The Man in Black’s Zionist roots

Professor Shalom Goldman makes a strong case for Johnny Cash being the forerunner of the American Christian Zionist movement.

Johnny Cash 370 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archive)
Johnny Cash 370
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archive)
Way before the modern-day Christian Zionist movement became a bastion of American support for Israel, there was the Man in Black.
Johnny Cash, the all-American country music great whose career spanned six decades, carried on an ardent love affair with Israel for most of that time. Cash, a devout Christian who died in 2003 at the age of 71, visited the country five times from 1966 through the mid-1990s along with his wife June Carter Cash and their children. And it wasn’t only with his footsteps that he he demonstrated his connection to the country – he recorded complete albums of inspirational hymns about the holy land and made films about his journeys to Biblical sites.
Cash’s ties with Israel have long fascinated Shalom Goldman, a professor of religion at Duke University. The author of the book Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land, Goldman theorized that Cash symbolized American Christian enthusiasm for Israel before it became labeled as a far-Right movement.
For the last year, he’s been giving a presentation mostly on college campuses: In The Holy Land with Johnny Cash: Christian Zionism and American Popular Culture, a lecture about the religious aspects of Cash’s life and work – including his baptism in the Jordan River – augmented by slides of his pilgrimages to the holy land and live performances of a selection of his Zion-flavored gospel songs.
“Cash was a Christian Zionist for at least a decade before the Christian Right moved into a place of political power in the late 1970s,” said Goldman, speaking from a summer cabin in Georgia last week before heading to Israel, where he’ll give his Cash presentation on Tuesday evening at the Tmol Shilshom bookstore in Jerusalem, accompanied by local folk singer Hila Tam.
“On an academic level, I wanted to distinguish him from evangelical Christian Zionists, although he did have many ties to evangelicals. But his politics weren’t the same as, for example, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Mostly, he sang, and didn’t make political statements. His personal enthusiasm for Israel was reflected in his visits.”
Goldman explained that though today’s thriving Israel-Christian alliance – with millions of Christian Zionists visiting and supporting the country and presenting a second front along with American Jewry in fighting for Israeli interests in Washington, wasn’t nearly as developed in the 1960s and 70s. However, even David Ben- Gurion understood the importance of Christian support to Israel, by sponsoring the World Pentecostal Conference in Jerusalem in 1971.
The government, realizing that Cash could be a PR asset to the country, also aided his trip here in 1971 with his family and a large entourage to film a movie called The Gospel Road, a walk through the Christian gospels narrated by the singer.
While the movie was not originally successful, it has become a cult favorite and according to Goldman, Cash considered it to be one of his most valued works.
“In his second biography, Cash wrote about how he and June came on that trip for their honeymoon as a promise to her,” said Goldman. “She had a dream in which Johnny was preaching to the multitudes at the Sea of Galilee, and she was intent on seeing him do it for real. So they reenacted that scene for the film ‘Gospel Road.’ The film flashes back between him narrating, dressed in black, and scenes of ancient Palestine. It’s a big hit among evangelicals.”
Cash’s big hits – from “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk The Line” to “Big River” and “A Boy Named Sue” may have made him known to millions, but along with his badboy, rockabilly image, augmented by the Joacquin Phoenix portrayal of him in the biopic I Walk The Line, there was another side to Cash which focused on hymns and spiritual tones and produced albums like The Holy Land.
“Johnny said once that out of his 200 albums he was part of, his favorite was My Mother’s Hymnbook, a collection of songs based on the hymnbook his mother gave him from her church in 1954,” said Goldman.
“Among the song titles are ‘Crossing Jordan’ and ‘Coming to the Promised Land,’ and the concept I’m using in my talk is that for Johnny’s mother, those phrases were a metaphor, but for Johnny Cash, they became linked to a reality and relate to the whole question of what Israel and Zion mean in American Christianity.”
Those songs will be performed by Tam at Tmol Shilshom along with other selections like “The Man Comes Around” (called by Goldman “a reworking of the Book of Revelations”) from his acclaimed American Recordings series Cash produced later in his life with Rick Rubin, and “Western Wall,” a song by Cash’s daughter, Roseanne Cash.
“I knew some of his songs, but not the ones I’m going to be singing,” said Tam, a student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.
“I never knew about his religious, Zionist side.”
With a background in classical, jazz and Yemenite music, Tam has been impressed with the songs she’s received from Goldman to learn, and he in turn, is excited about her involvement in the evening.
“I have a singer I work with in my presentations in the States, but I’m really looking forward to working with an Israeli artist,” said Goldman, adding that the presentation would be enhanced by the visual aids he’s providing.
“There’s a fabulous photo of him at the Western Wall – the man in black at the Kotel.”
Goldman said he’s been a fan of Cash’s music since the 1960s and lived in Israel in 1969 when Cash arrived to record his gospel album The Holy Land.
“Through that album, I realized how strong his connection was to Israel,” Goldman said. “I kind of forgot about it until I wrote my book on Christian Zionism. I tried to convince my editor to include a CD of his music with the book, but when he showed me how expensive it would be, I put that idea aside. Instead, I came up with the idea of the lecture, a way to speak about Christians and Zionism through popular culture.”
“Cash presents an interesting case study in Christians who are Zionists but not necessarily the Christian Zionists as we know them today.”
Another reason to focus on Cash? His name still attracts a crowd.
“I tried the talk out first at Emory in Atlanta and then at Southern Methodist University, where 400 people showed up,” said Goldman. “I learned there’s a real resonance to this focus. I’m a college teacher and we’re always interested in what the students know about the past. Generally, it isn’t very much, but they all know who Johnny Cash is.”