by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Hardcover, 368 pages
Reviewed by Dalaina May
Years ago, while visiting my grandmother, she pointed to a photo from my parents’ wedding and asked me if anyone had ever bothered to tell me who that random woman was. No one ever had, so my grandma told the story of an aunt whose tragic story had become a family skeleton. It was a key that made a lot of strange family behaviors make sense. That was exactly how I felt reading Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.
Jesus and John Wayne is the history of evangelicalism, tracing the movement from its roots in the early twentieth century to its modern-day iteration. Though theoretically evangelicalism is a set of specific theological propositions, in reality it is less a religious belief system and more accurately defined as a culture. And, in fact, the book has the feel of a sociological study of evangelicals themselves rather than a history of the movement. The subtitle of the book asserts that race is a core feature of this American subculture. Du Mez explains that while many black protestants are aligned with evangelical theological doctrines, “on nearly every social and political issue, black protestants apply their faith in ways that run counter to white evangelicalism” (p. 6). And so “Evangelicals may self-identify as ‘Bible believing Christians,’ but evangelicalism itself entails a broader set of deeply held values communicated through symbol, ritual, and political allegiances” (p. 297).
To use a metaphor, the book showed how white evangelicalism began as a trickle of Cold War fear and was fed by tributaries of gender roles, homophobia, the homeschooling movement, Christian publishing and media industries, militarism, Islamophobia, and Christian nationalism until it became the raging river it is today. Beginning in the Cold War era, communism was pitted not simply against capitalism but against (Christian) morality itself. It was a moral crisis that threatened the American family and way of life, and only a strong military could protect the people.
Over time, the moral enemy of the Christian American family became non-evangelical Americans. Communism was replaced with feminism, and evangelicals rose to stand against this new threat to the evangelical way of life. Everything that hinted of feminism was suspect, and even things like protecting domestic violence victims and school racial integration were clumped together as the “feminist agenda” and rejected by evangelicals. What was needed, evangelicals believed, was a return to the gender roles of the past. Patriarchy became not just a model for the family but a model for the nation.
When the two towers fell on 9/11, the evangelical culture was primed for a quick militaristic response and had the political power to do so. “Manly” heroes were needed to protect the American way of life, and the purity movement had prepared a generation of men to become those heroes. Fed by Islamophobia, the more gentle masculinity of the 1980s and 1990s had been replaced by a callous, violent, aggressive form of “biblical manhood” further entrenching evangelicals in the military and at the farthest right of American political perspectives.
The book ends with an exploration of the election of Donald Trump, attempting to answer the question so many have asked: “How did the Moral Majority elect the least moral candidate in living memory to the presidency?” Having spent chapters explaining the development of evangelical culture, the “mulligans” given to men in powerful positions, and open celebration of toxic masculinity, Du Mez notes that evangelical support of Trump makes perfect sense. She writes, “What did it mean to be evangelical? Did it mean upholding a set of doctrinal truths, or did it mean embracing a culture-wars application of those truths — a God-and-country religiosity that championed white rural and working class values, one that spilled over into a denigration of outsiders and elites, and that was organized around a deep attachment to militarism and patriarchal masculinity? . . . Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity” (pp. 246, 271).
This book was hard to put down. Like when I learned my family’s secrets, I was equal parts fascinated, incensed, heartbroken, and empathetic. For context, I was born in the mid-1980s, a homeschooled child of conservative evangelical Baptist pastors/missionaries. I was steeped in the traditions and teachings of evangelicalism right into Bible college and my own career as an evangelical missionary. As I made my way through the history of my faith tradition, there were chapters in which I felt rage at the deception and false narratives I had been victim to, and there were other chapters in which I clearly saw how my own family and community had been swept away by the cultural current in which they were embedded. Oddly, the book gave me compassion for the evangelical community I come from even as it affirmed my fairly recent decision to leave evangelicalism and raise my own children in a different cultural and faith community.
Du Mez attempted to end the book with hope that “what was once done can be undone.” She supposes that, somehow, evangelicals can course correct. In the entire book, this was the one statement I could not get behind. As she showed so clearly in this masterful work, evangelicalism was founded on fear, sexism, racial prejudice, and a thirst for power. I do not believe something with a core so rotten can ever produce any other kind of fruit. There are times when it really is best to burn the field, churn the soil, and plant something entirely new.
© 2020 by Christian Feminism Today.
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