School of The Rock


Was the Jesus Movement Hijacked by the Religious Right?                

Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.comô


This article started out as a book review for David W. Stowe's 2011 book No Sympathy for the Devil, but I couldn't help thinking about some of the issues the book raises. So we'll get the "book review" part of it out of the way, then move on to the rest.

No Sympathy for the Devil reviews the history of Jesus Music and early CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) through a relatively objective lens.  In case you wondered, the title is a take-off on the title of a 1968 Rolling Stones song ("Sympathy for the Devil") in which the narrator claims to be speaking for Satan.  (Ironically it took certain demagogues another 15 years to "discover" the "links" between Rock music and Satan, which they accomplished by playing 70s Rock albums backwards.  Sorry – off topic.)

Stowe's book is an admirable effort and one of the few real histories of this genre that is still in print.  That said, he states a hypothesis about Jesus Music that rings of a "doctoral thesis," and there's a flat, almost academic tone to some chapters that makes them seem uninteresting – though the events they describe were very interesting to folks who lived through them.  In addition, don't expect a typical Evangelical point of view.  Otherwise, you might be surprised when Stowe uses terms like "born again" to describe individuals like Cat Stevens who've experience a "spiritual renewal" outside of Christ. Or offended when certain individual's pre-Christian sexual antics are described in a little too much detail.

That said, Stowe seems sympathetic to the Jesus Movement and Jesus Music, and his research is thorough, so the average Christian music fan or researcher will pick up facts and be exposed to ideas that, frankly, aren't available anywhere else. 

Stowe seems especially interested in the back-and-forth interaction between the Jesus Movement and popular culture.  For example, he goes beyond previously published works by "connecting the dots" between the Jesus Movement and specific icons of popular culture whose well-publicized "conversions" caused controversy and sometimes (as mentioned in our own "Brief History of Contemporary Christian Music") seemed to do the "converts" more harm than good, spiritually and otherwise. 

Stowe also briefly outlines the experiences of African-American pop stars like Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston, Maurice White and Marvin Gaye, who had at least a "brush" with the Gospel and/or Jesus Music. 

According to Stowe, such celebrity "conversions" and contributions, as well as two popular musicals helped to create a climate that allowed open discussion of Jesus without an organized public backlash from either believers or nonbelievers.   So, if you're interested in the "sociological" aspects of the relationship between the Jesus Movement and popular culture, you'll find lots of helpful details here. 

If you're a scholar wondering about the reliability of Stowe's research, it must be noted that Stowe was one of the few people who was able to interview Larry Norman extensively during the last years of his life.  However, Stowe did not rely exclusively on Norman's input for any of the critical content of the book.  Rather, most of the quotes and details Stowe publishes about the life of the founding Jesus Musicians or early Contemporary Christian Musicians come from previously published materials, including many "secular" news sources, as well as back-issues of Contemporary Christian Music magazine, and Paul Baker's Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music (an edition of which was published as Contemporary Christian Music:  Where It Came From, What It Is, Where It's Going).  Baker's book is out of print*, though, and it's as subjective as Stowe's seems to be objective.   

You could almost say that Baker's writings are too close to the subject matter, and Stowe's are too removed.  Still, if you need a reasonably authoritative analysis of the interactions of Jesus Music with popular and Evangelical church culture, this is the book to own.  If you already own Baker's book, you will find this to be a more objective supplement to that one – between the two, you'll get a pretty balanced picture.  Also, if a lot of people buy this book, it might convince publishers that there's a market for this sort of thing (hint, hint). 

Of course what you really need to appreciate the Jesus Movement, Jesus Music, and early CCM is a representative collection of songs from the artists mentioned.  You can get a good start now by reviewing the song links on our "CCM Artist Link Page."

Okay, that's the "take-away" of the "book review" part of this article. 

If, on the other hand, you're interested in the hypothesis that Stowe offers about the Jesus Movement and its eventual assimilation into Fundamental/Evangelical church culture, read on. 

Summarizing Stowe's Premise:

Stowe's introduction hypothesizes that Jesus Music was at least partially responsible for diverting counter-culture converts who would have been political liberals in the 1960s, into the conservative political movements of the 1980s and 1990s.  About a third of the book's contents seem to be devoted to supporting the hypothesis, with the rest investigating other aspects of the "Jesus Movement" and "Jesus Music."

 no_sympathy3I hope Stowe doesn't mind my attempt to illustrate his proposed process in a sort of chart.  I have oversimplified some of his assertions, and added assumptions that his text implied rather than stated, but I think this gives an overview of what he thinks happened.  I also used the term "Jesus People" instead of the more accurate "counter-culture converts to Christianity," which would hardly have fit into the little ovals.

Frankly this scenario seems reasonable, as long as you keep in mind that the "young evangelicals" oval should really be many times larger than the counter-culture oval. 

The End of the World Brings People Together

In addition to the music giving the "Jesus People" common ground with young "churched" believers, and eventually the established Evangelical church, Stowe also points out – correctly – that both movements shared a particular characteristic from the start – addiction to end-time thinking.  To both groups, the signs were all in place for the imminent return of Jesus Christ.  And this shared apocalyptic worldview also helped bridge the gap between the otherwise isolated cultures.

Ironically, at the same time that Jesus People were opening their homes to the homeless, working to reduce racial tensions, setting up soup kitchens, and otherwise trying to live as loving, sharing first-century Christians, many Fundamental church leaders were using the imminent Second Coming as an excuse to abandon – and eventually disparage – nearly all programs to help the disadvantaged in tangible ways. After all, what was the point of helping people get rights and jobs and better living conditions today when they might be going to hell en masse tomorrow?  The phrase "social gospel" became a dismissive byword for any church or parachurch organization that was "wasting" effort and resources trying to help sinners with physical needs when what the sinners really needed was to pray the "Sinner's Prayer." Right now! 

