USA TODAY US Edition
‘Is God Dead?’ These days, not so much
Poor John Lennon is dead 36 years, and Time’s print edition is as light as a stamp. But evangelical voters are frantically courted by Republican presidential candidates.
Fifty years ago, America was shocked by two assaults on its (largely Christian) faith: A Time magazine cover asked, “Is God Dead?” and John Lennon claimed his Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Was nothing sacred anymore? The Time cover appeared before Easter 1966, its provocative question in red letters on a black field with, for the first time in the magazine’s history, no illustration.
The article inside was less an obituary of the Almighty than a description of how science and secularism were supplanting religion. Whether or not God was dead, a lot of people behaved that way.
The issue sold more copies than any other in two decades and prompted a record 3,500 letters. One example: “Your ugly cover is a blasphemous outrage and, appearing as it does, during Passover and Easter week, an affront to every believing Jew and Christian.”
Then, in July, Americans learned of an interview in which Lennon said, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first — rock ’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
Lennon’s comments were published in the USA just before the Beatles’ 1966 tour. In the Bible Belt — cradle, ironically, of the music Lennon worshiped — some radio stations stopping playing Beatles’ singles. Beatles records and memorabilia were publicly burned. The Ku Klux Klan demonstrated outside concerts. The band received death threats.
In fact, neither Time nor Lennon was as provocative as charged. The cover alluded to the God is Dead school of theology (the phrase was coined by Nietzsche in 1882), a subject of academic debate for several years. The article was nuanced, balanced, a bit dry.
And Lennon didn’t claim the Beatles deserved to be more popular than Jesus; he was contemptuous of Beatlemania and sympathetic to this other famous, misunderstood rebel.
But the cover and the interview touched a nerve when 98% of Americans said they believed in God (and 85% believed in heaven), but only about a quarter described themselves as “deeply religious.”
The chasm between those positions was undermining the mainstream Protestant denomi- nations, such as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans, whose membership would decline for decades.
Something else was about to happen — the emergence of evangelical Christianity.
Evangelicals, except for Billy Graham, had occupied a sort of religious ghetto. They were an insular movement that eschewed political engagement with a culture they regarded as corrupt. In 1966, that was changing.
In Lynchburg, Va., Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church celebrated its 10th birthday. In five years, he’d found what would become the world’s largest evangelical university, and five years after that, he’d lead public rallies for conservative social causes that would culminate in the founding of the Moral Majority.
Jimmy Carter, who would become the first born-again president, was a Georgia state senator, and Pat Robertson had founded the Christian Broadcasting Network. James Dobson, then completing his doctorate in psychology, would found Focus on the Family and become one of the nation’s foremost culture warriors.
In 1966, the future belonged to David Green, 14, later CEO of Hobby Lobby; to Dan Cathy, 13, who would head Chick-fil-A; to Rick Warren, 12; Mike Huckabee, 10; and Joel Osteen, 3.
Today, poor John Lennon is dead 36 years and Time’s print edition is as light as a stamp. But evangelical voters are frantically courted by Republican presidential candidates.
In politics, at least, God is alive, and Jesus is as popular as ever.