Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

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.

Finding Our Way Back

The events of this past week weigh heavy on my heart, not only for the destruction and violence that took place, but for the way that many framed their actions with references to the cross and to Jesus. As Kimberly Winston reported,

  • The Christian flag, an ecumenical white flag with a blue field and a red Latin cross, was carried by one rioter on to the floor of the House of Representatives even as guns were drawn to keep them out;
  • At least two flags featuring the icthys, the outline of a fish adopted by early Christians;
  • An American flag altered to read “Make America Godly Again” on its white stripes;
  • A white flag with a green pine tree and the words “An Appeal to Heaven;”
  • And blowing prominently in the foreground as the mob kicked in a Capitol door was a red, white and blue flag that proclaimed, “Jesus is my savior” and “Trump is my President” on either sides of an elongated American flag.

Armed with pipe bombs and firearms, these terrorists wrapped their efforts in Christianity and country, or, what is otherwise known as Christian nationalism. This amounts to a syncretistic form of faith, conflating the goals of the gospel with aspirations of a nation. But it’s more than that. Its not just a vision for a godly America. Christian Nationalism is a vision for the United States that is theocratic, patriarchal, and willing to violently defend an ideal that has never really existed except in the minds of some proponents.

The effects of Christian nationalism were on full display this week, and to anyone paying attention, it is nothing short of idolatry: the idolatry of a nation, the idolatry of a way of life, the idolatry of self, over and in distinct contrast to Jesus’ call to surrender and to lay down our lives and be willing to suffer for the sake of the kingdom. In short, the reality of a gospel-centered life and the ideas of Christian nationalism stand diametrically opposed to one another.

So, how do we overcome this corrupted version of the gospel so many have bought into and find our way back to the kind of sacrificial and humble servanthood that Christ calls us to? How do we rediscover the power of loving our neighbor and abandon the false power promised by political ideologies?

I have a few suggestions.

  1. Stop being afraid. I believe that fear is the number one driver of all this: Fear of losing our rights, fear of the United States slipping further into moral decay, fear of losing the power inherent in being in the majority, fear of an uncertain future. But fear should never be a primary quality of God’s people for it is the very antithesis of faith. If we truly believe in the sovereignty of God, if we believe in all His promises, if we believe in heaven, then we should know that this world is not our home and whatever we have here is already passing away whether we know it or not. It is all temporal. But it will also one day be made new. The longer we live in fear of what we might lose if things don’t go our way, the more militantly we fight for things we should have already surrendered to Christ.
  2. Practice the fruit of the Spirit. When I look at the church in the public square today, I often wonder, where is evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in our public engagement? Where are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? We need to be a people who pray every day that these qualities above all others would be evident in our lives. For too many Christians today, these are absent. And before you say to yourself, “yeah, I know somebody who needs do a better job of this!”—ask yourself if you are doing a very good job of displaying these. I know I need to do better. If someone were to ask all of your friends and everyone you interact with on social media what qualities immediately come to mind when they think of you, would they list any of these? Would they say that your top qualities are love, joy peace, patience, gentleness? Or would they say that your chief qualities are combativeness, contentiousness, argumentativeness, divisiveness, and anger? It is time to repent and let go of our political talking points and stop defending our favorite politicians at all costs and start becoming the kind of people Christ by his Spirit wants to transform us into.
  3. Be more self-critical and acknowledge our mistakes. A handful of Christian leaders like Beth Moore, Russell Moore (no relation), Brian Fikkert, and a few others have steadily and constantly denounced Christian support of a President that we all knew from day one was morally bankrupt. But too many convinced themselves that it was worth it as long as he stood for the unborn, gave us conservative justices on the Supreme Court and defended religious liberty. Those who warned us told us that we would pay a price for embracing someone whose character was so deeply flawed. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham tweeted in 2016, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed….and we will deserve it.” Yet, later, he became one of Trumps most constant supporters. The problem in all of this is that many within the church, just like Graham, convinced themselves that the ends justify the means. As long as we get what we want, it doesn’t matter how we get there. The folly of that decision played out on live TV this week in the horror show that unfolded on the US capitol. Now, instead of digging in our heals and piling folly on top of folly, lie on top of lie, its time to admit the errors we made, repent and pray that we will be more sensitive to God’s Spirit in the future. We need to admit when we are wrong.
  4. Be relentless in our pursuit of truth. What saddens me more than anything in all of this is that so many in the church are continuing to deny reality and floating more conspiracy theories and spreading more lies because they refuse to acknowledge that they made a mistake. We have to do better. We have to stop living in echo chambers in which we are only ever exposed to ideas we agree with. We have to consider that even those we support and voted for are not perfect and can be guilty of heinous crimes. We have to be so committed to the truth that we will follow it wherever it leads because to do otherwise is to abandon the Lordship of Christ, who Himself is the way, the truth, and the life.
  5. We need an encounter with God. We need to come together in humble repentance for our own sins and for the sins of our nation. We need to cry out to God from the very depths of our being that he would sanctify us and show us the error of our ways more clearly. We need the transforming power and presence of God to be manifest in such a powerful way that there is no chance that we walk away trusting in anything more than we trust in God.

