Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Kristin Kobes du Mez has written a book that if you are an evangelical, you will probably want to take a shower after reading it. It will make you feel dirty, unclean on the inside. The subtitle of the book makes this clear: "How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation."
The book, I must confess, when I first saw its title, Jesus and John Wayne, looked forgettable: Here is yet another expose that Trump is bad (which we all hopefully know, and if someone does not, they are not likely going to read something to change their mind on the matter), and evangelicals voted for him (which again, we all knew). If that was the case, my Facebook feed makes that abundantly clear on a depressingly daily basis.
What the author’s argument does is actually show that Trump is not just a momentary mistake or political miscalculation for evangelicals, as if evangelicals merely in desperation backed the wrong horse. She shows that the patriarchy, white nationalism, militarism, and their accompanying immorality have been a habitual pattern in American evangelicalism. Backing Trump was not evangelicals for the first time reluctantly holding their nose and going for the lesser of two evils. There was and is a set of cultural tendencies evangelicalism has internalized that sees Trump as good.
I say “cultural tendencies” in that du Mez does something we often are not used to: she defines evangelicalism along cultural-historical lines. Most would want to define evangelicalism theologically (as a theologian, I am chief among sinners here) and say that to be an evangelical is to be about biblical authority, a passion for Jesus, classic tenets of historical Christianity, evangelistic fervour, etc. But that does not sufficiently distinguish American evangelicalism from so many other forms of Christianity that hold to these things in different ways (the author notes her own Dutch tradition that knew little of the sensibilities of American evangelicalism). This also neglects how many of our deepest convictions can be unarticulated. The kind of deep-seated biases and prejudices one can have rarely comes into verbal form, and to see these unspoken convictions, one must see a tree by its proverbial fruit. In this regard, looking at the cultural history of what evangelicalism has been about: what it looks like on TV, in its most-read books, its popular personalities, where funds and energy are spent, etc. It is here that one realizes that a movement that claims to be about the Bible and Jesus is actually about a lot more and, unfortunately, also a whole lot less.
The author begins her account by looking at the cultural shifts that occurred as Americans urbanized, came home from WWII, and then saw the communist threat. A romanticized notion of masculinity merged with a nationalistic urgency to make sure men stayed “real men” in order to preserve a social order that could defend against America’s enemies. In summary: Masculinity means power. A real man must wield authority in the home, be comfortable with violence, and exhibit, as the author notes, that John Wayne style of masculinity. Evangelicalism, as she extensively documents, happily internalized these values, and where Jesus’ ways seem to conflict with, say, a political candidate, evangelicals have routinely chosen the latter over the former. A penniless, wife-less, child-less, Jewish pacifist that preached love of enemies, embrace of powerlessness, and liberation to the oppressed, is an odd person to worship if you are committed to power, guns, and money. That this is not obvious to so many is worrisome.
One criticism of this book is perhaps that the author could have begun her account at the American civil war. She understandably began within recent history, but the problems that occur here stem from slavery in the rift between North and South (and Blacks and Whites), particularly in Baptists, of whom many evangelicals would call home. For instance, patriarchy is bound up with the ideal of the master-slave owner, and this notion is upheld by a literalistic appeal to the Bible as “inerrant” that fundamentalists defended where progressives argued for dynamic readings of the Bible (a primary example of this is the debate between the pro-slavery Souther Baptist, Richard Fuller, and the anti-slavery Northern Baptist, Francis Wayland, in Domestic Slavery considered as a Scriptural Institution). This is perhaps more a supplement as any inquiry into history is sure to be like pulling apart knots made of many threads.
What particularly hits home in the narrative the author brings together is that it is not just its explanation of politics (why did evangelicals choose Reagan over Carter, hate Obama and McCain yet love Trump, etc.): it illuminates the evangelical experience of church and home. If you grew up in an evangelical church, there is a very good chance you would have been fed a heavy diet of books on how to be a biblical man or woman and how to stay sexually pure as be-all-end-all’s of the Christian life. You will probably read the author's chronicling of evangelical literature (everything from sermons, Sunday school curriculum, parenting and marriage books, conference material, etc.) with a chuckle and a tear. Some of it is cheesy and silly (like how one church changed its “Men’s Retreat” to a “Men’s Advance” since “real men never retreat”), but others are sobering: evangelical preachers approving of war crimes, sex abuse cover-ups, financial corruption of the most shameless sort. Patriarchy proclaims itself as the protector of national order, of the family, women and children, but its record shows a persistent tendency to uphold the (white) man in power, whether in government, church, or the home, against the vulnerable and victims.
Critics will undoubtably counter-attack and say the author has been unfair to evangelicals, skipping over the good. However, one thing that this book shows is that memory is a powerful thing. The going tendency is to suppress, forget, and/or move on, but the paper trail is there.
This book should come with the warning on the cover: “trigger warning.” Prepare to relive some awkward memories from youth group, whether it is her analyses on purity rings orWild at Heart. Thus, the caution warns that a hard look in the mirror shows things you don’t want to see. This well-researched and well-told book is one of those bitter-medicine-type books that for those that profess to be evangelical, to follow Christ revealed in Scripture, proclaim his good news and live his way, one must take in the process of becoming better.
Spencer Miles Boersma is Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College.