Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez (New York: Liveright, 2020), 386 pages, $18.95 (Hardback).
As I begin, please indulge me as I make a few personal prefatory remarks. I have reviewed dozens of books in my professional life, but this review will be different. Consider this review a cri de coeur over a book written as a cri de coeur. I am deeply invested in more than one element of Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. For one, I know Professor Du Mez professionally and I have a deep and abiding respect and admiration for her. I also am a white, conservative evangelical Christian, so I read the pages of this book with the realization that my people are the subject of this book (although I do question how valid the way DuMez normativizes the concept of “white evangelical” is). And lastly, I am a Christian historian myself, and am constantly thinking about how to be a worthy student and teacher of history, as well as a creditable teller of past stories for present audiences. In short, I do not read Du Mez’s book from the standpoint of total objectivity, nor do I approach her subject matter as a set of pure abstractions in which I have no part.
Furthermore, I bring my own experiences as an evangelical to the narrative that Du Mez has produced in her book. I was not born into an evangelical family. In fact, I am the first evangelical Christian in my family’s history, as far as I know. I was raised in a family of mainline Presbyterians and Episcopalians, and did not go to church except on holidays during my childhood and teenage years. I came to Christ after I went to college, and initially joined a Southern Baptist church because the person who led me to Christ was a Southern Baptist. Thus, the history of evangelicalism in the 1970s and 1980s was a history I learned about in books, and had no direct experience thereof.
Still, since coming to Christ in 1988, I have partaken in the recent history of evangelicalism. I have studied it, but I have also witnessed it unfold as a seminary student, as a member of a pastoral staff in a Southern Baptist church, as a Christian school teacher, as a seminary professor, and as a husband and father. Predominately white conservative evangelicals, of the Southern Baptist kind, are my people. My wife and I homeschool our children—we often laugh at ourselves as “weird homeschoolers.” I have a profound love for evangelicals and a loyalty to them based in personal identity, but also in thirty years of full-time service to them and alongside them. Still, I am not blind to their flaws, and I am not their unconditional defender. White conservative evangelicals are what they are for a host of reasons. They have a complex history, and their story is a story that is thrilling, fascinating, heartbreaking, and everything in between.
Du Mez has given us a history of evangelicalism going back to the early twentieth century. Her history is troubling. She lives and teaches in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the most significant centers of evangelicalism in America, and her book reads as an anguished and prophetic cry of the heart to her own people. I would guess that my own awareness of a personal stake in this history is multiplied exponentially for Du Mez, who, I suspect, claims white evangelical Christians as her own people, too.
Du Mez’s overall argument is that white, conservative, evangelical Christians in America since the early twentieth century have been at least as influenced by culture as they have by theology. For her, John Wayne serves as a paradigmatic figure illustrating this enduring dynamic. A militant, masculine, Ameri-centric ethos, inspired by mythical and gendered ideals of American exceptionalism, white supremacy, the nuclear family, and law and order came to define white evangelicalism from Theodore Roosevelt (d. 1919) to Donald Trump. Combined with this ethos, evangelicals adopted and cultivated a continuous attitude of embattlement and a sense of suffering persecution. What resulted time and again in the world of evangelicalism was the calculated production of a cosmic conflict between light and darkness, between purity and threats to purity—with evangelicals always being on the side of righteousness, and any opponents being on the side of wickedness. Evangelicals cast themselves on the side of America, and so by extension their detractors were either in league with, or were even themselves, enemies of America. The effect has been that conservative white evangelicals have consistently and increasingly betrayed the faith that they purportedly claimed by embracing anti-Christian standards such as oppressive patriarchy, racism, nationalism, and militarism, both explicitly and implicitly. In Du Mez’s words, “Like [John] Wayne, the heroes who best embodied militant Christian masculinity were those unencumbered by traditional Christian virtues. . . . For many evangelicals, these militant heroes would come to define not only Christian manhood but Christianity itself” (11).
