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Michael Jackson‘s “Smooth Criminal” doesn’t seem too provocative. However, one artistic choice in the song’s music video caused Jackson to leave his religion. He later looked to another celebrity for spiritual guidance.  

Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ upset some Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jermaine Jackson was a member of The Jackson 5. In his 2011 book You Are Not Alone: Michael, Through a Brother’s Eyes, Jermaine said the Jacksons were Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination that began in the United States in the 19th century. They call their houses of worship “Kingdom Halls” rather than “churches.”

In 1982, Michael unintentionally upset members of his faith. Some Jehovah’s Witnesses felt that the iconic music video for “Thriller” was Satanic and asked that he not release it. That’s why the video begins with a disclaimer disavowing the occult. Jermaine dismissed the idea that there was anything evil about “Thriller,” saying that people were interpreting the song too literally. After that controversy, Jehovah’s Witnesses went on tour with Michael to make sure that he acted in accordance with that religion. 

The video for ‘Smooth Criminal’ made the situation even worse

In 1988, the music video for “Smooth Criminal” also became a bone of contention. “During the music video, there was a scene where Michael sprayed an underground bar with bullets, using a machine gun,” Jermaine wrote. “It was a real firearm and one that he’d been trained to use by ammunition experts on set. It was fun, harmless and necessary for the storyline. But no Jehovah’s Witness is allowed to hold or possess a firearm, let alone use one.”

Michael was reprimanded for the music video from his Kingdom Hall. “The official rebuke from the Kingdom Hall was harsh,” Jermaine recalled. “It asked Michael to consider where his priorities lay: as a Jehovah’s Witness or as an artist. As distraught as my brother was by this implied choice, it was the final straw: what church asks you to reconsider the very gift that God gave you? Michael had been the perfect ‘disciple,’ going door to door in Encino but that seemed to count for nothing when his creativity was up against the rule book.”

The King of Pop left his religion with a heavy heart. This choice hurt his mother’s feelings, but she understood his choice. After Michael severed ties with the faith, he and his mother never discussed the issue again.


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Michael Jackson subsequently became close with a rabbi

While the King of Pop ceased to be a Jehovah’s Witness, he remained a believer. According to CNN, he looked to Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, for spiritual guidance. Boteach is the rare celebrity rabbi, having starred in the reality show Shalom in the Home. Michael had no intention of converting to Judaism but he still attended synagogue with Shabbat dinners with Boteach.

The rabbi said he and the King of Pop were good friends for a while before they fell out with each other. Boteach said he tried to make Michael more “normal,” but pushed him away in the process. After Michael’s death, Boteach said he hoped people would remember the “Dirty Diana” singer “in the most charitable light.”

Michael made great music even if his relationship with organized religion was conflicted.