Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristen Kobes du Mez, takes two approaches to begging one very large question. The first approach is to handle Christian theology with selective dexterity. The second is to represent white evangelicals as bigots.
As a practical matter, younger readers struggling with the John Wayne conceit might switch in Dwayne Johnson (né The Rock) as a dynamic equivalent, but the conceit itself is of negligible concern. The question begged is, who fractured a nation?
Corrupting a Faith
J&JW acknowledges that Christian theology includes tensions commensurate with reality:
The Christian Scriptures contain stories of a violent warrior God, and of a savior who summons followers to care for ‘the least of these.’ The Bible ends in a bloody battle, but it also entreats believers to act with love and peace, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
To be clear, Christian theology understands the “violent warrior God” and “a savior who summons followers to care for ‘the least of these’” to be the same guy. But the bigger problem is that after making room for the broad foundation of a complex theology, J&JW makes a habit of offhandedly presenting debated interpretations as settled facts.
Evangelicals, we’re told, “replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ.” The author clearly disagrees with the aspects of the character and work of Jesus Christ which evangelicals choose to emphasize, but replace is a loaded assertion.
Later, we read,
[S]outhern culture of master and honor seemed to conflict with the egalitarian impulses of evangelical Christianity. (In Christ there was neither slave nor free, male nor female, according to the Apostle Paul.)
The parenthetical remark is emblematic of the author’s hermeneutic: nothing in Scripture is to be taken at face value unless the phrase would be acceptable in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion oath. The literalist interpretation applied here to Galatians 3:28 would, presumably, be quite unacceptable for 1 Timothy 2:15.
These examples show the author’s familiarity with Christian theology insofar as she has a capacity for leveraging it. James Dobson “saw children as naturally sinful creatures, inclined toward defiance and rebellion.” The reader must supply the knowledge that a Christian who did not believe this would be schismatic at best, departing from the catholic doctrine of original sin.
The same technique is deployed against independent Reformed pastor Doug Wilson: “According to Wilson, marriage had three purposes: companionship, producing godly children, and the avoidance of sexual immorality.” Wilsonian nuttiness is thus established for readers unfamiliar with standard Reformation formulations of the theology of marriage. These differ from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas only on the predictable sticking point of what everyone means by sacrament. Wilson’s position on marriage is downright ecumenical.
Yet another breezy line informs readers, “The Bible didn’t offer specific advice on the topic.” The topic she refers to is abortion. If only du Mez had informed a half-century of combatants, the sad disputes between PCA and PCUSA, LCMS and ELCA, Episcopalians and Continuing Anglicans regarding what the Bible says about the beginning of human life could have been avoided.
This “topic” gives du Mez ample opportunity for obfuscation. Francis Schaeffer is a key figure of evangelicalism in the decade that gave us not only Roe v. Wade, but also Time magazine’s Year of the Evangelical and Jimmy Carter. Schaeffer’s hefty contributions to evangelical thought included leading his coreligionists to repentance and a faithful understanding of abortion as contrary to their sixth commandment.
But his name appears once in J&JW, tossed into a paragraph alongside R.J. Rushdooney (an actual racist Baptist) and Tim LaHaye (who made the tough choice to rapture the Pope), both of whom are studied at length. Apposition is a tricky critter, and readers are owed good lighting to distinguish among fringier and more mainstream figures. Marabel Morgan, Elisabeth Eliot, and Phyllis Schlafly, grouped in chapter 3, are a deeply funky lunch bunch.
J&JW’s point is that white evangelicals (should we just call them whitevangelicals?) are not very good Christians. They prefer America to other countries, a horrifying inclination akin to liking your own dad better than other people’s dads.
A conservative Baptist seminary seeks out faculty members who oppose women’s ordination, making them closed-minded and sexist. People who think having children is good and important show interest in the act by which children are conceived, believing that it may also be affected by questions of goodness and importance are the real perverts.
And yet, the forward-thinking J&JW stands with the crowd of stodgy experts in traditional and abstruse Trinitarian theology lately sprung up in America. So you just never know what evangelicals will get wrong. Once again, the evangelicals come in for special criticism at a point where they are at their most ecumenical, agreeing with a billion daffy Catholics on the question of girlboss pastors.
Fracturing a Nation
White Evangelicals can be as hard to like as anybody. They would be easier to get along with if, like other religious adherents, they were rigorous, lifelong catechumens of their carefully chosen doctrinal systems. But J&JW is especially troubled by the fact that the evangelicals it dissects are very white, though their exposed hearts bear no resemblance to the driven snow.
This is empirically argued by pointing out the lack of racial diversity in evangelical churches. Additionally, many black Christians who affirm the four distinctives of evangelicalism (authority of Scripture, centrality of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, conversion as rebirth, and evangelism by mission and reform) do not identify as evangelicals.
To be fair, church isn’t the only place voluntary segregation happens. Neither is it racially unique to generally affirm the four distinctives without using the word “evangelical” – the historically black American churches that share some evangelical theology aren’t the only Christians who prefer different terminology. And to be not only fair, but rational, this is not something that evangelical people, not-white people, or anyone else can square up. Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition asks,
[W]hat happens when we try to make all Christian denominations more diverse by increasing their percentage of black members? Eventually we’d need to lure away members from the groups that have the most black members to ‘spare’: the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the National Baptist Convention.
