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The many religions of the X-Men

Contributed by
Apr 10, 2019

In Marvel comics, religion is viewed through a superheroic lens, significantly changing what is generally observed with a tone of mystical reverence to one of brightly colored unreality: Ghost Rider has spoken to Jesus; a guy in a rumpled suit named the Beyonder has god-like powers; and there are various Hell-Lords who bear striking resemblance to Satan. In short, while religion-based commentary abounds, the practice of it is a little less somber in tone than your average theistic text.

At the center of it all, we have the X-Men, who, by virtue of having a vast and comparatively diverse cast, have facilitated some of the more interesting religious parables in comics. Though some overall negative portrayals of organized religion exist, such as Aurora and Wolfsbane, there are also instances in which religion serves a positive role in the lives of the characters.

Kitty Pryde, Iceman, Magneto, and Judaism in the X-Men

The beliefs of the X-Men team were seldom referenced or clearly stated until Kitty Pryde joined. During Christmastime, the other X-Men were excited to celebrate the holiday while Kitty preferred to spend some time alone. Noting that she enjoyed and celebrated Christmas, we haven’t seen much of how she interacts with her own faith.

Iceman is also Jewish, though, as with Kitty, the level of his belief in Judaism has remained fairly obscured over the years. Iceman seldom addresses his own heritage while Kitty Pryde is one of the most prominent Jewish characters in comics. When discussing her identity, she almost always brings up this background. Though she retains only a loose connection with her parents and family, for the most part, Kitty is proud to be a Jewish woman. Meanwhile, though Magneto’s identity as a Jewish man is brought up often in conjunction with his suffering at the hands of the Nazis, very seldom do we see any positive effects of it. If he celebrates traditional Jewish holidays or practices Judaism in any kind of an organized or communal way, we don’t see it. With all these characters, though they display varying degrees of self-acceptance over their origins, none seem to participate in regular worship. Still, the only times Magneto has shown any level of sympathy or understanding of Kitty has been in regard to their similar ethnic backgrounds. While Magneto was a victim of the Holocaust in real time, Kitty has naturally expressed a sense of horror and outrage over how the atrocity affected her family, even several generations later.

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All-New X-Men #13, written by Brian Bendis, art by Stuart Immonen and Rain Beredo, lettering by Cory Petit

Nightcrawler and Catholicism By Way of Demonology

As far as bizarre comic book portrayals of religion go, Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler is one of the very strangest. Kurt is a German-born former circus performer raised by an adoptive Romani mother named Margali Szardos alongside his step-sister and later long-term girlfriend Amanda Sefton. Obviously, the words “step-sister” and “girlfriend” should not apply to the same person, but this is the world our friend Kurt is living in. Though he never seems to particularly relate to his somewhat paganist upbringing, he later becomes a practicing Catholic. How exactly this came to be or when Kurt initially found the time and community to become Catholic is a little unclear, but it would define him in most renditions of the character.

For years, Kurt’s biological parents were unknown, but eventually it's revealed that his mother was the shapechanger Mystique, who had thrown him into a well when an angry mob learned of his existence and trailed her in hopes of killing them both. She had been married to a rich man by the last name of Wagner, and it was assumed that he was the father. However, Kurt was a Catholic for several years when a retcon asserted his biological father to be the demon Azazel, who was then credited for saving Kurt from said well. This storyline didn’t go over great and was more than a little shaky, but the intended commentary around a Catholic who looked like an actual demon and how that prevented him from attending church presented an interesting ethical juxtaposition before the entire plotline faded into the background.

In comics, Nightcrawler’s Catholicism has run a little hot and cold with regard to his level of commitment, sometimes studying obsessively to become a priest and other times mentioning his beliefs only in passing. Meanwhile, in other media, Kurt’s faith has been one of his defining character traits. When he made his first appearance in X-Men: The Animated Series, he is a phenomenon that the X-Men are sent to investigate, a ghost of the local parish, living inside the church in order to be closer to his god. In the second X-Men film, Kurt appears covered in symbols that he carved into his own skin to represent his sins, displaying a rather bleak view of organized religion and throwing into question how his religious beliefs have affected his mental state. While Nightcrawler might actually be one of the more positive portrayals of a character having a healthy relationship with religion, the commentary gets a bit directionless as the conflicting beliefs of his writers obscure intentions.

