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The "More popular than Jesus" Controversy


"More popular than Jesus" was a controversial remark made by John Lennon in 1966. Lennon said that Christianity was in decline and that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ. The comment drew no controversy when originally published in the United Kingdom, but angry reactions flared up in Christian communities when it was republished in the United States five months later.


Lennon had made the remark in during an interview with Maureen Cleave for the London Evening Standard. Datebook, a US teen magazine, quoted Lennon's comments in August, five months later, extensive protests broke out in the Southern United States. Some radio stations stopped playing Beatles songs, their records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled, and threats were made. The controversy coincided with the group's US tour in August 1966, and Lennon and Brian Epstein attempted to quell the dispute at a series of press conferences. Some tour events experienced disruption and intimidation, including a picketing by the Ku Klux Klan. The controversy contributed to The Beatles lack of interest in public live performances, and the US tour was the last they undertook, after which they became a studio-only band.

In March 1966, the London Evening Standard ran a weekly series of articles entitled "How Does a Beatle Live?", which featured John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney respectively. The articles were completed by journalist Maureen Cleave, who knew the group well and had interviewed them regularly since the start of Beatlemania in the UK.  

Cleave interviewed Lennon on 4 March 1966. At his home, Kenwood, in Weybridge, she found a full-size crucifix, a gorilla costume, a medieval suit of armour, and a well-organised library, with works by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and The Passover Plot, by Hugh J. Schonfield, which had influenced Lennon's ideas about Christianity.  Cleave's article mentioned that Lennon was "reading extensively about religion", and quoted a comment he made:

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. 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.


Cleave's interview with Lennon was published in the Evening Standard in March 1966 which provoked no public reaction in the UK.  Church attendance there was in decline and the Christian churches were making no secret of their efforts to transform their image into something more relevant to modern times.  


Reaction in the United States

In late July 1966, nearly five months after UK publication, Datebook republished the interviews. However, art editor Art Unger decided to deliberately put Lennon's quote about Christianity on its front cover, cutting the prose before it.  In Birmingham, Alabama, WAQY Radio DJ Tommy Charles heard about the quotation from his coworker Doug Layton, and was immediately incensed, saying "That does it for me. I am not going to play the Beatles any more".  Charles and Layton asked for listeners views on Lennon's comment and the response was overwhelmingly negative.  Charles later stated, "We just felt it was so absurd and sacrilegious that something ought to be done to show them that they can't get away with this sort of thing".  Al Benn, who was the Bureau Manager for United Press International News, heard the WAQY show and immediately filed a news report in New York City, culminating in a major news story in The New York Times on 5 August.  Around two dozen other stations followed WAQY's lead with similar announcements. Some stations in the Deep South went further, organizing demonstrations with bonfires, drawing hordes of teenagers to publicly burn their Beatles records and other memorabilia.  


Brian Epstein was so concerned by the reaction that he considered cancelling the group's upcoming US tour, believing they would be seriously harmed in some way.  He then flew to the US and held a press conference in New York City, where he publicly criticized Datebook, saying the magazine had taken Lennon's words out of context, and expressed regret on behalf of the group that "people with certain religious beliefs should not have been offended in any way".   Epstein's efforts had little effect, as the controversy quickly spread beyond the borders of the US. In Mexico City there were demonstrations against the group.  In a number of countries, including South Africa and Spain, they made the decision to ban The Beatles music on national radio stations.  The Vatican issued a public denouncement of Lennon's comments.

The Beatles left for their US tour on 11 August 1966. According to Lennon's wife, Cynthia, John was nervous and upset that he had made people angry simply by expressing his opinion.  The Beatles attended a press conference in Chicago, Illinois; Lennon did not want to apologize but was advised by Epstein and Barrow that he should.  Lennon quipped that "If I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it".  He stressed that he was simply remarking on how other people viewed and popularized the band. He described his own belief in God by quoting the Bishop of Woolwich, saying, "Not as an old man in the sky. I believe that what people call God is something in all of us." Adamant that he was not comparing himself with Christ, he tried to explain the decline of Christianity in the UK. Pressed for an apology by a reporter, he said "If you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry. "Journalists gave a sympathetic response, and told Lennon that the Bible Belt were "quite notorious for their Christian attitude."  


When the tour began, it was marred by protests and disturbances.  Telephone threats were received, and concerts were picketed by the Ku Klux Klan.  Daily Express writer Robert Pitman, responding to the US outcry, wrote, "It seems a nerve for Americans to hold up shocked hands, when week in, week out, America is exporting to us a subculture that makes the Beatles seem like four stern old churchwardens.  The reaction was also criticized in the US; a Kentucky radio station declared that it would give The Beatles music airplay to show its "contempt for hypocrisy personified", and the Jesuit magazine America wrote: "Lennon was simply stating what many a Christian educators would readily admit".  

The Memphis city council, aware that a Beatles concert was scheduled at the Mid-South Coliseum during the tour, voted to cancel it rather than have "municipal facilities be used as a forum to ridicule anyone's religion", and also saying, "The Beatles are not welcome in Memphis”.  The Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles album to a wooden cross, vowing "vengeance", with conservative groups staging further public burnings of Beatles records.  The Reverend Jimmy Stroad stated that a Christian rally in Memphis "would give the youth of the mid-South an opportunity to show Jesus Christ is more popular than the Beatles".  The Memphis shows did take place on 19 August; the afternoon show went as planned, but there was a minor panic when a firecracker was set off on stage during the evening performance, which led the group to believe they were the target of gunfire.



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