The King of the Cowboys?

The King
of the Cowboys
?

The death of Roy Rogers impacted me deeply as it did so many other middle-aged Americans. The news on July 6, 1998 seemed unreal and probably many wondered why the flags did not fly at half-staff. Expressions of shock and sorrow came from millions of men and women who had grown up in the 1940s and 1950s. The media covered the testimonies of reporters and the public who recalled the days when they were young boys and girls who idolized Roy Rogers, acclaimed as “The King of the Cowboys.”

One of the emphases in the testimonies was that Roy epitomized what Hollywood no longer is. He wore the white ten gallon hat and always caught the culprit. He never smoked, never used profanity, never took God’s name in vain, and drank nothing stronger than milk. He purposely avoided unnecessary violence and often only shot the gun from the villan’s hand with his straight-shooting pistol. He even generally refused to kiss his leading lady—but did, on occasion, kiss his horse Trigger! A Washington Post writer noted, “He was notoriously critical of contemporary film, especially westerns, for their violence and sexually explicit scenes.”

The respect and honor that Roy stood for in the movies was also manifested in his personal life. There was no scandal in his life as there so often is in other celebrities. He frequently spoke for charities and openly testified of his “Christian faith.” Over the years, the American people appreciated Roy and spoke well of him. A Los Angeles Times reporter stated, “In a seemingly simpler era after World War II, Rogers represented for children and their parents the good side of a black-and-white moral world.”

I myself was made to recall those early years. Although our family went to few movies, and thus I did not see many of Roy’s filmed exploits, I did religiously read his comic books. I was also a devoted radio fan, regularly sitting on the floor before the large upright radio, to listen to Roy, Dale (his wife), and Gabby Hayes (Roy’s partner). I dressed like Roy—with six shooters, cowboy hat, and spurs. I walked and talked like Roy. I probably took on his mannerisms. In fact, it seemed that I didn’t just emulate Roy and allow my imagination to soar—but I was Roy Rogers! Eventually television fed this obsession. From what I have read, I wasn’t alone in this fixation. Millions of other young boys centered their fantasies on Roy and followed him in their illusory world. It was a wonderful world in which the good always prevailed, excitement always existed, popularity was assured, interesting scenes always changed, and one did not need to face the difficulties of the real world.

Roy Rogers was born with the name Leonard Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 5, 1911. Coming from a poor family that lived on a riverboat in Duck Run, Roy dropped out of high school and went to California in 1929 (some reports say 1930), during the Great Depression. After picking fruit briefly, he used his musical and singing talents to become part of several singing groups, the last of which was the popular “The Sons of the Pioneers” which toured the West. His film career began in 1937 and Roy became known as the fast riding, handsome, singing cowboy with the golden palomino horse, “The Smartest Horse” in the movies. Eventually he made some 87 movies with Republic Studios. From 1943-1954, Roy was the most popular Western star in the United States. His television series continued from 1951 until 1957. During this time and since, he was featured at rodeos and benefits across the country. His restaurant chain was also well known.

Roy’s first movie with Dale Evans was in 1944. His first wife, Arlene, died in 1946, and he married Dale 14 months later in 1947. Dale had earlier divorced her husband. They had nine children—from Roy’s first marriage, Dale’s first marriage, their mutual marriage, and through adoption. Three of the children tragically died over the years, bringing much grief to the couple, but driving them to make a “Christian” commitment in a Baptist Church. Both Roy and Dale seemed unashamed of this religious orientation and frequently spoke of this on public occasions, including television appearances and Billy Graham Crusades. Their family tragedy seemed to offer hope and help to many others. Roy once said, “In the Bible, it doesn’t say you’re going to get by without having troubles.” Dusty (Roy Jr.) Rogers, Roy’s son, said it well, “He loved his God, his country, and his family.”

THE AMERICAN IDOL

As I reminisce about Roy’s life and my childhood commitment to him and his imaginary lifestyle as a cowboy, many thoughts come to mind. Years after my youth, I responded to the call of God through the gospel and came to Christ for the forgiveness of my sins and salvation. All of my sins were washed away and I became a child of God. In the words of Paul, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Repeatedly, Scripture shows the contrast between our pre-conversion life and our post-conversion life. Depending on our past, there may be a great contrast. After listing a number of sins prevalent among unbelievers, Paul adds, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). These Corinthian believers had turned away from their previous lifestyle and now viewed life much differently. Peter writes similarly: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14; cf. 4:2-6). The Christian views all of life differently and in a fresh new way since he is in Christ—unless, of course, his childhood was thoroughly Christian in orientation.

