Editor’s note: The following review will appear in the Spring 2021 edition of Eikon.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York: Liveright, 2020.
“When Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker ran afoul of conservative orthodoxies related to sexuality and gender. . .” (9). I stopped and read the line aloud, those two names — Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker — leaping off the page. Was Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her bestselling Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangeclicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, going to make me unhappily relive the controversies of the last fifty years that rent not only my own denomination, but the whole country? Or, would she be able to effectively untangle the theological, political, and cultural mess that has made life in the church so complicated? I had high hopes, especially as I had just wasted fifteen precious minutes of my too busy day watching Jen Hatmaker unbox the Spring FabFitFun Box, that subscription cornucopia of wellness, beauty, and personal pampering products. After the unboxing video, I scrolled a little further and listened to Hatmaker — tired but cheerful — launch her latest book, Simple and Free, a treatise on how to deal with the material excesses of life.
“The products Christians consume shape the faith they inhabit,” writes Du Mez. I couldn’t agree more. It is why, I think, Jesus and John Wayne is so popular at this particular moment. In it Du Mez aggressively articulates the ascendant theological assumptions of the day. In it she apprehends the contours of American religiosity. And in it, she sets forth the new, progressive theological guardrails of moral and philosophical acceptability. If you want to know what to think about the American religious landscape, order in a FabFitFun box, sign up for the online book club, and if you are very lucky, your favorite Christian celebrity might be able to join you on Zoom.
Or course, if you have run across Jesus and John Wayne, you will see that I left off Du Mez’s punchline. Here is her point: “Today, what it means to be a ‘conservative evangelical’ is as much about culture as it is about theology. This is readily apparent in the heroes they celebrate” (10). For Du Mez, it is only “conservatives” who fall prey to marketing and celebrity culture. After naming Jen Hatmaker, she mentions her nevermore. In fact, any reader will observe that Du Mez is not prepared to consistently apply her prescient observation. She is able to see the speck in the eye of the white evangelical Trump supporter, but not the degree to which her provocative and energetic style makes for such a culturally advantageous, if not actually fashionable product.
Chief among an a la mode undertaking is trying to understand why so many “conservative evangelicals” voted for Mr. Trump. Like Robert Wuthnow in The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, Du Mez knew there was more to the story than met the eye. How was it that Trump could claim “that Christianity was ‘under siege,’” urging “Christians to band together and assert their power” (1)? How could such a wicked man come to be so embraced by professing Christians? As she considered her task, two epiphanies dawned on her.
First, though we will look at it in a moment, Du Mez discovered that evangelicals are not who they say they are. And second, the evangelical embrace of Mr. Trump was not an anomaly — a strange occurrence to be contextualized by, say, the other candidate being Mrs. Clinton — but was central to their cultural DNA. They loved Mr. Trump because he represented exactly the sort of hero they have always adored. He was the new John Wayne. In her own words:
[E]vangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelical’s embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad. By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates ‘the least of these’ for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justified the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with the vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them (3).
Passing over the theologically loaded muddle of pitting a “vengeful warrior Christ” against “turning the other cheek,” Du Mez forcibly begins to assemble her puzzle, fitting the pieces together regardless of their shape and size. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and a brief nod to the anxiety about what constituted true masculinity in the dying gasps of the Victorian era, she drives forward to Billy Graham and the tumultuous culture wars of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. For a taste of her muscular style, here is what she says about America’s Evangelist:
For Graham, the stability of the home was key to both morality and security: ‘A nation is only as strong as her homes.’ In the evangelical worldview, Satan and the communists were united in an effort to destroy the American home. And for Graham, a properly ordered family was a patriarchal one. Because Graham believed that God had cursed women to be under man’s rule, he believed that wives must submit to husbands’ authority. Graham acknowledges that this would come as a shock to certain ‘dictatorial wives,’ and he didn’t hesitate to offer Christian housewives helpful tips: When a husband comes home from work, run out and kiss him. ‘Give him love at any cost. Cultivate modesty and the delicacy of youth. Be attractive.’ Keep a clean house and don’t ‘nag and complain all the time.’ He had advice for men, too. A man was ‘God’s representative’ — the spiritual head of the household, ‘the protector’ and ‘provider of the home.’ Also, husbands should remember to give wives a box of candy from time to time, or an orchid. Or maybe roses (26–27).
