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)
19 thoughts on “Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez”
This sounds excellent – I’m from a somewhat similar background to the one you describe, though with some differences (I went to secular state schools, but also there was a much heavier emphasis on gender roles both at home and in my church). I too have spent a lot of time looking at US Christianity and wondering how it got the way it is. The antivax stuff in particular is very confusing to me, as that’s really not something any mainstream church is involved with in the UK. I’ll definitely be picking this up.
On a related note, have you read Raised Right by Alisa Harris? It’s a memoir by a woman raised in a fairly fundamentalist church in the Bible Belt about the process she went through trying to sort out what she still believes out of the stuff she was raised with. I found it really fascinating if a little unsettling in places.
I bet you’d find this to be a really interesting read. In Canada we don’t seem to have quite the same antivax/right wing movement that they do in the US but it’s definitely present here. Most of the people I know who refuse to be vaccinated are Christians and I just do not understand how you can take that stance from a Christian perspective.
I’ve never heard of Alisa Harris but I looked the book up and it sounds really interesting. Reminds me a little bit of Philip Yancey’s writing about his own upbringing. He’s probably in his 70s now but grew up in the southern states in a church that fought to continue segregation. His writing about how he moved away from those teachings while growing in his faith are really interesting.
The disconnect between what Christianity stands for and what US evangelicals believe is pretty astonishing, isn’t it? It’s a bit like fundamentalism within Islam – it has very little to do with what Islam stands for and yet it gives the entire religion a bad name among those who only see the headlines. Unfortunately almost any organisation is vulnerable to being taken over by unscrupulous people with an agenda, and in the US for a long time the agenda seemed to be for populist preachers to fleece their flocks for lots of money. That was bad enough, but now they’re so heavily involved in politics it has become a real danger to democracy and the very freedom they are always banging on about. We have anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists of all kinds too, but for some reason they don’t seem to be connected to any church, while our evangelicals are far more in line with your experience than the US definition. Long may that last, though we have a horrible tendency to follow in the US’s footsteps…
It is so so strange to me how a faith that follows a man who was a poor, working class Middle Easterner had been co-opted by white people preaching prosperity. I really tend to think of American evangelicalism as a separate religion. At the same time, I feel a sense of shame and responsibility because these things are being done in the name of my God and I know I could blend in pretty seamlessly if I so chose. This book is a really interesting look at that political and religious combo that they have in the states. Thankfully we don’t have that in Canada to the same extent and I feel that we have a firmer separation of church and state. As a Christian, I do not at all understand the anti-vaccine stance but I am seeing it quite a bit among Christians and it is incredibly frustrating.
I truly don’t think you could blend in seamlessly! I can’t for one moment imagine you in amongst some of the congregations you see on TV baying hate at whatever today’s target is! I do think a lot of it is group-think though – if you’re surrounded by people who all behave in one way then it’s easier to go along than to stand against it. It’s all very worrying and seems to be getting progressively worse.
I was thinking more in a social setting, in that I know all the lingo and know the background well. And being white means I wouldn’t stand out either. But I’m very glad you can’t imagine me in the midst of those hateful protests. That’s not somewhere I’d ever want to be or to blend in.
It’s common to see signs in the U.S. that say, “God, Guns, and Country.” I always thought it was wild that “guns” is second on that list, or on that list at all. I recall reading somewhere that the rise of mega churches and ministers who are raking in tax-exempt cash are part of the deviation that leads some Christians into an us vs. them mentality. The church is everything because the outside world is scary, different, “other.” Division is a great way to scare people into giving more money. I also know that in the U.S. we have a lot of “single-issue” voters, meaning if they absolutely hate Donald Trump, but he says he’s anti-abortion and will fill the Supreme Court with conservatives who will likely strike down abortion laws, then the single-issue voter picks Trump, despite all other egregious issues with him.
As for your comment about feeling liberal compared to the church at times: I always recall how stories of Jesus depict one of the most liberal guys around, so I think you’re on the right team.
