How Devotion to God, Sexual Desires, and “Catholic Guilt” Crossed Through Madonna’s 1989 Hit “Like a Prayer”

Upon first reading the lyrics of “Like a Prayer” read like a spiritual awakening, of coming home to church, and returning to one’s faith. By the time the video for the song—the title track from Madonna‘s 1989 album—was released, it took on deeper meaning and caused plenty of controversy along the way.

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The Meaning

”’Like a Prayer’ is the song of a passionate young girl so in love with God that it is almost as though He were the male figure in her life,” said Madonna in 1989. “From around 8 to 12 years old, I had the same feelings. I really wanted to be a nun.”

Life is a mystery
Everyone must stand alone
I hear you call my name
And it feels like home

When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there
In the midnight hour, I can feel your power
Just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there

Within the song, there is also imagery of falling from grace and being lifted back up to one’s faith.

I hear your voice
It’s like an angel sighin’
I have no choice
I hear your voice
Feels like flying

I close my eyes
Oh God I think I’m fallin’
Out of the sky
I close my eyes
Heaven help me

The Video

Lyrically, another dimension was added to “Like A Prayer” when its video was released. Its imagery and lyrics were condemned by the American Family Association along with The Vatican. At the time, Pope John Paul II also encouraged fans in Italy to also boycott Madonna and not attend her Blond Ambition Tour. 

Directed by Mary Lambert, the controversial video was considered sacrilege for its sexualized scenes between Madonna and a saintly figure and shots of a burning cross. Throughout the video, several scenes were taking place.

In the video, a woman (played by Madonna) witnesses a Black man (Leon Robinson) arrested for the murder of a white woman who was presumably killed by a group of white supremacists before cutting to Madonna entering a church.

She comes across the same Black man from the murder scene inside a church, who is now a saintly statue, inspired by Saint Martin de Porres. Her scenes with the figure, who later comes to life and kisses her, along with the lyrics When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer / I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there / In the midnight hour, I can feel your power / Just like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there were considered the more sexually charged.

Throughout the video scenes set around the church are also depictions of Stigmata, as the saint figure cuts her hand, along with Madonna dancing near a burning cross and later with the Andrae Crouch gospel choir at the front of the altar inside the church. At the end of the video, everyone bows as if part of a stage production.

Like a child
You whisper softly to me
You’re in control
Just like a child
Now I’m dancing

It’s like a dream
No end and no beginning
You’re here with me
It’s like a dream
Let the choir sing

Catholic Guilt

The mastermind behind the creative direction of the video, Madonna described what she was trying to depict in the scenes between her and the “saint” in the video as exploring one’s love of God, sexual feelings, and heavier weight of “Catholic guilt.”

”The theme of Catholicism runs rampant through my album,” said Madonna. ”It’s me struggling with the mystery and magic that surrounds it. My own Catholicism is in constant upheaval. When I left home at 17 and went to New York, which is the city with the most sinners, I renounced the traditional meaning of Catholicism in terms of how I would live my life. But I never stopped feeling the guilt and shame that are ingrained in you if you are brought up Catholic.”

Pepsi

In 1989, Madonna was also featured in a commercial for Pepsi, featuring “Like A Prayer.” When the Vatican also boycotted the company, Pepsi ended its contract with Madonna.

Like a Prayer went to No. 1 internationally, including on the Billboard 200. The song went to No. 1 internationally, including on the Hot 100, and remains one of Madonna’s most famous songs.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

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