Du Mez bases her thesis on a narrative that begins with Theodore Roosevelt’s move to become a cattle rancher in Dakota Territory in 1884 and ends in the middle of the Trump Administration with its correspondent reckonings among evangelicals with the consequences of #MeToo and #ChurchToo. She unweaves an ugly tapestry of evangelical complicity in the creation of “Christian nationalism” (a conflicted term at present), disregard for the plight of African Americans, uncritical glorification of war (especially in Vietnam and the War on Terror), creation of a unique subjugating sexism that resulted in widespread trauma, celebration of abuse of power in church and secular contexts (e.g. Bill Gothard and Oliver North), and tears over perceived threats to religious freedom. Du Mez concludes her book by arguing that evangelicals created a culture that culminated in the rise of Donald Trump. While she acknowledges that such a culmination was not inevitable, the inescapable, logical end point of her history is Trump’s election to the presidency, in which he rode a wave of immensely enthusiastic support from a broad evangelical base.
Any honest appraisal of a book like this must reckon with the ugly details of the narrative. At times, I was embarrassed. At other times, I was angered. Frequently, I felt defensive—and I admit, at times I wanted to find ways to argue that she was objectively wrong. And of course, many of my reactions were defined by simple sadness and regret.
Abuse is an enduring theme of this book. I was never a victim of sexual abuse, but I did suffer physical and verbal abuse as a child and as a teenager. It took me years to realize that the things that happened to me in my youth were not my fault, that they were not normal, and that forgiveness did not mean that I had to maintain relationships with people who abused me, as if nothing had happened. As a historian who studies the history of the intersection between nationalism and theology in the context of war, diplomacy, and political thought—and as a person with painful memories of abuse, who recognizes that abuse is deep and widespread in our communities—Du Mez’s book is often compelling. To say that this book is important, that it should be widely read, that it should be taken seriously, is obvious.
It is a supreme tragedy that American evangelicals have, for generations, replaced the authority of Scripture with that of what I have spent years characterizing as our own “evangelical magisterium.” This magisterium is religiously and culturally authoritative, and often even compels Scripture to submit to it. It consists of three dynamics: pragmatism, experience, and sentimentality. Du Mez is at her best when she demonstrates how these dynamics have played out in various historical contexts, especially from the early years of the Cold War through to Trump’s presidency. The results of the application of this evangelical magisterium are tragic, and Du Mez narrates those tragedies on every page of her book. For example, evangelicals have been, in significant ways, excessively interested in political power. But political power is fleeting and usually comes with a cost not worth paying. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835, foresaw the results of an overly-politicized religion. In de Tocqueville’s estimation, when church and state remain separate, religion can remain in a state of splendid isolation from political squabbling. In such a state of affairs, church leaders can enjoy the respect of the whole populace, regardless of political or religious conviction. But when church leaders begin to engage in political maneuvering, the Christian faith becomes ensnared in politics and gets associated with the factions in which religious leaders bring the church into alignment. Religion, Tocqueville said, “does not need [political powers’] assistance to live, and in serving them it can die.” We are seeing this occur before our very eyes today.
The most singular value that Du Mez’s book has for us as Christians seeking to submit our lives to the Scriptures—those of us who would classify ourselves as complementarians, conservatives, evangelicals—is that the book forces us to examine ourselves. Just as Paul encouraged the Philippians to examine themselves for the sake of their eternal salvation (Phil. 2:12-13), we must understand our daily duty to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, and to follow Christ. We must die to ourselves, our sinful desires and ambitions, our need to be pure and righteous through our own sheer acts of will, and our wish to see our opponents destroyed. Du Mez has reminded us that we have not always been concerned with self-examination. How do we conservatives respond to criticism? Do we have the courage to listen to our critics, especially those from our own ranks? Do we allow that some of the criticism is fair? Are we willing to change those things in our attitudes and actions that are informed by the evangelical magisterium, and submit ourselves to Scripture, even when it goes against how we have conducted ourselves in the past? Du Mez’s book is a look into the mirror, and we would do well to admit that she is telling our story.
