Bob Dylan an Anarchist?

This article is adapted from the new Palgrave Macmillan book The Political World of Bob Dylan: Freedom and Justice, Power and Sin.

Famed singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was born and raised on the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota—specifically, in Duluth and Hibbing.  The roots of his anarchism can be partly traced to the political culture of this region.  Politicians who were considered “for the people” influenced the development of a radical heritage in northern Minnesota.

During the early twentieth century, it would have been common to hear communist, socialist, and anarchist speakers in numerous towns across the Range.  In 1907, the Western Federation of Miners went to the Iron Range to organize.  The anarchistic Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) used the Socialist Opera House in Virginia, Minnesota, as a headquarters.  The labor organizations hosted rallies and 17,000 strikers eventually walked the picket line.  On both sides of the struggle, out-of-state strikebreakers and supportive socialists such as Mother Jones arrived.  In 1916, a second and much more violent strike occurred.  Hibbing hosted an IWW parade and the city’s Workers’ Hall served as a planning center for the strikers. The Political World of... Chad Israelson Best Price: $27.94 Buy New $95.45 (as of 12:20 UTC - Details)

Barry Goldwater and the New Right

Bob Dylan arrived in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City in January 1961.  His status as a legendary music figure was largely built in the 1960s, first as a talented folk singer and then as a ground-breaking rock star.

In 2004, Dylan surprised readers by divulging in his Chronicles memoir that Senator Barry Goldwater was his “favorite politician” of the 1960s.  At the time, Dylan himself found “there wasn’t any way to explain that to anybody.”  Some have wondered whether this statement means that Dylan is a closet Republican or is now finally able to announce his true conservative self.  The notion that Bob Dylan is more sympathetic to the Right than to the Left reaches too far.  Dylan’s political worldview aligned only a little with the New Right, a bit more with the New Left, and was an amalgamation of traditional concepts that defied easy classification.

Although in interviews Dylan is often evasive and at times less than forthright, his statement about Goldwater can most likely be taken at face value.  That Dylan would find the Arizona Senator’s straightforwardness and image as an outsider appealing is perfectly consistent with Dylan’s political views.  Iron Rangers appreciated authenticity from their politicians, and Goldwater possessed it, even to the detriment of his 1964 candidacy.  When Dylan has portrayed politicians in songs and interviews he has generally taken them to task for phoniness or self- interest.  Dylan may well have appreciated Goldwater’s advocacy of personal freedom and, as time went on, his acceptance speech which asserted the Senator’s determination to “return to proven ways—not because they are old, but because they are true.”

While Dylan may have admired Goldwater’s integrity, the singer never articulated a specific political ideology and the two had little in common from a policy standpoint.  Goldwater opposed racial segregation but he also did not believe that the federal government should intervene and he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  In a 2012 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan revealed that he did not buy the states’ rights argument of the southern elite in the build-up to the Civil War and it is highly unlikely that he would have bought it when it came to civil rights.  Even though Dylan generally preferred a decentralized approach, he sided with those who were struggling for freedom.  Still, Barry Goldwater had an appeal that transcended purely partisan views and resonated with many who advocated liberty for all.

New Left and Counterculture

Throughout the 1960s, SDS and other manifestations of the New Left sought to transcend a stifling and hypocritical American culture.  Personalism, a combination of Catholic social justice theory, pacifism, and anarchism, constituted another activist position.  It acknowledged the God-given or natural value of all human beings.  Personalists concerned themselves with people on society’s margins, championing the poor and downtrodden.  They remained “suspicious of systems,” the bureaucracies and institutions which depersonalized human beings.  Furthermore, they distrusted the capitalist market, which created injustice, and the state, which often abused power.  In their view, large-scale structural and political change became possible when people could be incited to action.

Personalists differed from post-war mainstream liberals in several key ways.  First, liberals maintained faith in capitalism, while personalists were distrustful of consumerism.  Second, liberalism invested faith in the current political system and the managerial state.  Personalists advocated participatory rather than representational politics, and a decentralized system.  Third, most liberals drew a hard-line anti-communist stance while Personalists and their New Left counterparts could be classified as something closer to “anti anti-communist.”  Though not all aspects of Personalist thought can be applied to Dylan, a significant amount of the philosophy mirrors his outlook.

Typically the word “political” refers to an active pursuit of an office, the exertion of power, or grappling with an issue.  However, rejection or disengagement with the process has political ramifications as well.  Much like the Beats of the 1950s, Dylan’s conduct and art were political, though not linked to any movement.  This is the type of anarchy that best describes his political approach in the mid-1960s.  He did not have to scream “Down with the state!” to convey a message of disaffection with the mainstream political process or society.  At this point, nearly every one of Dylan’s actions and utterances carried influence.  He did not need to be overtly political in order to have a political impact.  Many listeners assuming the significance of Dylan’s lyrics developed their own intellectual response.  In this way, Dylan became an exemplar of anarchistic thought and deed.

