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Bob Dylan, Christian Anarchist

century ago Henry Adams announced himself founder of the “conservative Christian anarchist” party, and if that first adjective has been blighted perhaps beyond reclamation, “Christian anarchist,” calling to mind Tolstoy and Dorothy Day and brave Anabaptists and nude Doukhobors, has a calming and pacific ring. We could use a few in our post-Christian empire.

Jeff Taylor, gentle soul and wise political scientist, has coauthored (with Chad Israelson) a new book, The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin, locating Hibbing, Minnesota’s favorite (well, maybe tied with Celtic Kevin McHale) son within the regional and Christian anarchist traditions.

Like Dylan, the authors are “sons of the Upper Midwest,” the land of hand-calloused isolationists and Non-Partisan Leaguers. The singer has said that being raised along the Iron Range “gave me a sense of simplicity,” steeping him in a culture of community cohesiveness against which bright lads often rebel, but later come to treasure. As a good Minnesotan, young Robert Zimmerman imbibed populist suspicion of the vultures that would pick Hibbing clean and leave it as carrion unless they got pushback, whether from co-ops or strikers or even Reds.

Taylor and Israelson understand that only louts—New Masses propagandists, neoconservative think-tank martinets—subordinate art to politics, so they eschew tortured exegeses of elliptical lyrics and attempt merely to understand, and celebrate, Bob Dylan’s music and Christian witness.


Nonetheless, they detect a Minnesota accent and anarchist bent throughout Dylan’s career, from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” in 1962 to his Christian conversion circa 1979 to his memoir Chronicles, Volume One (in which he revealed that Barry Goldwater was his favorite ’60s politician) to his recent AARP interview, in which he expatiated on plutocrats who find international philanthropy so much more glamorous than helping the single mom in the trailer park or the homeless vet in the ghetto: “Does it make him happy giving his money away to foreign countries? Is there more contentment in that than in giving it here to the inner cities and creating jobs? … These multibillionaires can create industries right here in America. But no one can tell them what to do. God’s got to lead them.”

When I read of Dylan playing before a huge American flag on his 1965 tour of England, and his confession that “England is OK, but I prefer America,” which is “what I know. … It’s all there for me,” I thought of another patriot of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Sinclair Lewis, who memorized Minnesota’s 87 counties and county seats. When an English magician made a snide crack about America, George Babbitt’s creator stood up and shouted “Take it back! Take it back!” until the flustered thaumaturge apologized and left the stage.

Taylor and Israelson write, “Bob Dylan’s political philosophy since 1979 has been that of Woody Guthrie supplemented by the Gospels of the New Testament, of C. Wright Mills supplemented by the prophet Isaiah, of Merchants of Death supplemented by the Book of Revelation.” Not exactly Rising to the Challenge by Carly Fiorina or A Time for Truth by Ted Cruz.

During his lustrum as an outspoken Christian—he seems to have retained the faith but canned the proselytizing—Dylan told an audience that “politics is an instrument of the Devil. … Politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive.”

Very Adamsian, for the aforementioned Henry called politics “the systematic organization of hatreds.”

Looking for “Dylanesque politicians,” Taylor and Israelson instance the Vietnam-era Protestant evangelical Sens. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Harold Hughes (D-Iowa), both “extreme” in their refusal to countenance “mammon and empire,” abortion or war.

Hatfield was the real McCoy. Right-wingers despised him as a craggy anachronism, a “liberal Republican,” but who else within spitting distance of the White House has ever praised Murray Rothbard, proposed the radical dispersion of power to neighborhood governments, and echoed Sen. Robert Taft in skepticism of a hegemonic America?

Okay, Ron Paul. And I recall a lovely Dylanesque Minnesota moment when Aimee Allen serenaded Paul with his favorite song, Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Universal Soldier,” at the 2008 Rally for the Republic in Minneapolis. (Over in St. Paul, Lee Greenwood was croaking “I’m Proud to be an American” at the GOP convention. There’s no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’.)

Jeff Taylor’s native Iowa (he teaches at Dordt College in Sioux Center) is about to be flooded by operatives and vote-seekers, with nary a Christian anarchist among them. I’ve heard rumors that a Paul offspring is running, though this filial apple seems to have fallen far enough from the tree that by early fall it had been pressed into cider.    

One of the Hawkeye State sojourners writes well (James Webb), one pisses off the right people (Donald Trump), and Rand has a noble father, but by caucus day the sager Iowans may have discovered the truism of a homesick subterranean Christian anarchist: “Don’t follow leaders.”

Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette [1] and Ain’t My America [2].

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Bob Dylan, Christian Anarchist"

#1 Comment By Ben Mayo On November 5, 2015 @ 8:37 am

And watch the parking meters!
Ain’t no truth but the truth, and this is it. No direction home? Maybe there is, after all, but nobody ‘cept you can find it for you.
Look out kid, they keep it all hid; better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle.
Thanks, Bill. I love reading your stuff.

#2 Comment By Ben Mayo On November 5, 2015 @ 8:47 am

Follow up:
I know Bill knows, but there’s a secret history hinted at here, for those with inquiring minds, found in disparate sources such as these:
the Gospel of Thomas (found hidden in a jar); Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; Henry Adams (as mentioned); Ralph Ellison; Thomas Pynchon; PKD; the Grateful Dead; Wendell Berry; Annie Dillard; Toni Morrison. Scratch and sniff. You’ll be amazed! Seek and you shall find, and when you find you’ll be disturbed, and upon being disturbed you’ll be astounded, and will reign over the entirety.

#3 Comment By Jakeb Reel On November 5, 2015 @ 9:09 am

Loved this article until the Rand bashing at the end.. Still the most interesting man in politics. Still the only candidate pushing to have a government we hardly even know is there.. The only republican on those debate stages that isn’t supportive of annihilating Iran..the only one on those debate stages that wants to sit down and talk with Putin.. Rand is a different kind of republican and has a lot of people working very hard at the moment to help him get the republican nomination.

#4 Comment By Jack Rail On November 5, 2015 @ 10:13 am

You NY Times people keep wanting to stuff Bob Dylan into your Leftist mold. He doesn’t fit there. All these decades he has kept his politics and his religion to himself, and youse mugs just keep on pigeon-holing him as an offbeat, Midwestern sort of Lefty. He isn’t. He’s what the big majority of Americans are – himself. That means he prizes the Constitution, detests big govt, avoids factions & goes his own way.

#5 Comment By Major Wootton On November 5, 2015 @ 10:22 am

Ben: elaborate on the Philip K. Dick part, please. I’ve read several of the novels (Martian Time-slip, Time Out of Joint, the heartbreaking A Scanner Darkly, Game-Players of Titan, Cosmic Puppets, The Man in the High Castle, Dr. Bloodmoney, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Our Friends from Frolix 8, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Confessions of a Crap Artist, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike, In Milton Lumky Territory, and Puttering About in a Small Land; and the short stories “The Hanging Stranger,” “Foster, You’re Dead,” “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” “The Minority Report,” “Second Variety,” “Beyond Lies the Wub,” “Roog,” “The Electric Ant,” “Upon the Dull Earth,” “Adjustment Team,” “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” “Precious Artifact,” “A Game of Unchance,” “Paycheck,” and “Imposter,” “Small Town,” “Explorers We,” “The Pre-Persons.”

And I’m not sure I get what you’re driving at!

#6 Comment By LONDONBACH On November 5, 2015 @ 10:47 am

The kingdom of this world is not this kingdom of God. God had in His heart a world-system–a universe of His creating—which should be headed up in Christ His Son But Satan, working through man’s flesh, has set up instead a rival system known in Scripture as “this world”—a system in which we are involved and which he himself dominates. He has in fact become the prince of this world. ~from “The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee

#7 Comment By OdinsAcolyte On November 5, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

“All things are permitted in Christ.”

#8 Comment By Erich Walrath On November 5, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

“Hatfield was the real McCoy.” – Very droll.

#9 Comment By Clint On November 5, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

Rand’s noble father,
“There is not one candidate who has run for president in my lifetime who can say they fully share my commitment to liberty, Austrian economics, small government, and following the Constitution, [more] than my son, Rand Paul.

That’s why I have wholeheartedly endorsed him.”

#10 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 5, 2015 @ 2:05 pm

As for Philip K. Dick: Radio Free Albemuth.

#11 Comment By Daniel (not Larison) On November 5, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

Although Dylan is a complex character, two things loom large in my mind (and perhaps loom larger than they should):

(1) His song “Neighborhood Bully” which is a shameless apologetic for the modern Israeli state.

(2) His recent Super Bowel ad about buying cars from Detroit, where (if you accept the protectionist rhetoric in the first place), he plainly says “Buy your other stuff from wherever you want, but buy your cars from Detroit.” So in other words, screw other local industries, but you damn well better buy your cars from ‘Mericun companies because Detroit is cool.”

Yeah, can’t say I care for the message in either of these. I know Dylan is bigger than just those two messages, but still, they rankle me.

