Throughout wrestling history, there have been several times when various wrestling promotions added religious overtones to their story lines. While the battle between good and evil permeates wrestling storylines, when faith comes into play it often doesn’t lead to fans sitting back and being entertained, but rather sitting up and shaking their collective heads. When religion has been a focal point in a storyline, it often was not for the better; in fact, it’s usually controversial and left viewers turning their televisions off because of its overall message. The devil walking the earth, cult like leaders, reverends, deacons and a popular biblical passage were all among the different religious characters that dominated storylines. When religion was tied to a character, it usually tied to an event in popular culture, or religious celebrities prominent on television.
Some of these characters readers may be familiar with, while others may not be as obvious. They often include references to holy water and blessings, but these blessings are more often than not disturbing to viewers simply because of their believability and realism. Over the course of the last 20 years, the WWE and other wrestling promotions have used religion because of its own belief, the belief that the use of religion will cause a reaction and in turn the reaction will ultimately bring in ratings. Here are ten instances where religion or religious overtones were used in WWE.
10. Reverend D-Von and Deacon Batista
The pairing came about after the Dudley Boyz were split up after Wrestlemania X8, when WWE initiated the brand split between Raw and Smackdown, creating two distinct rosters. After D-Von was drafted to Smackdown he began a heel reverend character alongside his ally, Deacon Batista.
The conception of the gimmick likely had its roots in D-Von’s popular statement ‘Testify’. Though the gimmick was a launching platform for Batista‘s career, it didn’t last long and the good Reverend was betrayed by Batista. Batista was the most intimidating Deacon anyone would come into contact with, as he looked more like a truck then he did a deacon hoping to spread the word of the good book, even if he came to the ring with a collection box in tow. If the idea was that they were collecting donations from those in attendance then more work needed to be done.
D-Von came to the ring with the traditional pastoral white collar and claimed to preach the good book. It was during this time when Devon defeated Triple H after Chris Jericho struck The Game with a briefcase. As for Batista, it seems the gimmick was only intended to act as a stepping stone. It could be said that he was told to turn on D-Von by a higher power. It could also be argued that his inner spirit said he found salvation in cracking Devon in the face.
After the two argued for weeks prior to the split, it seemed as though religion had little to do with it, but rather a difference of opinion. Unfortunately, Batista didn’t turn the other cheek and forgive and forget.
9. Dustin Runnels Claims He is Coming and It Isn’t Jesus Christ
While reading the prelude to this piece, some may find this initial selection somewhat perplexing. Believe it or not, there was a religious connotation tied to the Dustin Rhodes/Goldust character. Rhodes is in fact a born again Christian, but everything the Goldust character suggested ran counter to his newly found beliefs. This would in fact be why the androgynous nature of the character is gone now, and replaced with the bizarre mannerisms of the character that we see today. When the initial incarnation of Goldust debuted, Rhodes’ character would push the envelope and increasingly be designed to make his opponents and even fans uncomfortable due to the homosexual overtones (a controversial message on its own.)
In May 1998, Dustin Rhodes stated that it was the end of Goldust, and he burned one of his costumes on Raw. His rebirth provided him with the opportunity to then go by his given name, Dustin Runnels, addressed the edgy WWF product by promoting alternatives to watching the show such as reading the Bible. His vignettes were tongue in cheek as they were endorsed by the group known as, the “Evangelists Against Television, Movies and Entertainment,” (E.A.T.M.E.).
Later on, Runnels started alluding to “his” return, and walking through the crowd with signs reading “He’s coming back!” While the return of Christ was clearly implied, Runnels was in fact referencing the return of Goldust, which he reprises. Was religion really necessary? Probably not, but that didn’t stop the born again Christian from allowing religion to play a part in this latest incarnation of the Goldust character as he shamelessly exploited his faith.
8. Brother Love
Over 20 years ago, former manager and WWF/E producer Bruce Prichard played an on-screen character that was reflective of a Televangelist. There was a gospel choir playing in the background while he stood on set, and he “confessed” to everyone how much he loved them. But Love embodied hate and disdain. The character was created during the time when televangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were featured in the news in North America for the wrong reasons. Bakker was already famous as a televangelist. However, his extra marital affairs also gained him more notoriety and publicity. While Love was never linked to extra marital relations with anyone, his on screen persona still garnered heat and backlash from fans.
