Author’s Note

I wrote and submitted this essay in advance of the January 6th events at the Capitol. Since then there has been a deluge of think-pieces and journalistic treatments of the events and the role “evangelicals” had in them. It is a difficult and a painful time to identify in any way with evangelicals, or to offer pushback on a sustained critique of the movement, as I have below. But I have not edited my remarks on Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne in any way, and I stand behind my critique of the book.

I am concerned that Kobes du Mez’s use of evidence collapses into an easy theory of causation. Because we see X in evangelicalism, therefore evangelicalism caused X, and also evangelicalism is X. When X is militarism, nationalism, and misogyny, and when we deeply desire to root out such things, this kind of sweeping treatment is appealing (as the book has proven to be). And yet some of my concerns about Kobes du Mez’s method apply also to my concerns with some treatments of the events at the Capitol on January 6. What we saw that day was certainly more than “a few bad apples.” We must attend to systems as we think about those events. And yet I am not sure that identifying all of the actors involved as “evangelicals”, nor identifying “evangelicalism” as what binds them together, is either helpful or accurate.

In our attempt to root out damaging forces of prejudice and extremism, we are in danger of convicting evangelicalism of a crime it has not committed, or at least has not committed alone. The forces that led to the misogyny Kobes du Mez details and to the events at the Capitol are multi-factorial. To flatten the story by giving it a sole author would be to miss the details entirely. It is not simply that “truth is stranger than fiction” that concerns me. Rather it is that religion is not a pure spring from which we draw. All of our engagements with religious belief and practice are mediated through culture, geographic location, political and socioeconomic factors. Evangelicalism, too, is diverse in all of these ways, and to tell a true story of it requires attending to multiple lenses. I am not calling for us to tell a flattering story of the movement, but I would like to tell a slightly more complex one.

I have not given up on the label “evangelical”, though I consider it at least weekly. This is because of a debt I owe to a few dear ones who have gone before me, and a love I have for those who follow. The students I teach do not display the marks of a toxic movement, though admittedly some have scars from it. They are without exception earnest, winsome, kind, committed to thinking through difference and most of all devoted to Jesus—that most basic, even embarrassing burden that ties the heart of a person to a God who can be known, even in flesh. Without exception, I love these students. And so at this point I cannot cede the label “evangelical” to the men whom Kobes du Mez’s book names, or the many others left unnamed. I am working in small quiet ways to reimagine this movement, and someday I hope it bears the marks of this labor.

The bigger question to ask, perhaps, is: What role should stories play in the telling of truth? And whose stories should be given epistemic priority? There are ethical obligations to hear not only the stories that correspond with our larger theories or social concerns, but also the ones that are conflicting. This is a burden for all of us who consider ourselves story-tellers, historians and theologians alike. I am grateful to be sharing the work with Kristin Kobes du Mez, and the critique that follows comes from a hope that we might work together on telling a true story, in order to live into it rightly.

***

Kristin Kobes du Mez has written an eminently readable treatment of American evangelicalism that is this year’s runaway best-seller. Jesus and John Wayne offers a colorful account of American evangelicalism that begins with Donald Trump’s win in 2016 and seeks to explain “evangelical support” for Trump through a history of “evangelical culture”. Kobes du Mez (KDM from here on) is correct by my reading that evangelicalism is not a theological movement, if by that she means that theological literacy is not a high priority among evangelicals and that significant theological disagreements can exist within the category. KDM argues instead that it is culture that binds evangelicals together. Her book, therefore, uses examples from evangelical culture to draw conclusions about what characteristics evangelicals actually share.

The examples KDM displays are universally horrifying. The book’s short chapters have punchy titles and trace both large and small cultural phenomena. There is Christian rejection of the more moderate Jimmy Carter for a Ronald Reagan remade in John Wayne’s image. There is the story of the Christian embrace of military macho-man Oliver North, who enjoyed a second act as a conference speaker and best-selling author. There is rampant Islamophobia and the emergence of a new Christian nationalism after 9/11, illustrated by the example of a very obscure academic at Liberty University.

There are also countless smaller examples. There is the Christian homeschool movement and the influence on Christian parenting of James Dobson, Bill Gothard and Doug Wilson. We are told about church “fight clubs,” youth group purity balls where dads “date” their daughters, horrifying sermons where pastors simulate sex acts. There is militarism enshrined in the sanctuaries of innumerable churches. There is Mark Driscoll and his “Ultimate Fighter” machismo and oversexed preaching style (194). There are “GodMen Revivals” where men “watched video clips of ‘karate fights, car chases, and ‘Jackass’-style stunts” (187).