Thirty-some years later, that argument has grown a little old with me, in case you wondered.  Worse yet, I can't help thinking that the 1970s-era "never-mind-physical-needs-Jesus-could-come-tonight" thinking has contributed to some current politicians' ability to show widespread disregard for the wellbeing of anyone but the very wealthy while at the same time claiming to be following the teachings of Christ. 

Did Billy Graham and Pat Boone Hijack the Jesus Movement for their own Purposes?

Early on, Stowe mentions efforts by the Billy Graham organization and converted pop star Pat Boone to show support for and occasionally showcase early Jesus Musicians.  In context with Stowe's premise (and his constantly connecting Billy Graham with conservative politicians), you would almost imagine that Graham, Boone and others were deliberately injecting themselves into the "Jesus Movement" so that when the time was right they could assert influence. 

Unlike Stowe, however, I was a convert from the counter-culture when all of this happened.  From what I saw, and from what I heard from people like Larry Norman, both Graham and Boone were concerned for the "lost generation" and saw the Jesus Movement as an answer to their prayers.  Most, if not all help from Graham and Boone  came with no strings attached.   Two other organizations, which I won't name here, might have had motives that were a little more suspect, but as one of them was just getting its start, I'm not sure they made all that much difference anyway.

Ironically, a very strange 1967 British movie, Privilege, suggested that Rock and Roll could actually be an "establishment" plot to win back the "lost generation." The movie shows a Mick Jagger-inspired "bad boy of rock" capturing the heart of his generation, then ordered to fake a sort of conversion experience so his followers (who were imitating his every move) would follow him back to the "correct" opinions, tastes, and lifestyles.    That premise was so strange in 1967 that the film was often labeled "Science Fiction."  Is it possible that something very like this really did happen over the last three or four decades?   

No, at least not intentionally.  In my own experience, most of my friends who were Jesus Music fans when I was, and who later expressed conservative political positions, were raised in Fundamental** homes and never strayed far from their parents' political views in the first place.  I'm sure that the thousands of true counter-culture converts who may now be political conservatives are a drop in the bucket compared to the potentially millions of Fundamental Christian kids who never strayed far from their roots in any area but musical taste.

Of course, helping a few million Fundamental Christian kids stay Christian is still huge, compared to how many mainstream and liturgical churches lost most of their youth in the same period.  I think it's fair to give the Jesus Movement and the music it produced at least some of the credit for that.  At the same time, we can't really blame the movement if, in the intervening three decades, many of the church-raised early-adopters of Jesus Music have been drawn into conservative political movements that would have made Richard Nixon proud.

A Broader "Takeaway" than "Buy This Book"

Frankly, when I look at today's self-professed "Christian" politicians whose voting records prove that they only care about the well-being of their wealthy supporters, it would be disconcerting to think that those demagogues actually benefited by the Evangelical church's assimilation of a movement that started out trying to follow the Biblical exhortation to put others' needs ahead of one's own. 

And I can't help thinking that there's still a lot of room in our world (though not much, apparently in certain self-described "Christian" circles) for the Jesus Who attracted disaffected youth in the 1970s.  You know, the Outcast Who helped the downtrodden, befriended sinners, criticized the greedy, unnerved the "devout," excoriated the hypocrites, and returned love for hate, even to His worst enemies.

As I finish this article, "Jesus" is back on Broadway, in both Superstar and Godspell, two plays that I never thought that much of when I was a brand-new believer.  But friends tell me that Godspell is holding its own, and the closing act of Superstar now includes a projection of "Jesus" reciting passages from the Sermon on the Mount, something that the old productions never included. The end result seems to be that people come away contemplating, not "Judas'" superficial challenges, but Jesus' most compelling teachings.  No, I'm not looking for popular culture to do the job of the church, but I am looking for the church to do the job of the church.  Wouldn't it be great if people who come out of those plays looking for the "friend of sinners" could find a Jesus somewhere who really cared about people and not just political outcomes? 

Okay, I'm way off-topic now.  Buy the book if you want a solid reference and a good background, or if you want to supplement the Paul Baker book you already own. It will be especially helpful if you're interested in its sociological implications

And if you choose to serve Jesus, may I urge you to serve New Testament "Friend of Sinners" and not the Jesus that the demagogues quote when they want to dispossess the poor, further enrich the rich, or encourage every white American to accumulate an arsenal of automatic weapons.

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,


*The CCEL web page has an online version of Baker's book at:  Frankly their format is a little hard to read and page through.  Moreover, certain Wikipedia editors claimed that CCEL has posted the content without permission from the author and publisher.  When I e-mail CCEL and ask them about it, they don't answer my e-mails, but neither do the Wikipedia editors, so I'm not going to take sides either way.   I would love for Paul Baker (a pseudonym for Frank Edmondson, by the way) to make a Kindle-readable version of this available, so it would be around officially, and available to readers for a long time to come. 

** The currently popular term that most Bible-believing church uses is Evangelical. However, in the 1970s, many churches still called themselves Fundamental, which indicated that, unlike denominations that had given up on precepts like the divinity of Jesus, they still adhered to the fundamentals of the faith – God made the world, Jesus is God, Jesus died for our sins, Jesus rose again, Jesus is coming again, etc.  So I am using the term Fundamental to describe groups that would have self-described as Fundamentalist in the timeframe being discussed, even if they call themselves Evangelicals today.   For more information on this transition and a very brief overview of the Fundamental movement, please see our article "What is a Fundamentalist?"

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