The Counterculture Hippies and the more serious-minded political activists who led many of the student organizations often did not get along with one another.  The Diggers, Yippies, and Merry Pranksters represented groups who affirmed the personal approach to politics, but the Counterculture was not generally a political movement in the classic sense of the word.  Of course, in some cases the cultural and political movements overlapped, but too frequently the media lumped all long-haired young people into the same category.  The Hippies offered “a concept, an act of rejection, a militant vanguard, a hope for the future.”  According to one underground newspaper, they “openly refused to be used anymore to be manipulated, coerced, and destroyed as human beings.”  In the early 1960s, SDS had sought serious political change via participatory action and at the same time they called attention to cultural issues as well.  The Counterculture frequently affected politics on a personal level and often “dropped out.”  Towards the end of the 1960s, some activists who were disillusioned and beat down by defeat turned participatory politics into violent action.

Anarchy and Personal Freedom

Depending on one’s point of view, Dylan “going electric” in 1965 may have been his most overtly political act.  He changed himself from an acoustic folk performer, saddled with being the conscience of his generation, into a cryptic rock and roll hipster.  Dylan’s lyrics continued their transformation into more obscure and elliptical styles, and they are the musical equivalent of the 1964 bus ride Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters embarked upon.  This manifestation of freedom became that of self-expression and a desire to go—as the Pranksters’ bus read—“Furthur,” artistically and personally.  Dylan, who spoke out for justice and equality for others, now desired freedom of his own.

Between January and August 1965, when he recorded Bringing It All Back Home and released his second masterpiece, Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan led a musical revolution that contained political, cultural, and social overtones.  The following year, Dylan presented Blonde on Blonde, the third installment of his electric rock output.  With these albums, Dylan raised the bar for all other popular music artists of the period.  The songs Dylan recorded in 1965 and 1966 were some of his greatest and most popular.  Neither discernibly about a single subject nor linear in their progression, his music captivated the imaginations of listeners.

Songs such as “Queen Jane Approximately,” “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and “4th Time Around” were not just “about” freedom—they evoked it.  The young man from Hibbing now wrote expressionistic songs that fans and critics mined for deeper meaning.  Dylan moved from a critique of injustice and a lack of freedom on a societal and institutional level, to a glorification of freedom and individual expression.  Perhaps Dylan decided, or always knew, that an attempt to change society on a broad scale was not feasible, and instead he chose to concentrate on an inner world.  Or perhaps it was never his intention, as he said in 1974, to “remake the world” or lead a “battle charge.”  Most likely he simply grew tired of the scene, the style, and the limitations.  If this is the case, Dylan could not have presented a better example for artistic freedom.

The 1965 song “Maggie’s Farm” is a prime example of Dylan’s new conceptualized personal freedom.  In its entirety, the song explores power relationships between Dylan the singer and Maggie and her family.  The song begins with Dylan’s declaration that he refuses to labor “on Maggie’s farm” any longer.  He complains of having a head filled with ideas that drive him insane.  If that is metaphorical and represents his new musical direction, then Maggie and her family are the folk crowd and deny him the freedom to do it.  They tell him to “sing” as he slaves, and her father and brother abuse Dylan by extinguishing cigars in his face and fining him.  This occurs while the National Guard stands watch by the door, condoning the injustice and protecting the perpetrators.  Maggie and her family threaten Dylan’s personal liberty, as do the critics and fans who think they own him and want the singer “to be just like them.”

Later in 1965, Dylan upped the creative ante with Highway 61 Revisited.  Although his songs from this era have been analyzed repeatedly, formulating a coherent thematic perspective from them is difficult.  His admiration for Beat self-expression provided the most obvious cultural touchstone.  Dylan, via his lyrical approach, proved to be an exemplar of this type of freedom.  Some labeled the music Dylan pumped out during this period as anarchic.  He may have advocated an anarchistic type of freedom, one without rules or at least without coercion, but not of violent confrontation.

Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture

Bob Dylan did not abandon his anarchism when he became an evangelical Christian in 1978-79.  He can be placed within a distinct theological position, vis-à-vis American culture.  The relationship between Christ and Caesar, between the Church and the World, has been the subject of thought, debate, and sometimes bloodshed for thousands of years.  Each side claims to hold a trump card of allegiance, whether natural or supernatural.  Conflicting loyalties can cause problems for a society.  Collaboration can produce a sacralism that combines two types of potent power: secular and religious.  While seeming to promoting harmony, this can also cause problems in the long run (and in the short run for those falling outside of the governmental/ecclesiastical mainstream).

