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Jesus and John Wayne: A Brief Review

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Just read Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristen Du Mez. In fact, the NDPC book group read it together and had a terrific conversation about it last night. 

A couple of brief observations, then some personal reflections:

1) The form of the book is a historical/cultural timeline, tracing the roots, from the 1940s to the present, of white evangelical masculinity, culminating in the cult of support for President Trump--who, by many measures, is the antithesis of "traditional" evangelical values (rapist, crook, etc.).

2) The book is a really good, engaging read. Du Mez's writing is clear, her research is deep, her examples--especially as she traces networks of influence among diverse strands of evangelical leaders as they finally coalesced into a "uniform" political expression in the Reagan years--are excellent.

3) For folks who have had contact with the evangelical world at some point in your lives, there will be a thousand "a-ha" moments of recognition and clarity in the book (for me it was the detailed look at evangelicals' relationship with Hillary and Bill Clinton, and the phenomenal rise (and fall) of Mark Driscoll, about whom I've long been curious. For folks who have had little contact with American evangelicalism, this book will be a walk through a strange and foreign land--you'll wonder, "this stuff is real?" Yes. All of it.

4) The book's greatest insight is that militaristic expressions of interpersonal and national power and masculine male gender expression have been the core features of American evangelical Christianity since the 1940s. While most folks outside the evangelical world couldn't understand how evangelicals would support someone as morally-deviant as Donald Trump, Du Mez explains that, in fact, there is a through line from evangelical fascination with pseudo-cowboys like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan to Trump. The through line is machismo and uncritical support for (white) American supremacy. Donald Trump was not the exception--he is the rule.

A couple of personal observations.

  • I'm an "institution" guy. I love institutions and I believe in their fundamental importance to the quality and character of human life, no matter how flawed they are. I believe, sociologically, that human beings don't exist without institutions--they are the vehicles by which we transmit and share meaning. So I was really leaning in to Du Mez's description of evangelical institutions. I am amazed at how effective evangelicals have been at creating layers and layers of mutually-re-enforcing institutions: churches, schools, homeschools, family structures, businesses, military, legal and political theory. Entire, coherent worlds apart from a liberalizing mainstream America. Evangelicals did the hard work of institution-building over decades. For that, they should be commended! What that has meant, in practice, is that evangelicals never have to touch mainstream American life, apart from visits to McDonald's and WalMart. They have created insular, self-referential, self-re-enforcing institutions, from the personal to the political, in which their own messages about family, gender, and politics are normalized and transmitted. It's absolutely incredible, and, frankly, inspiring. What institutions has your cultural niche created over the last 8 decades?
  • A second observation follows from the first--until those many layers of evangelical institutions either collapse or are better-integrated into mainstream American life, a toxically-masculine, warring evangelicalism will continue to thrive in American culture and politics. I continue to believe that, over the next generation, the evangelical church's tenuous hold on "truth"--especially its antipathy toward basic scientific truth--will corrode its support, as young people leave, looking for a worldview that corresponds with reality. BUT, so long as liberal, mainstream America neglects rural areas and disdains white evangelicals, the "us-against-the-world" spirit of persecution will keep evangelical fires burning. Nothing keeps a way of life as strong as the articulation of existential threat. Ironically, evangelicals have mastered the art of claiming persecution--even when their absurd, harmful, aggressive ideologies generate the "persecution" they then rally around. I wonder if this feedback loop is a death spiral or one that can sustain the movement... or both.
  • On a theological level, this book was really humbling. Mostly because it just sucks that other people can read the same Bible that I do and not only read it differently, but come to such diametrically-opposed conclusions about the shape of the world that God intends. I mean, that just sucks. Evangelicals truly believe in patriarchy; I truly believe the Bible opens unto feminism and egalitarian family structures. I believe the Bible elevates the community above the individual--evangelicals couldn't disagree more. I believe the Bible's teachings on homosexuality and shellfish aren't binding anymore; evangelicals read the same things and get excited to shape homophobic public policy (though they are mysteriously silent on shellfish). I believe the Bible challenges the legitimacy of the nation-state as a source of ultimate loyalty; evangelicals believe America is the City on the Hill. I believe that the Bible calls for peace, they read God as empowering war. Most poignantly for me, I believe the Bible calls us to epistemic humility--to a constant re-evaluation of oneself and one's beliefs and a humility about the limits of one's knowing about self and God; evangelicals are like, "nope, we've got absolute truth and we're willing to make you submit to it." I left the book with a pretty hollow feeling about the whole liberal theological project--not that it's wrong, but that in the face of the evangelical project, my deeply-held beliefs look like another version of "people can read whatever the hell they want into the Bible so why bother with this whole farce of authoritative sacred text?"
  • Finally, I was really affected by the obvious asymmetrical warfare between evangelicals and progressives. Evangelicals, as part of their DNA, are much wired to believe that they must conquer you--theologically, epistemically, and culturally--or die. Liberals and progressives, meanwhile, are wired to believe that "we can all get along together peacefully." This is why the rise of Donald Trump is so existentially threatening to America. He's the first candidate who has been willing to actively denigrate democratic structures. Evangelicalism is highly authoritarian and undemocratic. I do not believe that evangelicals will ever concede again to democracy. I think they have begun a battle to the death--either they will win, and form America into an undemocratic theocracy, or they will lose, creating pockets of well-armed resistance movements across the United States and in other countries. I suspect that the best--and perhaps only--way of defeating the present evangelical coup is by re-colonizing evangelical communities. By encouraging liberal institutions to make deep, sustained investments in the very communities where evangelicalism has the strongest hold on culture and politics. That's why I continue to live in Georgia--there's democracy-preserving, church-saving work to be done here.

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emerymat
8 days ago
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emerymat
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