One can’t help but notice that this is a rather flat view of how most Christians (and not just evangelical ones) read the Fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. God did not “curse women to be under man’s rule.” He placed them there as a gracious gift as part of the created order. Adam — before the Fall — was to have dominion over the animals and steward the earth. Eve was given to him as help, cut out of his very side so that he was not able to accomplish his task without her. The two together, and the order in which they were created, reflect the image of God in the world. In other words, the patriarchalism of Adam was baked into the cake itself. The curse of the Fall was not the biblical articulation of headship, but the corruption wrought by Adam’s sin. His “headship” devolved into tyranny and her “help” into a grasping coup for power. The result was pain, toil, and the unhappiness that goes along with the work of both men and women as they kick against the goads. Paul recaptures the beauty of the original order in Ephesians 5:21–33, a text fewer and fewer Americans are aware even exists. Of course, so many Christians are not able to express the wonder and glory of this mystery, though that shouldn’t absolve Du Mez of the responsibility of fairly articulating the views of those she so decries. At the very least it makes for bad history. She goes on:
Some believed Christ’s atonement had nullified any ‘curse’ placed on Eve in the Book of Genesis, opening the way to egalitarian gender roles; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evangelicals in this tradition had been enthusiastic proponents of women’s rights. Graham’s patriarchal interpretation reflected the more reactionary tendencies of early-twentieth century fundamentalism. He added a new twist, however, by wedding patriarchal gender roles to a rising Christian nationalism (27).
The other way of reading the historical record would be to observe that early twentieth-century Fundamentalism is not the same as the variety found at the end of the century, and that evangelicalism eventually differentiated itself from that movement. Nevertheless, most churches of all kinds were “reactionary” in the face of a turbulent century. As the Age of Industry gave way to Silicon Valley, contraception became widely accepted, various wars ravaged Europe and Asia, and feminism and Communism cried their siren calls. The chief “sin” of the evangelical, though Du Mez doesn’t see it, was that he kept reading the Bible in the way he always had. The philosophical categories held by Christians — in the face of Darwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William James, John Dewey, Bill Hybels, Hillary Clinton, and practically everyone — stubbornly did not change. Biblically formed believers carried on filtering every circumstance and idea through the eminently comprehensible and useful lens of Holy Scripture, which necessarily entrenched them in a hopelessly anachronistic way of living and thinking that eventually produced what are known as the “culture wars.”
Wending her way past Elisabeth Elliot, Phyllis Schlafly, Ollie North and into the bygone notoriety of the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell Sr., James Dobson, and the LaHayes, all the way through into the excitement and controversy of the Young Restless and Reformed, to Doug Wilson and this journal’s founding body, Du Mez tries to fit everybody in. The Promise Keepers, she says, “By promising intimacy in exchange for power, servant leadership passed off authority as humility, ensuring that patriarchal authority would endure even in the midst of changing times” (155). John Eldredge’s Jesus, she insists “more closely resembled William Wallace than either Mother Teresa or Mister Rogers” (174). And in one of the most underwhelming “gotchas” in the history of Christianity, Du Mez reports that Elisabeth Elliot believed that “God created male and female as complementary opposites” (65).
I must confess that I was a bit surprised by the collusion Du Mez unearthed. For instance, I had no idea that Oliver North — a committed Episcopalian, which is not quite what one thinks of under the banner of “evangelical” — was such an important figure for evangelicals. Nor Phyllis Schlafly. Growing up abroad, I was always bewildered to come back to American life for brief periods and encounter the latest celebrities. Christians had their own, of course, but so did every other subculture. It was possible to see something with Kirk Cameron’s face plastered all over it at a youth group meeting, and ten minutes later in the mall be confronted with a poster of Kurt Cobain. As one looking in from the outside, the love affair with celebrity culture seems to me not an evangelical sin so much as an American one. Nevertheless, Du Mez braved the stunning revelation that evangelicals are not so identified because of a coherent theological framework, but because of their consumerist inclinations. She writes:
White evangelicalism has such an expansive reach in large part because of the culture it has created, the culture that it sells. Over the past half century or so, evangelicals have produced and consumed a vast quantity of religious products: Christian books and magazines, CCM (‘Christian contemporary music’), Christian radio and television, feature films, ministry conferences, blogs, T-shirts, and home décor. Many evangelicals who would be hard pressed to articulate even the most basic tenets of evangelical theology have nonetheless been immersed in this evangelical popular culture (7).
In other words, consumerist culture is what makes an evangelical. It is not belief in the unparalleled authority of Scripture, in justification by faith alone, or even a commitment to evangelism and discipleship. Rather, it is that everyone read Wild at Heart as soon as it came out and, on cue, kissed dating goodbye. It is hard to get around to her theory that white male patriarchy is the root of so much evangelical evil when her estimation of what makes an evangelical is so hackneyed and cartoonish.
By taking sincerely held theological and ethical beliefs off the table as possible motives for voting habits and replacing them with supposedly toxic masculine consumerism, Du Mez doesn’t have to deal with what many Christians in America actually believe. Nor does she have to grapple with the fact that Mr. Trump (though it was so astonishing) ran as a pro-life candidate and lived up to his campaign promises on that score. Du Mez apparently heard all evangelicals saying that they believed Mr. Trump was an ideal political candidate, whereas many voters — not just evangelical ones — said in plain English that they merely preferred Mr. Trump to Mrs. Clinton.
