Jesus and John Wayne: reader beware

I am almost finished with, Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She is a Calvin professor and her book has caused quite a stir. It is the first serious look at evangelicalism and its alignment with Donald Trump. The main argument of her book is that (white) evangelicals traded traditional notions of Christianity for a violent, patriarchal, nationalistic and masculine faith, a false faith. This ‘trade’ began at the beginning of the 20th century and, according to Du Mez, is the reason why Donald Trump was a natural ‘next step’ for evangelicals.

I decided to write about her book because she gets to the ‘truth’ by non-traditional means of analysis. Readers are assuming that this is a historical reconstruction akin to what one might read in a history book; this would include interviews, dealing with the worldview of those involved as they themselves would articulate it, clear signifiers when conjecture and opinion are inserted, and an evenhanded approach that is fair. If that is what you are assuming in reading this book, you will be sadly disappointed.

De Muz uses evangelical history secondarily, as a narrative framework to insert her ideology. Both the analytical tools she (mis)uses and her opinions guarantee the shocking ‘truths’ that she finds. This essay wants to show the reader what analytical tools Du Mez uses and how she shares her political ideology as fact, so that the reader can decide whether her analysis is valid.

The first analytical tool she uses is intersectional analysis. Intersectionality is concerned with power. Each person has in himself or herself an intersection of identities—I am a white, European, protestant, educated and middle class male. In intersectionality, these are not just descriptors but refer to statuses of power or oppression. Mari Matsuda explains how this concept can be used as a tool of critical analysis:

The way I try to understand the interconnection of all forms of subordination is through a method I call ‘ask the other question.’ When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where are the class interests in this?’ (Matsuda, 1991: 1189)

The researcher takes a single act of sexism or racism and then overlays a philosophical ideology onto it; namely that the world is intentionally ordered for certain groups to have power or privilege and that other groups have no access to this privilege and power. Since these systems are not codified within law, intersectionality asserts that they exist in the psyche of culture. Often, it lies beneath the consciousness of individuals and groups but that does not matter. One’s personal intentions or conscious behavior can seem good but very well might be another micro aggression that upholds these systems of power. This is the world that Du Mez lives in. This matters because it reveals that Du Mez’s book is a political book. Each time that Du Mez uses certain language, she is acting in a political world that sees power as the only thing that matters. In this political system, power is a limited commodity (that is why these systems exist to keep it); the use of intersectionality has as its goal, the radically reordering of the social world.

Let’s take the ideas above and apply it to a term Du Mez uses constantly in her book. Du Mez refers to ‘patriarchy’ 52 times. Several times asserting that evangelicals and its leaders made decisions to protect white patriarchy. For example, on explaining why evangelical leaders like John Piper and Al Mohler defended CJ Mahaney during a time when his church was being investigated in how it dealt with sexual abuse claims, “Mahaney’s friends were loyal because of a shared stake in a patriarchal ‘gospel’…”(282). Du Mez has used Matsuda’s ‘other question’ and has ‘found’ a system of oppression.

Mahaney is a villain for Du Mez and he has men who support him, so it must be a good ole boy network. But there’s more: this isn’t just a moment in time but a window into the system of patriarchy that evangelicals are defending.

 A key thinker in the idea of patriarchy is Dr. Gloria Jean Watkins—aka Bell Hooks. This is her definition of patriarchy:

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.

Since Du Mez adds ‘white’ to this definition, we must include that white males uphold a system that insists on domination of not just women but everyone else not white male. This means that evangelicalism is best understood as a means for white men to keep power. She says as much, “a defense of white patriarchy would move to the center of their coalescing cultural and political identity” (33). How does she know the motives of Piper, Mohler and Mahaney? She brings intersectionality to one historical moment and then (re)interprets it through that lens. My point is this: Du Mez does not prove that white patriarchy used 20th century evangelicalism to keep power but writes a book that superimposes identity politics in every space of the evangelical world.

I think Du Mez has an obligation to admit that she is not writing a book as a Christian academic; at least in any traditional sense that those words mean. Instead, she is using novel notions of power and identity—often called cultural Marxism—to make her claims. At best, her book is highly opinionated conjecture from a liberal academic. At worse, it is intentionally deceptive and is meant to damage or destroy the evangelical world. Her readers should know this as they engage her book.

