PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The Devil's Music Captures How Evangelicals Went from Condemning Rock 'n' Roll to Harnessing It

Religious conservatives have spent as much time studying popular culture as they have condemning it, and they have arguably learned its lessons more effectively than social progressives.

The Devil's Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock 'n' Roll
Randall J. Stephens

Harvard University Press

Mar 2009


Randall J. Stephens' deeply researched The Devil's Music charts the long and oftentimes contentious relationship between evangelical Christianity and rock 'n' roll. Along the way, it offers some surprising historical insights and a somber lesson for social progressives who have long scoffed at their evangelical adversaries in America's ongoing culture wars.

Stephens opens the book by outlining the intimate connection between Pentecostalism and rock 'n' roll's originators, declaring that "The culture of southern Pentecostalism influenced early rock in startlingly powerful ways and helped give birth to the new genre", then carefully cataloging its development through the work of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, all of whom shared Pentecostal or similar holiness church backgrounds. "The leap from unbridled sanctified music to rock 'n' roll," Stephens notes, "was not a great one. "Pentecostalism was itself as outside of mainstream religion at its inception as rock 'n' roll music was from the '50s-era mainstream; further, he notes that one of early Pentecostalism's most controversial characteristics (paralleling early rock 'n' roll) was its welcoming of racial mixing amongst adherents, though by the '30s most Pentecostal congregations had self-segregated. Nonetheless, its high energy worship practices and embrace of all forms of music within the church service proved a fertile breeding ground for the first generation of rock 'n' rollers.

The intersection of rock 'n' roll and American Christianity is, Stephens contends, an under-investigated subject in popular culture scholarship, though he neglects to reference my and David Janssen's Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music, which examines the influence of Christian millennialism on rock's early proponents. The Devil's Music, nonetheless, succeeds in providing the deepest account yet of their contentious shared history and how each worked to shape the other, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes deliberately. Stephens is particularly effective, as well, in examining how "fears of religious impurity" inspired by rock 'n' roll reflected deeper and more insidious "fears of racial contamination". His chapter on "Race, Religion, and Rock 'n' Roll" examines how, for Southern segregationists and members of such rapidly growing, ethnocentric organizations as the White Citizens Council, rock 'n' roll's racial intermingling was a perceived as a direct "attack on American values".

By the turn of the '60s religious conservatives had justification in feeling like they'd outlasted the rock 'n' roll fad as the first wave of major rock 'n' rollers had been effectively silenced, with Elvis drafted, Little Richard returning to the ministry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry disgraced by sex scandals, and with the deaths of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and others taken out of the game by tragic accidents. The rise of the Beatles, however, reignited the flame of concern, which erupted into an unwieldy pyre following John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" comment. However, as Stephens shows, the pseudo-spiritual striving inspired by Beatles worship and associate experiments with psychedelics actually served to strengthen the rising Christian movement among young people by the time of that band's breakup. Many hippies, pilgrim or poseur alike, became disaffected with the movement and disappointed by its many false prophets and so found themselves returning to Jesus for inspiration, though their religious expressions were quite distinct from the conservative churches they'd left behind. This new youth movement and its "Jesus freak" proponents gained such momentum that, only three years after Woodstock, the Jesus Music Festival of Dallas's Explo '72, or "Godfest" as it came to be called, drew 200,000 young people to celebrate the new Jesus Rock.

Christian rock would build from there to become a multi-million dollar industry by the '80s, launching superstars like Amy Grant, Petra, The Newsboys, and the hair-metal "yellow and black attack" of Stryper. Stephens ponders at length the perpetual outsider status of this popular genre and its near-universal snub by rock's professional critics. But, as he points out, evangelicals who care little for popular culture in general care even less for other's opinions of their forays into it. With rock music as a central example, Stephens shows how evangelicals have shifted in their perspective regarding the evils of the secular world and its mass media in particular: "In the same years that evangelicals publicly embraced politics and linked their denominations to the GOP in particular, they were also realizing that it was far better to borrow from and exploit popular culture than to reject and condemn it outright."

And herein lies perhaps the most important lesson of The Devil's Music. Religious conservatives have spent as much time studying popular culture as they have condemning it, and they have arguably learned its lessons more effectively than social progressives. It is the passion of rock 'n' roll that draws in its converts, but evangelicals have arguably harnessed that power more effectively than secular progressives in the decades since the '80s. It is, of course, an oversimplification to say that liberals think while conservatives feel, but when one observes the patterns of argument within the debates of the culture wars, it is nonetheless true that liberals tend to favor logos while conservatives lead, more often than not, with pathos.

If the culture wars are a conflict between thought and feeling, then it would appear, at this juncture in the least, that feeling is winning, and religious conservatives not only have a much deeper well of that passion to draw from but they do a better job of harnessing it from America's secular institutions than do progressives. As Stephens concludes, "Much of what animates evangelical churches in the twenty-first century comes directly from the unlikely fusion of pentecostal religion, conservative politics, and rock and pop music." The progressive left and secular thinkers ignore this at their own peril.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Laura Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.