Country Music's Me-First Jesus

These days, a country singer will bow down to Jesus at least once by the end of his album, even if he spent the rest of it cheatin’, mistreatin’ and fightin’. Jesus is that reliable way to feel good even if you’ve been acting bad.

Country singers sing about beer, trucks and Jesus. It’s a stereotype, but also true.

On his 2011 album Chief, Eric Church references drinking on nearly every song, a truck just once, and has two songs with “Jesus” in the title. Neither are “I believe” testimonies, or really about Jesus, per se. One, “Country Music Jesus”, is an apocalyptic vision where a Johnny Cash-quoting prophet saves us all (from what isn’t clear). The other, “Like Jesus Does”, is a love song that uses Jesus as a simile. She loves him like Jesus loves. In other words, he sins, and she forgives him. He struggles, but prays at night, and she carries him along. She never gives up on him, never questions him when he acts like a fool: “she knows the man I ain’t / she forgives me when I can’t”.

That take on Jesus fits contemporary county music quite well. The focus in country’s Jesus songs today is on redemption of the bad-boy or -girl. Jesus is a means for a song’s protagonist to make peace with his life of wrongdoing. Jesus will bless you no matter how many people you’ve betrayed, bars you’ve been kicked out of, or fights you've started. Every cowboy finds himself on bended knee.

These days, a country singer will bow down to Jesus at least once by the end of his album, even if he spent the rest of it cheatin’, mistreatin’ and fightin’. Jesus is that reliable way to feel good even if you’ve been acting bad. In his 2008 song, “If Jesus Walked the World Today”, when not molding Jesus to his own image (Jesus would drive a pickup truck, live “outside the city”), Alan Jackson sings of a Jesus who can wipe away anything we do wrong, in one fell swoop – “he’d lay his hands on his brother man / save us all from sinning”.

When Jesus shows up in contemporary country songs, it's to save someone, not to teach us anything. In 2005, Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” was a massive hit, a tearjerker that made its presence known on radio stations and, I imagine, as a slogan on inspirational T-shirts. The song is about a moment of revelation – I can’t do this myself, I need to proclaim that Jesus is in charge. Jesus, in this case, is almost a dictator. Submit to him, and he will mold your life. All you have to do is believe.

The extreme version of this says it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you believe. Clay Walker sings in “Jesus Was a Country Boy” about how his father did terrible things, but in his heart he believed, so he’s OK. “You see / daddy was a rebel / and a rambler / but I always knew he loved my momma so / and I never doubted he’d make it to heaven / cause it ain’t who you are / it’s who you know / and Daddy knew”. The message there is what matters is what you say or think, not what you do. There’s no conflict, for example, if someone who claims to be a Christian also beats their wife. That doesn't make him less Christian. Or a president who proclaims Jesus as his philosophical inspiration but then starts two neverending wars based on lies. Or, for that matter, a president who alludes to Jesus in speeches routinely, but has a criminal assassinated in cold blood instead of put on trial.

In this way, country’s Jesus appeals to the America of today, where politics gets ever meaner and more divisive, while it’s ever more important for all candidates to proclaim their Christian faith; where the apparent Republican front-runner for presidential candidate, Rick Perry, has declared that prayer is the only thing that will save our country ("There is hope for America ... and we will find it on our knees"), while treating science as myth. When the world burns, it will only be our fault because we didn't pray hard enough, not because of anything we did, on a daily basis, globally, to destroy it.

Revenge fantasies and Jesus are not seen as contradictions for Americans or their country singers. James Otto puts “Soldiers and Jesus” on equal footing: “they never picked the fight / but they’re there to pick up the pieces”. In this vision, Jesus, like country as a genre, wants us to tow the line, follow the rules, not ask tough questions. After all, Jesus wasn’t a rabble-rouser, not a radical. Josh Turner’s “The Way He Was Raised” (2007) pushes that obedient, conformist Jesus furthest. The song does acknowledge Jesus was considered a troublemaker, but not why. All Jesus did was follow the rules: “Didn’t talk back to his mama / never put nobody down… had to finish all his chores before he went out to play”.

Country’s view of Jesus doesn’t touch the golden rule, and has no understanding of what it would really mean to love your enemy. This Jesus wasn’t casting moneychangers out of the temple; he was just a good downhome boy who loved his mama and daddy.

Country music is closely tied to religion, historically, and has a rich tradition of secular singers taking on hymns, plus singers who routinely reference their faith and sing hymns within the context of country music, like Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton. To an extent, that country gospel tradition has carried into modern times. Brad Paisley has recorded his versions of hymns like "In the Garden" and "The Old Rugged Cross". Jamey Johnson produced an album for the gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama. In 2006, Alan Jackson released Precious Memories, a reverent collection of hymns he grew up singing in church. These old hymns also sing of leaning on Jesus, but in ways both more biblical and more poetic. They tend to emphasize the afterlife, but while doing so, convey more hope and gratitude than most "Jesus" songs these days. "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling... ye who are weary come home." "'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus". "I'm standing on the promises of God".

The connection to that old-time music seems lost, though, in any of the Jesus songs likely to make it onto country radio or charts. When most mainstream county singers reference Jesus, they strip away the gospel traditions and the softness and tenderness of the message. It’s easy these days for cynical, or even just somewhat critically minded listeners to immediately hear a song about Jesus as a commercial device, a political move, or an attempt to kowtow to audience expectations, especially when the songs are less devotional than self-focused, about what Jesus can do for us, as individuals, not what we should do for other people, following his example.

The shift towards a me-first Jesus might be representative of a larger trend in country music towards songs about self-improvement (think of Keith Urban singing on multiple songs about being "a better man"). Or of a greater tendency in Christianity towards narcissism – using Jesus as a means to justify how we live our lives, instead of as a teacher of life lessons. Or perhaps it’s the influence in country as a genre of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) as a genre. Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel" was a hit on both the country and the CCM charts, and there have been other crossover moments like that, though I don't know of any widespread confluence of the two.

Maybe it's mostly about the direction America is headed as a country. America's current political climate seems to facilitate "a with us or against us" mentality, something religion and religious songs also do well. These particular country songs essentially say "I'm with Jesus", and not much more.

There's also a societal tendency for simplification, for dumbing everything down; a song like "The Way He Was Raised" plays right into that. The simpler Americans make the world out to be, the easier it is to take. In our fast-paced information era, where nothing is simple, people find the cleanest, easiest-to-understand versions of history the most appealing . "Nuance" is a dirty word. The ‘Jesus’ message in today's country songs is about safety: telling ourselves that the world is as simple as we want it to be.

Jesus wasn't telling us anything we don't want to hear. That simplifying of Jesus comes from the same American impulse that has the country celebrating a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. every year without really dealing with his ideas, with the things he said that still are daring and challenging. Instead of listening to and dealing with the way King challenged capitalism, war and the very structure of our society, Americans can celebrate 'service day' in some small neighborly way, and imagine King as a cute and cuddly figure helping old ladies cross the street.

Likewise, Americans can imagine Jesus as the Marlboro man, a stoic cowboy who sits on a hill in his pickup and looks down upon them, occasionally waving his hand to absolve them of any feeling that they might be doing something wrong, thus freeing them from doubt, from suffering, and from thought.

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