“‘More popular than Jesus‘ was part of a longer remark made by the Beatles‘ John Lennon during a 1966 interview, in which he argued that Christianity would end, possibly before rock music. His opinions drew no controversy when originally published in the United Kingdom, but angry reactions flared up in Christian communities when the comment was republished in the United States five months later. The full quotation was:
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
The statement originates from an interview conducted by journalist Maureen Cleave, who included it in a March 1966 article for the London newspaper the Evening Standard, which drew no public reaction at the time. When Datebook, a US teen magazine, quoted Lennon’s comments five months later in August, extensive protests broke out in the United States, particularly throughout the Bible Belt. Some radio stations stopped playing Beatles songs, their records were publicly burned, press conferences were cancelled, and threats were made. The controversy coincided with the group’s US tour in August 1966, and Lennon and Brian Epstein attempted to quell the dispute at a series of press conferences. Some tour events experienced disruption and intimidation, including a picketing by the Ku Klux Klan. Shortly after the controversy broke, Lennon reluctantly apologised for the comment, saying ‘if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it’. He stressed that he was simply remarking on how other people viewed and popularised the band. The events contributed to the Beatles’ lack of interest in public live performances, and the US tour was the last they undertook, after which they became a studio-only band. …”
Rolling Stone (Video)