More Popular Than Jesus Controversy
Lennon often spoke his mind freely and the press was used to querying him on a wide range of subjects. On 4 March 1966 in an interview for the London Evening Standard with Maureen Cleave, who was a friend, Lennon made an off-the-cuff remark regarding religion.
- “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. … I don’t know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. We’re more popular than Jesus now. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
The article was printed and nothing came of it, until five months later when an American teen magazine called Datebook reprinted part of the quote on the front cover.
A firestorm of protest swelled from the southern U.S. Bible Belt area, as conservative groups publicly burned Beatles records and memorabilia. The Beatles looked at this in a wry way, by saying, “They’ve got to buy them first before they burn ’em.”
Radio stations banned Beatles music and concert venues cancelled performances. Even the Vatican got involved with a public denunciation of Lennon’s comments. On August 11, 1966, The Beatles held a press conference in Chicago, in order to address the growing furor.
- Lennon: “I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have got away with it, but I just happened to be talking to a journalist friend (Maureen Cleave), 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.”
The governing members of the Vatican accepted his apology and the furor eventually died down, but constant Beatlemania, mobs, crazed teenagers, and now a press ready to tear them to pieces over any quote was too much to handle. The Beatles soon decided to stop touring, and never performed a scheduled concert again. A firework was thrown on the stage at one of their last concerts and McCartney later said that the band all looked at Lennon – fearing a gun had been fired at him. The pressure of dealing with incidents like that convinced even McCartney to say that he had had enough. Lennon wrote later “I always remember to thank Jesus for the end of my touring days.”