I don’t get the gun thing at.all. Peter and I have talked about whether a gun would be a good idea for when we do back country camping after his recent cougar experience but we both agree that we absolutely do not want a gun in our house. You’re right about the single issue voters – I’ve heard that too. I’m sure we have that in Canada too but I don’t hear about it as much. Maybe because our parties don’t generally take very extreme positions. Even the Conservatives (which would most align with the Republican Party) aren’t hugely anti-abortion. I just don’t get why that single issue is never something like universal healthcare or caring for the homeless, things that the Bible actually tells us to do. I completely agree that Jesus was a pretty liberal dude and that’s what I focus on when making my political/financial decisions. It’s hard when being liberal puts me on the outside of a group of Christians because those are supposed to be my brothers and sisters and yet I increasingly feel like I don’t belong. Ultimately I know I don’t need their acceptance but it’s a hard place to be sometimes when that’s the community I’ve lived my whole life in.
If it were me, I would whip out applicable Bible passages about a more liberal attitude toward social causes, but I have no idea how that would go in real life.
As for the cougar experience, I would think there would be some kind of spray, or device that makes a certain noise, or something that isn’t a gun. Just because Peter had a gun doesn’t mean he would actually hit anything! That’s the little niggle that I have about guns for protection. I think everyone imagines themselves looking like an action movie with that thing.
The crazy (to me) thing is that many of these people have a lot of Biblical knowledge and can quote scripture way better than I can. But they have these convoluted interpretations of the passages that they can use to defend their actions. Wasn’t there a Republican politician who quoted the Bible to defend separating families at the border? In the US there also seems to be strong opposition to any sort of government control. I can kind of understand the idea that the government shouldn’t be taxing us to provide healthcare and social services because that’s a role the church should take on. But then the church doesn’t do it!!! So you can’t make that argument unless you personally and your church are providing those services. And even if you are, the Bible is pretty clear that we should give excessively so isn’t a good thing if your taxes are going to help others in your community? (Sorry, this could clearly be a whole rant!)
As for the cougar, I tend to agree with you. And with a gun, what’s the best case scenario? That we kill a wild animal in front of our children? We always have bear spray when we hike and camp and I think the next step will be a bear banger or maybe even a flare gun. I know I would want to have a lot of training before I ever felt comfortable picking up a gun.
It was a good “rant,” and I enjoyed reading it. The only other think I thought to add is that I know some folks are against taxes because you pay in a lump sum, so if you are anti-war, for instance, you can’t decide your taxes don’t go to the military.
Hmm…I can sympathize with that somewhat though I can also see how allowing people to pick and choose could be dangerous. We all pay taxes for schools, even if we don’t use them or choose to homeschool our kids. In BC, we pay into a medical plan every month and then we go to the doctor or the hospital and don’t pay a bill. On the months when our family doesn’t need medical services, I like to think about the people who have been able to have care because of the money we put in. But I’ve also been informed that this perspective makes me a socialist! I guess ideally, in a democracy, who we vote for helps decide where our taxes go but that rarely works in a straightforward manner.
Hmm this is really fascinating. I always appreciate your viewpoint on Christianity Karissa, and I think it’s important, like every religion, to not label all believers together, because as you prove, there is lots of differing opinions within different factions of religions.
Thank you! You’re right, there is such a wide variety of subtle and not so subtle difference in belief and practice within any one religion. And I personally think Christianity leaves a lot of space for many of those differences. There are also many interpretations that I outright think are wrong and harmful and so it is really interesting to learn more about how some of those ideas have developed and grown.
I hope to chat with you more about this topic! Or maybe even read the book myself. Viewpoints have collided in my life this year like never before. I’m confident where we stand but wow it is exhausting and really changing a few relationships in our life…
Ooohhh, yes, I’d love to chat about this with you! Very curious about your perspective and experience. This year has really brought some of those differences out very starkly.
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