Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez is one of those books people will notice if you carry it around the campus of your Christian college. And depending on who’s paying attention, they will probably be either worried or thrilled to see it.
For Christians concerned about the threat of fundamentalism, Du Mez’s book will receive warm welcome. By tracing the past seven or so decades of evangelicalism’s cultural imagination, she takes aim at what she regards as evangelicalism’s cult of male authority, which has toxic consequences. Du Mez is (sometimes rightly) concerned about the about the ways masculine militancy has pervaded evangelicalism’s moral and theological principles at the expense of Biblical integrity.
Du Mez’s book belongs to a relatively new and evolving genre. This genre attempts to unmask the twentieth century evangelical Christian experience as more pernicious than it might appear to ordinary eyes. Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America falls within this genre. Despite the subtitle (which I assume was the publisher’s attempt to stir the pot), I found Kruse’s book quite judicious. Though he basically argued that corporate America promoted evangelicals in part to strengthen the hand of the American model over against more collectivist approaches, he gave credit to the people he discussed when due throughout the book, and acknowledged the strength of Christianity’s appeal to average Americans. This class of books, therefore, can provide some needed insight into Christianity’s character in the twentieth century.
But, in Du Mez’s book, the overt political agenda overwhelms its scholarly agenda. It seems her goal is to engage in straight polemic. She writes in a highly progressive patois that never leaves any doubt about her sympathies. “Religious liberty” is presented in scare quotes. “White Christian patriarchy” never is.
Context Is Key
Du Mez places considerable stock in the fact that evangelicals apparently loved John Wayne despite the fact that his lifestyle (divorces, affairs) didn’t fit their ideals. Having been a child in a non-evangelical setting during the period of Wayne’s greatest fame, I can report that basically everyone who was not a political progressive in the United States loved and lionized John Wayne. John Wayne fandom was not a uniquely evangelical phenomenon.
The idea that evangelicals nurtured hypocritical affection for Wayne is also hard to maintain given the cultural context of the time. The “Duke” worked primarily in a period when the media did not report negative aspects of Hollywood stars’ lives. Unlike today’s ultra-transparent media environment, few knew or cared about celebrities’ private lives. The same was true, of course, of political figures such as John F. Kennedy.
In fact, Du Mez’s book was the first time I learned anything about Wayne’s personal life. What we cared about was John Wayne’s screen persona. American boys of my era largely formed their view of manhood by looking at John Wayne, Captain Kirk, and various sports heroes. From Wayne, we got toughness, courage, and fortitude. Yes, these virtues were in the service of the good old USA, even though they unfortunately were sometimes used against the Native Americans who were commonly cast as the enemy in Westerns. We all played “Cowboys and Indians” in those days.
Du Mez’s book decries evangelicalism’s role in supporting and celebrating American masculine identity. But it’s crucial to note that American men long had intimate familiarity with violence thanks to wars against the British, the Indians (native Americans), a civil war, participation in two world wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam. These were democratic experiences that took in giant swaths of the male population. The tough man who can withstand the stress and terror and who is strong enough to prevail is a likely hero regardless of how you parse some of the questions regarding conquest and justice. Thus, John Wayne became an icon of a man who won’t break. Du Mez’s book ignores the fact that icons of masculinity and strength served a very important cultural function for men who faced or could have faced combat.
A Fuller Story of Twentieth-Century Evangelicals
Jesus and John Wayne is both really good and not so good. Du Mez is an excellent writer. After first picking up the book, I found myself wanting to keep reading and ended up blowing through it. This response is especially telling, given the book’s overwhelmingly negative opinion of my demographic.
But Du Mez, a professor and scholar, fails to achieve a scholarly affect. She treats several mid- to late-twentieth-century evangelical figures unfairly. Her portrayal of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and prolific author, and Charles Colson, the disgraced former Nixon man who converted to Christianity after his prominent role in the Watergate scandals, is almost entirely critical. Yet during their periods of greatest influence, both Dobson and Colson did much to strengthen evangelicalism.
Dobson’s focus was largely upon raising children, having good and loving marriages, and spreading the Gospel. He did engage in politics from time to time, but always as “a private citizen.” Du Mez’s snapshot of Dobson lamely apologizing for Donald Trump as “a baby Christian” is a far from complete portrait of his role in public life. When Dobson was in his prime (in the late 1990s), he prophetically challenged the Republican party on the issue of abortion. At one point, he became so frustrated over the lack of protection for the unborn that he said would “leave the Republican party and take as many people with me as I can.” Given the importance of the evangelical vote for Republicans, his threat had to be taken seriously.