Could you imagine if Brother Love was presented as a womanizer in the early 90s, with the company still selling their product as kid friendly? It would have upset many, including religious groups. Love’s easily dislikeable and slimy televangelist character clearly rubbed fans the wrong way. He spoke of love and yet created issues and incited hate. He was a walking contradiction for viewers. He would say he loved us but in fact would get under the skin of fan favorites. He was, in effect, saying that he hated us. The character had a short shelf life but certainly worked during the time as fans disdain for him grew more and more. The character has returned from time to time.
7. Reverend Slick
Another character that had turned to the Good Book was the Doctor of Style, Slick. For younger wrestling fans, Slick’s dress and persona resembled that of a pimp, with his walking cane, broad-brimmed hat and colourful suits. He was one to use underhanded methods to enable anyone he managed to succeed. He was without a doubt a ‘jive soul bro that never got nothing in the end’…except his faith. While it was never specifically stated, like The Godfather’s gimmick in the late 90s, Slicks look and the manner in which he carried himself at the time lent others to believe he was a pimp.
As part of a storyline in late 1991, Slick went on an extended leave of absence after being slammed by Davey Boy Smith. When Slick returned a month later as a face, he was now known as the “Reverend Slick.” He was denouncing his past and aspiring to become a better person. Clearly he saw the light after being slammed unconscious. His gimmick was a take on his real life, as the man playing the role of Slick, Kenneth Johnson had become a born-again Christian much like Dustin Runnels.
He appeared on WWF programming to preach something positive and encouraging. He never mentioned Christ or God, but his intent was clear and it was unmistakable what his beliefs were. The primary storyline under the Reverend character was that he was able to persuade Kamala to leave his manager at the time, Harvey Wippleman and his keeper Kim Chee, convincing him that he was not an animal that should be treated poorly, but a human being, and he tried to teach Kamala self-respect and self-pride.
In this instance Slick, was a believable born-again Christian, unlike the Rhodes character that manipulated religion. The gimmick was positive and didn’t allow his personal beliefs to be misinterpreted on screen. Often-times religion is used to convey a holier than thou attitude. In Kenneth Johnson’s case, the Reverend Slick was not, where Brother Love’s was over the top and in some instances had viewers offended by the choices of the character. This example of religious exploitation did little harm and was seen more as an innocent Reverend rather than one that was manipulative.
6. ‘The Sinister Minister’ James Mitchell
The Sinister Minister initially appeared on TV with ECW, and managed a tag team aptly named The Unholy Alliance (Yoshihiro Tajiri and Mikey Whipwreck). This was a character that, in his appearance and behaviour, was intended to invoke images of Satan from popular culture. When he debuted in TNA, he went by the name Father James Mitchell and created a stable known as Disciples of The New Church, a name with clear religious overtones. What exactly was this new church professing? What exactly did they intend to carry out, whose words were they following? Those answers became crystal clear when Mitchell took several wrestlers who were once strong but had now lost their voice, and turned them into mindless followers. This (suggested) Satanic religious following was considered more cool by younger wrestling fans but the idea of using terms like ‘disciple’ and ‘church’ certainly got the ire of some.
The Disciples of the New Church at first consisted of Tempest, Slash, and Malice, along with Mitchell as their manager. While fans may want to compare Mitchell to Paul Bearer, his promos were much more menacing; it was truly a work of art. As mentioned, Mitchell’s look alone resembled Lucifer walking the earth; his all red suits, his piercing eyes, his curved and highly formed eyebrows and beard made this anti-Christ a voice for the voiceless. Later Mitchell was the voice for Abyss, his dark and cryptic nature conveying feelings only the devil would appreciate. The New Church alliance allowed for Mitchell to develop his sinister-devil like character and bring it to the forefront.
