Are White Evangelicals Responsible for Corrupting the Faith and Fracturing a Nation? A Review of “Jesus and John Wayne”
One of the most popular and trending books in Christian circles right now is the book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University. In an interview with Warren Smith of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Du Mez describes her book as a “history of white evangelical masculinity and militarism.” She describes it as a revelation of perhaps the “darkest underbelly of Christianity.”
These descriptions combined with her bold subtitle are immediately aggressive, bold, and confrontational. Du Mez, a self-described feminist, explains what she means when she says “evangelicals” in this same interview describing them as people who believe in the authority of Scripture, who act out their faith, and who self-identify as evangelicals. Du Mez argues that the evangelical embrace of “militant masculinity” culminated in the presidency of Donald Trump (p. 3) and explains that she was motivated to publish her book as a result of the Access Hollywood hot mic instance in which President Donald Trump was heard making vulgar remarks that are now infamous.
Du Mez offers a very interesting history of modern evangelicalism as she sees it. The question is, does she provide the evidence to support her claim that white evangelicals corrupted the Christian faith and fractured a nation? I believe that she fails to do so and invite you to read on to see why.
I earned my M.A. in storytelling with a project about how people use stories to sell products. I believe that it is important to understand the sales pitch before we allow ourselves to get captured by the narrative.
As an English teacher, I teach students the importance of understanding the author’s perspective, point of view, and purpose for writing. Stories are powerful, and when history is involved, the whole story is rarely presented. So, I believe that we must begin with noticing some things about the author herself. I think that it’s important to note that an author’s claims should not be dismissed or discredited merely because of their point of view; however, that doesn’t mean that their point of view isn’t important.
In Du Mez’s acknowledgements, she offers her thanks to her “many conversation partners along the way,” and lists several names. A cursory look through the social media accounts of some of the people who influenced Du Mez and of her own accounts reveals that those shaping her positions are influenced by critical race theory, feminism, and other ideologies that are antithetical to values held by evangelicals in general.
This book should be understood as a critique of the last several decades of some leaders and influencers within the evangelical community. It is not a theological treatise that argues against complementarianism.
If understood this way, I believe that this book has a lot to offer. For me, I tried to objectively read this book as less of an attack but more as a subjective commentary on the church’s relationship to masculinity and abuse of power. From that vantage point, I saw that Du Mez offered many examples of how the church has made significant errors.
Below are a few ideas that I think were significant from this book. These ideas are themes throughout the book.
- Christians, particularly white complementarians, have often made the mistake of making their vocal allegiance to America primary instead of secondary.
- This same group of people has often emphasized the biblical idea of men’s and women’s roles without also emphasizing the need for leadership accountability.
*Instead of following the biblical model of ministers being appointed and accountable to very engaged elders who are significantly invested in their ministers, many churches have followed more of a CEO model in which an alpha male with a charismatic personality becomes the chief of staff and functions more as a dictator of the church. This lack of accountability has been a factor in several situations of abuse of power.
- Too often, Christians have lionized political leaders (i.e. Teddy Roosevelt, Oliver North, Donald Trump) and celebrities like John Wayne and Mel Gibson as William Wallace when they have so many Christian heroes that they could look to as models instead (Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, & Eric Liddell come to mind).
Overall, Du Mez shows that in recent decades the church has acted as if it has lost sight of its eternal mission and focused more on national concerns. She highlighted the emphasis on violence and its unhealthy relationship to masculinity within the church. She also helped to show that the harmful idea that women are to blame for men’s sexual urges and infidelities has been a theme in some significant ways within parts of the church.
I think that these things are worthy of reflection. At the same time, I think that there are implications that are not true that are also present in this book.
Below are some untrue implications that I believe are most significant:
- Abuse of power is directly linked to race. White men are most likely to abuse power.
- The idea that men are appointed to lead their families and churches is responsible for violence, aggression, and abuse.
- National pride is linked to systemic racism, love of war, Islamophobia, and a desire for power.
- White evangelicals engage in politics not to preserve family values, but to help keep power in the hands of white men.
- Evangelicals who voted for Trump wanted to vote for someone who would break rules to advance nativism.
Again, those are not necessarily ideas that are directly stated, but each of them can be clearly inferred and they undermine the value of the noteworthy takeaways mentioned above. One of the things that I did like about this book is that Du Mez often presents a history of some significant church leaders and events without a ton of commentary.