Colson dedicated his life essentially to two pursuits. The first was sharing the Gospel with and seeking to improve the lives of men and women in prison and their families. How many children of prisoners, for example, received Christmas presents year in and out because of the Prison Fellowship ministry? And Colson’s activism was not partisan. When I spent a summer in law school working for Prison Fellowship, I found I could open doors with Republicans by mentioning Colson’s name. But I could gain entry with Democrats by talking about Prison Fellowship. One of Colson’s legislative successes was his influence on enhancing free exercise rights for incarcerated persons.
Colson’s other major pursuit was cultivating a sound Christian worldview among believers through media. Colson’s Breakpoint broadcast and books, typically written with co-authors, presented well-rounded, non-partisan efforts to discipline Christian minds in their encounters with culture.
Du Mez doesn’t really do justice to either of these men.
She too easily collapses twentieth-century evangelicalism’s diversity and complexity into a singular motif: inflated masculinity. For example, Du Mez argues that Protestants’ initial positive reaction—or lack of any reaction—to the Roe v. Wade decision means that the more recent pro-life movement is just “white Christian patriarchy” asserting itself anew. A better treatment would dwell upon the hard work of Christians such as theologian Francis Schaeffer and future Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. These men worked tirelessly to convince evangelicals that it was morally imperative to protect the unborn as the weakest and most vulnerable population among us. But Du Mez repeatedly fails to tell a full story.
Patriarchy Is Not an Evangelical Invention
Finally, I question the prevailing assumption throughout the book that “patriarchy” somehow belongs to evangelical Christianity. Most of our world is patriarchal, and secular progressives (and their earnest Christian counterparts) are the exceptions. Perhaps “male headship” and other ideas emphasizing male leadership should be abandoned. That’s clearly a live issue within Christianity. But I don’t think we should act as though white evangelical Christians are the sole purveyors of chauvinistic ideas—which have pervaded human civilization until recently.
Evaluating what place male leadership has in Christianity is complex. To do so, Christians must avoid mindlessly preserving the past and instead pursue faithfulness. Some things like chattel slavery and segregation that white Christians had embraced quite obviously needed to be eradicated since they so egregiously and clearly offend cherished doctrines such as love of neighbor and that the image of God is in each person. As we deal with questions about male authority, it will be critical to rely on scripture rather than mere human culture. One of the reasons evangelical Christians insist so strongly on male headship is because they believe it is clearly taught in scripture. This scriptural interpretation is not some kind of newly invented construct designed to oppress women, but rather deference to an organic, long-standing authority.
One thing that Du Mez very successfully points out is that, if we insist upon emphasizing male authority, then we should realize that we can unintentionally enable abuse (often sexual abuse). Certainly, there is ample empirical evidence that religious authorities (male ones, mostly) have committed acts of sexual abuse. Such abuse is a danger inherent in any authoritative role. If a person is in a position of authority, there is a good chance it will be abused.
But this isn’t just evangelicalism’s story: it’s the story of fallen, sinful humanity. It’s also the story of governments, religious organizations, and various other groups. Du Mez is right to decry abuse when it transpires within communities of faith. Christians must be especially vigilant against preventing such evils since effective witness often depends on an honorable reputation.
When the World No Longer Belongs to Men
We have a crisis in terms of how we think about men and women. Years ago, my wife and I watched a reality show about couples competing for a prize by surviving a full year on the Canadian plains with technology not to exceed that of 1870. There were two couples, one young and one old. The old couple immediately fell into the complementary work. The wife focused on home tasks. The husband worked on building and farming. The younger couple had a harder time. The wife wanted to be out building and farming. After a few days, she conceded that she did not have the strength to do the tasks with the tools of 1870 and adjusted to working in the home space (cooking, tending to clothing, preserving food, cleaning, etc.).
In situations where our bodily capacities matter, nature dictates a lot of things. A world ruled by muscle is going to be a man’s world. We don’t live in that world anymore. And we don’t know terribly well what men and women are without that context. Are they just interchangeable? If there are essential differences, what are they? What should they be? The main thing Du Mez’s book does is make clear that we have a lot to think through along those lines. But in order to be faithful, we need to have more goodwill and charity than the book extends to its targets.