Many of my colleagues and acquaintances have praised Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021). As of today, the book has received 3,808 reviews on Amazon with a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Hence I thought I ought to read it for myself. My “brief reaction” won’t contain a full review, much less a chapter-by-chapter summary, detailed analysis of the argument, or thorough critique. I hope it will nevertheless be helpful for those who have read it or will read it or are thinking of reading it.
I have to admit that even before I read the book—indeed the first time I heard of it—I had a negative reaction to the title. It seemed designed to be provocative, insulting, and indicting—the kind of book intended to appeal to an extreme faction to reinforce their already emotionally-driven stance. And sure to sell! The subtitle states a thesis that seemed too radical to sustain. How could anyone hope to demonstrate that evangelicals as a group are guilty of corrupting a faith, i.e., the gospel? And are white evangelicals alone responsible for the social and political divisions that plague the country (USA)? Moreover, why add the word “white” to modify evangelicals? Will the book accuse white evangelicals of racism? There is one word missing from the title that I think is implied, that is, “male.” Although there are some women in the book whom Du Mez paints in a bad light (Merabel Morgan and Phillis Schalfly), villains are overwhelmingly male. The cast of scoundrels includes Billy Graham, James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Oliver North, Tim LaHay, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Josh McDowell, Michel Farris, Tony Perkins, and many more. So, being white, male, and a fairly traditional Christian rather than progressive or liberal you can see why I did not resonate with the title.
The Book’s Mood
It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a depressing book. The book begins and ends with what Du Mez considers irrefutable proof of white evangelicals’ hypocrisy and corruption, that is, their overwhelming support for the twice-divorced, serial adulterer, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, islamophobic, arrogant, foul-mouthed Donald Trump in the 2016 election (Preface, xvii). Enthusiasm for Trump is the definitive refutation of evangelicals’ sincerity in all their talk about morality, faith, and family; it is proof that “evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined by theology” (p. 298). Between these bookends she tells story after story of white, male evangelical leaders’ political intrigue, ambition, duplicity, hypocrisy, and sexual misconduct. According to Du Mez the animating heart of evangelicalism is patriarchy, “heroic white manhood” (p. xvi), “militant masculinity” (p. 3), and white nationalism. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t recall Du Mez mentioning a single positive quality or redeeming feature of her evangelical villains. It’s a story of meanness, betrayal, and hypocrisy. That’s all there is. I could not detect in Du Mez’s portrayal a smidgen of empathy. No nuance. No grace.
After reading 300 pages describing dirty laundry and exploring skeleton laden closets, you begin to doubt that there is any goodness left in the world. It took me a whole day to recover my sense of perspective. As a professor of religion, I shudder to think what reading this book would do to the mind and heart of a young college student who knows nothing else about the history of American Christianity.
Given the subtitle of the book I expected hear an argument for her thesis. But the adverb “how” in the subtitle should have given me a clue that I would be disappointed. The “how” announces that the fact of white evangelicals corrupting the faith and fracturing the nation is taken for granted. Evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump proves it. Her task is to show how this happened and why we should not be surprised that it did:
History makes clear that this should come as no surprise. Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration. For many white evangelicals, the values Trump embodied aligned with the militancy at the heart of their faith (p. xvii).
With the fact of evangelicals’ betrayal of the gospel established beyond doubt by their association with Trump, all Du Mez needs to do is construct a narrative illustrating how the post WW II evangelical movement was animated from its beginning and throughout its history by ideals of militant (white) masculinity and submissive femininity. The narrative portrays evangelicals’ defense of the Bible and orthodox doctrine and its rhetoric of morality, marriage, and family as serving the basic instinct of (white) male superiority, a will to power masked as theological faithfulness. Evangelicalism, Du Mez contends, is “a cultural and political movement” not “a community defined by theology” (p. 298). This conclusion, I think, is the central point of the book. It is to disempower the male dominated evangelical movement by unmasking the ulterior political motives hidden by its theological rhetoric. It is to imbue her readers with suspicion of sanctimonious rhetoric and free them—especially women—from the linguistic cage constructed by male evangelical architects.
Will it work? Yes. For some people it will. Those who already hate Donald Trump, those burned by evangelical churches, those already leaning leftward in their politics, and theological liberals and progressives will enjoy reading about the sins of their political enemies. As I said at the beginning of this essay, the title of book tells you who the book is meant to entertain.
Do I have anything good to say about Jesus and John Wayne? Yes. Having read extensively in American church history and theology, I know most of the stories and characters discussed in the book, but not all. I learned some new things. The book is well-researched and meticulously documented. Her book testifies to her impressive ability to create a narrative out of thousands of facts. Concerning the facts it recounts, I do not doubt its historical accuracy. And it’s pretty well written. But….
On the other hand, I believe the book is deeply flawed. Though the facts are accurate, the narrative is misleading. Her obsession with debunking evangelicalism root and branch is too obvious to overlook. She explains everything evangelicals say and do as manifestations of their lust for power. This thesis makes historical explanation too simple and mechanical. All the characters are rendered as one dimensional ciphers. They don’t even have the virtue of being flawed. They are just bad. As far as readers can tell from Du Mez’s narrative, evangelicals did nothing good; their causes were unjust, their fears unfounded, and their actions divisive.
I began this essay with my apprehensions about the title of Du Mez’s book. Reading the book did nothing to remove them. Despite all the facts marshalled in its support, I don’t accept her narrative. If you read the book, ask yourself two questions: (1) can the evangelical movement really be as unambiguously evil as Du Mez portrays it? (2) If it is legitimate to deconstruct evangelicalism and reduce it to the will to power, is it not legitimate to ask what “metanarrative” or hidden motive controls De Mez’s narrative reconstruction?