How Much Of A Christian was Elvis Presley?

By Terry MattinglySep 3, 2002
As the woman reached the stage, the musicians behind Elvis Presley could see that she was carrying a crown on a plush pillow. "It's for you," she said. "You're the king." Gospel superstar J.D. Sumner recalled that Presley took her hand that night in Las Vegas and replied: "No, honey, I'm not the king. Christ is the king. I'm just a singer." Anyone digging through the mud of Presley's sad decline can find many signs that he was crying out to God as he wrestled with his demons. Like many Southern sinners, Elvis did more than his share of Sunday morning weeping while trying to shake off the shame of Saturday night. So was Elvis a backsliding believer or a hypocritical satyr? A quarter-century after his death, it's amazing that Presley can still get people all shook up in churches as well as casinos. "To judge from some media coverage, you'd think Presley was a saint -- a role model to emulate," said evangelical activist Charles Colson, in a recent radio commentary. In their stories about Graceland pilgrims flocking to Memphis, Tenn., what the journalists "neglected to mention was that, even though Elvis took much of his style from gospel sources, his primary message was the antithesis of biblical standards." Colson noted that one ABC News clip showed "Elvis singing, 'To spend one night with you is what I pray for.' Wow! Did he really think God answered prayers to expedite one-night stands?" The final verdict: "Elvis is an object lesson in the wages of sin." No one would deny that Presley started a cultural earthquake, said Christian radio veteran Dave Fisher, who wrote Colson's radio script. The crucial issue is whether "his impact on our culture was uplifting or degrading." Yes, Presley honored his mother by singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" on "The Ed Sullivan Show." But he also helped inspire a cultural and sexual revolution, said Fisher. "Just analyze the lyrics of the songs. ... Many were quite sexual. He wasn't using the four-letter words that a lot of singers and bands today would use. But they we and confused and I need your help." No picture of Elvis is complete without faith, as well as failure. He was not the first or the last devout country boy to stray in the big city. "If Elvis was a prodigal son, then it seems that he died on the way back to his Father's house," said Beard. "That's tragic. That's a tragic story and it's a story that ought to inspire compassion, not condemnation. ...We all need to be reminded that mercy and grace are still Christian virtues." If there is a cautionary tale here, it is another reminder that believers should be careful when dealing with heroes, said scholar Gene Edward Veith, co-author of "Honky-Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music." The boy who made his profession of faith in a Baptist church in Tupelo, Miss., struggled to hold onto that faith for the rest of his life. The Elvis story is packed with pain, piety, sin, struggle, glory, guilt and repentance. "Very few artistic people make good role models," said Veith. "That isn't what artists are about. The conflicts that make them great in the first place are the very same conflicts that would make them bad role models. ... It's the paradoxes we see in Elvis that made him the great artist that he was."

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