Jesus and John Wayne

When I started reading Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, I expected to find the book deeply interesting. What I did not expect was that I would devour the book in three days, that every reading would be undergirded by a feeling of disgust and rage in my gut, and that I would have, at times, the eerie feeling that it was my own background that Du Mez was writing about. On the one hand, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I came of age in the heart and during the height of Evangelicalism– growing up in Colorado Springs in the 90s and 2000s, in a homeschooling family, with a father who worked for various evangelical ministries and organizations. But though I felt prepared to learn of the dark underbelly to the culture in which I was raised, I was not prepared for just how ugly it has often been.

It’s been hard to choose which take-aways to write about (I made 46 highlights in the Kindle version I read). I really like how Du Mez frames Evangelicalism as a “consumer culture” that is characterized by the books, radio, television, music, podcasts, and products being churned out for the past sixty years. These things tend to transcend differences in denominations, doctrines, and theology to shape cultural and political values and views. I can certainly see how in my own family (and many others I knew), this consumer culture had as much influence in how we lived than friends, extended family members, and pastors. We had leaders to tell us how to get married, how to have a godly marriage, how much sex to have, whether or not wives should work outside the home, how to discipline kids, how to educate them, how to dress, whom to vote for, what to read, watch, and listen to, and what not to. Whatever possible question anyone could have about Christian living, someone in the evangelical world had the answer.

            I also appreciated the way Du Mez described the culture of fear that thrives in Evangelicalism. I grew up hearing about the evils of communism, feminism, the Democratic party, Islam, illegal immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. But Du Mez helped me see how often evangelical leaders exploited those fears to help further their own political ends. Leaders preached the fear of communism: evangelicals supported the war in Vietnam and voted for Richard Nixon. Leaders proclaimed that feminists were out to destroy the family: evangelicals mobilized to defeat the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Leaders warned that the Democratic party was one of the wimps and appeasers who would refuse to defend America’s interests, and evangelicals voted for Reagan. Leaders taught that Islam was a religion of terrorists who couldn’t wait to dominate the world, and evangelicals supported a pre-emptive war in Iraq and re-elected George Bush. The union of religiously-inspired fear and conservative politics was a very lucrative one for the elite in both worlds.

One of the most eye-opening parts of the book was how Du Mez showed that key conservative issues which I was raised to believe had always been a battle between good and evil, what was Biblical and what was amoral, actually had their origin in evangelical desire for political and cultural power. Conservative sticking points like abortion and gender became important because evangelical leaders and conservative politicians formed mutually-beneficial alliances that enabled them to gain power and influence.

Consider this, from Chapter three:

            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.

            At the same time, evangelicalism saw women like Marabel Morgan and Elisabeth Elliot writing books defining what godly womanhood and wifehood was supposed to look like– the most important aspect being that women are to be submissive to the leadership of men in the home, at church, and in the world.

Although it’s unlikely that the millions of women who read their work did so explicitly as a political act, many evangelical women would develop their own fierce partisan allegiances in alignment with the gender identities they advanced. Motivated to defend “traditional” femininity and masculinity, evangelical women would play a critical role in the grassroots activism that launched the Religious Right.

Chapter Three

            As evangelicals began to mobilize as a partisan political force, they did so by rallying to defend “family values.” But family values politics was never about protecting the well-being of families generally… {they} involved the enforcement of women’s sexual and social subordination in the domestic realm and the promotion of American militarism on the national stage.

Chapter Five

            I remember in 2016 being blindsided by evangelical embrace of Trump. But if nothing else, Du Mez makes very clear that the election of Donald Trump was anything but an anomaly. Given the history of evangelicalism, it was inevitable. For fifty years, evangelicals had idolized a certain type of man both in real life and in the movies: Teddy Roosevelt, Generals Patton and MacArthur, John Wayne, Pat Boone, Braveheart, Ronald Reagan– rough, tough, rugged white men, who didn’t always play by the rules, who fought hard and used violence as a means to their (perceived) noble ends, who brought order and quelled the “savages” (non-white men), and who believed that America and American ideals were always right, always good.

Evangelicals were looking for a protector, an aggressive, heroic, manly man, someone who wasn’t restrained by political correctness or feminine virtues, someone who would break the rules for the right cause… no other candidate could measure up to Donald Trump when it came to flaunting an aggressive, militant masculinity.

Chapter Fifteen

They had created a kick-ass Jesus, a warrior-king, and they wanted their president to be his earthly embodiment, striking terror in the hearts of their enemies, preserving the white Christian patriarch’s sacred place as the head of the family and society, keeping the “others” firmly in their subordinate place.

Reading Jesus and John Wayne was, for me, a surreal experience. It’s the kind of book I wish so many people would read, but unfortunately the ones who need it most are the least likely to do so. I’m sure there will be evangelical influencers who will read it only to try to discredit and deny the contents. Du Mez’ careful research and meticulous notes will be overlooked in favor of smearing her as yet another “godless liberal” seeking to bring down true American Christianity.

