I’m not usually one to write book reviews. It usually takes me a while to get to reading a book, and then longer to actually read it, so by the time I have thoughts about it, there’s little left to be said. That very well may be the case here too, but I just had to talk about this book. Without being too cliche, I knew I had to read it because I knew that it was book that needed to read me. This topic was a wound that I had allowed to close without fully healing.
“Jesus and John Wayne” by Kristin Kobes Du Mez chronicles the history of White Evangelicalism, a 20th century phenomenon that has dominated the religious-political landscape of the 21st century and largely festered into the cultural crisis that American Christianity faces today. It aims to answer the question, how did the religion of Jesus become one whose most influential sect would throw nearly unanimous support behind a candidate like Donald Trump? Like Du Mez does in the book, I tried carefully in that description sentence to not paint with two broad a brush and say “Christians” or “American Christians” as if they are a monolith. Du Mez helpfully categorizes the group as White Evangelicals, which is a crucial moniker to distinguish from the active but largely ignored non-white Christian voices in American Christianity who represent the full spectrum of beliefs and political affiliations.
This thoughtful but secondary attention to race is the only thing that I bumped on in the work. Du Mez is interested in tracing a John Wayne-influenced “militant masculinity” throughout the history of White Evangelicalism to explain the evolution of Christian Trump-support. Du Mez by no means glosses over race, highlighting evangelical response to segregation, civil rights, and many racially charged moments in history. You don’t get very far in any chapter without the role of race in the particular story she’s telling being at least mentioned. I do wonder, though, if you could tell this same history through the lens of racial resentment (rather than militant masculinity) and still end up at the same place? I suspect you could, and wonder what to make of that. This is not a criticism of the book Du Mez has intentionally written centering masculinity, but simply a wondering if there is another, equally important work to be written using race to trace the same history.
Ultimately, when I wasn’t clenching my fists and my jaw as I turned the pages, I was marveling at two revelations from early in the book that may offer us guidance on how we work our way out of this mess:
- In the last 100 years, most Christians get and form their theology not from their local churches and pastors, but from the larger Christian culture. (Radio, music, books and bookstores, curriculum, film & TV, and more recently, blogs and podcasts.)
- White Evangelicalism is largely not defined by theological convictions, but by social and political priorities, coupled with a sense of embattlement/resentment.
The first leaves me hopeful, because so much of how I was “radicalized” was through the same methods. While so much damage was done by the toxic forms of these, I also read and watched videos by Rob Bell that helped expand my theological horizons. (I attribute some of my earliest feminist leanings to his work… hey, we all have to start somewhere.) Shane Claiborne books introduced me to political Christianity outside the Conservative/Republican paradigm. “Godly Play” curriculum is helping a new generation experience the Bible in a way that is more about imagination than indoctrination. We may never free the larger Christian culture from toxicity, but all of these tools can be, and have been, leveraged for good.
At the same time, I do think we have to find a way to return to our local churches. The work of Willie Jennings has convinced me that there is no real complete theological worldview that does not consider the centrality of place and space and the bodies that occupy them. We can use all of these mass market tools to an extent, but we also need to attune ourselves to the needs, hopes, and longings of the bodies we share space and breathe air with – in local churches, yes, but ones that also pay attention to the shared space of neighborhoods, communities, schools, and local businesses, and the vulnerable neighbors who occupy them.
Getting local again will also help us engage with more local and particular theologies. As a person formed by Wesleyan theology, it strikes me how much of what is considered mainstream theology veers Reformed, whether in the dangerous forms of the New Calvinists, or in the more liberal mainline denominations like the PCUSA. Du Mez helpfully notes that as White Evangelicalism grew in scope and power, doctrines and denominations grew rather indistinct as it no longer seemed to matter what your views on free will were, so long as you held the line about abortion and gay marriage. As we push back on this, I think it could be helpful to reengage the differences of our traditions, not to cause more division but to widen our gaze. (Trademarking “make Wesleyans Wesleyan again.”)
These two revelations were such “Of course!” moments – ones that, when you finally hear or read something said a particular way, it synthesizes so many experiences, thoughts, and ideas that you had but were unable to organize. Du Mez is wonderful at this, which can only come from such a careful study of the subject.
These are the types of revelation that I often experience when I’m talking to my therapist, and I think that’s what is so special about this book. It may be categorized primarily as “Christian History,” but I (and so many others I know) have experienced it as a catharsis. Reading “Jesus and John Wayne” was like working through couples’ counseling, me and my white evangelical upbringing sitting on a couch together trying to reconcile all that we’ve been through and wondering if we have any future together. And like many who enter couples’ counseling, I hoped it would only validate everything I resented about the other, but the experience actually had a lot to say about me and the role I played and still play in it all.
I don’t think me and White Evangelicalism are going to get back together. But I’m much better for engaging the process. I’m grateful to Kristin Kobes Du Mez for guiding me through to the other side, and hope that as many people as possible are willing to have a seat on her couch, as painful as the experience can be.