When I was in high school, everyone in my suburban church youth group was transported to McCormick Place, the large convention center along Lake Michigan in Chicago to take part in a Christian lifestyle conference series titled “Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts,” headed by the charismatic pastor Bill Gothard.
For several weeks, we attended workshops on how to be faithful Christians in a godless world. Until the last house move, I had the thick red notebook of study guides and test questions squirreled away in various boxes and attics. I can’t say I ever cracked that notebook open after the seminars or remember much about the presentations, other than marveling each seminar at the huge auditorium filled with hundreds of other Christian young people from all over Chicagoland.
That memory came back to me as I read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s insightful and immensely helpful book Jesus and John Wayne.
Subtitled “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” the book traces the development of Christian nationalism and rugged masculinity that progressed among faith communities, decade to decade, until we wound up with 81% of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump, the least likely champion of the Christian cause.
As media pundits expressed surprise over that vote, Du Mez shows that this was no surprise at all. A relentless march toward a “strong man Jesus” and a faith inextricably linked to conservative cultural issues made this inevitable, she says, and backs up the claim with story after story of persons and movements that paved the way.
I knew many of the personalities (e.g., Billy Graham, Phyllis Schlafly, John Eldredge, Jim Dobson) and popular movements (e.g. the aforementioned Gothard seminars, Promise Keepers, Dare to Discipline) that Du Mez chronicles, but her important achievement here is how she connects the dots for the reader, showing how momentum built up to the curious (to some) affection for a tough-talking, strongman politician.
Du Mez also keeps us cognizant of the nation’s history alongside of these evangelical tides, noting how the Vietnam turmoil, the Roe v. Wade decision, 9/11, and other seismic national events coincide with the latest metamorphosis within the conservative church.
Another insight of the book is the development of a conservative religious economic and consumer culture, whereby a Christian family could immerse itself in a world of only Christian radio, publications, music, and the like—steering clear of any alternative faith-based viewpoint and certainly far away from non-religious writing and thinking.
For the Reformed Christian, this analysis drives one to ponder how the balance of influences one leans on shapes the totality of a world-and-life view.
Taught that God reveals himself in the entirety of his world, one might hope that the Spirit would work in a variety of teachings and learnings, Christian and non-Christian alike—with the Scriptures and the example of Jesus primary, of course. An example of this would be calling our study in the sciences, “biology (or chemistry) through the eyes of faith.”
But the book made me wonder if something simple such as my mother’s habit of listening to WGN Radio in Chicago each morning (because it covered local news, and she enjoyed the warmth of longtime a.m. host Wally Phillips) instead of tuning in the influential Christian radio programming from the Moody Bible Institute affected our family’s take on national and world events.
Du Mez begins her book with a scene on the Dordt College campus in January of 2016, where candidate Donald Trump stated, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
The rest of the volume marches us through evangelical history to show how that statement, horrific as it is, could resonate with a group of faith-based people looking for John Wayne riding in on a galloping horse, rather than a ragamuffin prophet calling us to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.”
I am aware that anyone who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and/or 2020 will be on the defensive and perhaps quick to dismiss this book as a political polemic. I don’t think Du Mez intends that; instead, as a historian, she carefully traces evangelical history and points out where faith became inter-connected with patriotism and a rugged masculinity.
No matter who you voted for in 2016 or 2020, this is an important book that Christians who take both their faith and politics seriously should read, reflect on, and honestly assess one’s public motivations. We owe Du Mez our thanks for challenging research and bold writing.
The book ends with a very simple note of hope: “What was once done might also be undone.” Not exactly a ringing tone of optimism, but a clarion call to the hard work of carefully pulling apart faith and politics and Christianity from masculinity.
Whether the polarizing events of these last years were enough to energize such an examination will play out in the future. Christians of the Reformed persuasion, more than many in the evangelical constellation, certainly ought to use the tools they have been given by a faith that demands heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Neal Plantinga, in a speech he gave on the Dordt College campus in October of 2015—just three months before Donald Trump’s on-campus campaign speech, noted that Jesus replaced the “Love the Lord your God with heart, soul, and strength” sequence from Exodus with “heart, soul, and mind” in Matthew’s gospel.
Plantinga ends his talk at Dordt with this call: “Whether we are nine years old or ninety, whether students or professors or lifelong students, our job is to think more deeply, observe more alertly, research more thoroughly, and write more clearly—all in the service of love. It’s a matter of mere obedience to Jesus.”
Heeding this advice might build upon that sliver of hope for the Christian community that Du Mez offers in her last sentence.
* Here's a related Network article on this book (July 27, 2020)