Competition between the eternal and temporal has inevitable political implications.  God is said to be at the center of Christianity but the religion operates in an earthly context of time and space, including specific nation-states with rulers, laws, and customs.  Context cannot be ignored and it often overshadows the spiritual.  In seeking to understand how these pieces fit together or do not fit together, we can make use of the classic book Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr (1951).  Shining a spotlight on one of five models of how the two relate will set the stage for understanding Dylan’s politics since 1979.  The Christ Against Culture theological position leads to the ideology of Christian anarchism.

Referring to those who hold this position, Niebuhr speaks of “their common acknowledgment of the sole authority of Jesus Christ and the common rejection of the prevailing culture.”  For each of the five Christian cultural positions, Niebuhr identifies several examples from church history.  For Christ Against Culture, he identifies the apostle John (specifically, the letter of I John); Tertullian (third-century theologian, known as the Father of Western Christian Thought for his extensive writings in Latin); Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, and other groups with roots in the sixteenth- century radical wing of the Protestant Reformation); Society of Friends (George Fox, John Woolman, and other Quakers during the first century or two  of their existence); Leo Tolstoy (Russian novelist and social philosopher); and Søren Kierkegaard (Danish philosopher and Lutheran).  Two decades after Niebuhr was writing, the Jesus People Movement in the United States would exemplify the same tendencies.  The ideology of Christian Anarchism is associated with this position.  Bob Dylan is an example of someone who, for the most part, identifies with Christ Against Culture.

Christian Anarchism

The pairing of the words Christian and Anarchism may seem an unlikely, if not impossible, marriage of ideas.  Is not Christianity the defender of order and tradition?  Do not God and Country fit together as appropriately as Mom and Apple Pie?  What could anarchism, with its bombs and chaos, have to do with steeples and stained-glass windows?

Christian anarchism is a relatively rare ideology, in terms of number of adherents, but it is an important ideology.  Christian anarchism was the political philosophy underlying much of the abolitionist movement in nineteenth-century America.  It played an important role in the early days of Protestant fundamentalism.  It contributed mightily to efforts on behalf of civil rights and peace during the 1960s.  It encompasses various shades of theological orthodoxy.  Its twentieth-century adherents ranged from one of the world’s premiere novelists (Tolstoy) to one of the world’s greatest songwriters (Dylan).  In fact, it is the ideology most exemplified by Bob Dylan since the late 1970s.

When used in its political, non-pejorative sense, anarchy refers to the absence of political authority (i.e., no government).  Using this definition, it follows that anarchists are persons who advocate the elimination of government.  Anarchism is actually a broader concept than dictionary definitions would indicate.  Many persons who think of themselves as anarchists or who are sympathetic toward anarchism would not go so far as to publicly advocate the immediate abolition of all governments.  As with most movements, there are gradualists as well as non-gradualists when it comes to anarchism.  Many anarchists realize that their utopian vision of a withered-away state is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.  This being the case, they are content to minimize state power within the current sociopolitical context.  Efforts to minimize state power may include electoral politics even though the state and its elections are rejected in theory.  People who embrace or are sympathetic toward anarchism often support political decentralization.  If taken to a logical conclusion, decentralization would lead to individuals governing themselves (i.e., anarchy).

Some persons would not claim the title anarchist, but nonetheless have such a strong suspicion of human authority that they come close to anarchism.  Some anarchists call themselves libertarians because the word anarchist has too much of a stigma attached to it.  Others call themselves libertarians because they believe in a minimal state—a state far smaller and less powerful than the state taken for granted by mainstream politics—while not going so far as anarchy.  For our purposes, total anarchists, quasi-anarchists, and radical libertarians will be lumped together.  Broadly defined, anarchism includes those who favor the maximization of freedom, peace, and/or justice by eliminating, greatly minimizing, or ignoring the state.

Diminution of state authority can be brought about in a number of ways.  Most socialistic anarchists and individualistic anarchists directly attack the state, spending much time and effort attempting to eliminate it or at least severely curb its power.  A frontal assault is not the only way to undercut the power and influence of human government.  There are other ways which are equally, if not more, effective.  Christian anarchists tend to use less obvious, less direct ways.  Some are intentional, while others are unintentional byproducts of religious thought, feeling, and behavior.

Changing the world through personal example and personal dealings with others casts doubt on the efficacy of politics and the state.  Awareness of the self-serving, morally corrupted nature of humanity leads to a healthy distrust of humans, including political leaders.  With the republican form of government, the state is de-legitimated by widespread disinterest in the political process, by the commonly-held perception that most politicians are dishonest and corrupt, and by low voter turnout.  Direct communion with God and direct accountability to God serve to undercut human authority (both ecclesiastical and political).  The creation of a community separate from the rest of the population provides an alternative to the community controlled by the state (the separation does not need to be physical; it can be spiritual and intellectual).

