I grew up listening to Petra. If you didn’t attend a church steeped in white evangelicalism’s “youth group” sub-culture of the 1980s like I did, I don’t expect you to know of this rock band. They started in the 1970s with a sound akin to Kansas or Styx blended with synth melodies and heavy guitar interspersed with ballads. My first music purchase with my own hard-earned cash was a cassette tape of the 1982 release, More Power to Ya — an album that featured a hard-edged song called “Judas’ Kiss,” which started out with a few seconds of righteous back-masking. Since this was a time when back-masking was usually attributed to the work of the devil, listening to it on a Petra album still felt scary. In the mid 80s, John Schlitt joined the band with high-pitched lead vocals and a sound that amounted to a tamer version of popular hair-band rockers. While my friends in Junior High were sketching out doodles of AC/DC’s logo on their brown-bag book covers, I was sketching Petra’s trademark logo in which the “T” was stylized as a combination cross and sword and wondering if such doodles counted as “witnessing” for Jesus.
Imagine my surprise in learning, shortly after moving to Indiana to teach at Grace College, that Petra’s original bass player, John DeGroff, lives just a few doors down from from my family. Other than finding out that I live in such close proximity to an original member of Petra, I haven’t given much thought to the band in the last 3 decades. (I exchanged Christian music for NPR a long time ago.)
But this spring, when John Fea offered up a podcast on Randall Stephen’s new book, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock n Roll, it brought bands like Petra back to mind. And it was just last year that Jay Sekulow’s rock band recorded an original political protest song titled “Undemocratic” to which Schlitt, and frequent Petra producer, John Elefante, lent their talent. Sekulow is a Christian convert from Judaism (or a “messianic Jew,” as evangelicals like to say) and a power player on Donald Trump’s legal team. Before becoming a prominent, wealthy, and powerful lawyer and right-wing legal activist, Sekulow graduated from Pat Roberson’s Regent University. He has published a run of books that support the policy agenda of conservative evangelicals (legal efforts in favor of Christians, lot’s of “freedom-talk,” GOP strategy, religion and the supreme court) as well as the “clash of civilizations” narrative common to conservative evangelical observers of world affairs (radical Islam and the Judeo-Christian west in a prophetic, apocalyptic struggle for world dominance). It is little wonder, then, that Fea lists Sekulow among those he has dubbed Trump’s “court evangelicals” — evangelicals among the president’s inner circles who dove-tail defenses of Trumpian policies with Christian sentiment. “Undemocratic” is politically charged and reflects Sekulow’s complaints about liberals and his annoyance at the 2013 IRS scandal. Apparently Schlitt and Elefante share his politics. Here are s a few lines:
We’re wrong if we’re right; Its so systematic
Now we know how it feels; To live undemocratic
You took the lead to act by what you wanted to do
Only trouble is nobody voted for you
Democracy in motion means a right to take sides
Since when is one rewarded for the emails she hides?
Along with “Undemocratic” and several original songs as well as covers, the Sekulow/Schlitt/Elefante effort has released a YouTube version of “Hope of Israel,” a song that meshes well with dispensational Christian Zionist themes and prominently features Schlitt.
Popular Christian music has rarely been this overtly political. Perhaps the earliest example was Homer Rodeheaver, the trumpet wielding song leader for Billy Sunday, who integrated patriotic themes and support for prohibition with his music ministry during World War I. Though Rodeheaver was a long way from rock and roll, his publishing and recording efforts helped to pave the way for what would become Contemporary Christian Music and his company was later bought out by Word Music. Then there was Janet Green, who wrote folk anthems for the Christian Anti-Communist League in the 1960s. Greene recorded songs with titles like “Commie Lies,” “Poor Left-Winger,” and “Fascist Threat.”
Bob Dylan might have offered up some anthems for the evangelical left had his experiment with Christianity proved more substantial. As it was, this went to Kurt Cobain look-alike Larry Norman, whose “Great American Novel” spoke truth to power:
I was born and raised an orphan in a land that once was free
In a land that poured its love out on the moon;
And I grew up in the shadows of your silos filled with grain,
But you never helped to fill my empty spoon.
And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.
You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.
By and large, however, Christian musicians have tended to steer clear of overt political preaching in this toxic environment, choosing instead to spiritualize the struggles of life, evangelize the lost, or lift their audience’s gaze toward God. Hard-edged bands like Switchfoot have used political strife or media bias to illustrate the brokenness of human society while Gospel/soul artists Zion’s Joy have used social upheaval to point toward hope for peace and harmony in heaven. In some cases, songs become politicized even if not intended to be political in nature. Recently, Mike Huckabee’s YouTube channel used the Zion’s Joy song “What would Heaven Look Like?” for political haymaking after it was mistakenly taken down from Facebook for being “too political.” Facebook corrected the mistake but not before Huckabee politicized the incident.
At least one Christian musician recently joined in on Trump’s war on athletes who protest the national anthem. Michael Sweet, front man for the pioneering Christian hair-metal band, Stryper, criticized athletes on Twitter telling them to focus on playing football. (Sweet’s doperganger is Ted Cruz, by the way) Once upon a time bands like Petra and Stryper took aim at the status quo and smashed through the norms of conservative Christianity. Now they seem more like the establishment.
There are pockets of dissent, however. Christian music artist Matt Maher has been a strong critic of Trump. And although Christian hip hop artist Lecrae likes to rise above political labels, the messages in his music offer significant doses of social justice and clearly run counter to those of aging rockers like Schlitt or white court evangelicals like Sekulow. Lecrae declares in Facts:
You grew up thinkin’ that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin’ how they fed my momma eggs and grits
“‘Crae, they say you should follow in the steps of King”
I say, “You’ve forgotten how they shot him in the streets”
I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith
My Messiah died for the world, not just USA
They say, “Jesus was Conservative”
Tell ‘em, “That’s a lie”
No, He not a Liberal either if you think I’ll choose a side
Political protest music has traditionally been the domain of liberals, but its not surprising that conservatives would find their own anthems given the now decades-long marriage between white Christian rockers and the larger evangelical subculture. Needless to say, I don’t think we’ll hear any Lecrae bolstering Trump’s midterm election campaign, but perhaps Sekelow and John Schlitt will write some more MAGA sound tracks.