Super chill book review part 1: Jesus and John Wayne (Kristin Kobes Du Mez)

Well, this is looking to be another two-part super chill book review… 

(Some might ask, does it still count as “super chill” once it gets to be this long? To which I would say, the chill factor isn’t about length so much as style—these aren’t really book reviews so much as just collections of quotes that stood out to me and things the book made me think about. But if you want to call these “zero chill book reviews,” that’s cool too.)

Anyhow. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2021) is an extensively-researched deep dive into the intersections of patriarchy, militarism, toxic masculinity, violence, Christianity, many decades of US politics, and basically all the things. 

It’s one of those books people kept recommending to me for a while before I actually got around to reading it. I’m not totally sure why it took me a minute. I definitely believed everyone that the book was awesome (which it totally is). But maybe part of me also felt a little jaded on the topics involved. 

Part of me felt like, didn’t I go to seminary to try to figure out what the hell is wrong with (white) U.S. evangelicalism—and how it became what it is? What more could there be that I didn’t already learn in my American Church History class, biblical studies and theology classes, ethics classes, or the whole frickin’ class I took on Dr. King? What more could there be—and what more could there be that I would actually be excited to read about and not just totally depressed by?

Joke’s on me—turns out there really was (and I’m sure still is) much more to learn. So, so much more. I was blown away by Jesus and John Wayne. Here are a few thoughts and quotes:

1) One of the oddities of my own spiritual journey is the fact that, as a teenager, I held some surprisingly Religious Right-leaning views for someone who grew up in a liberal part of the country, in a moderate-to-liberal family, and in a moderate-to-liberal church. 

This is mostly explained by the fact that, unfortunately, I read the Christian Internet. The Christian Internet told me that if I loved Jesus (which I did), then I would vote Republican (which I would have, if I were old enough to vote), because opposing gay marriage and opposing abortion rights outweighed every other political concern. 

I thought about this when I read these words from Du Mez:

“At any given time, numerous creeds have coexisted and competed for influence within evangelicalism. Even today, the evangelical tent includes Calvinists and Pentecostals, ‘social justice warriors’ and prosperity gospel gurus. However, over the past several decades conservatives have consolidated their power within the broader movement. Offering certainty in times of social change, promising security in the face of global threats, and, perhaps most critically, affirming the righteousness of a white Christian America and, by extension, of white Christian Americans, conservative evangelicals succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of large numbers of American Christians. They achieved this dominance not only by crafting a compelling ideology but also by advancing their agenda through strategic organizations and political alliances, on occasion by way of ruthless displays of power, and, critically, by dominating the production and distribution of Christian consumer culture” (p. 9).

Strategic organizations, political alliances, ruthless displays of power, and dominating Christian consumer culture. That sounds about right. There are and have always been many different kinds of Christians, many different Christian ideologies, many different approaches to life and the world and the political realm.

The Religious Right not only aggressively markets their own ideas but also aggressively markets the lie that their ideas are the only ones out there—that is, the only truly Christian ones out there. I used to believe that lie.

Personally, these days, I would say that the values of a certain strain of Christianity (like opposing gun control, supporting the death penalty, opposing immigration reform and refugee resettlement, and generally trying to keep the US as white as possible—all realities Du Mez mentions on p. 4) are completely opposed to what I understand as faithfulness to the religion of Jesus. Others might disagree, and that’s okay. (Not okay in the sense that I think they’re right or that their views aren’t terrifying and deeply harmful, but okay in the sense that different people have different perspectives and that is their right.)

What we should all be able to agree on, though, at a bare minimum, is the clear fact that there are many streams of Christianity, many ways the Bible has been interpreted, many different approaches to politics by those who sincerely want to be guided by the Christian faith. While I tend to think I’m right about things (or at least some things—some important things) and want others to agree with me because I think our world would be better if they did, I also have no interest in pretending that my views are the only ones. I find myself enraged by the ways a certain conservative stream of Christianity has tried to control Christians’ thinking (and voting—mostly, voting) by doing exactly that.

2. Du Mez reflects on the Obama years and on conservative evangelicals’ response to his presidency:

“In 2008, the election of Barack Obama ratcheted up evangelical fears. Initially, the culture wars appeared to be lost and the power of the Christian Right seemed to have reached an ignoble end. But conservative evangelicals had always thrived on a sense of embattlement, real or imagined, and this time would be no different. Donald Trump appeared at a moment when evangelicals felt increasingly beleaguered, even persecuted. From the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate to transgender bathroom laws and the cultural sea change on gay marriage, gender was at the heart of this perceived vulnerability. On the foreign policy front, the threat of terrorism loomed large, American power wasn’t what it used to be, and nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals harbored fears that a once-powerful nation had become ‘too soft and feminine.’