“Marching to the beat of a different drummer” can be subversive when one publicly challenges fundamental assumptions of one’s government.  As socialistic anarchist Noam Chomsky points out, this is far more threatening to the state than merely disagreeing with specific policy decisions since most people choose from a narrow range of “acceptable”—as defined by the elite/state—policy options.  Knowing that we will not have lasting peace until Christ returns to earth encourages skepticism toward actions taken by political parties and governments in the name of “peace.”

General Bases of Christian Anarchism

Christianity is commonly seen as a preserver of tradition, as a bulwark of social order and patriotism.  A superficial understanding of history lends credence to this perception.  A superficial interpretation of the New Testament also supports this perception.  The apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome seem to settle the question of the relationship between believers and the state: it is to be a relationship of respect and obedience.[1]  The words of Romans chapter 13 notwithstanding, Christian anarchists in the past and present have drawn upon other passages of Scripture to explain their attitudes toward the state.  These passages provide the bases of Christian anarchism.  There are nine general bases of Christian anarchism, each of which will be briefly considered.

The first general argument for anarchism concerns the sovereignty of God.[2]  In “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” Bob Dylan says that God’s authority is the only true authority.  He refers to the power of God being manifested through the second coming of Christ in “When He Returns.”  Christ’s power is also mentioned in “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One” and “In the Garden.”

The second general argument for anarchism deals with human free will.[3]  Linked to his belief in liberty and perhaps drawing upon the Hebrew scriptures, Bob Dylan has always had an interest in free will.  In “Highway 61 Revisited,” God tells Abraham that he can do what he wants in response to the command to sacrifice his son but that there will be consequences for disobedience.  A premise of “Gotta Serve Somebody” is the existence of our ability to freely choose to do this or that, to serve the Devil or the Lord.  He makes the point in “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One” that God can set us free only after we choose to surrender to God.  In “Are You Ready?,” he says that the path toward either Heaven or Hell is a decision that each of us makes.  The opening verse of “License to Kill” warns about the dire consequences of poor choices coming from man’s free will in connection with technology.

The third general argument for anarchism is based on original intent.[4]  Bob Dylan notes that kings do not exist within the “Gates of Eden” while those outside of Eden are condemned to be owned by a succession of kings.  In “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” he recognizes a type of human government or stewardship in relation to animals within Eden.  Human government is unnecessary where God reigns supreme, therefore police do not exist in the “City of Gold.”

The fourth general argument for anarchism is based on the universality of the Fall of humanity.[5]  Bob Dylan’s post-1978 songs are full of references to the universality of the Fall.  Philos (brotherly love) is an ideal but according to “Slow Train” it is difficult to find it being practiced.  In “When You Gonna Wake Up,” bad systems of thought range from Marx to Kissinger, and we have a topsy-turvy world in which criminals wield power and rule breakers make laws.  The titles of the songs “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One” and “Everything is Broken” speak for themselves.  Introduction of original sin and satanic power through Adam’s transgression is mentioned in “Pressing On.”  “Trouble” is all about the fallenness of the world.  Fallen human nature is mentioned in “You Changed My Life.”  In “Union Sundown,” we are told that violence rules the world.  The dominance of corruption, greed, and power is noted in “Blind Willie McTell.”  The world is described as having been raped and debased, and men are described as being in chains, in “Lord Protect My Child.”

The fifth general argument for anarchism concerns the nature of the New Covenant.[6]  Bob Dylan’s recognition that God primarily deals with individuals rather than with nation-states during the present age stretches back to the early 1960s.  In “I’d Hate to Be You on That Dreadful Day,” he talks about God’s judgment upon the wicked after they die.  Judgment of a specific type of wickedness is dealt with in “Masters of War.”  The accounting for deeds we do on earth that will occur after we die is mentioned in “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One” and “Are You Ready?”

The sixth general argument for anarchism deals with freedom from the Law.[7]  Bob Dylan has always had a rebellious, antinomian side to him.  It comes out in songs that praise rebels and criminals.  But this was never simple nihilism, even in the 1960s.  He was making an unstated distinction between legitimate authority and illegitimate authority.  As a cynic—or a realist—he believes that most human authority is illegitimate in its foundation or perverted in its practice.  For example, in “No Time to Think,” the foolish make laws because they enjoy hurting and imprisoning others.  From a young age, Dylan has believed in moral authority and had a sense of justice (e.g., “Masters of War”).