#12 Comment By Andrew On November 5, 2015 @ 3:00 pm

I am a Christian minarchist, perhaps that’s close enough.

#13 Comment By Junior On November 5, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

“As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the President of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it”

– Bob Dylan – It’s Alright, Ma(I’m Only Bleeding)

#14 Comment By Nick Smith On November 5, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

Love this article. Well done!

#15 Comment By Bert Clere On November 5, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

Dylan made it pretty clear he voted for Obama twice. He has broad sympathies, detests dogma, and resists political affiliations. But his admiration for Obama has been pretty consistent.


#16 Comment By Dale Holmgren On November 5, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

“There is not one candidate who has run for president in my lifetime who can say they fully share my commitment to liberty, Austrian economics, small government, and following the Constitution, [more] than my son, Rand Paul.”

Yeah, but there is not one candidate that has done more to piss away a constituency that was gift-wrapped to go to work for him by backing off his resistance to the objectionable clause of the Civil Rights Act; for refusing to talk about gold; for proposing to increase the Defense budget by $76B. The only thing he’s standing out for is Auditing the Fed. His debate performances lack fire, lack anger, lack passion – and even he knows it. Do us a favor and quit the race.

#17 Comment By Ben Mayo On November 6, 2015 @ 9:09 am

Major Wootton, I appreciate the question.
First, from what you wrote, I’d say you’re much better versed in PKD than I am; sincerely, no sarcasm. I’ve read the Valis trilogy and significant portions of the Exegesis, and a couple other novels. When I first read Valis, it was what lit crit folks call “uncanny,” almost hallucinatory. Like I stepped through the looking glass and was inside the book looking back at me reading it. That’s how much I felt a sense of re-cognition—and I felt I understood more fully than ever the Platonic concepts of metempsychosis and anamnesis. Like it was happening in me, to me, through me. I am absolutely certain that that sounds insane to many, but I don’t know what else to say about it: who feels it, knows it. I often get the same sensation reading Pynchon and the others listed, and many others, too. Dylan, of course—all this started with Dylan when I was around 13-14 years old. I’m now 49. I live a normal life above, but inside I’m on a pligrimage, and I got the subterranean homesick blues, fer sher.
I think this is what I meant in a nutshell. I also realize that I’m straying a bit from Mr. Kauffman’s thesis here, but the thread in his piece—as I read it—indicating that each person must work out the path to “salvation” (yeah, I insist on this term), and that you’ll never get there from paying attention to the illusory world of politics and the 5 o’clock news…this is what I find in reading all those mentioned. And this is the main take-away, for me, from Kauffman’s piece here. And, for me, PKD is smack dab in the middle of this.
Probably for most people reading this, I’m being extremely simplistic and obvious. Maybe melodramatic. I concede. But I also believe, deeply, every bit of it, and I live and work in a relatively small city, and I am surrounded on a daily basis by a society for which such ideas are bizarre, heretical, and dangerous. If I were to say these things in conversation with most people I am around daily, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine! Ha ha.
All politicians are jokers, and you and I, we’ve been through that. This is not our fate.
I’m glad to communicate with you. Thanks again for the question. I hope this reply is at least marginally satisfying.

#18 Comment By Major Wootton On November 6, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

Fran MacAdam, I have a library request in for PKD’s Radio free Albemuth.

Ben Mayo, thanks for elaborating, as I requested. You’re connecting with that body of PKD’s work that I’ve been aware of but have mostly not read — the delivery girl who showed up at his door with the Fish symbol, the pink ray, the intuition about circa AD 50, and the public and private documentation thereof. I’d probably read almost everything else before I’d tackle that material. (Couldn’t finish Galactic Pot-Healer — just too silly.)

#19 Comment By Stephen C. Rose On November 6, 2015 @ 4:33 pm

Reading these comments I have considerably more sense of the writers’ bios than about Dylan. And they are more interesting than Dylan which is somehow encouraging.

#20 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On November 7, 2015 @ 9:23 am

Great article. Having been raised in a small town in what was then a rural area in Upstate NY, in reading this piece I found myself feeling more and more in concert with Dylan. “Don’t follow leaders”. Indeed!

#21 Comment By Tomasio On November 8, 2015 @ 1:14 am

Dylan helped me to become a Christian with Slow Train Coming.Through the years I have watched him become less and less relevant . After one is born again through Jesus, if he doesnt become born again through Mary, he remains only half of a Christian …. And eventually fades away…to insignificance. RIP Bob