Editor’s Note: This article started out as a tongue-in-cheek Letter to the Editor of the Stamford Advocate. The paper decided to publish it as an op-ed piece a couple days after the 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, so it was printed on 8/18/97. I got the idea from the comedian Bill Maher, who did a T.V. show on Comedy Central and ABC called Politically Incorrect. Maher warned people for years that someday there would be churches built by Elvis worshippers. Now we know he’s right. An earlier letter of mine on the Heaven’s Gate cult brought some religious fanatics out of the woodwork, into my mailbox and onto my fax machine. It turned out that Elvis’ fans have a lot better sense of humor.


Elvis, Please Leave the Building

For the past several weeks, your newspaper has been printing letters concerning the alleged “cult leader” operating in Greenwich. Yet you continue to ignore the emergence of a far more sinister threat, which has arisen from America’s Bible Belt: fanatical worship of “The King” — Elvis Presley.

In this holy season, at the 20th anniversary of his death, there is more footage of Elvis on T.V. than there are cable screenings of “The Greatest Story Ever Told” during Easter week. Here is a cult of personality that has taken on all the trappings of a full-blown religion.

After his crucifixion, Christ was reportedly seen by his followers on several occasions. These miraculous appearances helped launch Christianity. Yet since his death, there have been literally thousands of Elvis sightings — in Piggly Wigglys, Home Depots and Taco Bells — from Tampa to Tucson.

In a T.V. special hosted by the late Bill Bixby, experts spent hours debating whether Elvis had actually died. While there are people who are convinced his death was a hoax, many believe that, although Presley did, in fact, die on August 16, 1977, he has since been raised from the dead, like some sort of latter-day messiah. Will this cause sectarian factionalism among future true believers?

In 50 years, will we be reading in a new set of gospels (Matt, Marky, Little Luke and John-Boy) about the Acts of Elvis and His Apostles since his resurrection? Already, Memphis has become a sort of redneck Mecca, where sojourners make pilgrimages and hold candlelight vigils. At the holy shrine that Graceland and its surroundings have become, the faithful buy sacred polystyrene icons, they lay hands on blessed vinyl objects reputed to produce miraculous healings, and they purchase vials of liquids (including genuine Elvis sweat squeezed from post-concert towels) claiming powers akin to those of the waters of Lourdes.

During this holy week, network news programs have broadcast a story about a plastic statue of Elvis that is reported to be weeping in a darkened room somewhere in the South. Immediately, devoted followers began lining up to view this divine apparition and be healed by its tears. Is it just a matter of time before weeping Madonnas throughout America are replaced by velvet portraits of The King that cry or exhibit the stigmata?

 

The World Wide Web is replete with sites catering to Elvis worshippers, from www.churchofelvis.com to the First Presleyterian Church of Elvis the Divine. Some operate with tongue-in-cheek, but others make you wonder if much of the U.S. is some backwater province in the Third World. In Biblical times, Christ’s disciples gave up their old lives to become his apostles. In the 90s, the devout abandoned their families to move to Memphis to be nearer The King or quit their jobs to become Elvis impersonators (like we need more of those).

In the future, will there be interdenominational strife between the worshippers of Elvis and those, for example, who choose to follow the spirit of Jerry Garcia? After all, the Deadheads were once “cult-like” in their devotion, often giving up their careers to follow the band on tour. And the case can be made that Jerry was fatter, more drug-dependent and even more out of control than Elvis ever was. Yet somehow, the Deadheads seem to be more grounded in reality — I’m not seeing a lot of scripture being churned out on the Internet about “the risen Jerry” or cloud formations above San Francisco that resemble Garcia’s profile gazing down from the heavens.

I think it’s far more likely there’ll be intradenominational conflicts within the sects of Elvis followers, like those between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. Perhaps there’ll be strife between those who worship the young, thin Tennessee Elvis in black leather and those who worship the old, fat, white-jump-suited, Las Vegas incarnation. Or fundamentalist Presleyterians may object when liberal followers take too metaphorical a view of such holy writ as “love me tender” or “don’t be cruel.” Or maybe warring sects will disagree on whether it is more blessed to revere his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, or the shrine where he died and was presumably resurrected in Memphis.

As fascinating as these conjectures may be, I must return to the television. I believe TNT is showing “Change of Habit” tonight. That’s the one where The King tempts a nun played by Mary Tyler Moore into giving up her vows in order to ... well, I’m sure you get the picture.


If this little item has inspired you,
you may want to worship in the spirit at
The Presleyterian Church.

If your denomination preaches Elvis isn't really dead,
try the compendium of Elvis sightings at the
Elvis Spotters Page.


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