Dylan’s conversion to Christianity gave a deeper spiritual dimension to his antinomianism.  When gangsters are wielding power in “When You Gonna Wake Up,” Dylan is condemning illegitimate authority, not authority per se.  In “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” he acknowledges the existence of good rules, including the Golden Rule, but also praises those who are guided by God (“walk in the Spirit,” “led by the Spirit,” as the apostle Paul puts it).  Paul points to a link between our own freedom and love being given to others.  He also says that if we follow the desires of the flesh (our fallen nature) we will be in bondage to sin and not able to do what we most want.  But if we follow the Spirit we will not be under the Law and will be free to do the things that we most want (and which please God).[8]  A parallel to the Golden Rule is found within this passage (Galatians 5:14).

According to “Trouble in Mind,” Satan tries to tempt us into being a law unto ourselves.  Dylan speaks negatively about criminals in the context of a “Political World.”  Similarly, law-breaking citizens are the evil norm in “Death is Not the End,” and laws and rules being broken and bent are disparaged in “Everything is Broken.”  In these instances, he is referring to legitimate, God-given authority that is being ignored by the wicked.  Such rejection of divine-sanctioned authority will find its culmination in the Antichrist during the Last Days.

Sometimes it is right to obey; sometimes it is right to revolt.  Sometimes absolute monarchy is best; sometimes anarchy is best.  God is able to use each of these things, depending upon who is being obeyed, who is being revolted against, who wields all of the power, and who is sanctioning the freedom.

The seventh general argument for anarchism is based on divine impartiality.[9]  Bob Dylan songs speak of this basis.  From the beginning of his career, Dylan’s belief in equality was implicit in his music, as he notes in “My Back Pages”—a song that expresses regret for being glib, not for being egalitarian.  One example is “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which uses nakedness in connection with the President to show that no one is above human vulnerability and the rules of life.  In addition to free will, another premise of “Gotta Serve Somebody” is the existence of divine impartiality—all, regardless of occupation or status, are free to choose the Devil or the Lord.    The mighty have been brought low in the “City of Gold.”  The comedian “Lenny Bruce” exposed the misdeeds of those in high positions.  In “Angelina,” the high and mighty are going to be overthrown (perhaps in Jerusalem or Argentina).  The people who appear to be beautiful in “Foot of Pride” are like whitewashed tombs—bearing the whorish mark of Babylon the Great and full of evil.[10]

The eighth general argument for anarchism concerns the distinction between what belongs to government and what belongs to God.[11]  With emotion and eloquence, Bob Dylan spoke of how he owed his entire life to God in the songs recorded during his overtly Christian period.  Examples include “I Believe in You,” “Saved,” “What Can I Do For You?,” “Property of Jesus,” “Every Grain of Sand,” and “You Changed My Life.”

The ninth general argument for anarchism deals with misplaced loyalty.[12]  Going as far back as “With God On Our Side,” Bob Dylan has been aware of potential dangers in uniting God and Country (especially in the service of war).  In “Ain’t No Man Righteous, No Not One,” he warns that salvation is not obtained through devotion to any national flag.  He quotes Dr. Johnson’s famous line about patriotism being the last refuge of scoundrels in “Sweetheart Like You.”  “Clean-Cut Kid” shows how the government—and parents—systematically use the American Dream to lead young men to destruction through “service to country” (war).  The second verse of “License to Kill” may be referring to the same thing.  His version of the Irish folk song “Arthur McBride” shows how streetwise young people can see through military recruiting propaganda by imperial governments.

The bridge of “Trust Yourself” observes that the world, including the United States, is a land teeming with those who steal and destroy.  It is a fallen land dominated by ungodly men.  Dylan is patriotic to a degree—both in sentiment toward his native land and also in contrast to globalization and world government—but there is no American Exceptionalism foreign policy to be found in his theology/ideology.  In a 1986 interview, Dylan said, “I’m not particularly into this American thing, this Bruce Springsteen-John Cougar-‘America first’ thing.  I feel just as strongly about the American principles as those guys do, but I personally feel that what’s important is more eternal things.  This American pride thing, that don’t mean nothing to me.  I’m more locked into what’s real forever.”

Eschatological, Ethical, and Countercultural Bases of Christian Anarchism

In addition to drawing upon the nine general bases of Christian anarchism, Dylan has partly based his spiritually-inspired anarchism on three specific ways of viewing the world and living his life: eschatological, ethical, and countercultural.

Eschatology is a basis of Christian anarchism because it stresses forthcoming divine intervention in human history in order to bring about peace and justice on earth, thus encouraging people to shift their hopes from earthly politics and human government to heavenly realities and divine government.  The doctrine of the second coming of Christ tends to deflate pretensions of human self-sufficiency and progress.

