Jesus and John Wayne: A Review of a Hot, New Buzz Book
Kristin Kobes Du Mez has written a newer provocative book with the title Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. It is an interesting read to say the least. Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University, holding a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Notre Dame. According to her web page at Calvin, Du Mez’s research areas focus on the intersections of gender, religion, and politics in recent American history. She is clearly a gifted professor and communicator.
So…what is Du Mez arguing in her bestselling Jesus and John Wayne? In a nutshell, she claims that over the last 75 years, white American evangelicals have hijacked the original, gentle, gospel-centered Jesus of the New Testament, and replaced him with a white, militaristic, patriarchal, macho Messiah who resembles John Wayne. In short, the new “American Jesus” is a false and dangerous idol that is wreaking havoc in the evangelical church. To establish her point, Du Mez takes us on a whirlwind tour of evangelicalism over the last seven decades, trying to connect the dots for us. She writes with a wide frame of reference, wit, sarcasm, accusation and often direct attack. Few are spared the sting of her acerbic pen in her critique of white patriarchal Christianity.
In her 300-plus page book, Du Mez dings virtually everyone from Billy Graham to Mark Driscoll; John Piper to Wayne Grudem; and Elisabeth Elliot to John MacArthur. Her frame of reference is encyclopedic. Her book reads like a Who’s Who of American culture. She mentions and/or indicts a wide range of folks, including Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, John Eldredge, Francis Schaeffer, Robert Schuller, Tony Evans, Pat Robertson, Joyce Meyer, The Gospel Coalition, John R. Rice, R.C. Sproul, Theodore Roosevelt, Billy Sunday, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mel Gibson, Robert Jeffress, Bob Jones, Barry Goldwater, Jerry Falwell, Douglas Phillips, Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, Jack Hyles, Marabel Morgan, E.V. Hill, Stormy Daniels, Tim Keller, Bruce Ware, Ted Haggard, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Gothard, Mark Dever, James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Hal Lindsey, Jimmy Swaggart, Paige Patterson, W.A. Criswell, Al Mohler, Chuck Colson, Promise Keepers, Josh Harris, CJ Mahaney, Bill Hybels, Eric Metaxas, Duck Dynasty, and, of course, her arch villain, Donald Trump.
In a recent interview, Du Mez said this: “I first began exploring the topic of white evangelical masculinity and militarism more than fifteen years ago…I found the crass, misogynistic, and militaristic teachings of respectable Christian leaders disturbing.”
One of Du Mez’s aims is to challenge the common assumption that white evangelicals backed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 simply due to a binary showdown between him and Hillary Clinton. Du Mez argues that Trump actually represented the fulfillment— rather than the betrayal—of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values such as: patriarchy, authoritarian rule, aggressive foreign policy, a fear of Islam, ambivalence toward #MeToo, and opposition to Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community. In other words, far fewer evangelicals voted for Trump “holding their nose” than we dare imagine.
So, what to make of a sweeping book like this? I found Du Mez’s book to be interesting, provocative and (occasionally) a needed elbow in the side, as she likes to describe it.
It certainly made me ponder the state of American evangelicalism, and look at my own attitudes more closely, and that is always good! Du Mez helps expose an overemphasis, found in certain segments of American Christianity, that have become toxic, macho and overly authoritarian. The crash and burn of several high-profile celebrity pastors (for sexual sins and fostering cultures of bullying and intimidation) are sad reminders for all of us. She is spot-on here. Both Donald Trump and John Wayne have abysmal records with women, as both have engaged in serial adultery. Beyond them, the sheer number of Christian leaders who’ve been found guilty of sexual immorality and/or bullying is both sickening and demoralizing.
Having said all of this, I found much of Du Mez’s book on authoritarian, intolerant Christianity to be a bit…well, authoritarian and intolerant. While Du Mez is quick on wit and uncanny insights, she is slow on grace and charity. Du Mez often indulges in generalizations, overstatements and poor biblical reflection. For example, she spends a lot of ink critiquing Billy Graham. She notes that Billy Graham used “athletic and military metaphors to make perfectly clear that his faith did not conflict with his masculinity.” This is apparently supposed to make Graham guilty in her court of opinion. She shares the above critique without mentioning that this kind of language is not uncommon in the Bible. Case in point is the apostle Paul who sometimes used military and athletic metaphors to describe the Christian life. Christ Himself is pictured as a commander of an army in the book of Revelation. In fact, the final book of the Bible is downright violent. Merely calling attention to popular evangelical discourse does not automatically prove her point.
I also found Du Mez’s frequent and biting sarcasm to be a disappointment for an academic author. Unfortunately, while Du Mez has some very helpful analysis, she falls into a common trap these days of “overcorrecting.” To be blunt, she seems to have a big chip on her shoulder towards authority. I also found her frequent “guilt by association” lacking balance and historical context. I was further troubled by her condescending attitude towards those who hold to the traditional biblical roles for men and women. In a word, her book felt snarky much of the time. There were moments when her insights were penetrating, then suddenly she would descend again into an angry screed. Frequently, she was throwing the baby out with the bath water. She rarely, if ever, talked about many of the good aspects of American evangelicalism. In her view, American evangelicalism is generally racist, toxic, authoritarian, patriarchal, militant and heading over the cliff.
So, all in all, I’d give Du Mez a letter grade of C for her book. It’s interesting and provocative, but indulges too often in overstatements, cheap shots, poor reflection and guilt by association. She tries so hard to make her point, that it feels like she compromises academic objectivity much of the time. Merely stating things with conviction, and then couching your claims in stinging sarcasm doesn’t necessarily prove your point.