through Thursday on NBC, and is also available on Hulu.