Du Mez’s work reads less as history and more as ideology, and an ideology with little in the way of faith, hope, or charity. All we have before us as we reach the end of the book is a cliff edge, with no path forward to forgiveness and reconciliation. There is no apparent hope. But hope is central to a Christian historical method.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez (New York: Liveright, 2020), 386 pages, $18.95 (Hardback).
As I begin, please indulge me as I make a few personal prefatory remarks. I have reviewed dozens of books in my professional life, but this review will be different. Consider this review a cri de coeur over a book written as a cri de coeur. I am deeply invested in more than one element of Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. For one, I know Professor Du Mez professionally and I have a deep and abiding respect and admiration for her. I also am a white, conservative evangelical Christian, so I read the pages of this book with the realization that my people are the subject of this book (although I do question how valid the way DuMez normativizes the concept of “white evangelical” is). And lastly, I am a Christian historian myself, and am constantly thinking about how to be a worthy student and teacher of history, as well as a creditable teller of past stories for present audiences. In short, I do not read Du Mez’s book from the standpoint of total objectivity, nor do I approach her subject matter as a set of pure abstractions in which I have no part.
Furthermore, I bring my own experiences as an evangelical to the narrative that Du Mez has produced in her book. I was not born into an evangelical family. In fact, I am the first evangelical Christian in my family’s history, as far as I know. I was raised in a family of mainline Presbyterians and Episcopalians, and did not go to church except on holidays during my childhood and teenage years. I came to Christ after I went to college, and initially joined a Southern Baptist church because the person who led me to Christ was a Southern Baptist. Thus, the history of evangelicalism in the 1970s and 1980s was a history I learned about in books, and had no direct experience thereof.
Still, since coming to Christ in 1988, I have partaken in the recent history of evangelicalism. I have studied it, but I have also witnessed it unfold as a seminary student, as a member of a pastoral staff in a Southern Baptist church, as a Christian school teacher, as a seminary professor, and as a husband and father. Predominately white conservative evangelicals, of the Southern Baptist kind, are my people. My wife and I homeschool our children—we often laugh at ourselves as “weird homeschoolers.” I have a profound love for evangelicals and a loyalty to them based in personal identity, but also in thirty years of full-time service to them and alongside them. Still, I am not blind to their flaws, and I am not their unconditional defender. White conservative evangelicals are what they are for a host of reasons. They have a complex history, and their story is a story that is thrilling, fascinating, heartbreaking, and everything in between.
Du Mez has given us a history of evangelicalism going back to the early twentieth century. Her history is troubling. She lives and teaches in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the most significant centers of evangelicalism in America, and her book reads as an anguished and prophetic cry of the heart to her own people. I would guess that my own awareness of a personal stake in this history is multiplied exponentially for Du Mez, who, I suspect, claims white evangelical Christians as her own people, too.
Du Mez’s overall argument is that white, conservative, evangelical Christians in America since the early twentieth century have been at least as influenced by culture as they have by theology. For her, John Wayne serves as a paradigmatic figure illustrating this enduring dynamic. A militant, masculine, Ameri-centric ethos, inspired by mythical and gendered ideals of American exceptionalism, white supremacy, the nuclear family, and law and order came to define white evangelicalism from Theodore Roosevelt (d. 1919) to Donald Trump. Combined with this ethos, evangelicals adopted and cultivated a continuous attitude of embattlement and a sense of suffering persecution. What resulted time and again in the world of evangelicalism was the calculated production of a cosmic conflict between light and darkness, between purity and threats to purity—with evangelicals always being on the side of righteousness, and any opponents being on the side of wickedness. Evangelicals cast themselves on the side of America, and so by extension their detractors were either in league with, or were even themselves, enemies of America. The effect has been that conservative white evangelicals have consistently and increasingly betrayed the faith that they purportedly claimed by embracing anti-Christian standards such as oppressive patriarchy, racism, nationalism, and militarism, both explicitly and implicitly. In Du Mez’s words, “Like [John] Wayne, the heroes who best embodied militant Christian masculinity were those unencumbered by traditional Christian virtues. . . . For many evangelicals, these militant heroes would come to define not only Christian manhood but Christianity itself” (11).
Du Mez bases her thesis on a narrative that begins with Theodore Roosevelt’s move to become a cattle rancher in Dakota Territory in 1884 and ends in the middle of the Trump Administration with its correspondent reckonings among evangelicals with the consequences of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. She unweaves an ugly tapestry of evangelical complicity in the creation of “Christian nationalism” (a conflicted term at present), disregard for the plight of African Americans, uncritical glorification of war (especially in Vietnam and the War on Terror), creation of a unique subjugating sexism that resulted in widespread trauma, celebration of abuse of power in church and secular contexts (e.g. Bill Gothard and Oliver North), and tears over perceived threats to religious freedom. Du Mez concludes her book by arguing that evangelicals created a culture that culminated in the rise of Donald Trump. While she acknowledges that such a culmination was not inevitable, the inescapable, logical end point of her history is Trump’s election to the presidency, in which he rode a wave of immensely enthusiastic support from a broad evangelical base.
Any honest appraisal of a book like this must reckon with the ugly details of the narrative. At times, I was embarrassed. At other times, I was angered. Frequently, I felt defensive—and I admit, at times I wanted to find ways to argue that she was objectively wrong. And of course, many of my reactions were defined by simple sadness and regret.
Abuse is an enduring theme of this book. I was never a victim of sexual abuse, but I did suffer physical and verbal abuse as a child and as a teenager. It took me years to realize that the things that happened to me in my youth were not my fault, that they were not normal, and that forgiveness did not mean that I had to maintain relationships with people who abused me, as if nothing had happened. As a historian who studies the history of the intersection between nationalism and theology in the context of war, diplomacy, and political thought—and as a person with painful memories of abuse, who recognizes that abuse is deep and widespread in our communities—Du Mez’s book is often compelling. To say that this book is important, that it should be widely read, that it should be taken seriously, is obvious.
It is a supreme tragedy that American evangelicals have, for generations, replaced the authority of Scripture with that of what I have spent years characterizing as our own “evangelical magisterium.” This magisterium is religiously and culturally authoritative, and often even compels Scripture to submit to it. It consists of three dynamics: pragmatism, experience, and sentimentality. Du Mez is at her best when she demonstrates how these dynamics have played out in various historical contexts, especially from the early years of the Cold War through to Trump’s presidency. The results of the application of this evangelical magisterium are tragic, and Du Mez narrates those tragedies on every page of her book. For example, evangelicals have been, in significant ways, excessively interested in political power. But political power is fleeting and usually comes with a cost not worth paying. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835, foresaw the results of an overly-politicized religion. In de Tocqueville’s estimation, when church and state remain separate, religion can remain in a state of splendid isolation from political squabbling. In such a state of affairs, church leaders can enjoy the respect of the whole populace, regardless of political or religious conviction. But when church leaders begin to engage in political maneuvering, the Christian faith becomes ensnared in politics and gets associated with the factions in which religious leaders bring the church into alignment. Religion, Tocqueville said, “does not need [political powers’] assistance to live, and in serving them it can die.” We are seeing this occur before our very eyes today.