Throughout the book Du Mez chronicles the political and cultural clout of people, organizations, ministries, and coalitions, the names of which are as familiar to me as those of my friends and family. James Dobson. Focus on the Family. Campus Crusade. Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. John Piper. The Gospel Coalition. Douglas Wilson. My family owned their books, were on their mailing lists, read their articles and went to the seminars and conferences of teachers and leaders endorsed by them. And then there were names which I had heard of before, but the people behind them were more shadowy– people like Bill Gothard, Phyllis Schlafly, John Eldredge, Tim LaHaye. We never went to a single one of Gothard’s IBLP seminars, but I was still taught that until I married I was under the umbrella of my parents’ authority, and if I went against them I was rebelling against God. I didn’t know who Phyllis Schlafly was until I was an adult, yet I was taught to revile and fear all feminism as “waging war on marriage, children, and the family” (chapter 3.) I never read any of Tim LaHaye’s books (Left Behind or otherwise) but I believed that public school sex-education caused teenagers to be promiscuous and get abortions. I didn’t read the Eldredges’ book Captivating until I was a young adult, but I had known for years that it was the man’s job to be the pursuer, protector, provider, and the woman’s job to be the submissive, sweet princess and domestic diva, supporting her man as he went out into the world to conquer the bad guys, her only dream being to support him living out his.

            In reading the book I had the sensation of Du Mez taking these scattered mosaic pieces that were part of my past life and bringing order to them, showing how they all fit into a master picture. Nothing about the way I was raised happened in a vacuum; I just had no idea before how interconnected so many things were. From hearing Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the car to listening to Adventures in Odyssey with my siblings; from fearing that Child Protective Services would take me away from my parents because of government persecution of Christian homeschoolers, to having nightmarish fantasies about Muslim terrorists capturing me and forcing me to choose between recanting my Christian faith or dying a torturous death; from singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army” as a child, to absorbing a fear of the evil secular culture that hated Jesus and couldn’t wait to mock and belittle and tempt me as soon as I stepped foot out of my safe Christian bubble. It explains why I learned next to nothing about the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in high school and why I grew up believing that the reason so many black people in America were poor was because they were lazy and didn’t want to work. It explains why I was raised to believe capitalism is biblical, and the term “welfare” was a dirty word. It explains why, even though my family weren’t military, we saw questioning the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as unpatriotic and un-Christian. None of this came because of the Bible, or from any one teacher, author, or pastor. It was the cumulative effect of living and breathing in the heart of evangelicalism.

So our beliefs were much less because of my parents’ individual choices and far more a result of the conservative culture in which they became Christians. The rage I feel is towards the evangelical influencers and leaders who indoctrinated their followers with a form of religion that would help the leaders increase their own power. If I had been my parents, new believers in a conservative culture preaching to them 24/7 that the devil was out for the souls of themselves, their children, and their country, and the only hope of salvation was to read this book, go to this conference, practice this form of discipline, vote for this candidate, boycott this product, protest this referendum– would I have been able to resist the mindset of fear and “us vs. them” theology?

When I was texting about this book with one of my brothers, he said that he doesn’t think we can lay all of the fracturing of America at the door of white evangelicals. And he’s right– blame isn’t usually so cut and dry as that. But what is true is that American evangelicalism corrupted my faith and fractured my world. It taught me hatred or fear or condescension of “the other”– whether that was the black protestor on the street, the Latinx immigrant trying to make a better life, the woman in the grocery store wearing a hijab, or the gay kid in the classroom. It taught me a false version of history in which Americans and white people were always the good guys. It demanded from me blind allegiance to capitalism. It taught me that justice, liberty, and compassion were only for the people who looked like me, believed like me, thought like me– everyone else were enemies to be defeated. It took Jesus and turned him into John Wayne.

             Processing all this has brought up a lot of big feelings for me. Evangelicalism and I were already estranged, but this has felt like the nail in the coffin of any hope for eventual reconciliation. I know that within that world there are pockets of goodness, individual people who choose love over hate, compassion over self-interest, justice over corruption. Yet the leaders, the authorities, the elite of the movement show no signs of change, and only continue on the same trajectory, leaving destruction in their wake. When the heart of a movement is so rotten, I can see little point in trying to reform from the outside.

But there is still a sense of mourning as well as anger. I can turn my back on evangelicalism, but its influence is still there, in my mind, in my heart, in my memories. It affects relationships with family and friends. The fears which were planted so deeply in my young mind are not easily uprooted. I can become an “exvangelical”,  but only because evangelicalism once defined my world.

While I was working on writing, I ended up listening to Christina Perri’s song “Jar of Hearts” and found it remarkably cathartic. I texted my husband, telling him that this was my break-up song to Evangelicalism.

 I know I can't take one more step towards you
 'Cause all that's waiting is regret
 Don't you know I'm not your ghost anymore?
 You lost the love I loved the most
 I learned to live, half alive
 And now you want me one more time
  
 And who do you think you are?
 Running 'round leaving scars
 Collecting your jar of hearts
 And tearing love apart
 You're gonna catch cold
 From the ice inside your soul
 Don't come back for me
 Who do you think you are?
  
 I hear you're asking all around
 If I am anywhere to be found
 But I have grown too strong
 To ever fall back in your arms
  
 Did take so long just to feel alright
 Remember how to put back the light in my eyes
 I wish I had missed the first time that we kissed
 'Cause you broke all your promises
 And now you're back
 You don't get to get me back
  
 And who do you think you are?
 Running 'round leaving scars
 Collecting your jar of hearts
 And tearing love apart
 You're gonna catch cold
 From the ice inside your soul
 Don't come back for me
 Don't come back at all 

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