Kristin Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation is a New York Times bestseller and has been the centre of an online debate from the moment it first came out. Du Mez is a professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. I had a chance to read it a couple of weeks ago after borrowing the ebook version from the Saskatoon Public Library.
The publisher’s product description says, “Jesus and John Wayne is a sweeping, revisionist history of the last seventy-five years of white evangelicalism, revealing how evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism―or in the words of one modern chaplain, with ‘a spiritual badass.’”
I like reading books because of where they take me and how they get my mind to go down trails that may or may not have been the intent of the author. This book is no different. What follows is not so much a critique as it is a train of thought brought about by the book.
I enjoyed this book immensely and highly recommend it. As is obvious from some of my previous posts, masculinities are an important part of my life and ministry. Du Mez presents a view of evangelical masculinity that is frankly disturbing. Rather than evangelicals having a carefully thought out theological argument for being men, what we discover is a political argument for being men that is then adopted by the evangelical church. Each paragraph is footnoted with sources so readers can double check what is said.
At this point I need to point out that while I was reading I did find it a bit like watching the neighbours through their living room window. I was born and raised in Canada and have spent almost half my life in Southeast Asia so the American context is largely someone else’s context. Any understanding of a necessary close connection between evangelical masculinity and politics escapes me. I really can’t for the life of me understand why my evangelical masculinity needs to be so closely connected with politics and political systems.
I will say this with regards to politics: I do believe that all people need to be involved in nationbuilding, Christians in particular. We need to tell people that Jesus is the best possible leader. We need to tell people that Jesus’ Kingdom has an unparalleled set of values. We also need to work at serving them. Finally we need to spend time together discovering the truth.
But beyond that, it is not a part of my framework to connect that with some kind of political system (which I think the Bible refers to as a wild animal rather than a lamb who was slain). So that’s the part that I don’t get. I guess it makes it even harder for me to believe it when I find out that some of the American presidential candidates most hated by evangelicals were in fact evangelicals themselves (and their most loved rivals were anything but). I just don’t get it but that may be because I am not from there.
I do know the names of the key players in the story because they are also of influence in the parts of the world with which I am more familiar. I have attended Promise Keeper’s rallies and seminars. I have been encouraged by Eldredge’s books. I have shown Dobson videos to my youth group. My best friend’s father was heavily into Gothard when I was a kid. So these are familiar names. I must say that it was disturbing to me to see how carefully the crafted a version of masculinity that was so politically motivated. It made be question the things that I had learned from them and wonder what shortcomings my own perspectives have.
I will tell you one thing: As I have written elsewhere (here, here, & here), I don’t hold to universal gender roles, much less God-appointed gender roles. Rarely do we find someone who lives out their theoretical framework (read “theology” in this context) perfectly in life. And rarely do we find a framework that exactly explains everything in the world. As Rorty says, “A + B = C, unless it doesn’t.” The same applies to gender roles. My wife handles our finances because she is better gifted at it — we would be quickly bankrupt if I were to take the reins. My wife is a better missionary than be because she seems to have the abilities to make connections and carry out plans while I struggle along. Both of us are involved in public ministry as our callings and giftings determine. We both cook at home because we both enjoy it. I suspect it’s the same with you.
My wife and I enjoy watching cooking shows — particularly contest shows. What surprises me is the predominance of men in professional cooking and the fact that the women who participate say that it’s a hard industry for them to enter. Wait a minute. I thought that cooking was supposed to be the realm of women? (I see a lot of references to sandwiches on Twitter). What happened? What happened was that the framework that we have been presented with is flawed. Patriarchy still rears its ugly head even in realms where we think that it doesn’t.
Du Mez emphasises one strain of masculinity in her book. At first I saw that as a limitation but then realised that Du Mez does periodically refer to other sides to the story but these are only in passing and in the context of having been rejected by the subjects of her book. She is in fact tracing a hegemonic form of masculinity through the evangelical church. If you don’t remember, hegemonic masculinity is a term developed by Connell to identify the form of masculinity that is the norm in the cultural psyche, even if this norm is not actually the normal masculinity when it comes to practice (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). It does leave me with the question of whether there is there a range of masculinities among American evangelical men? Du Mez may have highlighted the hegemonic form but what about the other, perhaps more practiced, forms that exist? How can we champion those? Is it possible to affect change in the cultural psyche so that more harmful forms of masculinity become marginalised?
I also was surprised to see the inclusion of fundamentalists in the realm of evangelicals, since the fundamentalists that I know try to distinguish themselves from evangelicals. But that is really neither here nor there since the underlying theme tracing is hegemonic masculinity.
The book caused me to reflect on what I truly believe masculinities to be. It got me to examine my assumptions on a deeper level. What is masculinity for me? How does it differ from femininity? Is it even important to make a distinction? Am I, as a man, somehow specially prepared/gifted/enabled/called to something that perhaps a women isn’t? Or are those things determined by personality? How can I best use my manhood (if that’s even possible) for the furtherance of God’s kingdom here on earth?
My own masculinity research, where I talked with men in my community, tells me that some men see themselves sometimes as humans, with the same problems that all humans share. “Tao lang ako” [“I’m only human”] is a phrase often on the lips of the men when they describe their ability to be obedient to God. It encapsulates both their desire to do what is right but also gives them some leeway in their performance since “tao lang ako.” It reiterates their weakness and sets themselves apart from God, who wouldn’t have any problem being obedient.
But men are also men and as such need to become better people. They want to redefine themselves from the traditional ideas that men are violent or womanizers into something better. Knowing Christ has helped one of my friends overcome his hot headedness. He also said that in his opinion womanizers aren’t really true men because all that results is that their families are destroyed.
I don’t have many answers yet but Du Mez’ book has helped me deepen the process of discovery. It may help you as well. Why not pick it up and read it? It may cause you to reflect on your own situation as well.
Then again, maybe God has given you insight into these things. Please feel free to share in the comments below.
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Image is a screen shot from the cover of the ebook I read and is copyright Liveright Publishing.