The conservative conversions come from a genuine place. Sin-addled yet saved-by-the blood, their testimonies ring true. Because their passion for the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ resound, because the sheer spontaneity and widespread popularity of their revival affirms relevance, I cannot dismiss the long-term impact of—or the lingering musical and cultural contributions of—the Jesus People. But as Preston Shires documents in his book Hippies of the Religious Right, as T.M. Luhrmann notes in her essay for Harpers called “Blinded by the Right,” and as Larry Eskridge documents in his comprehensive God’s Forever Family, the Jesus People represent a clear-cut counterrevolution within the counterculture.
In 1971, renowned evangelist Billy Graham published his book Jesus Generation, a comprehensive book-length tract—a manifesto for the movement more than a text about the meaning of the movement. According to Eskridge, when Graham’s crusade hit Chicago in 1971, a ragtag rebellion of Yippies and Satanists and the like showed up to make mischief, but even more than the baton-wielding Chicago cops, it was a song-singing and hand-holding group of Jesus People that diffused the situation by infusing a disruptive conflict with love. A watershed moment in the public history of the later “Jesus movement” came with the Godstock festival held in Dallas, Texas in the summer of 1972. Officially titled “EXPLO ’72,” this evangelism conference and energizing concert marks a culminating moment for the movement in the national spotlight, highlighting the sympathetic loyalty to the movement in Graham.
Graham’s energizing endorsements helped clear the way for this “explosion” (which the title EXPLO abbreviates) in the national imagination, but the event was also an evangelistic organizing platform for Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC). According to Larry Eskridge, Campus Crusade’s leadership harbored a serious “concern about the nation’s volatile political and cultural scene” and planned to avert the “calamity” of a leftwing revolution (170). Even though the conservative bias of the event was clear, the organizers made sure that “attention was paid to denying claims CCC was in any way tied to right-wing political elements” (Eskridge 170). Eskridge tactfully treats this topic and its apparent duplicity. Because of this desire to appear politically unbiased while cultivating a sincere conservative bias, the EXPLO refused to invite President Richard Nixon to the event, despite the strong private support for Nixon shared by many of the organizers.
While the weekday rallies were at the packed Cotton Bowl, the concluding Godstock concert attracted almost 200,000 people, so it took place at the Texas State Fairgrounds. Charged with thousands of watts of power, color-coated with a psychedelic backdrop, and starting at 7:30 in the morning, the event’s musical headliner was the great Johnny Cash. The vinyl compilation of the day’s music is a Jesus People collector’s item, capturing the ambiance of the movement with inspiring musical tracks. The music fan in me would have loved EXPLO, but the activist in me would have only gone in subversive Christian solidarity with Jim Wallis under the banner of the People’s Christian Coalition. As retold in two 21st century dissertations on the evangelical Left by David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway respectively, Wallis and his comrades essentially picketed the event with anti-war messages like “Choose This Day—Make Disciples or Make Bombs” or “Love your Enemies or Kill Your Enemies,” then going so far as to disrupt one of the rallies that had overtly pro-military content with chants of “Stop the War!” and unfurled a banner saying “Cross or Flag, Christ or Country.”
They were hardly embraced by their kin in Christ. Gasaway explains, “The crowd of conservative Christians seemed stunned at first by this brazen display but quickly drowned out the chants with thundering ‘boos’” (40). Wallis and his group of “post-Americans,” the prototype of today’s still influential Sojourners magazine and movement, were not Jesus Freaks; in fact the Jesus people in Dallas, hippies and straights alike, seemed okay with uniting cross with flag, the prince of peace with the President’s war. This tension within culture and church remains today.
Although I shouldn’t be shocked by these accounts, I admit great discomfort at the implied conclusions: that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Christianity was at first dominated by spiritually-dead and ostensibly liberal churches, and then, transformed by a conservative revival of reformed hippies who had once dropped acid and thus could handle the dramatic fire of the Holy Spirit. Were some of these seeds of the Christian right in fact “right on” while others were reactionary? There’s something sacred about Jesus Freaks, but what about the lineages of the Christian Left that are “left out” of the scholarly literature on the Jesus movement?
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