5. Waylon Mercy
Characters in professional wrestling carry with them a certain nature. That nature can be quite imposing and eerie when it has religious overtones. In the early 90s, the WWF took a wrestler that otherwise resembled a number of other wrestlers with blond hair and standing well over 6″ tall (Hogan/Barry Windham/Sid Vicious) and created a very different character, one that resembles a character that is in existence today.
Danny Spivey wrestled for 11 years between 1984 and 1995. During the 80s they capitalized on his all-American looks as both part of the US Express with Mike Rotundo and then later as the Golden Boy Dan Spivey. When he returned to the WWE in 1995, times had changed and so did Spivey. He became Waylon Mercy, a character inspired by Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Max Cady in the film Cape Fear. Mercy appeared peaceful in his promos and would end each vignette by stating that, “Lives are gonna be in Waylon Mercy’s hands. You know what I mean?” How exactly does that make it religious may you ask? Of “saving” and that “lives would be in his hands” (much like Jesus Christ) the religious allusion of his character was clearly there by emphasizing the notion. His sinister intent and peaceful manner resembled that of a cult leader. This is unlike the character that Spivey had portrayed seven years earlier.
The character did not last very long as Spivey retired from active competition in 1995. The character was the influence and predecessor of a quasi-religious character that would debut years later.
4. Bray Wyatt
Allow us to fast forward to the present. Bray Wyatt is a more developed and fleshed out version of Waylon Mercy. The cult leader character is religious in nature, and spreads a much more distorted outlook when they discuss family. Wyatt has added several disturbing nuances of Charles Manson to his character. The religious intent of the character was evident numerous times over. As the Wyatt family vignettes were aired in anticipation of their debut, Wyatt could be seen standing with his arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose, as others were praising him as though he had just prophesized to them what was still to come. The character even toes the line of being outright controversial.
During his feud with John Cena, Wyatt walked to the ring with what was dubbed the Cenation, a group of children dressed in black altar server gowns. As they surrounded the ring they could all be heard singing to Cena “He’s got the whole world in his hands” (a popular religious hymn). Bray Wyatt never claimed to be God, but his words and mannerisms lead fans to think otherwise. The idea of using children to do his work was a manipulation of different Biblical passages. During his cage match against John Cena, Wyatt had a child stop Cena dead in his tracks. The child’s voice is completely distorted as he sang “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” He is haunting in both his actions and tone. It was as though Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, a novel about a religious cult comprised of children, had come to life. This is a much more sinister instance of how a cult leader could be used in the WWE, and a shameless exploitation of religion today.
3. Shawn Michaels vs. Vince McMahon
Shawn Michaels is famous for a number of different matches. The problem is that he is also famous for using religion in a way that no one would have thought possible. In more recent years, Shawn has been quite open about his personal demons during the earlier part of his career. After years of substance abuse, Michaels became a born again Christian and was quite careful about what he would be portraying on screen, given his new beliefs. It often changed how he approached story lines. It certainly changed how he was used while a part of a resurgent Degeneration X alongside Triple H. But in one particular feud his beliefs, and mockery of them, became a focal point in a storyline.
During Michaels’ feud with Shane and Vince McMahon, Vince would often challenge Shawn and ask him “Where is God?” and “How is God going to help you now?”. It was pathetic and really insulting to those that watch WWE programming. Leading up to their match, McMahon claimed to unleash the apocalypse on Michaels, stating that Shawn broke his commandments and that Shawn “will worship at his feet.” The most controversial part of this feud was actually having McMahon have a promo where he appeared in a church, giving a sermon about what he had planned for Shawn. He practically brushed his teeth with holy water. The storyline was insanely over the top.
While some would take offense to it, Michaels himself could have taken a completely different stance during this feud, but stayed true to his real beliefs. The way Michaels used religion in this storyline was to hold an inspirational role rather than playing along with the gimmicks and dressing like a pastor or gaining power by drinking holy water.