The real nature of the problem surfaces in the study of Promise Keepers, a movement that encouraged evangelical men to get in touch with their feelings, be nice to their wives, pray and sacrifice for their children, and weep a lot in the 1990s. (Notably, their sinister moment seems not so bad to J&JW, compared to the subsequent regimes of testosteronians like John Eldredge and Mark Driscoll.) Promise Keepers’ decline corresponds with the addition of “racial reconciliation” to their program. Readers are supposed to understand that this is because the Promise Keepers were racists.
The real story is that these gentle, innocent dove-men didn’t realize the game was rigged. The only way not to be a racist is on leftist terms, and the only way to meet leftist terms is to support leftist policies. To be a conservative – and to live as one and vote as one – is to be a racist. Face it, evangelicals: with all the racism you’ve done, you’re like chewed gum or an unstickified piece of tape. Why go to Promise Keepers for this intel when it was available free from every school and broadcaster in the country?
Even if they were relatively mild, Promise Keepers stood opposed to American conventional wisdom, and every idea has its pathologies. It’s easy to disdain Bill Gothard, granddaddy of the evangelical domestic ethic that can look borderline even to other conservative Christians (and insane to everyone else). The internet hits its stride when it spotlights abuses of already gauche ideas like Gothard’s.
But there is a world of people for whom progressive prescriptions for family life are culturally impossible. Gothard’s lucid exposition of the ancient Christian household codes (See Ephesians 5, Colossians 3) helped these people live the way they wanted to live. There are happy and stable families who appreciate and order their lives by his work to this day, and there is evidence that the general outlook serves many households. Moscow, Idaho is home to a lot of happy women and children who are Gothard adjacent, maybe, if not Gothardite, and are as capable as anyone of knowing their own minds.
But in J&JW, evangelical culture is thoroughly villainous, and this hermeneutic of suspicion saps the book’s reliability. The real problem, it turns out, is not that evangelicals have a complex history that is difficult for outsiders to understand, but that evangelicals exist. J&JW ends up sounding like Rush Limbaugh (PBUH) railing against the liberal agenda in public school curriculum, and explaining in the next commercial that his children’s books are just plain history.
Whereas evangelicals do exist, it’s not clear why J&JW is so bent out of shape about their opting into political life. A prophet of our own recently reminded us that in the United States, even stupid people get to vote. Moreover, du Mez distorts their influence well past reality.
White evangelicals have poured themselves out as a drink offering for the GOP, which may be annoying, but the actual harms to progressive values demand little of the cipherer: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney-Barrett. You don’t have to get out your second set of fingers to count the rewards the Republican component of the swamp has given evangelicals for decades of astonishing energy and loyalty.
Even less reasonable than being bent out of shape for evangelicals’ political action is acting surprised or confused that it’s happening at all. J&JW refers repeatedly to evangelicals’ sense of embattlement, initially referring to it as “real or imagined.” Allow me: it’s real. All this out of nowhere stuff about men only marrying women, heading their households, being strong and beating up bad guys, sex, sex, sex, and sex, is the horns. That is, it’s what you get when you mess with the bull.
It’s what you get when you displace the church, and make its pastors and members look first feeble-minded, then evil-minded. It’s what you get when you turn public opinion against the military, which is not only a normal thing for a state to maintain, but the family business of a whole lot of families.
It’s what you get when you sneer at women who wish they spent their days picking flowers with their kids instead of paying minimum wage to the female subordinate who toilet trains them, hears their first words, and teaches them to walk while Mommy is at work. It’s what you get when you make a joke of marriage, and heroes of the sexually deviant. It’s what you get when you rub everyone’s noses in sex, sex, sex, and sex while howling that not doing so would violate the First Amendment.
It’s what you get if you say dogs are cats, and force everyone else to say it too. It’s how you drive people who think cats are cats to vote for a guy who will fight for their space to keep thinking that, though he himself thinks of women as cats. It’s how you fracture a nation.
J&JW concludes its demonstration of evangelicals’ irredeemability with gruesome accounts of sex scandals. Holding human nature as a constant that includes utter corruption (pardon my Christianity), there is only one takeaway here, it applies to everyone and every institution, and no one is denying that it can be an excruciating thing to do.
Nonetheless, for the love of all things literally holy, report crimes immediately to the police. Not the head pastor, church leadership team, or bishop. The police.
But none of these inchoate critiques changes the fact that evangelicals are hunted reactionaries, not aggressors. They are responding with opposite force to the action of leftist moral colonialism. But from this moment in history, that opposite force is not looking equal. Alas for evangelicals: nobody likes them, everybody hates them, and what worms do they have to eat when they’ve lost so much ground?
Kristen Kobes Du Mez, who used to be on the praise team, shrewdly saved herself the headache of marketing by writing a book the fourth estate was happy to sell for her pro bono: a turbocharged insider punching down on a low-status group. The result isn’t convincing – it’s an exquisite variety of bullying.