As I look back to those early days, I can see that so much of it was a perversion of what God desires of His people. Of greatest concern is the idolatry that was clearly in evidence—an idolatry that was encouraged by Roy himself, by the movie industry, by the advertising industry, and by the media. In short, I was an idolater. I idolized Roy Rogers, idolized his lifestyle, idolized the aura that surrounded all that he did and said. He plainly was my “god.”

This is no small concern. The true and living God of Scripture, the Lord of heaven and earth, allows no compromises in this matter. The Ten Commandments speak to this. God says, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). He does not allow an idol or graven image to be used in worship (v. 4). The Lord says of false gods, “You shall not worship them or serve them” (v. 5a). Although this may have been spoken of the false gods of the land (Baal, Molech, and others), surely the principle would cover the virtual “worship” of any human being. God continues by saying, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (v. 5).

This Scriptural emphasis is repeated again and again. “You shall not worship any other God, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). “The LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). It is not only wrong—and sinful—to worship Baal and Molech, it is also wrong to exalt any man to a god-like status. Daniel and his three friends knew that they must carefully guard the worship and service of the true God and must not compromise in any way (Daniel 3 and 6). God is jealous of our praise, honor, love, and devotion. He will not allow compromises in this most serious of responses.

Did Roy encourage such idolatry? Clearly, he did. It is reported that Sears catalog once carried 400 products with his name or picture! Some 2,500,000,000 (2.5 billion) boxes of Post cereal bore his picture. About 25,000,000 Roy Rogers comic books were sold each year. He was the hero to millions and stimulated this ungodly focus in his whole demeanor. Parents also were at fault. They should have exalted worthy and godly examples—such as Moses, Daniel, Elijah, Paul, Peter, and especially the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:21). We are to follow the steps of Christ—not those of any mere man (1 John 2:6). We are to follow the example of Paul (1 Corinthians 11:3; Philippians 4:9) and other men of faith (Hebrews 6:12; 11:1-40). Hebrews 13:7 says it succinctly: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the outcome of their way of life, imitate their faith.” We are to follow and imitate and look to men and women of faith, courage, love, devotion, and Christlikeness. We are not to follow sports figures, military leaders, music performers, movie stars, or anyone else—including Roy Rogers! I and millions of other youngsters like me were guilty of idolatry. We looked to a false “god” who did all he could to encourage, stimulate, and sustain this kind of idolatrous worship!

OTHER MATTERS OF CONCERN

This is not the only concern that we should have about Roy Rogers. While we may tend to overlook these things, the Christian should have discernment and look beyond the superficial. We should have our “senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). We should evaluate all things by the Word of God. When we do look into the whole “King of the Cowboys” phenomenon, what do we see? Keep in mind now, our purpose is not to publicly expose a popular and beloved celebrity, but to show that our idolatry was real and our “god” had feet of clay as other humans do.

First, there was extensive materialism. What do I mean by this? With all of the movies, the years of television, the use of his name in promotions, some 600 restaurants, and other money-making ventures, we must question his multiplied millions. Consider just one example. Roy’s wardrobe was opulent. Hundreds of custom-made and elegant suits of clothes were owned, worn, and displayed. How do we justify this in light of the apostle Paul’s prohibition of “costly garments” (1 Timothy 2:9; NASB) or “expensive clothes” (NIV, NEB)? How do we understand Jesus’ command, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth” (Matthew 6:19)?

Second, consider his marriage. Since his first wife died, Roy was eligible to marry again (1 Corinthians 7:39). But his second wife, Dale, had gone through two different divorces–one immediately before her marriage to Roy. Jesus said, “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; Matthew 5:31-32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12). Did Roy marry “one who is divorced from a husband” and thereby enter an adulterous relationship? The information points in this direction. Although we do not know the cause of the two divorces, we do know that most remarriages are adulterous.

