Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”

— John Steinbeck, from East of Eden

Summertime provides me with the opportunity to read significantly more than the academic year, and recently, I came across one of the most difficult books I have ever read, Jesus and John Wayne:  How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.  This particular text is the product of Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University.  

Du Mez is no stranger to the field, writing extensively in the field of religion and engaging in a number of speaking events.  Jesus and John Wayne is her most recent work, and has become a New York Times best seller.

Know what the book is 

Pick up Jesus and John Wayne on Amazon

When you start reading Jesus and John Wayne, understand this is not a book on theology.  If you’re looking for an exegesis of Biblical Scripture, you have the wrong book.  Du Mez’s book is the work of an academic writing history.  

Du Mez presents the argument that evangelical Christian churches adopted a patriarchal attitude which led to a culture of hyper-masculinity.  In turn, that toxic environment led evangelicals down a path of defending non-Biblical people and behaviors which caused significant damage to the lives of congregants.  

Though not a theological text, Du Mez sometimes hints at her own theological beliefs.  Her work largely does stick to a historical perspective, and the research is well done.  If critics want to object to her work, it won’t be due to a lack of research.  The end notes provide a steady diet of primary and secondary sources which she uses to build her case.  I mention this because there will be individuals who read some of this book and don’t want to believe what they read.  Anyone with a background in history will appreciate how Du Mez presents her case, with each chapter as an argument unto itself, pointing back to the overarching theme of a patriarchal and militaristic church culture which damaged a nation.

A synopsis of Jesus and John Wayne 

According to Du Mez, Christians at the end of the 19th century began to see the faith as too feminine to remain relevant in society.  As such, the church started to connect the faith to the sense of ‘rugged masculinity’ which pervaded the United States (think Teddy Roosevelt).  A collection of Protestant churches organized under the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) to amplify their effect and work together for the common cause of the gospel.  

The churches connected under the NAE put together a network of modern advertising and use of media to spread their message of a new, more masculine faith.  The evangelical movement didn’t explode, however, until the rise of Billy Graham.  After his traveling crusades started gaining momentum, Christianity held a more relevant place in society.  Graham frequently used sports and military metaphors in his sermons, capitalizing on fears of communism and nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  The United States needed strong men, strong Christian men if we were to resist the rising tide of communism.

The ascendancy of Christianity and Graham meant they needed more examples of strong men that embodied the traits Americans should have.  It just so happened that this era in Christianity coincided with the beginning of John Wayne’s career in Hollywood.  Far from the only example of strength, evangelicals allied themselves with Republicans, who boasted popular general and President Dwight Eisenhower.  The Republican Party and evangelicals saw a way to use one another to achieve their ends.  The GOP secured an important voting bloc and evangelicals had friends in government. 

The evangelical churches in the NAE supported a number of other ‘strong’ presidential candidates (mostly Republican), and these men endorsed the way of life Christians believed to be inextricably connected to American culture.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals built a network of media outlets, private schools, private colleges, and other institutions to promote their concept of America.  They supported conflicts in Korea and Vietnam almost carte blanche, believing this violence as a necessary defense of the faith.  

The lionizing of manly heroes like John Wayne or President Eisenhower also meant a culture where women understood that their place was to be subservient to men.  Church tradition long modeled male headship both in the church leadership and at home.  The Second Wave of Feminism in the 1960s met with pushback from the likes of Phyllis Schlafly, one of the most ardent supporters of the traditional nuclear family with male headship.  As a conservative Christian woman, Schlafly’s work often served to give the label of feminism as anti-Christian.

Dr. Kristin Korbes Du Mez, professor of history at Calvin University

Du Mez also presents a narrative with a slew of prominent Christian writers and pastors who reinforced the roles of men and women during the 1960s through today:  Dr. James Dobson, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, Al Mohler, Bill McCartney, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Ted Haggard, Franklin Graham, and even the Duck Dynasty guys.  Du Mez’s characterization of these men differs because some of them were downright abusive to congregations, while others genuinely sought to do good.  However, they all shared the patriarchal concept which pervaded the evangelical world.

After the fall of communism, evangelicals utilized the post-9/11 fears of terrorism to remind Christians that the nation needed strong men, ready to do violence.  Even as fears of terrorism dwindled, evangelicals turned to culture wars as a means of trying to frighten people into their mode of thinking.  

Du Mez also presents us an ugly, but accurate chapter regarding the evangelical crowd’s support of President Donald Trump.  She asserts, rather effectively, that the support given to Trump shouldn’t have surprised us.  He embodied the kind of bravado and manliness they had been advocating for decades.  Trump was promising white evangelicals a return to a time of heightened relevance.  Evangelicals sacrificed their beliefs on the altar of power, and Trump was their new high priest.

