Book Notes: Jesus & John Wayne

DR. GINA A. ZURLO

CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY


One of the most popular books in American church history right now is Kristin Kobes du Mez’s, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020). Scot McKnight in Christianity Today called it a “Paradigm-influencing study of American evangelism.” Renowned church historian Jon Butler called it “One of the most important books on post-1945 American evangelicalism published in the past four decades.” The book reached #4 on the New York Times bestseller list for Paperback Nonfiction, a rare feat for an academic book. Why the buzz?

In Jesus and John Wayne, a cultural history of American Evangelicalism from roughly the mid-20th century to today, du Mez argues that the evangelicalism that has dominated the United States since the 1970s is much more about culture than theology. Furthermore, it is a culture characterized by a “militarized masculinity,” exemplified in the Hollywood persona of actor John Wayne. Du Mez’s history leads up to the 2016 presidential election, where 81% of White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. While many were surprised to see this much support for Trump, du Mez argues that “Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad” (p.3). In other words, supporting Trump was not a recession of evangelical values, but rather, their fulfillment.

This book hits a nerve in our cultural moment. The ire it drew from many evangelicals is understandable considering the author’s critique of the modern evangelical movement and its very recent history. Du Mez takes direct aim at some of the most well-known characters of American evangelicalism: Billy Graham, James Dobson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, John Eldredge, Mark Driscoll, and so on. While some have criticized du Mez for painting with too broad a brush, going after all of White American evangelicalism in one fell swoop, others balk at the seemingly straight line she draws through history – simplifying what is in reality a much more complex entanglement of politics, economics, culture, religion, gender, and American identity.

I reflected on this book from a global Christianity perspective. The strong tie between evangelical culture and politics in this country is rather unique on the global scale, a stubborn marriage befuddling Christians elsewhere in the world. I’ve written before that the social concerns of evangelicals in the United States are generally not those of evangelicals elsewhere in the world, a point that du Mez drives home. But this begs the question, “What does it mean to be an evangelical?”

In establishing this identity, many evangelical groups begin with the Bebbington Quadrilateral, a definition, according to historian David Bebbington, comprised of four virtues: A “born-again” experience, belief in the Bible as the ultimate authority, the centrality of the cross of Christ for human redemption, and the activistic spreading of the gospel locally and globally. These are theological descriptors, rather than political. In fact, the National Association of Evangelicals claims, “These distinctives and theological convictions define us ­– not political, social or cultural trends.” However, du Mez’s historical analysis illustrates that much of recent evangelical history in this country has been marred by an obsession for power – in stark contrast with Jesus’s teachings on power in the New Testament. This shameless bravado is also generally out of line with how evangelicals elsewhere in the world – who make up the majority of the evangelical movement – posture themselves concerning national politics.

Not surprisingly, Jesus and John Wayne also sheds light on the growing “exvangelical” movement in the US – people who were raised evangelical but now no longer self-identify as such. According to social scientists Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge, around 5% of the American population can be classified as exvangelical, many of whom have personally experienced portions of the narrative in du Mez’s book. Debate over its historicity aside, Jesus and John Wayne is, to some, a critical wakeup call, and for others, a place to begin healing in their journey of faith.

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