In an interview, Du Mez talks about the intentional tenor of her style. She wanted not to defer to those who had so much power, and who regularly abused it. She wanted to be aggressive. She was tired of people privileging a warrior Christ rather than the one that preaches peace. It is a convenient choice. One that, I’m sure, she feels free to make because she will not suffer any loss of social or, tragically, academic credibility. People who believe in a male Christ who died for a Church who is likened to a Bride, who take their theology from a book shaped by a masculinity and femininity so embedded in the text that the words are rendered insensible when it is excised, who humble themselves before an objective Truth that makes claims on their manner of life, their identity, their sexuality, and the darkest parts of their souls, do not have any power right now. That they ever thought they did is a peculiar hypothesis on the part of Du Mez.
What Du Mez fails to see is that Christians alone (including but not limited to evangelicals) saw the overthrow of God-ordained societal order for the catastrophe that it was — and is. If you want to feel the deeply ruinous dystopic reality in which we now live, consider the meme in which Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss have been X-ed out and two women are posed in an unspeakable (because the Scriptures forbear me to describe it) posture with the name of their hit single emblazoned over them. Or the picture of the man in drag explaining that little girls really do want sexual freedom and should not be shielded by their parents or society from the likes of him.
It is beyond question that many notable evangelicals sinned from the time of Theodore Roosevelt to the death of Jeffrey Epstein. Very often Christians did not appropriately respond to the threats they glimpsed. They sometimes entrenched themselves in the culture wars and even mistook behavior modification for the gospel. Crude commercialism masqueraded as Christianity, even in the pulpit. I have shuddered to watch clips of celebrity preachers and the gimmicks of the megachurch movement. I have been horrified as everyone by the revelations of sexual abuse and cruelty. Evangelicals are sinners too. No reasonable person ever said otherwise. But many, many evangelicals foresaw the gathering storm.
Towards the end of the book, after assembling her evidence and indicting the totality of evangelical Christianity as White and Patriarchal, she writes:
Driscoll, Mahaney, Patrick, MacArthur, and MacDonald had all risen to prominence through their aggressive promotion of patriarchal power. To those who cared to notice, it was clear that Trump wasn’t the first domineering leader to win over evangelicals. Yet what most puzzled observers when it came to evangelical devotion to the president wasn’t their eagerness to embrace a brash, aggressive, even authoritarian leader. Rather, it was the apparent willingness of ‘family values’ voters to support a man who seemed to make a mockery of those values, the willingness of the self-proclaimed ‘moral majority’ to back such a blatantly immoral candidate (275).
The reader might remember, back in the mid 2010s, that a new organization named The Center for Medical Progress, under the leadership of David Daleiden, managed to procure footage of Planned Parenthood workers bargaining with those interested in buying the organs of babies. As the story unfolded, it became apparent that millions of dollars could be made on the sale of baby parts. Footage of dismembered children and the sickeningly callous workers, drinking wine and joking, emerged on the internet. At the time, though horrified, I was hopeful. Surely now, I thought, with it right there on the screen, there will be a moral uprising! People will see this cruelly commercial spectacle and move heaven and earth to stop this practice. As Du Mez said, what a person buys reveals his or her very heart.
Instead, if the reader will remember, the state of California prosecuted David Daleiden. The desperation and rage that many Americans felt at the end of eight years of Mr. Obama — not because they were racist, but because marriage as an institution had been blasphemed, because religious protections were eroding right under their very noses, and because the other candidate was someone who was so politically committed to the horrors of abortion that she never once during her campaign equivocated or moderated her view — were willing to take what they could. When all the other better and more logical candidates had left the stage and Mr. Trump was still standing, they went out and voted for him. And yes, some notable evangelical leaders embraced him with open arms.
It would be fair to continue to debate the wisdom of that vote, to have a political discussion that included the economic and moral considerations that evangelicals hold, whether they be good and holy, or tawdry and foolish. Unfortunately for all of us, the existence of this book — and its whole-hearted embrace even by many evangelicals as “explaining everything” — proves that no such discussion will take place. Like so many progressives, Du Mez, rather than including herself in the cultural malaise that produced the choice between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, letting us all be indicted together, is unjustifiably confident in her own critique. Though “they” — evangelical Trump supporters — have shaped and been shaped by America as all religions and ethnicities have, yet now they embody a class of people who must take a lower place. Maybe if they will just buy the new Jen Hatmaker book, all will be forgiven.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People (SquareHalo Books, revised 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.
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