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Christianity in Crisis? Blame Elvis

05/20/2015 01:21 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016
REUTERS

Bill O'Reilly is wrong. Rap is not to blame for the current crisis in American Christianity. Blame Elvis, that's what I say. He is the main culprit in the current cultural transformation shaking the foundations of religion in America. Elvis Presley's appearance on television in the late 1950s signaled the beginning of the end of Christianity in America, and birthed a religious rival to the Christian churches that is now, finally, winning the hearts and minds and souls of more and more Americans.

The news is aflutter with surveys, commentaries, interviews, confessionals, and reports describing the decline of Christians in America. According to a new Pew study, a spiritual earthquake is dramatically shaking up the landscape of religion in the US. More atheists, more agnostics, more "nones," more switching, more mixing, more interfaith marriages, more "others" -- it all adds up to one stark new reality: less Jesus in American attitudes toward religion.

This is a shocker given the incredibly Christ-ful history of the nation. We are a Christian nation (yes, primarily though not exclusively Protestant), or at least have been from the earliest stirrings of independence until this sudden and disturbing turn away from Christian identity. The story of "religion" in America has always been mainly and primarily the story of "Christianity" in America. The reports about "market share" (with the requisite winners and losers in that model, which translates in Christian terms to affiliation with and attendance in churches, denominations, etc.) and losing "faith" (a category believed to be neutral today but clearly shaped by Christian theology) only blind us to the real story here.

And of course to get to the real story here and now, we've got to go back and look in the past for the seeds that explain our present. Which brings me back to Elvis, the progenitor of the religious changes we are seeing today. Many have written about his cultural influence in twentieth century America, and even about his religious background and his status as a cultural American icon after his death (see the brilliant Dead Elvis by Greil Marcus, for example). But what I propose here is that Elvis's shaking hips and curled lips unleashed two conflicting religious cultures that pitted Christian cultural authority, charisma, and institutions against sacred popular cultures with multiple sources of authority, potent forms of charisma, and a preference for experience and insight over dogma and institutions.

America is different after Elvis. The combination of sexual energy in the performance and its reception by his young audience; sheer pleasure in listening to this particular form of music; and rebellious effervescence liberating fans from conventional cultures in place at the time was a game changer. That young entertainer who magically blended different musical cultures together, including Southern forms of African American and white blues and country, Christian gospel and Pentecostal expression, helped to initiate the rock and roll cultural awakening that transformed the second half of the twentieth century. Many Christians at the time perceived in his lascivious gyrations and obscene gestures a clear and present danger to American society, something so vile, so repulsive, so harmful, his appearances and growing popularity motivated them to publicly decry and attack the young man.

What made this moment, the Elvis moment, different from previous Christian interventions in times of perceived moral crisis, was of course mass media. Radios, phonographs, and television, along with printed materials and concert venues, accelerated and diversified the imprint and influence of Elvis in American lives. The Christian attacks and condemnations directed at Elvis generated a conservative Christian religious culture explicitly obsessed with the new (now old) media's power to corrupt the youth and blow the lid off of youthful, and especially young female, sexuality.

Like never before, Christians reacted to this unprecedented popular threat with apocalyptic cries of end times and devil worship, and looked for ways to thwart, suppress, and exorcize Elvis and the other demons taking over and perverting the bodies and minds of the American youth, as well as the social body more generally. The culture wars peculiar to the second half of the twentieth century are intimately connected to the rise of this policing Christian religious culture obsessed with the dangers of popular entertainment and purging it of its evils.

The religious sentiments and will to cultural power that helped lay the groundwork for conservative Christian influence on matters of public morality in this period begins with Elvis and everything he represented in the late 1950s. This influence, felt keenly in the 1970s with the rise of the increasingly politically active Religious Right -- on the frontlines of our long-running culture wars -- has taken its toll on the American psyche.

The report suggests that the culture wars are coming to an end, and the big loser in the aftermath will be both the Religious Right and Christians more generally. More and more Americans, and especially the Baby Boomers as they become senior citizens, and the middle aging Millennial generation, are fed up with buzz-kill Christians who see figures like Elvis, or Harry Potter, or Beyonce, as mortal dangers corroding a puritanical American moral core and who want to impose their own strict, bible-based value systems on American choices.

But Elvis also initiated another religious cultural revival, one that was also tied to his early appearances and performances, and to the responses of the faithful devoted to this popular icon. In other words, the protesting Christians were right, they did have competition and something to fear when Elvis the Pelvis sang and swayed.

This was not, however, obscene and profane as the Christians complained. It was for many revelatory and sacred. The beat and the rhythm, the intonations and gestures, the vibrations and the energy, the words and the sentiments -- all the tangible and intangible elements of Elvis's performance add up to more than their parts; and the reception of the performance by listeners and watchers, whether live or via radio or television, is equally multifaceted and mysterious.

Elvis made it clear that Religion stands no chance against the gods of popular culture. Yes there were other popular singers and screen idols before Elvis, but after Elvis the viability and legitimacy sacred popular cultures is secured and implanted in the youth cultural sensibilities of the Baby Boomers. Elvis was more popular than Jesus -- or at least on equal footing -- and the moral teachings he preached in songs, performances, conversations, and lifestyle choices, guided the flocks clamoring to see him, hear him, touch him.

The ascendance of Elvis in the late 1950s signaled a cultural awakening, a transitional period from an old and outdated social order to a new and different one that makes more sense, and allows people to make more meaningful sense of their lives and purpose here. These awakenings are often accompanied by great outbursts of religious revivalism and intense scrutiny of self and society. In previous periods of cultural awakening (the historian William G. McLoughlin identifies three previous cultural awakenings in American history), the ultimate outcome of the cultural transition is some kind of reaffirmation of a Christian based social order.

With Elvis Presley, America's search for a new social order began. His popularity tapped into a youth culture that was primed and ready to break free from the old order as propagated by parents, schools, and churches. It was also open to discover new sources of moral authority and sacred experience, a predisposition that led to increasing experimentation with drugs but also intimate religious engagements with popular cultures associated with music, film, and television, initially.

With each swing of his hips, Elvis rattled the Christian stranglehold on America values and appealed to a very different spiritual sensibility in Americans, one that is not aroused by church music or sermons, but by rock concerts and fan magazines. The hip shakes of course were only the beginning. It took a few decades to come to pass -- the protracted and increasingly political culture wars only delayed the inevitable outcome of a brand new religious playing field. But as Pew and other recent surveys indicate, it is here now. Though dominant with the highest numbers, Christianity is not the only game in town, Christ not the only King who rules.