One of the big hitter books of the last year has been Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. It’s also one of the books mentioned by Jonathan Leeman in article about deconstruction. I’ve been working through the list and have just completed Du Mez’s book.
Du Mez is a historian and so her book offers a potted history of 20th and early 21st Century American Evangelicalism. The book isn’t simply a neutral retelling of events. It comes with a thesis. It’s an attempt to understand and analyse contemporary evangelicalism in the American context, particularly in the light of trying to understand how evangelicals ended up supporting Donald Trump. Her thesis is that there has been a particular desire amongst evangelicals, a hankering for a culture that is muscular and manly that centres around a type of American Dream nationalism and looks for warrior heroes. This also means that the culture is shaped by threat whether from Soviet Communism, Islam or a socially liberal authoritarian state leading to culture wars. That’s the basis for Du Mez’s book title. The idealised American Christian hero is represented by the actor John Wayne in his Westerns. This has also been the model followed by political leaders including Ronald Reagan, George W Bush and Donald Trump in order to appeal to the white evangelical base.
Jesus and John Wayne is also not neutral because Du Mez sees these things as negative. It is clear throughout the book that she considers white American Evangelicalism to have consistently made the wrong choices. The book is therefore polemical.
It is important to be clear at this stage that neither point here is intended as criticism, just observation. No telling of history can be truly neutral and polemic is not in and of itself a bad thing. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need to hear.
Why British Evangelicals should read Jesus and John Wayne
So, I want to say at the outset that I think Jesus and John Wayne needs to be read. I say that noting and as I’ve mentioned before Leeman’s concern that there is a risk in deconstructing faith due to historical and sociological scholarship. I agree with him that we need to look to Scripture in order to draw our conclusions. However, just because a voice isn’t enough on its own doesn’t mean that the voice doesn’t have a place and shouldn’t be heard.
I also say that from a British context. It’s also important to remember that a book looking specifically at the US context will not be able to make complete sense of other contexts, not just for the UK but beyond anglo-western culture. Indeed, one challenge that those engaging in evangelical deconstruction and on both sides of the culture war in the US need to pay serious attention to is how insular both sides tend to be in their thinking. However, that is not to say that the book has nothing to say to us because we cannot escape the level at which our culture is influenced by American culture. That applies both in the church context and the secular context and it includes when we react to as well as when we follow American Evangelical culture.
It is worth remembering that whilst there are cultural and political differences across broader evangelicalism which in the UK tends to trend leftward that we have seen some of the challenges that have been seen on the other side of the pond. This is particularly true within conservative evangelicalism.
- A significant proportion of UK conservative evangelicals do see the world in terms of culture war. This has risen to the surface particularly in response to BLM and to Government interventions through the pandemic.
- There have been specific challenges in terms of race. This has included sadly examples of antisemitism coming through with little challenge but also has been seen in terms of responses to immigration. For example, a couple of years back one Christian conference got itself into hot water with promotional material that presented immigration in terms of threat to the church.
- We have seen our own examples of high level abuse and bullying scandals.
- There is a significant debate going on between complementarianism and egalitarianism. In that context, I’m also aware of one men’s conference that used the title “Dominion” to describe men and their gender role rather than as we find the concept in Genesis 1-2 of male and female together fulfilling the creation mandate.
- If viewpoints and personalities that belonged on the fringe were brought into the mainstream by US evangelicalism then that is equally true here. Mark Driscoll was given platforms to speak on here in the UK. Doug Wilson’s ideology was smuggled into UK evangelical academia.
So I’d encourage you to read Du Mez’s book with eyes and ears open. Might she just touch on some significant blind spots in our culture too. But we would also do well to ask questions about differences. Why is it that we have different history and culture but still have some similar weak points? Why is it that we have shared theology but end up with different cultures and different weak points?
Du Mez’s book will be helpful to give us a different perspective on some examples of American Evangelical history and key figures within it. That’s perhaps helpful when we are looking at examples of hagiography. The obvious example is of Billy Graham. We cannot underestimate his influence this side of the pond and for the record I view it as significantly positive. Many people put their faith in Christ through his missions and others were encouraged to engage in evangelism. There is so much to respect about Billy Graham as a man who stuck to God’s Word, a man of prayer and a man of moral integrity. We are also aware that Graham was concerned about segregation and took a lead in taking down the partition ropes at his conventions. However, it isn’t all positive. Du Mez highlights ways in which Graham allowed himself to be caught up in political agendas and how his opposition to racism seems to have been blunted by those concerns leading to his support for civil rights cooling off.
We need to hear that side of the account because no Christian leader’s history should be whitewashed and if it’s hard to hear criticism of others who have become heroes this side of the pond too then that doesn’t mean we should shy away from hearing the criticism.
Concerns, question marks and problems with the book
And that means we cannot pretend Du Mez’s book is perfect either. So, here are some problems I had with it whilst reading. Some are minor and some are more serious. I raise these points not just to support my review assessment but hopefully to encourage some further conversation where needed.
This is important to say because it is tempting to respond to a book that hits hard and painfully with defensive nit-picking. Equally, it’s tempting though to see any critique of a book as defensive nit-picking too. I hope I’m not doing that here and that what I say below is constructive and helpful.
First of all there are a few errors in the book. Whilst this is polemic and at a popular level, I still think it’s important that scholars are as rigorous in their popular work as their academic work. These things jar and don’t help the case.
