The word “evangelize” means, simply, to preach the gospel. To preach what Christians refer to as “the good news”. This is something Christians are instructed to do, by Jesus Christ, in a Biblical passage commonly referred to as The Great Commission. (Matthew 28) So how and why has the term evangelical come to mean something so different in the North American church in the 20th and 21st centuries? How has it come to be so closely aligned with right wing politics, conservative beliefs, and the Republican Party of the United States? Why, when we speak of evangelicals, do we think now of protests outside abortion clinics, walls built along borders to keep refugees out, and the right to bear arms? What happened to Christians in America?
These are the questions and the history that Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores in her in-depth analysis of Christianity in the United States, beginning in the early 20th century and coming right up to 2019. (She could probably already write an entire new book on how the church in America has acted in 2020 and 2021.) First off, this book has a clear focus on Christianity in the United States. As a Canadian, much of it is relevant to my own country and the politics of Canada but a lot of it is not As a Christian, I tend to think of American Christianity as increasingly its own religion. At the same time, I know that I need to also be aware of how Christians are perceived in North America and the groups that I am allowing myself to be identified with.
When Donald Trump was elected president of the US in 2016, he had massive support from white evangelical Christians. Yet his life, his history, his attitude, and much of his politics previous to 2016 seemed in direct opposition to Biblical values and the character of Jesus Christ. How could Christians support for, vote for, and idolize a man who bragged about sexually harassing women? Beginning with the earliest iterations of the evangelical church, Du Mez demonstrates how Donald Trump wasn’t the anomaly that we might want to think he was but instead the culmination of a growing attitude amongst evangelicals that encouraged a certain kind of masculinity and militarism and was willing to turn a blind eye to many a flaw in exchange for power and authority. Evangelicalism in North America in the 20th century steadily grew into its own million dollar industry with everything from books to movies to huge conferences. Du Mez gets into how evangelicals developed their own culture in the midst of America, a culture that too often fostered abuse and exploitation, and why they have striven so hard to gain political influence.
I can’t write a review like this without getting a little personal so I will state clearly here that I am a Christian. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant and I grew up, in many ways, deeply immersed in evangelical culture. Focus on the Family was a big part of my childhood. We listened to the Adventures in Odyssey on car trips, we had magazine subscriptions, I’m pretty sure my parents owned Dare to Discipline. I attended 2 different private Christian schools, was a regular attendee of youth group, and read I Kissed Dating Good-Bye at the age of 14. At the same time, I did not grow up in an atmosphere of strict gender roles or heavy-handed patriarchy. That doesn’t describe my parents and it doesn’t describe most of the families I saw around me. “Feminism” and “socialism” were never bad words in our home. I grew up surrounded by immigrants and refugees and aiding and befriending them at any given opportunity was never questioned and always encouraged. I also attended 2 different public schools and in high school my closest school friends were all Sikh. The youth group I was a part of never emphasized purity culture for us as teenagers and was welcoming to teens with a wide variety of backgrounds. At the age of seventeen, I chose to attend a secular university because although I believed in and followed Christ, I felt that it was important to have a broad variety of experiences with exposure to different beliefs and backgrounds.
As an adult, I have been involved with overseas missions organizations and a Christian university group. I have taught Sunday school and volunteered in youth groups and helped run women’s ministries. I have always attended and been a member of a church though I don’t identify strongly with any one denomination. I am a Christian, a believer and follower of Jesus Christ and seeking after His will is the guiding force of my daily life. As such, I believe I am called to help those in need, to give of my money generously, to love all people. I am very far from perfect at doing any of these things. Increasingly, I have found that while my theology may be conservative, my politics are seen as very liberal. I don’t see these two things as being in contrast asI read and understand my Bible but it does sometimes make me feel at odds within the church and I have never felt that more than I do currently in 2021 as I watch how Christians in North America have dealt with Covid and the issue of vaccinations. It is something I pray about every day.
Du Mez’s book is thorough and well-researched. While her own background and viewpoints are not mentioned within the book itself, her bio tells us that she is a professor of history at Calvin University and Jesus and John Wayne takes a clear stance on modern American evangelicals. This is not a book that will be widely popular within many churches (and its reviews on Goodreads reflect this). It is, however, a book that offers greater understanding to those of us – Christian or not – who stand on the outside of what evangelicalism has become. It does an excellent job at providing historical and cultural context for American politics and religion today. Where the church in North America moves next is really up to those of us who follow Jesus and profess His name. Du Mez quotes Rachel Denhollander, who spoke out against sexual abuse within the church, in the following quote:
“The gospel of Jesus Christ does not need your protection,” she insisted. Jesus requires obedience–obedience manifested in the pursuit of justice, in standing up for the victimized and the oppressed.”Jesus and John Wayne (pg 292)