Amongst the thousands of articles printed about the Beatles a harmless lifestyle column appeared in the London Evening Standard on March 4, 1966 titled "How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This". Columnist Maureen Cleave, a personal friend of John Lennon, related a day in the life of the twenty-five-year-old Beatle. Miss Cleave painted Lennon as erratic and childish yet delightful and quick-witted. All in all, the article was fairly tongue-in-cheek and put John in a good light, commenting on such topics as his interactions with the other Beatles, his relationship with his father, his spending habits, his musical preferences, and the like. But this one little paragraph in the middle of the piece sparked more controversy than anyone could have imagined.
Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. "Christianity will go," he said. "It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will 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." He is reading extensively about religion.
Upon its initial publishing no one paid this paragraph much mind. Londoners simply took it at face value, as the ramblings of a twenty-something rock star. However on July 29, just before the start of the Beatles 1966 American tour, an article titled "The Ten Adults You Dig/Hate The Most" was published as the cover story for the American teen magazine Datebook that used this quote to portray John as egotistical and blasphemous. Interestingly enough it was Paul that got the cover with his quote about racism in the American South. But it was John's quote, "I don't know which will go first -- rock 'n' roll or Christianity" that started a hateful frenzy.
Of course it came from both sides. There were hordes of angry Christians who held rallies and bonfires to express their disdain with the comments by burning Beatles albums and memorabilia. Their music was banned from countless southern radio stations. They even received death threats. On the other hand there were Beatlemaniacs that took the quote and ran with it displaying signs and shouting, "I like the Beatles more than Jesus Christ," which only fueled the flames.
But what did John really mean? John was raised agnostic. At the time he had been reading about and contemplating spirituality and found that there was a big difference between spirituality and religion, a division some people have a hard time with. He was not talking about Jesus Christ the man, per se; he was stating a simple fact, that in England the Beatles had more attraction, more popularity, to young people than Christianity. However, John did not believe this was a good thing, quite the contrary, he thought it was appalling.
Beatlemania was hard for anyone to understand, particularly for the Beatles themselves. They didn't like it. Any sense of normal life had been taken away by their celebrity. John made this statement, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner, to express his disbelief and annoyance with the fact that something as important as spirituality could be eclipsed by something as trivial as a rock band. "If I had said, 'Television is more popular than Jesus', I might have got away with it...."
John blamed church leadership. He felt they weren't doing enough to attract the younger generation; that Christianity had become dull and ordinary. "You should have gospel singing, that'll pull them in," he once said to a Catholic priest. "You should be more lively, instead of singing hackneyed old hymns. Everyone's heard them and they're not getting off on them anymore."
While in the Bible Belt on their 1966 tour, as a mob of angry Christians incited by the Klan were screaming hate and slamming their fists into the Beatles' limousine, all the Beatles could say is, "No, we love you. It's OK." It's taken a long time, but people have come to realized what John Lennon was trying to say. Spiritually is very import to humans. Organized religion, as a means of social control, has done nothing but hurt true spirituality. John was simply trying to point out this fact.
Dark Side of Beatlemania
More popular than Jesus
How Does a Beatle Live? John Lennon Lives Like This
Chicago Press Conference August 11, 1966
We're Bigger than Jesus Now