Johnny Cash was plenty good enough to fool his fans. They believed he felt it in his soul when he sang the Gospel while stoned on drugs. He had listened to those hymns with taking his mother's milk, in brush-arbor Pentecostal revival meetings in the Arkansas backwoods, but it was the drugs that took the message public.
When he straightened up and kicked amphetamines, he confessed to the earlier hypocrisy in praising the Lord. He hated it that he sang of the serenity of peace with God when he didn't feel a word of it. But perhaps it was the gap between public performance and personal shortcoming that gave his amphetamine-charged voice the power to express his buried pain.
The lyrics, almost in spite of themselves, fueled his longing to break through to the real thing. He was finally helped by the love of a long-suffering wife who pushed him on to the path of righteousness for His name's sake.
It's impossible to see into a man's heart, even less into his religious beliefs, but I've been struck by the outpouring of appreciation from reviewers in all corners of the political and religious spectrum, who took Johnny Cash at his word - and his lyrics - both before and after he became a born-again Christian and found solace and affirmation in prayer.
It made little difference whether he feigned faith or actually believed in the message of the Gospel for the country-rockabilly-pop performer to be praised as a man whose talent was propelled by Christian faith, a deep and abiding awareness of right and wrong, who understood the difference between God's party and partying with the devil.
Such observations leaped out of his profiles, reviews and more recently his obituaries. The public reveled in knowing that the man was religious, that he was a reformed sinner who had found God and who easily talked "the God talk" while trying to walk the God walk. What also leaps out is the double standard when it comes to the response of religious expression in Johnny Cash and George W. Bush, both of whom were strongly influenced by the evangelistic preaching of Billy Graham.
The public loved to hear Johnny Cash speak (and sing) of his religious triumphs, but the president is put down for similar, if less dramatic, expressions of his own transformation through grace.