Cannons of Christianity

american-flag-cross-1One nation under God”

Trying to prove a point via statistics is always oh-so tempting, but is nevertheless fraught with danger.

Finding the perfect stat is the first problem. Failing to do so can lead to just picking anything that might support your argument, regardless of its source of validity.

I found some statistics via Wikipedia that stated that the amount of Christians in the United States had dropped from 89% in 1965 (when Phil wrote Cannons of Christianity) to 70% in 2014.

This was what I was thinking – every word of Cannons of Christianity still holds up, it still retains it’s relevance. Possibly as much as any of Phil’s songs from the same period do. However, it is the omnipotence of Christianity that has changed. From being the only thing in town it is now mired in its own controversies, schismed to the point of irrelevance. The rise of Islam and Atheism, the liberalisation of societal morals, has made poor of Christ and his followers seem backwards and anachronistic.

That was the argument anyway. Trouble is, I don’t really believe it. Christianity is still here and remains every bit a cornerstone of the American experience.

Cannons, though presented purely as an attack on Christianity, also touches on other subjects close to Phil’s heart – fear of authority, financial inequality, globalisation, empire building, hypocrisy, corruption and war (indeed the role of the church during wartime is something Phil would return to later in his Chaplain of The War – But the church is known to change, embracing half the wrongs it hopes to right”) The notion of the modern church as hypocritical is one that intrigues me. The idea that the church and its practitioners doesn’t practise what it preaches is a strong one, but the suggestion remains that much of what it preaches is good and worthy. In a sense this could be a sister song to Love Me I’m A Liberal or Links On The Chain where the anger derives not so much from opposition to the doctrines in question (Trade Unionism, liberalism, Christianity) but from a lack of adherence to their own teachings and preachings.

Think of Phil’s attitude to his own patriotism. When he turns on his nation it is not because he hates it, but because he is disappointed with it’s inability to live up to its own potential. To me it’s an interesting notion, and may begin to tell us something of how Phil viewed himself and his own work. There is an argument that he set himself impossibly high standards, standards that he had no hope of living up to. Maybe the standards he expected of others were similarly out of reach. Think of those he sang about in his previous LPs – Kennedy, Ruben Jaramillo, Christ – all dead, and in death, all the more powerful, incorruptible and saintly. One of Phil’s jokey intros to Joe Hill says much about this process – Joe, he said, was a minor left wing hero, till he died and became a major left wing hero.

Everyone loves a martyr.

So, how does one live up to such people? In Cannons Christ is conspicuously absent. Maybe that’s the point. The church has moved so far from the teachings of Christ (away from the simple tenets of love and compassion) that it is not even trying to live up to Him anymore. The simplicity of Christ’s teachings doesn’t allow for the dogma required to have such a hold on people, to be able to stymie progress, to be able to hold law makers to some kind of faux-moral ransom. In the place of clarity of thought steps in the politicians. It’s Love Me I’m A Liberal all over again. It’s Days of Decision too. It’s Phil crying out “Think clearly people!”

Where Christ does appear in Phil’s songs it’s usually as a symbol of man’s failure and corruptibility. Think of the desperate richos in The Ringing of Revolution, kneeling by the cross where “the blood of the Christ is still flowing” or the image of the “fallen face of Jesus” in Here’s To The State Of Mississippi, where the “cross once made of silver now is caked with rust”. Fantastically strong, emotive symbolism.

That’s part of the problem though.

As this strong symbol Christ is impossible to live up to, partly because he is not a real man. This is a point I keep coming back to with Phil’s songs. He had such high standards. Such high expectations.

Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t justified in writing Cannons. Feeling personally slighted by other’s religious beliefs is one thing. People’s religious beliefs actively influencing a nations politics is quite another. And that is one thing where little has changed. Marriage equality, women’s rights, education, all suffering, all being strangled by bigotry. Christianity as an excuse for small mindedness, as an excuse for bigotry, as an excuse for stemming the flow of social justice is inexcusable. Using Christ as a tool for the worst kind of reactionary conservatism is just horrible. Jesus deserves better.

There’s a word I keep going back to when thinking about so many of the songs on Phil Ochs In Concert, and it’s a word that seems especially appropriate here. That word is “disarming”. Excuse the pun but, central to Phil’s arsenal was his power to disarm an audience, to lull them with his boyish charm and them, BLAM, hit em where it hurts.

Phil’s spoken intro to Cannons of Christianity is a case in point (“Ochs, wake up, this is God here. Over.”) – it is disarmingly cute. The song itself is disarmingly gentle (it is the world’s first “anti-hymn” after all). The lyrics, of course, are anything but gentle. And therein lies Phil’s great skill. To hector without seeming to be hectoring, to preach without preaching, to fingerpoint so gently that it’s almost a tickle. To deal with such issues as Phil does and maintain a certain dignity is one of Phil’s great strengths.


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