Why is this book difficult to read?

If you are also a Christian, you will struggle to digest portions of this book.  Du Mez does not pull any punches in detailing the sins of some of the more prominent Christian leaders of the past 75 years.  No, it wasn’t the aim of her book to take down these ‘men of faith.’  Much of the information detailed in Jesus and John Wayne has long been known.  For me, it’s the struggle of reading about the disturbing failures of prominent Christian leaders who I once thought wise.  These were men frequently referenced by pastors in sermons.  Churches use their books and curriculum regularly.  I had listened to many of their sermons online.  Part of that is my fault, to know better than to think these men perfect.  But their failures now lead me to question the patriarchal nature of churches, and the power given to men.  Have I been seeing Biblical Scripture incorrectly?  What roles do men and women have in church?  In the household?  How much of this abuse affects the local churches in my area?

While part of me internalizes how this affects me, there’s a bigger issue here.  This came into a clearer view after reading the last chapter of this book, where Du Mez lays out the recent scandals of evangelical churches, one after another in a seemingly endless parade of abuses and coverups.  To read this last chapter made me physically nauseous.  How many victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse from pastors suffered because of a leadership structure of unchecked power?  How many abusers evaded accountability because church leaders (all men) covered up the incidents?   

As a believer in Jesus Christ’s divinity, I look at this chapter and I have a better understanding of why people do not want to ever approach a church.  I know many Christians will immediately point out that while individuals in the church might fail, it doesn’t change the truth about who Jesus Christ is. And on an intellectual level, I concur with that sentiment. But when abuse has become this widespread, unbelievers won’t even try to differentiate between who Jesus is and who his followers are.

I look at the past 75 years of evangelical church history and I am bothered by the connection of American nationalism to Christianity.  For some Christians, the two have fused together into a religious nationalism that doesn’t bear much resemblance to what Jesus taught.  

I know that critics of Du Mez will point out that a majority of evangelical churches do not have these issues with abuse.  Even if we cede that as true, it wasn’t the point of Du Mez’s work.  The premise of her work was to demonstrate how the hyper-masculine patriarchal church has damaged the nation.  I would go so far as to say that Du Mez never explicitly calls a patriarchal church hierarchy as un-Biblical (though I gather she may say it, if pressed for an answer).  However, the evidence shows that churches where we find abuse came from unchecked patriarchal structures.

I might argue that the biggest problem in these patriarchal structures is the fact that there’s always someone at the top of the hierarchy who has unchecked power.  And Du Mez points this out, but she also brings into the discussion that the patriarchal structures demanded strong men in the church and the household.  This translates into the toxic, hyper-masculine, nationalist, and aggressive behavior from men in a number of churches and homes.

What are the problems with the book?

One of my biggest issues with the book was a lack of an explicit definition for precisely what ‘evangelical’ means.  Early in the first chapter, Du Mez discusses the formation of the NAE, which includes churches from 40 different denominations, with more than 45,000 churches in total.  These, of course, are Protestant churches and these different groups have a very wide array of beliefs.  Du Mez acknowledges this, but never specifically pins down what an evangelical is.  The NAE’s statement of faith only has seven core beliefs and this is how one can fit so many denominations under the umbrella of evangelical.  Moreover, Du Mez’s use of the term might be taken as code for those who have a conservative reading of the Bible.  

Jesus and John Wayne lacks the theological scope to explain why many churches have a patriarchal hierarchy in the first place.  Within the Christian community, a rift has opened about the meaning of the apostle Paul’s words pertaining to the role of women in the church and in a marriage.  I know this wasn’t Du Mez’s goal, but it might have done much to illustrate why so many churches believe in complementarianism.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her … 

Ephesians 5:22-25

Neither Paul nor any of the apostles claimed women were not equally loved by Jesus Christ, but if one takes the Bible seriously, then he or she must consider if evangelicals are correct in their interpretation of the apostle’s words.  Clearly, men have not loved their wives as Christ loved the church, but does that mean abandoning a model of male leadership?  I’ll not attempt such an undertaking here.

I also want to point out that Du Mez’s book paints a bleak outlook for the future of evangelical churches.  She wrote just a shade over 300 pages laying out a history of the evangelical church’s decades of bad moves leading to some catastrophic consequences and then her only conclusion is to write, “What was once done might also be undone.”

If Du Mez’s is correct in her argument, and I have strong reason to believe that she is, then just saying “oh, hey, it can be undone” isn’t something that can be easily accomplished.  Maybe we should tear down the patriarchy.  Maybe it’s time to recreate churches and faith based institutions.  One thing is for certain.  Men, we should aim to look more like Jesus.

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