What we have in these examples, clearly, is a toxic marriage of militarism, nationalism, and misogyny. But do these examples truly do the work KDM thinks they do? KDM reads these smaller examples not as outliers but as evidence. This is a risky method. It is this question of sources that proved troubling to me as a reader, for KDM often chooses not the most prominent individuals or events, but, in my opinion, the most egregious. She uses these examples to illustrate what she sees as a larger trend within evangelicalism- an unabashed embrace of masculine power. The outlying examples for her serve to illuminate more widespread realities. They shout, where others might only gesture.

KDM acknowledges that her method of using outliers to illustrate a broader cultural point is a risky one. She digs in on her strategy, however:

To be sure, singing about one’s testicles and landing blows to the head for Christ represent the more radical expressions of militant Christian masculinity, but GodMen and Xtreme Ministries only amplified trends that were becoming increasingly common in the post-9/11 era. As militant masculinity took hold across evangelicalism, it helped bind together those on the fringes of the movement with those closer to the center, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish the margins from the mainstream (188, emphasis mine).

It is claims like this that strain credulity. Is it truly difficult to distinguish songs about testicles from youth group Bible studies? Are they really motivated by the same thing?

KDM’s examples are unimpeachable and lamentable. But is this kind of swashbuckling patriotism a feature or a bug? Does evangelicalism generate this on its own, a kind of misogynist machine? Or are these statistically significant errors, aberrations due to sin or formation or culture? Some of these guys are bad dudes. But are they all bad in the same way, for the same reasons?

It is at this point that I am unclear what the argument is. Is it that evangelicalism has become corrupted by something (what)? Or is it that evangelicalism at its core is corrupt? Have conservative Christian leaders been famously corrupted by a love of power, codified by the consolidation of power in swaggering, “broad-shouldered” men? Or is Kobes du Mez saying that evangelicalism at its core is nothing other than this love of swaggering swashbuckling anti-heroes? Is it Esau selling his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup? Or was the birthright never theirs to begin with?

Symbols have power because they speak to loves and desire. The truth that I wish KDM had spent time with is that evangelicalism’s failures result from its success. The success is solidifying individuals under a belief in taking all things captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:3-6, the gloss is mine). But they have loved less the humble Christ, and more the power that results from “taking all things captive”. What began as a simple confession of “Lord I believe” quickly took aims at capturing culture toward such a confession. But as KDM shows again and again, what has happened is evangelicalism has become so preoccupied with capturing that it has become for some about little more than this. Her subtitle- that white evangelicalism “corrupted” and “fractured” a faith and a nation- announces her verdict.

But she announces her verdict a lot, and the book can read like a conclusion in search of evidence. The questions she asks are broad, expansive ones that use words that remain ill-defined. Kobes du Mez again:

By the early 2000s, was it even possible to separate ‘cultural Christianity’ from a purer, more authentic form of American evangelicalism? What did it mean to be an evangelical? Did it mean upholding a set of doctrinal truths, or did it mean embracing a culture-wars application of those truths- a God-and-country religiosity that championed white men and working-class values, one that spilled over into a denigration of outsiders and elites, and that was organized around a deep attachment to militarism and patriarchal masculinity? (246)

Neither “evangelical support” nor “evangelical culture” are stable categories. Is a “culture” more than a conglomerate of carefully chosen anecdotes, more than how individuals entertain themselves and what they buy? Can we tell a history this way?

Certainly Trump is the glue that holds the story together, and exit polls that say so many (81%) of evangelicals voted for Trump are significant to look at. However, even this in itself is not a simple claim. For instance, among those who identify as “evangelical” in exit polls, what aspects of “evangelical” do they identify with? Is it a muscular nationalism, or a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or a (we must recognize) legitimate concern for the unborn? Individuals might rightly identify with various aspects of “evangelicalism”, and their choices to vote for Trump might be correspondingly diverse.

Economic factors are ignored in this book to its peril. At least one social factor that has effected political engagement is the steep decline in middle class incomes and the security of blue collar jobs with pensions. Insofar as Christianity has been the most common religion in America by good measure, it is understandable that individuals would contextualize claims of this faith tradition in relation to their own situation. But the tendency of Jesus and John Wayne is to flatten “evangelicalism” by stating that voting for Trump (which, keep in mind, does not equal support for Trump) confirms something significant about “evangelicalism” writ large.

By stating that evangelicals have “corrupted a faith” and “fractured a nation,” KDM risks overstating evangelical influence. Such claims would require an argument comprised of more than the examples she offers. Are religion and militarism a toxic fire that created the situation we find ourselves in nationally, or are there other factors—such as class, geography, education, economics—that lead individuals to embrace “broad-shouldered” masculine forms of religious expression?