Of course, this being a conversation between Du Mez and ourselves, I do offer words of criticism. I offer my criticism in the same spirit that Du Mez offers hers—to reach the truth, to know it, and to freely live by it. And I make my criticism through the lens of one of the most powerful essays I have ever read. It is an essay on writing history by Beth Barton Schweiger, entitled “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” published in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and The Historian’s Vocation. Schweiger argues that the Christian historian has a duty to love the historical subjects she studies, who are now dead. This love is not sentimental, nor does this love absolve the subjects of their sins. Loving the dead means we tell the truth about them, as far as it is possible given our limitations and the complexities of the past. And we love the dead for their own sakes, rather than for some utilitarian purpose we might have for them. The dead are a source of contemplation for us in the present; they offer us perspective, humility, and aid us in our own self-examination as we study their lives. The dead are at our mercy–they cannot come back and offer their explanations, their justifications, their apologies, or their acts of restitution. As we increase in our knowledge of history, the temptation is to exercise power over those who are gone, render judgment on them, and emerge from the exercise justified, righteous, and pure. Instead, knowledge of past lives ought to foster a pastoral imagination which, as Schweiger describes, “views others not in terms of oneself, but in terms of themselves, ‘trying to sense their experience as they are experiencing it, seeing with their eyes, feeling with their nerves.’” When we write history, we must exercise humility and empathy. Schweiger taught at the University of Arkansas for fifteen years and specializes in nineteenth-century Southern history. She knows something about how to extend a pastoral imagination to her subjects, to commune with and love dead people even though many of them were guilty of truly heinous crimes against fellow human beings. Ultimately, our goal in history writing is truth-telling, not power-wielding. And learning from history is not for meting out moral judgments on other; rather it is about how we can change to fit patterns of righteousness and moral excellence.
Du Mez’s book is aptly subtitled “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” But it tells a story that is one-sided, laying blame on one particular group of people for a devastation that is profound and possibly irreparable, at least in our lifetimes. Do white conservative evangelicals have much to answer for in a story of historical declension? Most assuredly. Are white conservative evangelicals solely responsible for such a declension? Not in the least.
In my own research on the life and times of John Foster Dulles (1888–1959), I found that conservative evangelicals do not have a monopoly on Christian nationalism (as Du Mez understands it), militarism, racism, or sexism. Dulles was a mainline Presbyterian, a champion of modernism in the 1920s against the fundamentalists and thus identified with the Christian left of his day. And yet, he was as committed to white supremacy, Christian nationalism, American military superiority against “godless Communism,” and to “patriarchy” as anyone of his day. Dulles is instructive to us, in that his life reminds us that ideas such as Christian nationalism are not transcendent ideas but are shaped by their historical contexts that change over time. Since 1977, Christian nationalism has been predominantly defined and championed amid the evangelical right in America, and their brand of Christian nationalism has been oriented to the past. But other iterations of Christian nationalism in American history have been oriented toward the future—Thomas Paine, John L. O’Sullivan, Albert Beveridge, Woodrow Wilson, and John Foster Dulles each articulated Christian nationalisms that were essentially progressive. Furthermore, Dulles shaped, and was shaped by, the Christian nationalism of World War I, the interwar period, World War II, and the early Cold War. He is an example of how Christian nationalism and white evangelicalism are not synonymous, and why one must recognize that “Christian nationalism” has a deeply complex history.
There is little of Schweiger’s pastoral imagination reflected in Du Mez’s approach to evangelicals over the past century. What we often see is Du Mez selecting the most frightful examples from the history of white evangelicalism in order to make the point that it is they who are responsible for the corruption of Christianity and the fracturing of American society.
In contrast to this approach, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism  seeks to explain evangelicals and their history rather than reduce them to a scrutiny that leads inexorably to their excoriation. Worthen argues that evangelicals have been perennially confused over authority, and this confusion “is both their greatest affliction and their most potent source of vitality.” Her history is characterized by a narrative of both assets and deficits, and the reader is struck by the many complexities that are inherent to white evangelicalism since the end of World War II. Worthen is a thoughtful historian, and has no ax to grind in her critical treatment of American evangelicals. While I do not know anything about how Du Mez teaches history in her classroom, I read this book and know something significant about how she writes history. If we look at other recent histories of evangelicals, and then compare their methods to that of Du Mez, we find a stark contrast.
