A little over a month after the Beatles shocked fans with the controversial “butcher cover” of Yesterday and Today, the Beatles found themselves at the center of another controversy when John’s casual observation about the declining popularity of the church—made during an interview with the Maureen Cleave of London Evening Standard the previous March—was taken out of context and reprinted in Datebook, an American fan magazine.
Conservative news outlets and radio stations across the Bible Belt seized on the opportunity to, as several fans put it, “knock Lennon and the Beatles down a peg.” Brian Epstein flew to the US to try to contain the controversy, but the matter wouldn’t be settled until Lennon himself apologized.
A very young female fan (b. ’61) recalled people talking about the comment: “I thought, ‘Wow, someone famous thinks they’re more popular than God.’ That was fascinating to a child.”
One church-going female fan (b. ’45) recalls her minister talking about it: “He said the Beatles were a bad influence.” As she saw it, “They were just free spirits who made you feel free and more like yourself.”
Another fan (b. ’49) remembers visiting family in Arkansas that summer who called Lennon “lowlife scum,” but she thought what he said “made sense”: “If you asked young people, would you rather go to church or a musical event, what would they say? Come on. There’s no question.” Another fan had a similar reaction: “Some of my girl friends didn’t like it, but what he said was true. Would you stand in line for two days to take Communion? Of course not; but you’d stand in line for three days to see them” (Female, b. ’48).
Though the reactionary record burnings may have been more about publicity for the radio stations than genuine outrage at what Lennon said, reaction to the comment speaks to its truth. And there was that “Is God Dead?” Time magazine cover only a few months before.
The excessive umbrage over Lennon’s self-evident comment revealed the extent to which mainstream culture felt threatened by the Beatles, even as it got giddy over them, embraced them, and unwittingly gave them the very authority it resented and feared.
Forty-four years later, in 2010, the Vatican forgave the Beatles, and praised them for their cultural contributions.
Here are four videos that chronicle the controversy, including interviews with fans and the KKK.