Book Criticisms: Du Mez will entertain only those arguments that accept her framework and dismiss any theological appeals, because Evangelicalism is not defined by theology, no matter what Evangelicals themselves claim. Once the reader realizes that this is what Du Mez is up to, he can make sense of how it is that she arrives at many of her conclusions. She simply ignores the Evangelical’s own claims about what drives him, and decides to analyze Evangelicalism through the lens of cynicism she has constructed. Du Mez’s slanders are as casual as they are broad.
Evangelicalism has lost its way.
It’s a popular message on the Left in the post-Trump era. The Left never liked Evangelicals to begin with – too conservative, too anti-gay, too public in their objections to the prevailing secular creeds they would say – but Trump, whom Evangelicals supported in droves, gave their critics a new charge to level at them: hypocrisy. These high and mighty moralizers, the Left said, were willing to abandon any principle in pursuit of political power. They had no right to preach to others values they would not practice.
The Evangelical writer David French has been in the thick of this conversation writing on the intersection of evangelical faith, politics, and corruption with such essays as: “Why Christians Bond With Corrupt Leaders,” “A Nation of Christians Is Not Necessarily a Christian Nation,” and “Deconstructing White Evangelical Politics.”
“‘Deconstruction’ is a hot topic in elite Evangelicalism,” French says. “It’s a word with many meanings. At its best it can represent an honest, critical re-examination of not just your personal faith, but also the theology and behavior of your faith community. We should be in a constant process of interrogating our own beliefs and actions in light of the person and example of Jesus Christ. White Evangelical politics are due for deconstruction.”
History, or something else?
Enter Kristin Kobes Du Mez, whose book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, is cited by French as “a compelling and challenging argument.” Du Mez provides a historic account of “[t]he path that ends with John Wayne” – contraposed to Christ – “as an icon of Christianity,” of “rugged, heroic masculinity embodied by cowboys, soldiers, and warriors to point the way forward.” It is the account of a church that has commodified Christianity, intertwined faith and right-wing politics, and “invoked a sense of peril in order to offer fearful followers their own brand of truth and protection” and stoke “[e]vangelical militancy.” It is a church that has forgotten Christ.
We could concede, for sake of argument, some aspects of her account. The various moral failures of major figures in Evangelicalism are well documented. We could also dispute other claims, as various reviewers have here, here, and here. However, so as not to be duplicative of the work of others, we will focus on the foundational problems of her theoretical framework.
The facts recounted in any historical work are important, but so are the uses to which those facts are put, the tools used to analyze those facts, and the conclusions that are drawn from those facts. Accurate details can be both cherry-picked and omitted, and either of those can allow for the creation of a false narrative or leave the reader with a false impression. In short, what we want to know is whether or not the tools and analysis Du Mez employs in the curation of her historical record are sound, and whether or not the conclusions that she draws from that curated record are justified. That is, we want to know whether or not the house of Jesus and John Wayne is built on a solid intellectual foundation, and my contention is that it is not.
Jesus and John Wayne is built on the shifting sand of postmodernism. No Christian interested in her thesis can ignore the implications of her methodology. To embrace her work is to embrace the postmodern deconstruction of Christianity.
To understand Jesus and John Wayne, it is best to see it as a sort of answer to the question: “Why did Evangelical Christians, with their very conservative Christian moral ethics, come to be the backbone of support behind Donald Trump, a man who is infamous for his rude language and known for his (admitted) marital infidelities?” This is the question that Du Mez seeks to answer in her work.
Du Mez attempts to determine what exactly it is that conservative Evangelicals believe about masculinity, and how that relates to their view of who in society should be in positions of power. She claims to uncover the deeper sociological and historical reasons Evangelicals came to hold these views about gender and power. As she does that, Du Mez documents scandal upon scandal among the leadership in Evangelical circles. She places special attention on scandals involving Evangelical leaders at the forefront of fighting “the culture war.” Du Mez pulls up many examples of people who were caught up in financial scandals, sex scandals, abuse scandals, and various cover ups meant to hide all these scandals from public view.
All this she thinks adds up to the conclusions that Evangelicalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, and that Evangelicalism as it stands needs to be “undone.”
Du Mez readily admits that her work is a work of deconstruction, and that she is influenced by the work of postmodern philosopher Michael Foucault. Much of Jesus and John Wayne is a Foucauldian Archeology of Evangelical discourse around masculinity, and a Foucauldian genealogy of how that discourse developed.
If we follow postmodern methods to their ultimate conclusions, they dissolve every belief system and every philosophical framework to which they are applied, including postmodernism itself. A philosophy or method that dissolves everything proves nothing, save for the fact that the philosophy or the method itself is flawed. So it is with postmodernism.
On her own account, Du Mez is attempting to show that “constructs like ‘Christian worldview’ might reflect the interests of those who fashion them, even at times distorting biblical teaching.” The problem is, she never does a proper analysis of whether or not the doctrines, ideas, and beliefs she criticizes in this way are true.
Rarely does Du Mez argue that the theology of Evangelicals is wrong on the merits. She does not show that they have made an interpretive mistake, nor does she argue, prove, demonstrate, or otherwise show that the tenets of American Evangelicalism are not warranted. Instead, she asserts that they are defined by cultural and political commitments and then draws negative inferences on that basis alone. Du Mez is attempting to tear down the edifice of Evangelical theology by appealing to elements in the sociological situation in which Evangelical theological claims and justifications were formed. On Du Mez’s telling, Evangelicals’ concerns about family were really about sex and power, their views of biblical innerancy were really a proxy for fights about gender, and their opposition to abortion was really about trying to push back against the gains made by feminism. Arguments of this type abound in Jesus and John Wayne.
The method relies on a fallacy that has been rebutted by John Searle, namely:
If we have justifications for our beliefs, and if the justifications meet rational criteria, then the fact that there are all sorts of elements in our social situation that incline us to believe one thing rather than another may be of historical or psychological interest but it is really quite beside the point of the justifications and of the truth or falsity of the original claim.
This is the heart of the problem with Du Mez’s book. Her account of Evangelicals – they are animated by wrong motives, hidden agendas, unfair biases, and power-seeking;, they’re complicit in a litany of terrible things – is not an argument. Du Mez is attempting to tear down the edifice of Evangelical theology by casting elements of the sociological situation in which Evangelical theological claims and justifications were formed in the least charitable possible light. But, as Searle points out, whether or not our sociological situation inclines us toward one belief or another is not relevant to whether or not those beliefs are actually true.
The entire danger here is that we end up with a way of analyzing and understanding theology that is utterly unmoored from the truth. It doesn’t even matter whether Du Mez perceives herself to be operating in such a deconstructionist fashion: Her method sets aside the difficult work of determining truth and replaces it with the cheap substitute of speculating about people’s perceived interests and motives. Searle describes the danger of critique unmoored by the search for truth:
What are the results of deconstruction supposed to be? Characteristically the deconstructionist does not attempt to prove or refute, to establish or confirm, and he is certainly not seeking the truth. On the contrary, this whole family of concepts is part of the logocentrism he wants to overcome; rather he seeks to undermine, or call in question, or overcome, or breach, or disclose complicities.
In this way Du Mez thinks that she can “see through” the theological claims of Evangelicals, and as such she can set them aside. In a passage in the concluding section of Jesus and John Wayne Du Mez makes this clear:
Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology. Evangelical views on any given issue are facets of this larger cultural identity, and no number of Bible verses will dislodge the greater truths at the heart of it.