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They tried to ban the Beatles, too

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Most of you aren’t old enough to remember the “Ban the Beatles” movement here in America. It was the summer of 1966; the Beatles were at the height of their fame, having just released Revolver, which at that time was the most progressive of their LPs. Earlier that season, John Lennon had given an interview to a London newspaper, in which he said—pretty much casually—what a lot of people were thinking: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll 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 his were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

By early August, protests in the Bible Belt had reached fever pitch. Led by Christian radio DJs, people at anti-Beatles rallies were burning Beatles albums, tearing up Beatles posters, and of course the Ku Klux Klan got involved. Christians waved signs that said “JESUS LOVES YOU, do the Beatles?” and “Thou shalt have no other GODS before Me.”

These Beatles haters were the forebears of fascist-clerical conservatism yet to come: the marriage of Republican politics with evangelicism, the election of Ronald Reagan, the Tea Party and, yes, the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism. We’ve always had that rightwing fringe of Christian paranoia; sometimes it’s at low ebb, as it was for most of the middle of the 20th century, and sometimes it flares up, as it did starting around 1980 and continuing today. But it’s important to realize it never quite goes away. If we’re to have any success combating it—and we need to combat it—we have to understand its etiology.

There are a lot of photographs of the Ban the Beatles people, and they look remarkably similar to the “re-open” people and MAGA-rally people. Granted, the haircuts are different, and they’re fatter today than they were in the Sixties. But the people themselves are of a type: Caucasian, often young, their faces twisted by hatred. It’s not hard juxtaposing the Klansman throwing Beatles records onto the “Beatles Bonfire” with the open-carry freaks who closed down the Michigan statehouse last week.

Why do they never go away, these religious bumpkins? America was founded on principles of the Enlightenment, of secular humanism, of “All men are created equal” and the Constitution, which was drafted to create “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Such noble beginnings. How is it possible that, despite all our progress, we still have this canker of religious whackjobs?

Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the Catholics are right: humankind is essentially damned, incapable of rising above its primitive beginnings. Maybe the Hindus are right: these rightwing zealots are living out their awful karma, and have no control over themselves. Whatever the explanation, it’s sad to realize that for every positive step forward we take—and The Beatles represented a huge positive step forward for America and for the world—there’s a sizable group of uneducated yahoos who wants to drag us backwards.

What do they really want? It’s unlikely they understand history, since their schooling is limited. They seem to want a return to when societies were ruled by Christian prelates, who enforced their rule through the systematic use of clerical armies, who had few compunctions against torturing or murdering apostates and heretics. History does record at least one such time in the West: the Dark Ages, which extended into the 1700s as witch burnings and other forms of ecclesiastical punishment continued even in America.

Good times, the Dark Ages! People knew their place. Women weren’t uppity like they are now. Men who performed abominable acts with each other knew they had to keep well-hidden, or pay for their sins with their lives. The local seigneur or lord of the manor was the absolute law, responsible only to his King and his Christian God. Nobody had rights. Society didn’t change from century to century, for a thousand years in a row—and that is exactly how the rulers of society wanted it. Change is bad, dangerous. Thought is dangerous. Too much thinking might lead people to wonder if every word in the Bible really was true, as they were told. Thinking therefore had to be eliminated; hence, witch burnings, excommunications and banishment and other forms of religious punishment. Hence, by 1966, the album burnings. The Beatles made people think, and for Christian conservatives, that was the most dangerous thing that could happen. Thinking people might decide that religious superstitions are hokum. Therefore, they must be ruthlessly expunged. Hitler and Goebbels knew this as well as anyone. So, too, do modern theological autocrats, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and their leader, Donald J. Trump.

The good news is that the Christian radicals were unsuccessful in stopping The Beatles. They’re more popular than ever; their influence on culture is ongoing. But the radicals never stop trying; everytime they look around, there’s a new threat to their desired theocracy: Obama, or Hillary, or Gay marriage, or immigrants, or Democrats and liberals, or scientists. There will never be an absence of threats to religious extremism because the human intellect will never die, no matter how much it’s suppressed by dictators; and the human intellect is the dragon-slayer of religious fundamentalism. So when you’re feeling blue, think of the irrepressible vibrancy of enlightened intellectual progress. It’s what makes us as the human race go forward. The temporary emergence of a Donald Trump is awful, but just like Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

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