In her latest book Jesus and John Wayne, Calvin University history professor Kristen Kobes Du Mez makes a depressingly solid case for how we arrived at this historical moment that includes self-proclaimed Evangelicals storming the U. S. Capitol building on Jan. 6th. In fact, given recent events, the book seems extraordinarily prescient, in a prophetically tragic sort of way.
Du Mez argues that Christian nationalism amounts not to an aberration within evangelicalism broadly, but rather has been intentionally propagated for decades by a host of voices from within. This brand of Christian nationalism centers on male-dominated, sexist, patriarchal, militant patriotism that readily confuses a very particular vision of the nation (with a contrived and revisionist history) with the very essence of the gospel itself. And the pervasive symbol of this hyper-masculine, largely Caucasian, and often abusive form of Christianity, was none other than the womanizing, heavy drinking actor, John Wayne (note: I had assumed when I first picked up the book that John Wayne functioned as something of a metaphor for evangelical machismo. I was shocked to learn how frequently and overtly the connection actually shows up). Evangelical support for a Casino owning, womanizing, and downright vulgar candidate like Donald Trump thus was not an anomaly, but the inevitable result of an Evangelicalism that for decades framed itself (or rather framed the manliness of its men) as the last great hope of a nation and the nation as the last great hope of the faith.
Positively, the book is extremely well-researched and the arguments built on stacks and stacks of concrete examples (so much so, the reader is left feeling a bit sorry for Dr. Du Mez and her research assistants for having to actually read and digest all the keyboard punching that passes for evangelical literature). But it is the sheer breadth of research that makes her case so compelling. As someone who locates myself somewhere in that strange intersection between Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, I had been attuned to the discipleship crisis, to all too-pervasive toxic leadership, and to widespread Christian nationalism, but until reading this book I had no idea what deep trouble we are really in. And yes, this is a positive quality of the book because we cannot begin to dig out of our current predicament, we cannot begin to work toward a better future until we acknowledge and have a serious reckoning (and repentance) with our sordid past.
Negatively, one reads Jesus and John Wayne and is left thinking that perhaps evangelicals are wholly without a single redeeming quality. I found myself wishing that Du Mez had balanced her critique with some of the good that evangelicals do, such as the millions they give to charitable causes, the sacrifices that many evangelical missionaries make to share the gospel in very dangerous places, their sometimes flawed but well-intended compassionate outreach, and perhaps, the ways in which a new generation of conservative Christians seem less prone to these errors than were their parents. But perhaps now is not the time, nor this the work, for self-congratulatory back slapping. We’ve done enough of that and some of it has landed us in the perilous position we are in. So, in the end, I think Du Mez’s instincts were right on.
I hope everyone who considers themselves an Evangelical will read this book. More importantly, I hope those who read it will join together in working for a better future.