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Angry reactions flared up from Christian communities in August 1966, after John Lennon's remark that The Beatles had become "more popular than Jesus" was quoted by the American teen magazine, Datebook. Lennon originally made the remark when an English newspaper reporter, Maureen Cleave, interviewed him at home for a series of articles on the lifestyles of the four individual Beatles. When published in the United Kingdom in March 1966, Lennon's words provoked no public reaction.
When Datebook quoted Lennon's comments five months later in August 1966, vociferous protests broke out in the southern United States. The Beatles' records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled and threats were made. The protest spread to other countries including Mexico, South Africa and Spain; there were anti-Beatles' demonstrations and their music was banned on radio stations. The controversy erupted on the eve of the group's US tour, and the anger and scale of the reaction led their manager, Brian Epstein, to consider cancelling the tour.
Two press conferences were held in the US, where both Epstein and then Lennon expressed their regret at words taken out of context and offence taken. Christian spokesmen pointed out that Lennon had only stated what the church was itself saying about the decline of Christianity. The US tour went ahead but there was disruption and intimidation, including picketing of concerts by the Ku Klux Klan, and at one concert the group mistakenly believed they were the target of gunfire.
A series of weekly articles entitled "How Does a Beatle Live?" appeared in the London Evening Standard during March 1966. Written about, respectively, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney, the four articles were completed by journalist Maureen Cleave. Well known by all four Beatles, Cleave had interviewed the group regularly since the start of Beatlemania in the UK. Three years previously she had written of them as "the darlings of Merseyside", and had accompanied them on the plane to the US when they first toured there in January 1964. For her lifestyle series in March 1966, she chose to interview the group individually, rather than all together, as was the norm.
Cleave interviewed Lennon on 4 March 1966. After encountering a full-size crucifix, a gorilla costume and a medieval suit of armour on her excursion through his home, Kenwood, in Weybridge, she found a well-organised library, with works by Alfred 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.
The decline of Christianity had been the subject of regular discussion in the UK since the First World War. Experiencing ever-falling levels of attendance, the Christian church was making no secret of its efforts to transform its image into something more relevant to modern times. As music historian Jonathan Gould wrote, "The satire comedians had had a field day with the increasingly desperate attempts of the Church to make itself seem more relevant ('Don't call me vicar, call me Dick ... '), while the individual Beatles themselves had experienced the ministrations of the Rev. Ronald Gibbons, who told reporters at the height of Beatlemania that a Fab Four version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" might provide the Church of England with 'the very shot in the arm it needs'". In 1963, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John A. T. Robinson, published a controversial but popular book, Honest to God, urging the nation to reject traditional church teachings on morality and the concept of God as an "old man in the sky", and instead embrace a universal ethic of love. Lennon's words, published in the Evening Standard in March 1966, provoked no public reaction in the UK.
In August 1966, five months after Cleave's article appeared in the Evening Standard, an American teen magazine, Datebook, printed Lennon's quote about Christianity on its front cover. There was an immediate response, starting with an announcement by two radio stations in Alabama and Texas that they had banned Beatles' music from their playlists. WAQY DJ, Tommy Charles: "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". Around two dozen other stations followed suit with similar announcements. Some stations in the South went further, organising demonstrations with bonfires, drawing hordes of teenagers to publicly burn their Beatles' records and other memorabilia.
The Memphis city council, aware that a Beatles' concert was scheduled at the Mid-South Coliseum during the group's imminent US 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.
Epstein was so concerned by the US reaction that he considered cancelling the tour, believing the group 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 criticised 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 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, and a number of countries, including South Africa and Spain, took the decision to ban national radio stations from playing Beatles' music. Even the Vatican became involved; issuing a public denouncement of Lennon's comments. Shortly before the tour began, on 11 August 1966, all four Beatles attended a press conference in Chicago, Illinois to address the growing furore:
Lennon: "I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it, but I just happened to be talking to a friend and I used the words "Beatles" as a remote thing, not as what I think - as Beatles, as those other Beatles like other people see us. I just said "they" are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. But I said it in that way which is the wrong way".
Reporter: Some teenagers have repeated your statements - "I like The Beatles more than Jesus Christ". What do you think about that?
Lennon: "Well, originally I pointed out that fact in reference to England. That we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it's true more for England than here. I'm not saying that we're better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it's all this".
Reporter: But are you prepared to apologise?Lennon: "I wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying. I'm sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologise if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done. I've tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologise, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry".
At the press conference Lennon 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." When the tour began, it was marred by protests, cancellation of concerts, 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." In the US too there was criticism of the reaction; a Kentucky radio station declared that it would start to give Beatles' music airplay to show its "contempt for hypocrisy personified", and the Jesuit magazine America wrote: "Lennon was simply stating what many a Christian educator would readily admit".
Asked about the controversy during a 1969 trip to Canada, Lennon said:
"I think I said that The Beatles have more influence on young people than Jesus Christ. Yes, I still think it. Kids are influenced more by us than Jesus. Christ, some ministers even stood up and agreed with it. It was another piece of truth that the fascist Christians picked on. I'm all for Christ, I'm very big on Christ. I've always fancied him. He was right. As he said in his book, 'you'll get knocked if you follow my ways.'"
Lennon also said in 1978:
"I always remember to thank Jesus for the end of my touring days; if I hadn't said that The Beatles were 'bigger than Jesus' and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas! God bless America. Thank you, Jesus".
"The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation, mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a 'boast' by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll. The fact remains that 38 years after breaking up, the songs of the Lennon-McCartney brand have shown an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time, becoming a source of inspiration for more than one generation of pop musicians".
Reaction to this gesture came from Ringo Starr: "Didn't the Vatican say we were satanic or possibly satanic, and they've still forgiven us? I think the Vatican's got more to talk about than The Beatles."
On 18 May 1968, Lennon summoned the other Beatles to a meeting at Apple Corps to announce that he was the living reincarnation of Jesus: "I have something very important to tell you all. I am Jesus Christ. I'm back again". The meeting was adjourned for lunch, and Lennon never mentioned the subject again. In May 1969, Lennon and McCartney recorded "The Ballad of John and Yoko", with Lennon singing the lines, "Christ, you know it ain’t easy, You know how hard it can be, The way things are going, They’re gonna crucify me". In a BBC interview a few months later, Lennon called himself "One of Christ's biggest fans", talked about the Church of England, his vision of heaven, and expressed disappointment at not being allowed to marry Yoko in church.
On 3 December 1969, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice asked Lennon to play the part of Jesus in the stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which he declined, although he said he would have been interested if his wife, Yoko Ono, could play the part of Mary Magdalene. Lennon mentioned Jesus again in his 1970 song, "God", singing, "I don't believe in Jesus", but also sang that he did not believe in the Bible, Buddha, Gita, and The Beatles. Whilst living in Los Angeles with May Pang, Lennon once said to DJ Wolfman Jack, "To boogie or not to boogie, that is the Christian." Critics of Lennon's lyrics also focused on Lennon's 1971 song, "Imagine", because of the line, "Imagine there's no heaven".
Lennon was murdered on 8 December 1980 by Mark David Chapman, who had become a born-again Christian in 1970, and was supposedly incensed by Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remark, calling it blasphemy. He later stated that he was further enraged by the songs "God", and "Imagine"—even singing the latter with the altered lyric: "Imagine John Lennon dead".