The Many Religious Beliefs of the X-Men

While Nightcrawler is often defined by his interest in religion, Colossus has existed alongside him as an X-Man for many several years and expressed a near-total disinterest in it. His birthplace of Russia has been generally considered more strongly atheist or occultist than many other countries, though of course there are many disparate religions practiced there. Even after encountering all the mindbending scenarios he has with the X-Men, Colossus isn't convinced about the existence of an afterlife. Still, his sister Illyana borders on being an actual demon and has occasionally served as the ruler of Limbo. Though she holds a fairly low opinion of religion, she’s been a practicing occultist for much of her life.

One of the very few Hindu characters in comics is also one of the X-Men, though he has seldom appeared beyond his introduction storyline. Hailing from Kolkata in West Bengal, Neal Shaara, or Thunderbird III has stated his veganism to be in tune with his faith. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been fleshed out much further than that, so we’re still waiting for better representation of Hinduism in mainstream comics. Though the X-Men have members from all over the world, a lot of them still fall by the wayside and the focus on white Christian North Americans remains prominent.

Meanwhile, many X-Men celebrate a vague spirituality as opposed to organized religion. For Storm, her faith is based on the worship of the Earth. Seldom engaging in any kind of theistic debate or commentary, she practices continual control over the way her body interacts with her environment. Much of this is based on a need to maintain self-regulation over her powers, but she has expressed interest in and devotion to goddess worship since her very first appearances on the team. Of course, she was also worshipped as a goddess, although Xavier eventually called her out for her exploitation of her believers and Storm conceded to his point.

Storm is not the only X-Man to be worshipped, though. In the ‘90s, Magneto, who was up to this point viewed as a political provocateur at best and a terrorist at worst, became something of a cult figure when dozens of mutants joined him on his satellite in space, Asteroid M. Calling themselves the Acolytes, they admired Magneto as a religious figure. Later, when he fell to Earth from his destroyed home, it was the nuns of a small convent who nursed him back to health.

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Uncanny X-Men #327, cover art by Joe Madureira

One X-Man actually founded her own religion, albeit many centuries into the future. One of the more interesting underused concepts in all of comics, Rachel Summers, the alternate reality child of Cyclops and Phoenix, travels into the future to found a woman-based faith called the Askani Sisterhood. Rachel assembles the group to defeat the immortal villain Apocalypse, and her followers worship her on the level of a religious or cult figure.

God Loves Man Kills

Finally, one of the most well-regarded X-Men stories of all time, God Loves Man Kills, was specifically written to compare religious intolerance of queer people to the persecution of mutants. The villainous William Stryker has a son who is a mutant, and the shame he feels leads him to apparently kill his wife and son. He attacks the X-Men and attempts to kill Kitty Pryde while dehumanizing mutants via his evangelism. A warning against religious extremes, Stryker is not so much a character as he is a cautionary tale.

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God Loves Man Kills, written by Chris Claremont, art by Brent Anderson and Steve Oliff, lettering by Tom Orzechowski

Eventually, Stryker is seemingly convinced by Kitty Pryde to forget his hatred of mutants and become a better person, but stories like these are always questionable. The implication that one could gently convince an embittered bigot who was willing to murder his own family members due to an all-consuming hatred of mutants to be a better person reflects something we see so often in the real world: the idea that it is the responsibility of the persecuted to reason with their oppressors. This redemption is obviously short-lived. We discover later that Stryker had actually raised his son Jason in secret, and Jason takes over his life’s work of making life a living hell for all the mutants unfortunate enough to cross his path, all in the name of religion.

Ultimately, the X-Men are a pretty wide-ranging group of characters, and it’s been pretty interesting to see how religion has intersected with their stories. There could definitely stand to be a lot more representation of non-Christian faiths, but as comics go, the X-Men does stand out for making an effort to address the way various conflicting religious beliefs might merge with one another to create a cohesive whole.

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