Richard Beck on Johnny Cash’s Gospel Versus the Temptations of Nationalism

“Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash” and author Richard Beck. Courtesy images

Adapted from Trains, Jesus, & Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash by Richard Beck. Copyright © 2019 Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media. Used by permission. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.


Marching through dark streets under torches, the mob proudly displayed their swastikas, shouting “Heil, Hitler” and chanting the chilling refrain, “Blood and soil! Blood and soil!”

One of the marchers, captured by a photographer, wore a Johnny Cash T-shirt.

This wasn’t 1930s Germany. This was Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The association of Johnny Cash with the hate-filled, white-supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville drew a sharp and public rebuke from the Cash family. Cash’s daughter Rosanne posted a passionate note on her Facebook page on behalf of herself and the other Cash children.

Under the heading “A message from the children of Johnny Cash,” Rosanne described her father as “a man whose heart beat with the rhythm of love and social justice. … His pacifism and inclusive patriotism were two of his most defining characteristics. He would be horrified at even a casual use of his name or image for an idea or a cause founded in persecution and hatred. … Our dad told each of us, over and over throughout our lives, ‘Children, you can choose love or hate. I choose love.’”

When you think of the music of the Man in Black, you mostly think of the music where Cash speaks up for the poor, the struggling and the disenfranchised, songs that “beat with the rhythm of love and social justice.”

But Cash was an outspoken patriot and he loved America, and his patriotism often made the gospel messages found in his music vulnerable to distortion and misappropriation, in exactly the same way that patriotism and nationalism of all sorts can distort and twist the gospel. Nationalistic nostalgia can lead us into some dark, troubled waters. A neo-Nazi could end up wearing your T-shirt.

No song better captures this dynamic than “Ragged Old Flag.” The song, from the 1974 album of the same title, recounts a narrative of loss and decay. The flag — and the nation it represents — has been damaged.

The problem with this “narrative of injury” is that it conjures up feelings of resentment, causing us to peer anxiously across the political aisle, our backyard fences and our national borders as we search for the culprits who are hurting America. The image of the ragged old flag — a damaged America — creates suspicion and paranoia, and that fear breeds intolerance and hate.

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Source: Religion News Service