Third, consider the enormous amount of pride involved in encouraging millions of youthful (and not so youthful) worshipers in nearly every conceivable way. Think of the memorabilia in the 18,000-square-foot museum in Victorville, California. Yet Scripture plainly says, “Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD” (Proverbs 16:5a). Paul plainly warns against those who are “proud” in heart (2 Timothy 3:2; NIV). And we become guilty when we encourage such pride.

Fourth, consider the “cowboy” aspect, the gun fights, and the fist fights. Didn’t Jesus say, “Do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39)? Paul adds, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19). Could one be a movie and television cowboy and seriously heed such admonistions?

Fifth, consider his religion. Roy had the typical “invite Jesus into your heart” type of religion which is so popular in some circles today. It is a modern aberration that fails to take many Scriptures seriously. Where is the emphasis on repentance (Acts 17:30-31), denial of self (Mark 8:34), renunciation of all sin (Proverbs 28:13), turning from all worldliness (1 John 2:15-17), walking the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14), living a radically different life (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), and seeking the simplicity of Christian gatherings apart from institutionalism (Acts 2:42-47)? Christianity must not be confused with mere denominationalism.

Sixth, where was the persecution? Jesus declared, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). It seemed that the media from all quarters “spoke well” of Roy. For decades, the American public have “spoken well” of him. One newspaper columnist wrote of his “universal approval.” Consider Christ’s forewarning: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19; Acts 14:22; 2 Timothy 3:12). If we testify of the evil in the world, the world will turn on us and hate us (John 7:7). Where was the public denunciation of evil and the resultant expression of hatred and persecution by the American public?

Seventh, is it not true that each of us should strive to be like Christ in thought, word, and deed? (See 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:6.) “What would Jesus do?” is a common cliché. Ask yourself if you can imagine Jesus doing what Roy did or acting as Roy acted—either in the movie characters portrayed or in real life.

Eighth, we must charge that the moving picture industry is far from Christian. It would seem impossible for a Christian to be party to so much that is questionable. Yet one time Roy was reported to have said, “People say, ‘How can you be in the motion picture business and be a Christian?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ If the good Lord hadn’t wanted me in the picture business, I wouldn’t be in it.” But the only way we can know whether God would be pleased with our involvements is from His word. That should settle it.

A CALL FOR CLEAR THINKING AND REPENTANCE

For too long professing Christians have taken elements of society for granted and assumed that they were legitimate “Christian” features of life. Jesus and the apostles repeatedly warn us of subtle deception. They say, “Do not be deceived” (Galatians 6:7; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9; Ephesians 5:6; James 1:16). In the present case, we have allowed the whole “King of the Cowboys” phenomenon to deceive us to spiritual reality. Our commitment to God alone has been compromised by this deception. Our worship and service of the Lord of heaven and earth has been diluted with an inordinate focus on a mere man—a man who dies like every other man dies.

I had to repent of my human idolatry. No, I did not literally bow down to Roy Rogers—but I might as well have. He was my focus of attention and the pattern of my life—when the Lord Jesus Himself should have been my only desire. Millions of others my age likewise need to repent of making Roy a virtual god in their life. Even women who once idolized Roy or perhaps Dale Evans, “the Queen of the Cowgirls,” must repent of this misdirected focus.

Gods are not supposed to die. It seems incredible and something just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem real that Roy is no longer with us. But Roy was just a man who was flesh and blood like us. His body was subject to illness, disease, and eventual death. Finally, after 86 years, Roy died of congestive heart failure.

On May 5, 1997, I wrote a personal letter to Roy and Dale, addressing some of the issues I mentioned above and including a lengthy book I wrote on repentance. Since Roy had meant so much to me in my childhood, I wanted to at least try to reach him with a kind, thoughtful, but sober letter while he was still alive. Would he even read my letter and book? I sent it to him in care of the Roy Rogers Museum, in Victorville, the correct address for reaching him. I received no response. Did he receive my communication among the thousands of other letters he regularly received? Did he read it? I have no way of knowing.

Roy Rogers is gone. As he lived, apparently so he died. His theme song was “Happy Trails to You.” One thing we do know: The happy trails of a blessed life now and the joys of eternal life beyond this earthly journey are only promised to those who come to Christ as Scripture reveals and then walk in Christ throughout life. Roy may have been the “King of the Cowboys,” but he was not our Savior. And he made a very poor god. At the time of death, only our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ will count.

Richard Hollerman

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