The story of Jesus, John Lennon, and a Beatles controversy in Chicago 45 years ago

August 11, 2011

On this August 11th in 1966, the Beatles were in Chicago to launch their third American tour. The British quartet was the most popular rock group in the world. So why was the discussion about religion?

A few months before, John Lennon had been interviewed by a British magazine, and the subject of religion had come up. "Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink," Lennon said. As for the Beatles, he went on, "We're more popular than Jesus now."

Lennon's remarks caused little reaction in Britain. But just before the Beatles' U.S. tour was to start, an American magazine published them. That's when the excrement hit the fan.

Two American radio stations announced they'd stop playing Beatles music. The Memphis city council refused to let the group perform in the municipal auditorium. Protesters in various cities burned Beatles records. Demonstrations were also reported in Mexico, Spain, and South Africa.

The Beatles tour--and the whole Beatles money machine--was in jeopardy. Something had to be done. So at the Chicago press conference at the Astor Towers, Lennon addressed the topic.

"I wasn't saying that the Beatles were better than God or Jesus or Christianity," he explained. "I wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying."

Lennon claimed he'd just been commenting on the secular nature of England. It seemed that the Beatles meant more to some kids than Jesus or religion did. Nobody could deny that Christianity was shrinking in England.

"And we all deplore it," Beatle Paul McCartney chimed in.

Lennon was told that an Atlanta disc jockey had demanded an apology. "I apologize to him if he wants me to," Lennon replied. "I'm sorry I said it. I'm sorry for the mess I made. I never meant it as an anti-religious thing."

From there the press conference moved on to musical matters. The Beatles played two Chicago performances at the Amphitheater, then embarked on the rest of their 14-city tour. The Memphis concert went off as planned, though someone did throw a lit firecracker at the group.

The 1966 tour was the Beatles' last. The group eventually split. John Lennon continued to speak his mind and cause controversy. He was murdered in 1980.

Today people still play Beatles music. People still go to church, too.