Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

I was raised Southern Baptist, in rural Arkansas. I was never a very good Southern Baptist; I expressed skepticism about the Trinity at five and shortly thereafter announced that I would not go to Heaven unless I were guaranteed a steady stream of reading material. I also once described the Three Wise Men as “sexy,” which got me in serious trouble with the Sunday School teacher. In middle school, I went through a devout phase in which I read the Bible in its entirety twice, hoping for an epiphany that did not come. By the time I was in high school, I was referring to myself as an “omnist,” a word which I believe I made up to indicate my belief that all religions were a little bit right (in this I anticipated The Good Place); by the time I was in grad school I had joined a Unitarian church solely so I would not have to describe myself as a Baptist. I’ve been happily Jewish now for nearly half my life.

That is the context in which I read Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. I have spent my entire life baffled by religious fundamentalism. How can people like my parents — whom I know to be intelligent and sincere — believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and believe in it so strongly that their belief has become the bedrock of their existence? How is it that they stand in front of me, clearly cherry-picking which bits are to be taken literally and which bits should be interpreted or ignored, insisting in all seriousness that they would never do such a thing? I have read so many books on modern evangelical Christianity, and none of them have unlocked this puzzle for me.

Jesus and John Wayne did not, I fear, come any closer to explaining this phenomenon to me. But it is a good book, with useful things to say, and I recommend it as a book on modern fundamentalism, not the book. I think Kristin Kobes Du Mez is entirely correct about the appeal of the tough, scrappy Donald Trump to evangelicals. Her thesis — that “understanding the catalyzing role militant Christian masculinity has played over the past half century is critical to understanding American evangelicalism today, and the nation’s fractured political landscape” — is well-argued and completely valid, as far as it goes. She gets a lot right here — I recognize my parents and my high school classmates in her description of the evangelical community’s steady march to the right. (My parents, for example, have moved far right on abortion, guns, and the military over the past two decades, all while insisting that they are standing still.) Du Mez is mostly correct, I think, that evangelicalism is partly cultural and political, although I think she does underplay the role of theology. The teaching of evolution, for example, remains a hot-button issue among the people I know precisely because of their theological beliefs. Harry Potter remains controversial for the same reason.

My worry about this book is that an unfamiliar reader might walk away from it thinking that the riddle is solved. Militant Christian masculinity isn’t the whole answer; it isn’t even half of it. It’s the women who are the backbone of the church, not the men. And while, yes, it’s true that women uphold half the patriarchy just as they uphold half the sky, it’s also true that women’s experiences within the church encompass far more than a reactionary definition of gender roles

There is much about evangelical life and culture that is not plumbed in this book. Could a reader who was not brought up in a fundamentalist church read this book and understand the appeal of a church home, a church family? A belief system that insists on its own absolute correctness about, well, everything may be bad for the world but it feels utterly comforting when you are inside it: Going to a church potluck can feel as soothing as sinking into a warm bath. Du Mez misses the terror of change that, in my opinion, has escalated the desire to cling ever more fiercely to a half-remembered past that never really existed. Class and income level play a greater role than Du Mez accounts for; I recall many sermons that centered on the idea that the congregation might be financially poor but were actually better off than wealthy heathens. I would like to have read more about the overt disparagement of critical thought in evangelical communities, which makes it harder to leave but also harder to understand the world as it really is.

“Ah! the brethren,” says a backslidden character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “No doubt they pray for me, weep for me, for they are good people in their way. But what was I to do? How could I go on with the thing once I had lost my faith in it?” I feel this — but even more, the enduring question for me has always been: why am I the only one? why don’t more people lose their faith as well? At one point in my life I had fiery arguments with my parents about Christianity. I’ve stopped that; now I tiptoe around their beliefs. I cannot see what they see, and they cannot see what I see. We might as well be looking at two entirely different landscapes. You could read this book and think of all or most of the evangelical leaders as cynical villains. I think this is a mistake. The tragedy of many of these ministers — fallen or otherwise — is that they are well-intentioned and they believe what they say. Some of them, many of them, have torn themselves apart because they so desperately want to believe. Some of them are hypocrites, yes; but a lot of them are just miserable and confused.

“Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it,” Du Mez concludes. “What was once done might also be undone.” I’m not sure I agree. Although this book is well-written, illuminating, useful, if incomplete, I don’t think it comes any closer to showing how fundamentalism can be undone. Du Mez’s own book demonstrates that while fundamentalism may purport to be based on the unchanging inerrancy of the Bible, it is in fact a protean belief system, one that can be twisted into whatever it needs to be. In the Seventies the Southern Baptist Convention was pro-choice! When I was growing up our preacher talked about his pride in American democracy; now “constitutional republicanism” is all the rage. A decade from now, this belief system could transform itself again. Evangelical Christianity was here before Trump, and it — maybe smaller, maybe less powerful, maybe pointed in a different direction — will no doubt survive him. 

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