During the months following his conversion, Dylan was reportedly influenced by his reading of The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, a dispensational premillennialist and Vineyard Fellowship minister.  Bible passages speaking of the End Times are especially important to Dylan.  This may be related to the fact that dispensationalism teaches that the End Times hold promise not only for the Church but also for Israel.  (Dylan is a messianic Jew.)  During the 1979-80 period, he introduced some of his songs in concert with apocalyptic words.  He told one crowd, “Christ will return to set up His Kingdom in Jerusalem.”  Dylan’s repertoire contains many eschatological songs—from “Slow Train” (1979) and “Are You Ready?” (1980) to “Things Have Changed” (2000) and “Ain’t Talkin’” (2006).

Ethics are a basis of Christian anarchism because of their emphasis on personal application of New Testament principles and exhortations, thus encouraging de-legitimization of the state, which operates on the basis of opposing principles and propagates opposing exhortations.  Ethics are not confined to a personal context; they also exist in a social context.  The New Testament is usually the source for Christian anarchists who have an ethical basis.  The Sermon on the Mount is a repudiation of the principles of this world, including the principles of human government.  People who are poor, hungry, and sad are pronounced “blessed.”  Disciples are told to turn the other cheek when struck and to love their enemies.  During his years of ministry, Jesus stressed the changing of one’s heart and behavior rather than the embracing of a creed or the joining of a religious organization.

Dylan partly has an ethical basis for his anarchism.  This was true before his conversion to Christianity and has remained true since 1979.  Dylan depoliticized his career in 1964 but his left-liberalism has never gone away.  As a Christian, Dylan’s songs have mostly focused on spiritual matters and human relationships but some contain references to social justice.  “Gotta Serve Somebody” (1979) is built on the principle of spiritual egalitarianism.  Dylan criticizes the greed and exploitation of big business’ project of globalization in “Union Sundown” (1983).  In some ways echoing his “Chimes of Freedom” (1964), Dylan’s song “Ring Them Bells” (1989) shows concern for the poor, the lost, the blind, the deaf, and the innocent.  Dylan’s “Workingman’s Blues #2” (2006) begins with a lament for the proletariat’s declining economic power and the low-wage effects of globalization.  “Ain’t Talkin’” (2006), on the same album, speaks of being crushed by power and wealth.

Most Christian anarchists during the past century or so have been pacifists or quasi-pacifists when it comes to conflict and war.  Among such Christians, there has been a preference for peace even in the face of patriotic jingoism.  This is not surprising since war is a project of government—big, expensive, violent, invasive, restricting, propagandizing government—and anarchists are skeptical of government.  Also, Christian anarchists tend to interpret the Bible literally and literal interpretation of the New Testament tends to yield a mandate of nonviolence for Christians.  The Old Testament includes cases of divinely-sanctioned warfare but also includes signs of a peace ethic.[13]

Dylan combines an emphasis on Bible prophecy, mostly acquired in 1979, with foreign policy emphases that echo the “isolationist” traditions of his home state (Minnesota) and home region (Upper Midwest).  Emphases of American patriotism, nationalism over internationalism, peace over war, hostility toward the military-industrial complex, and suspicion that wealthy Northeastern interests drive U.S. foreign policy can be found in Dylan’s songs and comments throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  The Christian apocalyptic perspective was added—without logical difficulty—by the 1980s.  There is continuity between “Masters of War” and “Man of Peace.”  The first is about open enemies of peace (1963); the second is about a false friend of peace (1983).

While Bob Dylan had never been an intentional leader of the American Counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he had been one of its heroes.  When he became a Christian in late 1978, it is perhaps not surprising that he did so through the instrumentality of the Christian subculture of the southern California counterculture.  Subculture member and 1979-80 Dylan associate Dave Kelly describes these believers as “the classic California hippie Christians.”

The Christian counterculture is a basis of Christian anarchism because it stresses the inner life over the outer life, the existence of an alternative society, forthcoming divine intervention in human history, personal application of New Testament principles and exhortations, and the value of some of the ideas of the New Left and the secular Counterculture.  These emphases encourage freedom from human authority within the church, a shift of attention from the state to the church, a shift of hopes from earthly politics and human government to heavenly realities and divine government, de-legitimization of the state, and consideration of points made by secular radicals and revolutionaries.  The Christian counterculture is epitomized by the Jesus People Movement.  The Jesus Movement began in 1967, exploded in 1969, and dissipated in 1973.  Its members were known as “Street Christians,” “Jesus Freaks,” or “Jesus People.”  The movement began on the West Coast of the United States and was centered in California, but soon spread across the country and eventually to western Europe.

The countercultural basis is an amalgamation of the two previously-discussed bases (eschatological and ethical) plus an infusion of 1960s social radicalism.  Given this mixture of anarchistic influences, it is not surprising that “the Jesus People are casebook examples of the Christ-against-culture approach.”  Since organized Christianity in America is closely tied to American culture, members of the Jesus Movement were largely indifferent or hostile toward the institutional church.  The Jesus People played “a distinct kind of counter-cultural role” within the church.

