Two female scholars have released books in 2021 that have caused a big kerfluffle in the evangelical world. Both books critique the brand that has become American evangelicalism. One of those books is by Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, in Grand Rapids, who holds a PhD from Notre Dame. She’s well-credentialed and knows what she’s talking about. The book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. You can watch a talk by Du Mez about her book here. The book jacket declares:
In Jesus and John Wayne, a seventy-five-year history of American evangelicalism, Kristin Kobes Du Mez demolishes the myth that white evangelicals “held their noses” in voting for Donald Trump. Revealing the role of popular culture in evangelicalism, Du Mez shows how evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism in the mold of Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and above all, John Wayne. As Du Mez observes, the beliefs at the heart of white evangelicalism today preceded Trump, and will outlast him.
I come to this book as an evangelical who:
- Regularly criticizes the American Church when it weds itself to a peculiar brand of American exceptionalism,
- Recognizes that some of the positions the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) takes are less than biblical and heavily influenced by a particular cultural expression of Christianity. I have never recommended any resource from CBMW and never will.
- Believes women are called to serve in local congregations in roles beyond nursery and elementary-aged Sunday School.
So … I’m two chapters into this book. So far, I’m disappointed.
Du Mez’s discussion of Theodore Roosevelt as the archetype “manly man” is cursory and selective. She paints Roosevelt as if he set out to fashion a persona for mercenary motives. She doesn’t mention that Roosevelt was an intensely intellectual boy who only overcame crippling physical challenges by aid of exercise and a love affair with the outdoors. Du Mez skips this childhood context, mentions Roosevelt’s time “out West,” then skips right to San Juan Hill and the Rough Riders. She doesn’t mention his scholarly monograph on naval history, his time as NYPD Commissioner, his outdoors writing, or his stint at the Navy Department. It seems as if she strings selective anecdotes together to paint the portrait she wants. Barry Goldwater did try to resurrect Roosevelt’s ghost in a campaign advertisement, but that was hardly Roosevelt’s fault.
Du Mez’ breezy coverage of the evangelical marriage to conservative politics in the 1940s and 1950s is adequate, but very short.
If it doesn’t get more substantive, this book will be a major disappointment that doesn’t live up to the praise it’s received. If you’re looking to be confirmed in your preexisting animus towards evangelicalism, this book is for you. If you’re looking for a persuasive and scholarly critique as an aid to some introspection, it ain’t happening, so far … and I’m actually looking for it.
I hope things improve.