However, when she does express commentary, especially in her introduction, her liberal political philosophy and liberal interpretation of Scripture are apparent and pronounced.
Overall, I believe that Du Mez fails to show that white evangelicalism has corrupted the Christian faith or fractured a nation.
I think that she would have made a contribution to Christian scholarship if she had scaled back her claims considerably.
The history that she presents shows that an emphasis on militarism combined with abuse of power and lack of accountability has had a negative impact on Christian churches. She also shows how doctrine sometimes falls by the wayside in the wake of commercialized Christianity.
Yet her exaggerated claims, clear left-wing hyperbole, and self-righteous moralizing muddle a message that I think could have facilitated some really intriguing and insightful conversations among church leaders.
Finally, her comments about race offer no critique of any other races or noteworthy evidence that these problems are unique to white people. This further undermines the credibility of her arguments and smacks of critical race theory which adds to the trendiness and timeliness of the book but also disenfranchises a group of readers that could have actually mobilized to address some of the concerns that she articulates.
In the end, Jesus and John Wayne was a missed opportunity for an intriguing historical examination because it failed to call people to positive change and instead served to further escalate existing political tensions.
Below are some key quotes from the book that will help you to determine whether or not my assessment has been fair…
Key Comments on Race & Nationalism:
- “By November 2016… A substantial number of white evangelicals shared Trump’s nationalism, Islamophobia, racism, and nativism” (p. 4).
- “Understanding ambivalence toward civil rights within white evangelicalism is key to understanding the role that race would play within evangelical politics more generally” (p. 38).
- Race had been central to the formation of white evangelicals’ political and cultural identity, and so it’s not surprising that evangelical opposition to the first African-American president would reflect a belief in his ‘otherness’” (p. 238).
- “Christian nationalism… serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, for justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations and to traditional gender ideology” (p. 4).
- “With few exceptions, black men, Middle Eastern men, and Hispanic men are not called to a wild militant masculinity. Their aggression, by contrast, is seen as dangerous, a threat to the stability of home and nation. Evangelical masculinity serves as the foundation of a God and country Christian nationalism” (p. 301).
Key Comments on Men, Complementarianism, & Abuse of Power:
- “Family values politics was never about protecting the well-being of families generally. Fundamentally, evangelical, ‘family values’ entailed the reassertion of patriarchal authority. At it’s most basic level, family values politics was about sex and power” (p.88).
- Within evangelical circles, “differences – significant doctrinal disagreements, disagreements over the relative merits of slavery and the Civil War – could be smoothed over in the interest of promoting ‘watershed issues’ like complimentarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement. Most fundamentally, they were united in a mutual commitment to patriarchal power” (p. 204).
- “Over time, a common commitment to patriarchal power began to define the boundaries of the evangelical movement itself, as those who ran afoul of these orthodoxies quickly discovered. Evangelicals who offered competing versions of sexuality, gender, or the existence of hell found themselves excluded from conferences and associations, and their writings banned from popular evangelical bookstores and distribution channels… The exclusion of alternative views would contribute to the radicalization of evangelicalism in post 9/11 America” (p. 204).
- “For conservative white evangelicals, the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity” (p. 7).
- “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” (p. 11).
- “Doug Wilson, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, James Dobson, Doug Phillips, and John Eldredge all preached a mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity – of patriarchy and submission, sex and power. It was a vision that promised protection for women but left women without defense, one that worshipped power and turned a blind eye to justice, and one that transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into an image of their own making” (p. 294).
Key Comments on Conservatism vs. Liberalism:
- Conservatives, it turns out, hadn’t been the only ones concerned with the fate of American families. Feminists, liberals, progressive churches, African America and Chicana activists, doctors, teachers, academics, and professionals – even the National Gay Task Force – were all invested in strengthening and protecting families in the 1970s” (p. 100).
- “These women [Evangelical feminists] insisted on interpreting biblical texts contextually, attentive to the settings in which they were produced. Conservatives, however insisted on a ‘popular hermeneutic,’ a method privileging ‘the simplest, most direct interpretation of scripture’ (p. 108).
For two additional helpful reviews of Jesus and John Wayne, I recommend this by Neil Shenvi and this by Anne Kennedy.