Beyond these methodological concerns, I worry that KDM assigns both too much power and too much blame to white evangelicals. In fact, by her account evangelicals would love to be as powerful as she claims they are. The truth, however, is that the movement is run by aging white men whose time is mostly up.

Beth Moore, a simple blonde Bible teacher (my tongue-in-cheek description), has 981,200 followers on Twitter. The divisions don’t hold up any longer. The populism of social media and its fragmentation has both lessened the grip of individual church leaders and exposed individuals to a broader collection of opinions and experiences. And as we are reminded constantly, the future of the global church is non-Western and female. The museum still exists, but John Wayne is dead. What you can see are only artifacts.

KDM has written an account of evangelicals that, in a backwards way, might actually suit them, because it casts them as the protagonists. Evangelicalism is a new religious movement, if its origin as KDM states really can be traced to Billy Graham in the mid-20th century. Many of its institutions were founded or reinvigorated around this time and some are populated by individuals who have been around since then. But by all accounts it is a rapidly declining movement, and what it lacks most of all is a succession plan.

I really hate to dip my toe into this argument, but I must say a bit about KDM’s easy definition of “evangelical”. The stories she tells from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Churches and Jake Schaap’s horrifying sermons ring true with her thesis but not with the experience of many evangelicals. To raise such a concern is more than the “evangelical gerrymandering” she warns about. I’ve often wondered if the best definition of an evangelical is a person who likes to try and define what is an evangelical. This is one of the most tired and well-trod conversations of the last twenty years at least, and we need to start taking notice of our interest in the question.

You see, evangelicalism is hard to define because it is not a theological movement or historical epoch, marked by defined changes in power. Rather, it is a symbiotic relationship between theology, ideology, and markets. The best way to understand evangelicalism is to ask what it promotes and what it restrains, what it sells and encourages others to buy. (A study of the rise of “conferences” in identifying and encouraging evangelical identity is long overdue. It would need to examine the ways ex-vangelicals have borrowed wholesale this model for identifying and promoting their own brand.).

Bebbington’s quadrilateral works because many like the vision of themselves it offers. The four principles he identifies (conversion, crucicentrism, biblicism, and activism) appeal to evangelicals. They like the picture of themselves as reasonable, focused, disciplined, faithful. But what KDM explains is that evangelicalism is other things too. These other things do not describe all of us, surely. So what should we make of her decision to include these kind of outliers? KDM repeatedly tells us that we must consider them: “it is the relationship between the centers and the margins that demands scrutiny” (293). I remain unconvinced.

Jesus and John Wayne is a trade book, written for popular appeal and a broad readership. It is eminently readable, but there have been scholarly virtues traded for popular appeal. Careful statements about correlation and sociological and anthropological secondary literature are often missing. What, after all, is “culture”? Is it more than what individuals entertain themselves with and what they buy? This is not a simple concept to throw around carelessly, and the literature on the interplay between culture, markets and religion is vast and would be useful here.

Theology creates a culture—sure—and some aspects of that culture, among some demographics and in some geographic areas, I think could rightly be described as a muscular patriarchy. But a subtler hand would draw better conclusions instead of just lumping together quite different species of patriarchy. It would also do the needed work of indicting those who do not identify with muscular militant Christianity but still manage to imagine only themselves when they think about the future. Among my concerns with the approach, perhaps this is the greatest. We must not make the story that is told here too easy to dispense with. The rotten fruit KDM identifies, putrid as it is, was casually sown long ago in gender-based hierarchy.

Evangelicalism has significant cultural components, and so the cultural aspects that we find displayed here cannot be ignored. But the crisis Kobes du Mez speaks of is a theological one. KDM quotes John Piper saying that “Christianity has a masculine feel.” Many evangelicals also believe that God has a “masculine feel.” This yields rotten fruit.

What Kobes du Mez clearly illustrates is the way that John Wayne neatly corresponded to the value systems of evangelicalism. John Wayne’s muscular independence is the pear tree to evangelicalism’s Augustine. Those that values discipline, orderliness, unanimity, strong leadership and a “collected front” against opposing forces—such a culture would easily embrace Donald Trump. But this story does not explain the 81% in total.

Certainly KDM has demonstrated that “militant Christian masculinity” exists. I think this is enough of a project to deem it a success. But I think the book would have accomplished more if it had attempted to do less. The story that remains to be told is more subtle and so even more of an indictment.

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Posted by Kirsten Sanders

Kirsten Sanders (PhD, Emory University) is an adjunct professor of Christian Thought at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. She is working on an introduction to theological anthropology for laypeople and a book that examines the relationship between Christology and women’s embodiment. She lives with her three children and husband in Wenham, MA, where you can usually find her playing with her dogs or working in her vegetable garden if the weather is good, and reading theology if it’s not.