The anarchistic nature of the Jesus Movement is clear from comments by and about Jesus People in the early 1970s.  The Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF) “was usually on the same side with the [New Left] radicals in terms of criticizing the Establishment, but the big difference was in the approach to the solutions.  The Front said: ‘You can’t change the System by destroying it.  You’ve got to change people.’”  Duane Pederson, publisher of the Hollywood Free Paper, took the same approach to sociopolitical problems: “There is only one real solution to our messed up and confused society. . . . The only one that will be lasting and permanent . . . is to change people. . . . Then, with changed people, we can have a completely changed society.”

Bob Dylan was not involved with Jesus People during the 1967-73 period.  By the time Dylan became a Christian in 1978, the Jesus Movement was no longer intact.  Nonetheless, his early affiliation with Vineyard Fellowship and other manifestations of the movement indicate that Dylan could be considered a latter-day Jesus Person.

Dylan the Christian Monarchist

Bob Dylan is a premillennialist when it comes to eschatology.  Premillennialism is built upon a belief in the literal reign of Jesus Christ on earth.  Dylan believes that Jesus will rule as king for 1,000 years when he sets up his throne in Jerusalem and he sees this as a supremely good thing.  Dylan can be described as a monarchist in this way.  Dylan is also an anarchist and a populist.

One person ruling over everyone else on the planet is the opposite of decentralization.  Unelected, absolute monarchy—even if benevolent—is about as far removed as one can get from democracy and anarchy.  How do we account for this apparent discrepancy between Dylan’s support for anarchy and democracy in the present and his support for monarchy in the future?

In reconciling Dylan’s simultaneous belief in divine monarchy and human anarchy/democracy, we could say that the political philosophy of Christians should be that of “All or Nothing.”  They should look forward to monarchy—specifically, a world government headed by Jesus Christ (the All form of government).  In the meantime, they should support anarchy because humans are sinful and Satan is the current ruler of the world (the Nothing form of government).  Although abolition of the state is a noble ideal, it is not realistic, so Christians should concentrate on other types of anarchism—namely, ignoring the state and minimizing the state.  They can attempt to ignore the state by realizing that they are citizens of heaven and by recognizing the church as an alternative society.  They can attempt to minimize the state by supporting genuine democracy (the Little form of government).  In theory, Christians should support “All or Nothing,” but in practice they may have to support “Little” until they are given “All.”  According to Dylan—and the New Testament—on that day, “the kingdom of the world” will become “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”

Dylan’s monarchism is theological more than ideological because it focuses on Jesus’ second coming.  It looks to the future.  Still, it is true that Dylan, in his own indirect and idiosyncratic way, has inspired some citizens of the Kingdom to make a difference in the here-and-now.  When Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” he meant, among other things, God’s will for government and society.

Dylan the Christian Anarchist

Bob Dylan’s electorally-apolitical, anarchistic stance, so evident in the 1960s, did not change when he became a Christian in late 1978.  Two years after his conversion, Dylan said, “When I walk around some of the towns we go to . . . I’m totally convinced people need Jesus.  Look at the junkies and the winos and the troubled people.  It’s all a sickness which can be healed in an instant.  The powers that be won’t let that happen.  The powers that be say it has to be healed politically.”

In May 1980, during a concert in Providence, Dylan told the crowd that they didn’t realize that “the Devil’s behind politics.”  During the same concert tour, he repeatedly told his fans, “I’ve never told you to vote for nobody” but now he needed to tell them that “Jesus is the way of salvation.”  In a 1984 interview, Dylan remarked, “I think politics is an instrument of the Devil.  Just that clear.  I think politics is what kills; it doesn’t bring anything alive.”  When asked whether it makes any difference who is president, Dylan said he didn’t think so.  He went on to put things in historical and personal perspective, noting that he had already seen several presidents come and go in his lifetime.

In 1986, when asked if some of his post-conversion songs were signs that he had moved to the political right, Dylan responded, “Well, for me, there is no right and there is no left.  There’s truth and there’s untruth, y’know?  There’s honesty and there’s hypocrisy.  Look in the Bible: you don’t see nothing about right or left. . . . I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that’s the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true.”  Dylan was asked by the Los Angeles Times, in 2001, if he had been interested in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore.  He commented, “Did I follow the election? Yeah, I followed to see who would win. But in the larger scheme of things, the government is irrelevant. Everybody, everything can be bought and sold.”