“Evangelical fears were real. Yet these fears were not simply a natural response to changing times. For decades, evangelical leaders had worked to stoke them. Their own power depended on it. Men like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Mark Driscoll, Franklin Graham, and countless lesser lights invoked a sense of peril in order to offer fearful followers their own brand of truth and protection” (p. 13).

Looking back on my eleven years at a conservative evangelical church, including a couple years working full-time there in college ministry, I feel like I was very much immersed in the evangelical world but also very much not immersed in that world. It was an independent church, not connected to a broader denominational network. And while the church’s (elder board) leadership turned out to be more conservative than I first realized, the community as a whole really was composed of a broad range of people with all sorts of different views. So, in some ways I was pretty unaware and kind of naive about the kinds of things that were happening in the broader conservative evangelical world. 

One time, though, a college student I worked with forwarded me a chain email about how then-President Obama was a Muslim and the anti-Christ, or something like that. I thought, Surely no one in their right mind believes these things. I knew this college student. I liked her. She was an entirely reasonable person. So I replied to her email asking if perhaps her message was a joke, or did she maybe have her email hacked? 

I was shocked when she responded quickly and told me that no, it wasn’t a joke, and yes, she did intend to send me that email. She felt it was important for people to be aware of the truth about our president. 

I didn’t know what to do. Turns out that the evangelical fears, the persecution complex, the embattlement, all the things Du Mez writes about—these things reached into my own community more deeply than I knew. At the time, I brushed off the student’s email as a bit of an anomaly, but really, it wasn’t that at all. It was likely what a lot of people at my church believed but didn’t necessarily say out loud.

3. As someone who has thought a fair amount about LGBTQ affirmation—because I had to, once it became clear that I had no future at my church if I embraced affirming theology—I resonate with these words from Du Mez:

“Within evangelicalism itself, this [antigay] activism is often depicted as an expression of long-standing opposition to same-sex relationships triggered by the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but the virulence with which conservative Christians opposed gay rights was rooted in the cultural and political significance they placed on the reassertion of distinct gender roles during those decades. Same-sex relationships challenged the most basic assumptions of the evangelical worldview” (p. 63).

That feels about right. Opposing gay rights wouldn’t necessarily have been that big a deal for evangelicals if it hadn’t directly challenged everything they believed about rigid gender roles for women and men. 

You can be egalitarian (when it comes to equality between men and women) but non-gay-affirming, and I know plenty of people in that camp. At the same time—as I slowly realized when I started to dig deeper into the beliefs of my own church leaders when it came to gender and sexuality—the logic of non-affirming theology directly stems from patriarchal (complementarian) theology.

I’m not saying every non-LGBTQ-affirming person came to this conclusion in the same way or for the same reasons. But historically speaking, as Du Mez points out, that was kind of how it happened, and it seems good to be aware of this.

4. Given the current state of the U.S. and the mess we’re in when it comes to reproductive rights, I felt like this paragraph offers some helpful historical context:

“In 1968, Christianity Today considered the question of therapeutic abortion—was it a blessing, or murder? They gave no definitive answer. As late as 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging states to expand access to abortion. But with the liberalization of abortion laws, and as abortion proponents began to frame the issue in terms of women controlling their reproduction, evangelicals started to reconsider their position. In 1973, Roe v. Wade—and the rising popularity of abortion in its wake—helped force the issue, but even then, evangelical mobilization was not immediate. Only in time, as abortion became more closely linked to feminism and the sexual revolution, did evangelicals begin to frame it not as a difficult moral choice, but rather as an assault on women’s God-given role, on the family, and on Christian America itself” (pp. 68-9).

Ah, yes. Roe v. Wade? Not sure what to think about it. Mostly a Catholic issue, I think. No definitive answer here. Oh wait, the feminists are advocating for abortion rights? Well then it must be a problem. It must be contrary to what we believe as Christiansbecause clearly anything feminist must be contrary to what we believe as Christians. Sounds about right.

I don’t think this was the only thing going on. There was also the way conservative evangelicals had opposed racial desegregation, and when it became clear that that was becoming an unpopular position and a losing battle, they needed another heated issue to rally people around in a partisan way. 

But I think abortion was a ready choice for this issue because of its connection to changing ideas about gender roles and women’s empowerment—ideas that Christians whose faith was tied closely to their patriarchy found incredibly threatening. 

As with opposition to LGBTQ+ inclusion and affirmation, individual Christians who oppose abortion rights today didn’t necessarily take the path Du Mez outlines to get here. But this is the reasoning that was involved historically.

That’s what I’ve got for part 1! Please feel free to comment, email, or otherwise holler with your thoughts on these nice little noncontroversial issues. And don’t worry, I’ll be back next week with part 2!

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