Several months ago I read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
I found the book to be an interesting history of some parts of American evangelicalism. I emphasize that the book is about some parts of American evangelicalism, because the author focuses her writing specifically on a particular corner of the evangelical Christian world: a particular subculture within American evangelicalism associated with Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, and militant masculinity. This part of evangelicalism has less to do with the core evangelical beliefs and convictions, and more to do with a culture propagated by certain people.
For this reason, while I found Kobes Du Mez to be an excellent writer, and found her book to be an entertaining read, I also found it incredibly frustrating because it feels that she paints evangelicalism with too broad of a brush, and in some cases she seems to misrepresent certain groups and events in an attempt to bolster her main thesis that Christianity in America has been coopted and altered by men, who have changed it into something it was never meant to be, namely: militaristic, and a tool for white male hegemony.
Not My Evangelicalism
Here’s the thing: Kobes Du Mez isn’t completely wrong in this thesis. However, it must be noted that her scope is very limited.
The fact is: evangelicalism is not monolithic. Evangelicalism is a movement which began in Germany in the 16th century, and is about restoring the place of the Bible to its rightful place of primacy in our theological method, and about “religion of the heart,” AKA: a personal relationship with God.
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion (gospel). An evangelical Christian is a “gospel Christian.”
This definition from Wikipedia is cobbled together from different sources, but accurately summarizes what evangelicalism is, and what its core values entail:
Evangelical Christianity is a worldwide trans-denominational movement within Protestant Christianity that maintains the belief that the essence of the Gospel consists of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, solely through faith in Jesus’ atonement. Evangelicals believe in the centrality of the “born again” experience in receiving salvation (see Jesus’ words in John 3:3), in the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity, and in spreading the Christian message.
It is important to note that Kobes Du Mez is a Christian, and admits that she herself would be categorized as an evangelical. What Kobes Du Mez takes issue with in this book is a particular subculture which developed within American evangelicalism. She rightly points out that many of the behaviors of those in this subculture differ from the teachings and heart of Jesus.
British evangelicalism, the setting in which I did my theological studies, embraces the core values listed above, without the cultural trappings of this particular corner of American evangelical subculture which Kobes Du Mez criticizes.
Furthermore, the particular churches I have been a part of in the United States have not aligned themselves with characters like Jerry Falwell, or many of the things which Kobes Du Mez talks about in her book. Part of the reason why I found the book interesting was because much of the what Kobes Du Mez talks about, which she portrays as normative for evangelical Christianity in the United States, was foreign to me and my experience.
I would challenge Kobes Du Mez to keep in mind the fact that evangelicalism is not an American phenomenon – neither in origin, nor in majority. Most evangelicals in the world are not American. Where anyone has created an aberrant form of Christianity, it should be called out. This applies to evangelicals, and it also applies to all other movements and groups. This is, actually, the heart of the Reformation, the adherents of which were the first to call themselves “evangelicals”!
One of my biggest qualms with the book is the number of ways in which the author attempts to strengthen her point by using examples which may sound convincing to the untrained eye, but which are actually a bit misleading.
For example: Kobes Du Mez critiques evangelicals for using sports and military analogies to describe and explain Christianity. The problem with this critique is that the Bible itself uses military and sports analogies to describe the Christian faith! (See: Philippians 2:25, Philemon 1:2, 2 Timothy 2:3-4, 1 Corinthians 9:7, Ephesians 6:10-18, 2 Corinthians 9:24-27, 2 Timothy 2:5, and others)
Kobes Du Mez dedicates an entire chapter to the Promise Keepers movement of the 1990’s. She seems to only reluctantly admit that this evangelical movement contradicted her entire thesis about American evangelicalism, in that it emphasized servanthood, love, and kindness over militarism and dominance, and focused on racial reconciliation. At one point, in what seems like a desperate attempt to find something wrong with the Promise Keepers, Kobes Du Mez states that at the height of the Promise Keepers in the 1990’s, only about 10% of their members were African American. What she doesn’t point out is that, at the time, African Americans made up 12% of the US population. In other words, Promise Keepers’ membership closely resembled the ethnic makeup of the country at the time.
Additionally, Kobes Du Mez criticizes American evangelicalism for seeking to reach men with their messaging, by trying to show that following Jesus isn’t contrary to being masculine. Having spent over a decade in Europe, where many churches are small and made up mostly of elderly women and girls, I have to say that I don’t see anything wrong with seeking to reach men by showing them that following Jesus isn’t contrary to being masculine. I remember hearing from many men in Hungary that “religion is for women and the weak.” I don’t believe this is true at all, and countering this narrative is simply a form of apologetics and evangelism.
The author also claims that the focus on Jesus as a warrior is a uniquely American evangelical aberration of Christianity, and that it would be better to focus on other aspects of Jesus instead. Once again, the problem with this is that the Latin term and concept of Cristus Victor has a long history, predating the United States of America, and even the Protestant Reformation. Misguided militarism in the name of Christianity has cropped up at various times in history, such as the obvious example of the Crusades, and is not an American evangelical invention. Furthermore, the Bible itself, in both the Old and New Testaments, foretells the time of “the great and terrible Day of the Lord,” when God will come to wage war against those who do evil and oppress. This is not an American concept, it’s a biblical concept, and highlighting it is not an American novelty, but has much historic precedent.
A Question for the Author
My question for the author would be how much of her thesis is shaped by biblical concerns, and how much is shaped by current popular discourse in American culture?
In conclusion, I will say once again that I found the book to be an enjoyable read, in that it introduced me to a part of American evangelical subculture that I had only heard about from a distance, but with which I was not very familiar. I agree with many of the author’s critiques, and think they are necessary.
However, I would not encourage others to read this book, because I feel that too much of what Kobes Du Mez writes is potentially misleading in its tone, and what it seeks to imply. It’s not so much what she says, it’s what she leaves out, which I think makes the book unhelpful.