Righting America

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U2 and the Limits of Fundamentalism: Part One | Righting America

by Scott Calhoun

Today’s post is from guest contributor Scott Calhoun, who directs the U2 Conference, writes for website @U2, and is a professor of English at Cedarville University. He has edited three books of essays studying the music, work and influence of U2, most recently U2 and the Religious Impulse: Take Me Higher (Bloomsbury, 2018). More information about his work on U2 is here.

Having read (and thoroughly enjoyed) part one and part two of Randall Stephens’ interview a few weeks ago about his study of the complicated relationship Christians have had with America’s undeniably momentous contribution to the evolution of popular music, The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘N’ Roll (Harvard University Press, 2018), I couldn’t help but nod in agreement with his assessment that younger evangelicals have shifted away from the “red-meat conservative issues” that concerned many of the generation alive at the birth and early years of rock ‘n’ roll, toward having “progressive views or just more of an openness to culture and the variety of human experience.” Stephens cited bands and solo artists he thought appealed to younger evangelicals, but my most vigorous head-nodding came when he recognized that, “[i]n some ways, Bono is a kind of patron saint of this version of the culturally and socially aware Christian.” Bono? Yes: Bono. The Irish frontman of the Anglo-Irish band U2, the band which needs no introduction as the most momentous non-American influence since the Beatles on developing this American art form of rock ‘n’ roll.

A patron saint is certainly an apt description of the status Bono holds for those who consider themselves a “culturally and socially aware Christian” and fan of rock ‘n’ roll. U2 is his home in this regard and the three others in the band (The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr.) are equally deserving of the same honorific, because although the frontman understandably gets most of the praise or blame for what a fan feels the band provides, it’s the complete structure of U2’s songs and performances which have inspired generations of fans, including these younger evangelicals and many of their parents, who started moving away from fundamentalism in the 1980s.

But beyond this subculture of progressive evangelicalism are U2 fans who identify as adherents of other Christian traditions and other faiths, as well as skeptics and professed atheists. They all find U2 inspirational and integral to forming their understanding of what a meaningful life here on earth entails and how it relates to a higher realm. The diversity in U2’s fandom and the common interest many of them have in spiritual pursuits is the subject of my recently published edited collection U2 and the Religious Impulse: Take Me Higher (Bloomsbury, 2018) which adds new examinations to the field of U2 Studies and the growing scholarly interest in U2’s  contribution to the cultural conversations happening at the intersection of art, religion and the public sphere.

U2 and the Religious Impulse, edited by Scott Calhoun. Cover by Bloomsbury Press, 2018

One section of studies in this new collection represents some the diversity of belief in the U2 fandom, and in fact has an essay examining the trend Stephens notes about evangelicals in The Devil’s Music. Neil R. Coulter writes in “Finding What They’re Looking For: Evangelical Teen Fans and Their Desire for U2 to be a Christian Band” about the 1980s as when while U2 itself was strategically avoiding the label of being a Contemporary Christian Music band, it found its fanbase growing enormously with young evangelicals. Other essays testifying to diversity in the fandom are Naomi Dinnen’s “‘You Don’t See Me But You Will’”: Jewish Thought and U2,” Angela Pancella’s “‘Like Faith Needs a Doubt’”: U2 and the Theist / Non-Theist Dialogue,” and Mark Peters’ “U2 and the Art of Being Human,” which articulates the tenants of religious humanism inform U2’s messaging just as adequately as any specific statement of Christianity would.

I think what most U2 fans appreciate at both the head and heart level is U2’s willingness to confront artificial constructions that impair the human quest for meaning and fulfillment. One of the central themes of U2’s art is, indeed, fundamentalism as an impediment. U2 recognizes the human reluctance to move toward complexity, preferring simplicity instead, and human nature’s preference for the comforts of the familiar to the tensions arising from an encounter with the “strange.” Fundamentalism’s allure is, perhaps, feeling that one is living nobly, but how often does it result in the most ignoble acts upon one’s neighbors (not to mention oneself)? Moved by the reality of historical evidence, Bono wrote lyrics for a song called “Please” on U2’s 1997 album Pop in response to Northern Ireland’s peace process in the 1990s to end nearly a century of violent conflicts from multiple factions. The song is a call of sorts to stop praying for peace and, instead, working for peace. Among the lyrics are lines such as:

You had to win, you couldn’t just pass
The smartest ass at the top of the class
Your flying colours, your family tree
And all your lessons in history …


Your holy war, your northern star
Your sermon on the mount from the boot of your car


Please, please, please
Get up off your knees

Bono described “Please” this way:

It’s essentially about fundamentalism, political or religious. Religious fundamentalism is where you get to shrink God; you remake God in your own image, as opposed to the other way around. It gave me a bit of a fright.” (Rolling Stone, 2001)

A lasting peace eventually came to Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998, which U2 played a concert in Belfast to support. The U2 Conference’s meetings this June in Belfast will be a part of the city’s year-long schedule of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.