In an interview with Bill Flanagan to promote Together Through Life, in the Spring of 2009, Dylan was asked about politics.  He gave a typical disparaging assessment: “Politics is entertainment.  It’s a sport.  It’s for the well groomed and well heeled.  The impeccably dressed.  Party animals.  Politicians are interchangeable.”  Flanagan asked him if he doesn’t “believe in the democratic process.”  Dylan replied, “Yeah, but what’s that got to do with politics?  Politics creates more problems than it solves. . . . The real power is in the hands of small groups of people and I don’t think they have titles.”  Later that year, when asked by Flanagan why he decided to donate the profits from his Christmas in the Heart CD to three particular charitable organizations, Dylan said, “Because they get food straight to the people.  No military organization, no bureaucracy, no governments to deal with.”

Dylan’s anarchism is reflected in many of his post-conversion songs.  In “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” (1979), he says that God is the only legitimate authority.  “Political World” (1989) is a completely negative song.  In a political world, love has no place, wisdom is jailed, mercy is put to death, courage is extinct, and peace is unwelcome.  In “Everything is Broken” (1989), he refers to all of the things that are broken in the political world of the present fallen age.  The title of Dylan’s 1993 album seems to sum up his attitude toward human authority: “World Gone Wrong.”

Summing Up

Dylan’s post-1978 ideology is what you would expect from a Christian whose first loyalty is to the Kingdom of God.  It is a little of this, a little of that.  No worldly ideology is a perfect match with Christian principles so Dylan is part liberal, part conservative, part populist, part libertarian, part communitarian.  Dylan can be described as both a monarchist and an anarchist.  If Christian anarchism says “All or Nothing—or Little,” it has elements of monarchism and anarchism plus the Little translates into the ideologies of libertarianism (minarchism) and populism.

Dylan has an affinity for Jeffersonian democracy.  Thomas Jefferson’s thought included both populism and libertarianism.  Dylan’s libertarianism is apparent from his lifelong tendencies toward individuality and freedom.  In December 1963, he wrote, “my life runs in a series of moods in private an in personal ways . . . I dont even claim to be normal by the standards set up . . . I do not apologize for being me nor any part of me.”  In 1986, Dylan told an interviewer, “I’ve always been just about being an individual, with an individual point of view.  If I’ve been about anything, it’s probably that, and to let some people know that it’s possible to do the impossible.”

Decentralization of power is a natural fit for Dylan because he has always had a personal streak of freedom and diversity in the way that he views the world and lives his life.  For instance, his visceral dislike of being pigeon-holed has decentralist implications.  Dylan does not use the language of subsidiarity or sphere sovereignty, partly because he is not a political theorist or theologian, and he has never invoked the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution in the context of the U.S. political system, but a decentralist ethic is present.

Bob Dylan’s life and career have been filled with seeming inconsistencies.  Still, certain thematic constants have emerged, specifically as they apply to his political outlook.  Since childhood, he has cared about liberty and justice, democracy and individuality, truth and morality.  Dylan has exemplified freedom on personal, societal, and spiritual levels.  His refusal to accept the legitimacy of human power structures reflects an anarchism that he brought with him when he converted to Christianity.  Dylan has also consistently advocated justice, whether lending support for the legally dispossessed and economically downtrodden, or issuing moral directives urging people to reconcile with divine law.

Dylan’s political worldview has remained essentially the same over six different decades and numerous private and public transformations.  Whether he appeared as a New Left protest icon, rock music and Counterculture innovator, rural family man, Christian associated with the Jesus People, or cantankerous social critic distrustful of worldly leaders, Dylan’s notions of freedom and justice, power and sin, have tied all of these roles together.


[1] Romans 13:1-7.  Cf. I Peter 2:13-17.

[2] Colossians 1:15-17; Revelation 1:5, 17:14; Acts 4:19-20, 5:29.

[3] Genesis 1:27; Joshua 24:15; Isaiah 1:18-20.

[4] Genesis 3:16.  Human government being a result of sin, being a post-Fall innovation, was the position of Augustine, Luther, Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Bushnell.

[5] Psalm 53:2-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:9-12, 21-23; I Corinthians 15:21-22.

[6] Matthew 12:36, 16:27; Romans 14:12; II Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-15.

[7] Galatians 2-5; Romans 5-8.

[8] Matthew 7:12; Galatians 5:13-23.  See also Romans 6:12-23.

[9] I Peter 1:17, 2:9; Galatians 2:6; James 2:1-4; Romans 12:16; I Corinthians 1:26-29; Galatians 3:28; Matthew 23:8-10.

[10] Matthew 23:27-28; Revelation 17:1-6.

[11] Matthew 22:18-22; Genesis 1:26; I Corinthians 6:19-20.

[12] Exodus 20:3-4.

[13] Matthew 5:9, 38-45; Genesis 6:11-13; Exodus 20:13; I Chronicles 22:6-10; Isaiah 2:4.