For example, consider Lauren Frances Turek’s To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U. S. Foreign Relations. Turek writes as an outsider to the evangelical community, but clearly labors diligently to understand evangelicals on their own terms, without castigating them. Her history of evangelical engagement in diplomacy in the late Cold War is a balance between demerits and assets—a great deal of good was done by evangelicals engaged in foreign policy, but there were examples of harm also in that story. The story is a complex one, and is not reducible to a simple narrative of good versus evil.
Emily Conroy-Krutz’s book, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic, is another example of a book written by a non-evangelical historian. It is a very fine treatment of how the transatlantic missions movement of the early nineteenth century was shaped by, and was a shaper of, national identity and the conflation of nationality and religion through the spreading of “civilization.” Again, Conroy-Krutz has no political agenda to advance. Her book is a critical history, but it is not a screed. If we place Worthen, Turek, and Conroy-Krutz alongside Du Mez, we can see the difference between evidence-based history and history as social and political posturing, the firing of salvoes in the culture wars. Du Mez does not ignore historical complexity, but her narrative does not sufficiently acknowledge the significance of that complexity in interpreting the meaning of past events, figures, and ideas. The reader is meant to draw the same conclusions that Du Mez has drawn—that the history of white evangelicalism leads straight to Donald Trump. While there is some truth to this narrative, there is another truth that nags at me—history is not a story of inevitabilities, and history always resists our efforts at simplifying it. What’s more, Du Mez gives the impression that her verdict on evangelicalism is one which must be reached by anyone with a concern for women; however, neither Worthen, Turek, or Conroy-Kurtz seem to share this concern, nor is this agenda part of their historical consideration.
Lastly, are the failures of white conservative evangelicals normative? In other words, is evangelicalism inherently racist, sexist, nationalistically chauvinistic, and bloodthirsty? We could ask the same of any doctrinal position. What about those of us who hold to inerrancy? Are our theological convictions rendered false by the failures of other inerrantists? If evangelicalism is inherently anti-Christian; if theological convictions are impossible to hold in the face of failed actors; if the history of evangelicals is a declension narrative—then what is Du Mez’s solution? Better yet, what is the Gospel solution? What would repentance look like? Is repentance under such conditions even possible? Can we regard anything as true, if the truth of any proposition is determined by the integrity of those who profess to hold that proposition? It would seem that Christ, as revealed in the Scripture, is the standard for the truth of our convictions and not fallen professors of this or that doctrine. Du Mez closes her narrative with no proposed solutions, no path forward, and no appeal to the gospel. Why? If the answer would be that the book is a work of history and no more, then why does the book seem to reject historical complexity and contingency? If the answer is that the book seeks to remain religiously neutral, then why would the claim that evangelicals have not been true to the Christian faith be compelling at all? Du Mez’s work reads less as history and more as ideology, and an ideology with little in the way of faith, hope, or charity. All we have before us as we reach the end of the book is a cliff edge, with no path forward to forgiveness and reconciliation. There is no apparent hope. But hope is central to a Christian historical method.
Ed Stetzer has recently said that evangelicals face a reckoning. But evangelicals are not the only ones in this position. We all are. Worthen stressed that evangelicals have not been the only people to grapple with a crisis of authority, and what is sin at its root but a crisis of authority? This crisis is central to our fallen human nature, and none of us are pure. Christ is the answer to our sin problem. And as Schweiger eloquently wrote: “Why should a Christian write history? One answer is to envision history as a spiritual as well as critical discipline, and to allow those about whom we write and the peculiar intellectual disciplines of our craft to change us.” May those of us who read and write American Christian history always, holding fast to the confession of our hope, “consider how we may spur one another on to love and good deeds…and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10.24-25).
Dr. John D. Wilsey is Associate Professor of Church History and Philosophy at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of One Nation Under God: An Evangelical Critique of Christian America (Pickwick, 2011), American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea (IVP Academic, 2015), God’s Cold Warrior: The Life and Faith of John Foster Dulles (Eerdmans, 2021), and editor of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic 1840 work, Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students (Lexham, 2016).
Beth Barton Schweiger, “Seeing Things,” in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation, eds. John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010, pp. 60–80. ↑
Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). ↑
Lauren Frances Turek, To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U. S. Foreign Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020). ↑
Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). ↑