How Hollywood De-Christianized Johnny Cash
Celebrating the musical legend on the week of his birth

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash (Twentieth Century Fox)


Lee Habeeb

It’s an early scene in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. The young Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is auditioning for the man who might make him the next Elvis Presley. That man was Sam Phillips, the Sun Records impresario from Memphis.

The fictional Cash walks into the room and begins playing a Gospel song. The fictional Phillips is not impressed, and tells the fictional Cash that no one listens to Gospel anymore, and that he should play something more meaningful. More relevant.

Cash did. The rest was history.

Well, not quite. It turns out that Cash, who was born on February 26, 1932, didn’t stop playing Gospel music at all. Nearly a quarter of the songs he wrote were in some way about his faith or the Bible, and many others were influenced by his Christian worldview.

But there wasn’t a single Gospel song on the Walk the Line soundtrack. Somehow, the screenwriters left out that important dimension of his musical catalogue. And there wasn’t a single mention of the greatest love of Cash’s life: Jesus Christ. That’s a love story the screenwriters of Walk the Line just couldn’t wrap their minds around.

Yes, he loved June, the love of his earthly life. But she too loved Jesus Christ, and no doubt Cash’s love for her had much to do with her love for Him. That fact too was omitted from the movie.

Cash recorded the entire King James Version of the New Testament, performed at countless Billy Graham revivals, made a movie about the life of Jesus, and studied the Bible as much as most divinity-school Ph.Ds. Somehow, none of that made it to the screen during the movie’s 136-minute running time.

The screenwriters left all of that out, and for reasons that are inexplicable.

Leaving out Cash’s Christian faith from his life story is like leaving out half-naked 19-year-old girls from Hugh Hefner’s. It’s like telling the story of Jackie Robinson without ever mentioning race or segregation.

The tension between the flesh and spirit, between things of this earth and things of heaven, animated all of Cash’s music. It’s what drew audiences to him generation after generation. Sin and redemption, good and evil, selfishness and love, and the struggles of living by a standard set not by man but by God — all were driving forces in Cash’s work and life.

While the rock-’n’-roll crowd was busy extolling the virtues of sexual freedom and rebellion, Cash was exploring eternal themes. Even his secular songs mined unusual territory for popular music. Here are the opening lyrics to his first No. 1 Billboard hit:

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds.
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.

Not exactly “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.”

Cash wasn’t walking just any line. He was trying his best to walk a Christian line.

He sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. Cash spoke openly about his bouts with drug addiction. He talked about his selfishness, and how he lost contact with God during those periods, and the toll those episodes took on his loved ones. On himself. “You don’t think about anyone else,” he said late in his life. “You think about yourself and where your next stash is coming from or your next drink. I wasted a lot of time and energy. I mean, we’re not talking days, but years.”

Believers and non-believers alike know about such struggles. That’s what attracted so many people to Cash’s music: his humility and his empathy. He had no tolerance for the false piety of many Christians, and he respected people of all faiths. And those of no faith, such as his friend Kris Kristofferson: The two simply agreed to not talk about religion.

Many great stories about Cash’s faith didn’t make it to the screen, but not because they were hard to find. Fans can find them in the remarkable biography by Steven Turner, The Man Called Cash.