I don’t write any of these things because I have any illusions that I have it all figured out or that I am somehow immune from these critiques. I too need to do better. But for the sake of the church, we have to figure this out. We cannot continue on the path that we are on if we want to reach the world for Christ. Our witness has suffered during the last 4 years because of the things we have lent our voices to and because of the things about which we have remained silent. And we cannot preach the gospel if we have been muted by our own sins. We cannot reach the lost with the hope of Christ if we place too much trust in political systems. We need to rediscover our prophetic bent and to do that we need to embrace the downward mobility of a life of service, surrender, and sacrifice. We need to decrease so that He may increase.

Unhelpful (and unbiblical) Things Pastors Do During a Global Pandemic

For the most part, I am inspired by what I see in the church right now. People are being smart, caring, and kind. Two of my students today told me how young people at their church are shopping for the more vulnerable elderly. Some churches are distributing food and others are actually providing testing!

But some are doing things that, frankly, are neither helpful nor biblical. Here are five things I’ve seen churches and pastors do recently in response to Corona virus that were bad ideas. Please…do not…

  1. Declare that this virus is the judgment of God for the sin of__________. Why is this a bad idea? Because 1) it presumes an awful lot that simply cannot be known, 2) if it were true, then why would those not guilty of that sin be effected, and 3) it reflects poorly on the gospel of grace we are called to preach and embody, particularly toward those suffering from this disease and their families. The fact that God used recognized prophets in Israel to declare the judgment of God on peoples and nations does not mean that such prophetic offices carry over directly into the New Testament church. While the gift of prophecy certainly is one the NT speaks of frequently and favorably, the NT prophetic task centers on the gospel of hope–the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and proclaiming that message. This is why Luke in his citation of Isa. 61 (Luke 4:18-19) stops short of the words “the day of vengeance of our God” and instead ends his quotation mid verse, at “to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” Today, the church is called to preach hope, not despair. Are there times to talk about judgment and hell? Absolutely. But in the midst of a global crisis when bad news is everywhere, maybe we should focus on The Good News!
  2. Reject the wisdom of experts in science and government. I watched in horror this week as an evangelist declared that it was anti-faith to not come to church. This person was an admitted follower of Kenneth Hagin and the so called “word of faith movement.” And you may have seen the insanity going on at Liberty University, where students, faculty, and staff are expected back to work this week because Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks it will keep students safer by keeping them on campus. Of course, everyone knows that the real motivator is likely money. And when you love money more than people, you make really bad decisions. As the apostle Paul said, For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10).
  3. Add to the political divide. Ok, I really struggle with this one because every day I see politicians on both sides of the aisle making bad decisions and unable to work together even in the midst of a national crisis and it makes me angry. But as tempted as I am to share that tweet or post or article that shows how inept these people are, I have to stop and ask myself, “what good will it do? Will it help people who are dying of this disease? Will it help me love my neighbor? Will it show that I am a child of God and filled with the fruit of the Spirit?” The answer to all these questions is no. So, lets take this opportunity for the church to truly shine because we have decided to stay above the political fray and be agents of healing rather than causes of division.
  4. Stoke fear. These are fearful times and people need comfort. Let’s not forget where that comes from and that throughout history the church has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in the goodness of God in the midst of really devastating trials–far worse than the Corona-virus.
  5. Dole out platitudes and cliches. This is not the time to offer pat answers to people’s deep searching and questions about faith, about God, about pain, about anxiety or any of the other multitude of challenges people are dealing with right now. Sometimes our presence, our silent presence can be our greatest gift to a hurting world. Wisdom will guide us.

What is Truth?

Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” never seems to lose its relevance.

Yesterday I caught a story on NPR about something called “Deepfake” Technology. Basically, this is technology that allows for the digital manipulation of videos in order to make people appear to say something that they never said. The story reported that this kind of technology is coming. In fact, its practically here already.

This really is not too surprising. Last year a manipulated video went viral on social media that had been slowed down to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look drunk.

Similar tech has long been available for still images via software such as Adobe’s Photoshop. Just yesterday a US congressman tweeted a doctored picture of President Obama and Iranian leader Rouhani that had clearly been manipulated.

All of this concerns me because Evangelical Christians sometimes appear especially eager to share these kinds of photos and videos on social media as evidence of the corruptness of their political opponents but without giving attention to whether or not these things are true.

This is a strange thing indeed for those who follow the One who declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”(John 14:6).

I am reminded in all of this, that for believers, truth cannot be that which is convenient, or comfortable, or likeable, or serves our purpose.

Truth cannot be whatever we want it to be and the church must be vigilant about seeking the truth, speaking the truth, cultivating the truth, and sharing the truth. We do not have the luxury to be lazy when it comes to the truth.

Why?

Because our whole movement, the very raison d’ etre of the church depends on our effectiveness in proclaiming the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection. And when we become lazy about truth in other areas of life, whether it be politics or entertainment or whatever, we loose the right to be heard on the most important truth of all–the truth about who Jesus is and what He calls us to.

We as followers of Jesus cannot just shrug off facts when they become inconvenient. We should in fact be more concerned about truth than anyone.

And perhaps the best way to avoid sharing doctored photos and videos, is simply to not share them at all. Ever.

After all, why risk sharing fake bad news, when you can always share very real Good News?