Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of the Nation
By Rodney Clapp
Westminster John Knox, February 2008
192 pp., $16.95

Very few figures in recent history are seen as more representative of American identity than Cash. His music was included in a space capsule the United States shot into outer space. He played Abraham Lincoln in a television miniseries and was a major player in the celebration of the country's bicentennial. His has often been suggested as the face that should be added to the select pantheon on Mt. Rushmore. But in addition to his profound Americanness, the late and still celebrated country singer and songwriter, in his life and work, provides several lamps to shine into the neglected, shadowy twists and crevices of the caverns of America's current religious, cultural, and political predicaments.

Johnny Cash was a lifelong Christian. Raised in the Baptist church, particularly impressed by his mother (who sometimes baked "Scripture cakes" using ingredients listed in the Bible), Cash held deep Christian convictions from childhood to his death. Like America in general and the South in particular, he was God-haunted. He did not always live up to his convictions but, even at his drug-addled and beastly worst, he never relinquished them. Christian convictions and practices profoundly mark his work, which still rings out across the country and the world—in radio, films, and television commercials. Cash's famous sympathy for the outsider and the underdog, represented through frequent prison concerts and his customary funereal black attire, sprang from the soil of faith. In the turbulent late '60s and early '70s, some accused him of becoming a "political radical": Cash responded, "I'm just trying to be a Christian." On another occasion he elaborated, "As I got to studying the Bible more, I found it part of my religion, not only an obligation but a privilege, to perform for people in bondage, especially those behind bars." Like America as a whole, Cash had a sometimes constructive and sometimes tortured relation to the church and the faith. He and his music can help us see more keenly into the often baffling murkiness that is the American relation between holiness and hedonism, church and state, faith and culture.

The Man in Black's solidarity with the poor, the imprisoned, and the overburdened working people tapped into his Christian faith. It also reflected what many of us continue to regard as among America's greatest ideals and real if fragmentary glories. Cash was thoroughly an American proud of the Americanness represented by Emma Lazurus's words inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, also known as the "Mother of Exiles":

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Such sympathies entailed that Cash was not blind to the imperfections of his native land. Paired with his patriotism and a number of traits native to his rural Southern home, these sympathies mean Cash's Americanism was too broad and too deep to stand on only one side of our current red state vs. blue state polarization. Like other Southerners, if not always in identical regards, Cash was pleased to be known as a rebel—a rebel, as he once put it, "against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others' ideas." At the same time, like others of his vintage, he could not conceive of anything but standing for his country on the whole.

Excerpted from Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction by Rodney Clapp, published by Westminster John Knox Press (2008).

Rodney Clapp is the editorial director of Brazos Press.

Related elsewhere:

A review of Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction, and an excerpt about Pentecostalism and early rock singers from The Fire Spreads are also posted on our site today.

More articles about musicians' faith, including Eric Clapton, John Lennon, and Salt-N-Pepa, are available in our full-coverage music section.