As a frontman for his late ’60s group, People!, Norman had played on bills with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Doors. He wanted them to know about Jesus, too. But if Norman, who died 10 years ago, were alive today, he would probably not recognize what has become of the so-called evangelical movement at this stage in the Trump era.
At the zenith of his popularity, Norman enjoyed status as the musical pied piper of the burgeoning Jesus Movement — the religious revival that preached Christ as an alternative to war, drugs and “free love” at the dawn of the 1970s. His 1972 LP, “Only Visiting This Planet,” recorded for MGM/Verve records, captured the imagination of young people who felt spiritual but couldn’t abide either the bigotries of many traditional churches or the warmongering of the American government. “Planet” was a milestone for that generation, and so fittingly was recently entered into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as “a culturally, historically,” and “aesthetically important” American work of art.
Perhaps the high watermark of the Jesus Movement was “Explo ’72” in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl, where over 100,000 teenagers — dubbed “Jesus Freaks” by the media — crowded into the stadium to hear the evangelist Billy Graham preach and to listen to their favorite Christian musicians perform, chief among them being Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, the black gospel singer Andraé Crouch and Norman. Time magazine ran a cover story on the phenomenon as a leading national news item, calling Norman “the top solo artist in his field.” Life did the same and expressed fascination with this non-free-love, peace-loving and drug-free version of the hippies. Soon, Graham himself would feel burned by getting too close to Richard Nixon and naively defending the president before the truth about Watergate was known. From that point onward, the nation’s most famous preacher shied away from political jockeying and generally stuck close to his core message, which was basically, “God loves you. Jesus died for you.”
Evangelicals had a social conscience too, though, in the 1970s, and, for a brief moment, showed promise as a group of people who now had positions of leadership in America. Newsweek dubbed 1976, “The Year of the Evangelical.” Jimmy Carter, a Baptist Sunday school teacher, professed a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and was elected president. Graham broadcast his nationally televised “crusades,” held in packed-out stadiums, and was a guest on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Author Francis Schaeffer was so popular with college students that purportedly even rock stars like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page were reading his books. By 1979, Bob Dylan made headlines by claiming he had become a “born again” follower of Jesus. The newly converted Dylan began attending church at the Vineyard fellowship, a Bible study that began, appropriately enough, in Norman’s living room.
Norman was an icon to a generation of baby boomer and Gen X Christian young people. He gave them hope that they could be viable artists without having to being silent about their faith. He had been offered contracts from mainstream record companies: Capitol, Elektra, MGM/Verve and ABC, and some of his biggest fans would go on to be far more famous than he ever was (e.g., Black Francis of the Pixies and Bono). He hosted parties at the Daisy Club in Beverly Hills with Martin Sheen and counted British stars such as Dudley Moore and Sir Cliff Richard as some of his best friends. By 1979, Norman had been invited by President Carter to perform on the South Lawn of the White House.
Carter and Norman called upon evangelical churches to do something about poverty and protested institutional racism — messages they carried nationally but also in white conservative churches in particular. But when Carter’s presidency faltered, Ronald Reagan found a different cadre of Christians with whom to share common cause and rock the vote. The relatively apolitical Graham was overshadowed by new voices in the “Moral Majority.” Television evangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gained ascendance. Fundamentalist preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart and James Robison then began to have the ear of the White House, and both reviled Christian rock music in public — with Swaggart famously calling Norman’s music “spiritual fornication.”
James Dobson, a psychologist who originally gained currency with evangelicals through a film series and radio program on how to raise good, godly kids, soon became more of a political lobbyist than a spiritual leader. Meanwhile, even mainstays like Schaeffer had to shift his emphasis to the political right to maintain his relevance within this new regime of Christianity. Eventually, abortion emerged as the ultimate line of demarcation for believers — despite the fact that certain earlier evangelical leaders had been far less clear on this matter at the dawn of the 1970s.
Norman’s vision to be both a follower of Jesus and a prophetic voice in the culture was a tough act to follow for later Christian artists, most of whom steered away from controversial political topics. The public’s impression of evangelicals changed, too. During the ’70s they were seen, at best, as people with trite bumper stickers like “Smile, God Loves You,” and at worst, people who served up Jesus as an answer to things people didn’t see as problems. But in the minds of the new mass media radio and television evangelists, preaching Christ meant choosing sides. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was not only a favorite hymn but their frequent theme.
Within Christian circles, Hollywood, rock and roll and anything that sounded “liberal” were now the enemy in the minds of the televangelists and their legions of followers. The culture wars proceeded apace, and they kept the faithful mobilized. Subsequent evangelicals didn’t get contracts with secular record labels, as Norman once did. If they did manage to do so, they stayed silent about their religious views. So increasingly evangelicals doubled down on building their own record companies, publishing houses, and increasingly, their own subculture. And the only time they poked their heads above their own wall was to hand out a voter’s guide or endorse a political candidate. By the time University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter coined the term “culture wars” in 1991, the die had been cast. No longer could evangelicals be a part of the cultural mainstream, and eventually they would come to be known in the mind’s eye of the public as little more than the Republican Party, now Donald Trump’s party, for the foreseeable future.
Gregory Alan Thornbury is the author of “Why Should The Devil Have All the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock” (Convergent, 2018).