Wednesday is the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's murder, which means that radio and TV stations around the world will be playing "Imagine," the former Beatle's hymn to idealism that remains his most celebrated work. But although the song, released in 1971, was intended to present the possibility of an ideal world, it also provoked controversy — and still does today.
The problems start with the opening line: "Imagine there's no heaven." Christians have condemned those words as blasphemous. And then there are these lines: "Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/nothing to kill or die for." They were attacked as unpatriotic.
For decades, schools on both sides of the Atlantic have banned the song at concerts and graduations. In 1972, seniors at Denmark High in Green Bay, Wis., voted to make "Imagine" their class song. The principal rejected their choice, claiming the song was "anti-religious and anti-American with communist overtones." But the students had the last word: At their 20th reunion, the class made "Imagine" its official reunion theme.
At a high school in Riverside in 1991, student Aaron Salinger wrote the lyrics to "Imagine" on the stripes of an American flag as an art project. It was Lennon's birthday and the Persian Gulf War was underway, and Salinger and his friends carried the "Imagine" flag in an antiwar demonstration. Aaron's mother, Sharon V. Salinger, now dean of undergraduate education at UC Irvine, remembers being summoned to the principal's office after Aaron was suspended for "desecrating the flag."
Across the Atlantic in Britain, a church school in Devon banned "Imagine" from its 2006 year-end concert. Students at St. Leonard's Primary in Exeter "had spent weeks rehearsing the song," according to BBC news reports, but head teacher Geoff Williams was adamant: "As a church school, we decided it was not appropriate to sing it."
When the Anglican cathedral of Liverpool, Lennon's hometown, proposed playing "Imagine" on its bells last year, a Church Times poll found that 64% of its readers were opposed. (The cathedral went ahead with the bell-ringing anyway.)
In 2008, the documentary film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," hosted by former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein, included part of the song in its soundtrack. "Imagine" was a somewhat odd choice for a film that presented "intelligent design" as a legitimate alternative to evolution, but the chief executive of the company that made the documentary defended the decision, saying the song was used to provide a window into the thinking of evolution's defenders: "That's exactly what the Darwinist establishment wants to do: get rid of religion," he said.
Christians quickly connected the line "Imagine there's no heaven" to Lennon's famous 1966 statement that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus." That led to a Ku Klux Klan picket line outside the Beatles' concert in Memphis in 1966 on what became the group's last U.S. tour.
In 1978, two years before his murder, Lennon wrote about that protest: "I always remember to thank Jesus for the end of my touring days. If I hadn't said that the Beatles were 'bigger than Jesus' and upset the very Christian Ku Klux Klan, well, Lord, I might still be up there with all the other performing fleas! God bless America. Thank you, Jesus."
Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine and the author of "Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files."