For example, it is slightly embarrassing that she claims George McGovern flew a B52 in the second world war. The B52s were developed post WWII playing a significant part in America’s Cold War arsenal. I suspect that Du Mez intended to write B24. Additionally, big claims are made with scant footnoting. For example, it is claimed that Billy Graham coached Richard Nixon.
My next concern is that the polemic nature primarily comes out in the way in which the motives and hearts of people are treated with suspicion. She describes how James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family believed that a lot of societal problems arose from problems in the home. However at no point does she pause to consider why a trained and experienced counsellor might draw such conclusions from their own professional experience.  There seems to be a dismissiveness of any view that doesn’t fit with a liberal cultural outlook. Later, on Dobson, she writes about his efforts to organise a national Christian response to cultural issues that “Dobson was careful too not to appear to usurp the role of local churches.”  This presents Dobson in a sinister and calculating light. Perhaps that is accurate but isn’t it also possible that he was a genuine believer in the role of the local church.
This may seem a minor point but I find it concerning in a book that is determined to unite people, often from disparate theological positions as part of the same cultural agenda. A range of people from the fundamentalist end of the spectrum through to the Gospel Coalition end are effectively bracketed together. TV evangelists, Pat Robertson, John Piper, Timothy Keller are in effect placed under the same umbrella.
And Du Mez believes that the thing that unites them all together is patriarchalism. They might disagree on things like tongues and prophecy but they are all committed to a particular view of Biblical manhood. Note two problems with that.
- Is it fair not to at least hear evangelicals out on their own terms, that there are things that unite us despite differences and that the uniting focus might be something other than gender issues, rather it might be that we are united in belief in the Gospel itself?
- That all evidence is aligned to support the hypothesis and this means that little attention is paid to evidence that doesn’t fit the narrative. For example, accusations of abuse against egalitarian Bill Hybels don’t fit the hypothesis of patriarchal power. Du Mez simply brushes that off by insisting that Hybels was still authoritarian. Such an approach to evidence may work for polemic but is less helpful if we want to encourage good analysis and get correct answers.
There is therefore a lack of curiosity at times. So, she seems to mock Russell Moore’s opposition to Donald Trump and his claim that support didn’t reflect true evangelicalism but rather a form of nominal/cultural evangelicalism. Yet surely it is important to stop and ask why there are conservative evangelicals who don’t fit the pattern such as Moore, Rachel Denhollander and Ed Stetzer. Could it be that conservative evangelical theology doesn’t always produce gun totting, Trump voting misogynists? Isn’t it possible that Moore is onto something, that if Christianity becomes confused with nation and culture then it will pick up a lot of fellow travellers. In a church attending culture, then presence in church on Sunday doesn’t mean you necessarily are committed to evangelical theology or transformed by the Gospel. Or at least no more than my occasional stroll around our local golf course makes me a golfer.
Du Mez is right to observe that whilst some representatives such as Doug Wilson are strictly speaking on the margins of evangelicalism but have been allowed to come into the centre and influence it. We cannot ignore this point. However, I still would argue that careful analysis does need to understand the distinction between centre and fringes. Perhaps such analysis would help us to understand why those at the centre have allowed a platform for those they wouldn’t seem comfortable with. Personally I suspect that there has been a commendable but misguided desire to be gracious and perhaps a little bit of pride and overconfidence on the part of some thinking that by taking people like Wilson and Driscoll under their wing they could mentor and tame them.
Along with that comes the sense that because evangelicalism is in our sights as the problem that other dangers are not real. At times it reads as though Communism, liberalism and Islamist extremism are just inventions of evangelical leaders designed to create a state of heightened threat.
Now it is worth observing two points here. First that whilst we do not need to see life through the prism of culture war and persistent threat that there are differences between Christianity, Islam and atheism. I can of course make those distinctions and I can share my faith whilst living peaceably with my neighbours who hold to different faiths and ideologies -as can they with me. Yet, there are extremes. The Cold War was real because there was a genuine ideological struggle between the west and the Soviet Union. It’s possible to recognise that the West isn’t perfect and to subject capitalism to gospel critique whist also recognising that the Soviet regime was brutal and oppressive, that a whole range of dissidents including but not limited to believers were persecuted. In the same way we can recognise the danger from brutal murderous groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
One very specific and significant concern arising from this is the way that opponents of evangelicalism are quoted unchecked and unchallenged. There is on disturbing example where the Iranian foreign minister describes and evangelical as “part of a propaganda war by the US media and the Zionists” I believe this to be unintentional but unfortunately this results in the book inadvertently quoting antisemitic propaganda unchallenged. I hope Du Mez will act urgently to have this unnecessary statement removed from future editions.
Just as there is a risk of hagiography around Evangelical figures from the last 100 years, so too at the moment there is a risk of building that around some recent authors critiquing conservative evangelicalism. There has been a tendency when people have challenged some recent books for supporters to go on the defensive. How can we challenge the scholarship of historians like Beth Allison Barr? Aren’t we just on the defensive because we are men protecting the hierarchy.
So, it’s important to repeat the point again that no book and no author will be perfect. We can make mistakes, even within our field. To challenge and correct mistakes does not indicate hidden power agendas, nor does it amount to personal attack. It’s a necessary part of review and debate. I hope that concerns like mine raised here will be treated in good faith and listened to. I hope that there will be a fair hearing for conservative evangelicals who disagree.
The onus though is on us to give our critics a fair hearing too. This should be offered unconditionally. This also means that we may not agree with everything in a book but we may still learn from it and be open to challenge and correction. For that reason I commend Jesus and John Wayne as a sobering and essential read.
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 See Jesus and John Wayne, 291.
 See page 264 -265.