‘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.

- Hampson, a USA TODAY reporter, was a Beatles fan and Time subscriber in 1966. Rick Hampson

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.

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