Her second analytical tool is more bizarre than the first. Her book is a comparative analysis of a fictional character and evangelicalism. Her assertion is that John Wayne’s characters together should be seen as an evangelical hero myth. In the technical sense, hero myth takes us on a journey of one person who faces evil and overcomes it by passing through (the shadow of) death. The hero myth then becomes an example for us to live by. If a hero myth becomes a cultural vision, then it gives that culture meaning by becoming a Rosetta Stone.

In the most important book on hero myths, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell shows the common narrative that structure in all hero stories:

The hero begins in ordinary life. His life is unremarkable. Then, he is given the opportunity for a grand adventure. If he says no, then he ends up like Jonah in the belly of the whale. But, when he says yes, he is gifted with assistance. Assistance can come in the form of a companion, a special power or the favor of the gods. Then a series of trials begin that prepare the hero to face the great evil. From there, the hero draws near the place where he will confront his dragon. There, he is (nearly) undone. He might die or be mortally wounded but all seems lost. Then, he is born again or resurrected. Now, he defeats the dragon with new strength and wisdom. This defeat makes the man a hero. He has escaped the smallness of life and done something great. He is given riches and power and he returns home to praise. He becomes a sign of what it means to be brave, what it means to be good. He is an example for us to follow.

Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Matrix are all examples of the hero myth being told. They provoke awe in us because we see what sacrificial living looks like. We wonder if we could face Mordor or Voldemort. Their worlds have good and evil, villains and heroes. Du Mez makes an argument that John Wayne embodies an evangelical hero myth:

Americans divided the world into good guys and bad guys, and the Western offered a morality tale perfectly suited to the moment, one in which the rugged hero resorted to violence to save the day. (Jesus and John Wayne, 31).

In Wayne, evangelicals find a hero to follow, a symbol to celebrate, “[Wayne] … [comes] to serve as the touchstone for authentic Christian manhood” (Ibid. 32).

Du Mez believes that the world that Wayne inhabits and the world of Jesus Christ have diametrically opposed symbolic worlds. Depending what hero you embrace will decide whether you are a true Christian or not:

Is their savior a conquering warrior, a man’s man who takes no prisoners and wages holy war? Or is he a sacrificial lamb who offers himself up for the restoration of all things? How one answers these questions will determine what it looks like to follow Jesus. (Ibid. 5).

Du Mez uses the hero myth along with intersectionality to make her case, but John Wayne is not an evangelical myth of the idealized male. First, I have never heard something so silly in my life. Maybe I’m in the wrong club but I’ve never heard or thought “Now John Wayne, that’s a real Christian man. In fact he’s the idealized form of the Christian man that all men must strive for.” The very definition of a hero necessitates the reality that he is celebrated as a hero by a social group or culture. This requires that the hero is publicly known as a hero. Heroes can’t be secret. For this reason, Wayne isn’t a Christian hero because large swaths of evangelicals have never even considered the idea. Secondly, and more important, his most famous movies don’t place him in the role of the hero.

In his film, True Grit, John Wayne is not the hero but the assistance given to the hero. He helps Mattie (the hero ) on her journey to slay evil. He plays a key role but he is not the hero. In fact, he is a tragic figure that is always on the outside.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Wayne again plays a tragic assistance. Ransom Stoddard, played by James Stewart, comes to the west naïve and unprepared. He is confronted by evil in Liberty Valance. He is a new attorney who is confronted with the fact that knowing the law and seeing justice done is two different things. Tom Doniphon, Wayne’s character, helps Stewart. Even though he is the one who kills Valance, he is not transformed by it. He loses the love of his life and death eventually swallows him up into obscurity. It is Stoddard who faces death and becomes something great—the means by which justice is established in the Wild West.

Finally, in The Alamo John Wayne plays Davy Crockett. In the movie, Crockett lies and takes a courageous but fool-hardy stand that sentences all his men to death. Crockett loses the Alamo to Mexican soldiers. Instead of being viewed as evil, the Mexican soldiers are portrayed, at least in the character of Santa Anna, as having goodness. This is no hero myth. It’s tragedy.

What are we to make of this? I honestly can’t say that Du Mez actually watched any of his movies. Wayne is a tragic character; it seems he is brave but not wise. He can do good but he is not redeemed. He might be an American myth but not a Christian hero.

Conclusion

I think that Du Mez has some legitimate concerns concerning the evangelical church, but she does a disservice to the church by claiming her concerns are historically true. I am beyond perplexed why she moves away from the Christian world—with its symbols and ethics—and critiques evangelicalism with really odd tools. Like every Christian movement, evangelicalism need not be afraid of criticism; the Lord often uses it. It would be nice though that when someone claims to be doing such critique they might use the Bible.

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