The Devil in 1965


1965 has always been a critical year for students of U.S. religion, including as it does the beating of James J. Reeb (March 11), the first SDS march against Vietnam (April 17) and the passage of the Immigration Act (October 3). 1965 is a chronologic crucible for students of American plurality.

Such a historical wreath insufficiently conveys the traumas of that year, the traumas supplied by supremacist fire hoses and Bob Dylan’s electric guitar, traumas caused by Hurricane Betsy and the sight of Hickock and Smith’s hangings In Cold Blood. Whatever histories write of the affirmative aftereffects of LBJ’s immigration gateway, they must also recall how absurd and awful it was if only to imagine, briefly, how all good things come at cost.

I’ve been thinking about 1965 a lot since I read that it was then that Evel Knievel began his daredevil career. “Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils” offered a touring show that included riding through fire walls, jumping over mammals and reptiles, and nascent attempts by the show’s eponymous star to cross unbelievable space from atop a bike branded the “American Eagle.”

On December 10 a predicted 20,000 will attend Knievel’s funeral in Butte, Montana, a town host to one of America’s largest Superfund sites. Evel will be honored for many things: his jingoistic bicentennial costumes, his grandfathering of extreme sports, his Guinness record for most bones broken in a single stunt.

Religionists may find a way to work Evel’s 1965 emergence into their narratives. Few men embody better the combination of acrobatic charisma and bumpy biopic so familiar to students of evangelical leadership. He had a resume that was the story of a nation, including (prior to his motorbike hijinks) bank robbery and insurance sales, diamond drilling and alcoholism. Despite much sinful soil, it wasn’t until this year, at the age of 68, that he asked to be baptized at (no less than) Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. “I rose up in bed and, I was by myself, and I said, ‘Devil, Devil, you bastard you, get away from me. I cast you out of my life.’ I just got on my knees and prayed that God would put his arms around me and never, ever, ever let me go.”

That a daredevil could renounce the Devil (while still engraving his tombstone: “MOTORCYCLIST AND DAREDEVIL”) is no surprise to any of us, anymore. It’s all just the world we live in, a world without Selma demonstrations yet overloaded with electric guitars, traumatizing hurricanes, and counter-insurgency. “This country is hard on people,” explains No Country For Old Men, “Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account.” Only in such a country could such a year, such a devil, be made:


Randall said…
Awesome! I had an argument with a colleague here about whether or not Evel was just plain stupid or had some spark of genius. My vote would be that he was an idiocrat who happened to make it big.

BTW, my brother and his wife go to Crystal Cathedral. They were there when Evel performed his greatest stunt of all time...

The prayer/poem brother Evel utters in the middle of this footage is priceless:
Tracy said…
I'm waiting for the historian who can someday take the full measure not of 1965 but of 2007: Evel's baptism into righteousness, Britney's downfall, and Katie Lofton's brilliant posts.
Leeza said…
katie! this is fascinating! i love your posts!
Anonymous said…
is it possible that K Lofton's posts will be so intriguing and interesting that she will gain a following and her students will be wondering if she, like Oprah, is a religion?