During the Backlash pay per view, the McMahons defeated Michaels and his partner….God. There was the use of pyrotechnics to try to lead viewers to believe that God was striking down with furious vengeance to support Shawn. This was so over the top it went beyond insulting someone’s family, friends or attacking them personally, and attacked his personal beliefs as it hadn’t been done before. It was unusual because having the religious character succeed sends a religious message to those that don’t believe, and it creates doubt in the religion if the religious doesn’t succeed.
It was the one instance where it was meant to be seen simply as a feud with a religious direction as the focus of their animosity. It is thankful that the feud based on this particular direction was short-lived because it was so absurd. It is a surprise that Michaels even agreed to do it. Once again, shameless exploitation of religion reared its ugly head in the WWE.
2. The Undertaker and The Ministry of Darkness
The darkest and most imposing figure in the history of the WWE has been without a doubt The Undertaker. Upon his debut, The Undertaker was clearly a heel. As the years passed it became harder to view The Undertaker as a heel because his entrances appealed to the masses and it became harder to make him disliked unless they went in a drastically different direction.
The character always carried with it suggestions of religion. Whether it was his music which had a funeral march mixed into it, a casket or coffin as a focus of matches, or having druids accompany him to the ring, there was always a religious feel to his character. As the years passed, The Undertaker took on a much darker and menacing look, and became the most sinister his character has ever been.
During one storyline, The Undertaker kidnapped Stephanie McMahon, which forced Vince McMahon to enter into a reluctant alliance with his long-time adversary Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Undertaker attempted to marry Stephanie in an Eldritch ceremony conducted by Paul Bearer, but Austin was able to rescue her. Stephanie was strapped to a giant Undertaker symbol which resembled a cross, an action much like a crucifixion.
It was a direction no one had seen The Undertaker character going. The Undertaker dressed in an all-black robe with hood that resembled that of a druid. The all too familiar beard that The Undertaker was known for was altered to resemble a Satanic goatee. In this form, he took on a wicked, Satanic presence, much more so then ever before. His promos would often claim that he was directed by a “Higher power” (much like God). He also sat on a throne that was based upon his character’s symbol.
What evil overlord would be complete without minions? The Undertaker needed to look no farther than the group of WWE wrestlers that would be doing his bidding. The character would often perform mock sacrifices on some of the others in the promotion with the intent of having them join his Ministry. The Ministry of Darkness was composed of The Brood (Edge, Christian and Gangrel), The Acolytes (Bradshaw and Faarooq), Mideon and Viscera. When we consider the sheer size and strength of guys like Viscera, Bradshaw and Faarooq you could understand how dominant a group this unholy collection of grapplers would be.
The Ministry of Darkness was considered controversial as any other instance when the occult, or a darker, Satanic religion, was presented to the viewers. What the faction lost in longevity it certainly made up for in monumental moments such as the attempted dark wedding with Stephanie outstretched on the Undertaker’s symbol. This may be the most shameless example of exploitation of religion we may ever see in the WWE.
1. Jake The Snake Roberts Helps To Usher In Austin 3:16
Roberts had a few different runs in the company, but the one that used religion for personal gain came in 1996, when he returned at the Royal Rumble as a preachy, Bible toting face. His body shape wasn’t slender like it was prior, due to years of substance abuse, and one could assume that his now covered up physique was in need of a cleansing, both inside and out.
What was interesting about his return was the albino snake that he incorporated into his gimmick that he would call “Revelations,” a reference to the book in the New Testament of the Bible. It is also the last book in the Bible and is often referred to as “the end”. The white colour of the snake was a reference to purity and often related to being holy in nature. Much like Dustin Runnels, Kenneth Johnson and Shawn Michaels, Roberts had also become a born again Christian.
It was in fact after his match against Stone Cold Steve Austin at the King of the Ring tournament where another popular religious passage was born. During his post-win interview, Austin made reference to the John 3:16 biblical passage stating; “You sit there and you thump your Bible, and you say your prayers, and it didn’t get you anywhere! Talk about your Psalms, talk about John 3:16… Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!” And the rest as they say is history, as it was a quasi-Biblical reference that would help to catapult Austin to the top of the company. So while Roberts came back to the company toting the Bible it was in fact his opponent that used a Biblical reference to create a catchphrase without even considering its long-term implications.