There’s a funny skit involving two German officers in Hitler’s Nazi army, a “crack SS division” at that. As the officers are manning the ramparts, preparing to fight the Russians, one of them has a sort of existential crisis sparked by a moment of dawning comprehension. He notices that their caps have skulls on them. In fact, the skull is their main symbol. And as he struggles to reason how skulls could be used to represent the good guys, he eventually verbalizes the horrifying question: “Are we the baddies?”
Evangelicals are a funny bunch. This hard-nosed reality is underscored by the fact that, even as I bring them up, there is need to do some definitional spade work. Who counts as an evangelical these days? Well, I guess that depends on which David you ask (French or Brooks), and on which day of the week you ask him (I wouldn’t recommend Sundays). According to these gentlemen, evangelicals are a folk in desperate need of saving by a band of dissenters so bold as to be featured in a multi-page New York Times spread; or, if they are of the white variety, they are a people so hopelessly hostage to increasingly extreme political beliefs that their theological commitments are rendered meaningless. Neither sounds good. Is there a door number three?
Thankfully, it’s not within the sole jurisdiction of Acela corridor-dwelling creatures like French and Brooks to define evangelicalism. Noted historian Iain Murray in his work Evangelicalism Divided pegs the origins of the term from all the way back in 1525, when it coincided with the phrase “gospellers.” And historically that’s what the term, and association, has meant. The word “evangelical” simply comes from the Greek word “euangelion,” which means “good news” or “gospel.” Thus, evangelicals, far from being primarily a sociological grouping, are first and foremost defined by a theological claim about the person and message of Jesus Christ.
Now, as far as I know, French, and even Brooks, may still be happy to cosign the more theologically grounded definition of evangelicals that I am about to consider; sadly, their increasingly common fixation on presenting and critiquing a cartoonish caricature of evangelicals as political bad guys makes that, shall we say, less than crystal clear.
Evangelicals are nothing more or less (if we draw our lines rightly) than orthodox Protestant Christians. We believe in the divine personhood of Jesus Christ, his salvific work on the cross, the necessity of repentance and faith, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the obligation to fulfill the Great Commission in Matthew 28 by taking the saving message of Christ to “Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.”
One way to think about evangelical beliefs has been effectively captured by Scottish professor David Bebbington in the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which describes evangelicalism in four basic categories: 1) biblicism; 2) conversionism; 3) crucicentrism; and 4) activism (or evangelism).
Also helpful is George Marsden’s definition. He defines evangelicalism as a commitment to five core beliefs: “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; and 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life.”
Pay close attention to how these three serious historians understand evangelicalism — again, on theological terms. That’s important.
Personally, I think any of these definitions work. Despite the ongoing effort to outgroup evangelicals, I’m still quite happy to associate myself with the term. I’m just as happy to associate myself with the people, too, that societal basket of deplorables, if this is what we mean. For, if you look closely at Marsden’s definition (and this is also important), you can see how it excludes the mainline liberal variety, of whom J. Gresham Machen warned us about in Christianity and Liberalism. They wear the label “Christian” as a cheap skin suit, stuffing it full of “moralistic therapeutic deism” and CNN-approved social justice activism instead of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Using the term “evangelical” is, at least, meant to differentiate between these two vastly different tribes who try to claim the name “Christian” in the modern American context.
My main interest in examining what an evangelical actually is and what we believe is to remind us of who we are. Despite the current crop of dissenters’ best efforts to remake evangelicals into something we are not, to reduce us down into a facsimile of an imagined political opponent, we are in fact “gospellers.” We are those who have been born again by repentance and faith and seek now to submit all of our lives, including our political engagement and cultural preferences, to King Jesus. We are the recipients of the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” We are the inheritors of the Christian heritage passed down from the Apostles to Augustine, from Luther to Lloyd-Jones, and from your grandparents to you, even up to the present day.
Such a glorious tradition should yield a rooted confidence. Yet so often evangelicals seem somewhat ashamed of who we are and what we stand for. When I watch us take the field in the game of public discourse, I can’t help but notice that many walk with a limp. After the last five-plus years of a steady and increasingly extreme barrage of criticism, can you blame them? As book after book rolls out attacking us for our Christian ethics faithfully expressed in politics (Christian nationalists!), or our biblically-based beliefs about gender roles in the church and home (chauvinists! abusers!), or our view of the already-accomplished reconciliation in Christ amongst all believers regardless of race or ethnicity (white supremacists! racists!), there’s no doubt that some of the rhetorical punches have landed.
In short, too many otherwise godly, gracious, and sound Christians are walking around, asking themselves in hushed tones, “Are we the baddies?”
I set the table like this in general terms because there has been one particular book of late that has really ginned up the baddie complex. And I’m here to tell you it’s high time to just ignore it. In fact, if evangelicals weren’t such stooges for criticism from people with a “Ph.D.” after their name, and if we weren’t so insecure about our footing in American cultural and intellectual spaces, we wouldn’t have entertained it as a serious critique demanding a serious response in the first place. Perhaps many hands may yet go un-wrung and much ink un-spilled over said mendacious monograph.
Even now, the book saunters up into our conversation like a cowboy, trigger-finger itchy and ready to fire. That’s right, I am talking about none other than Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.
If you aren’t familiar with the work, I’m not going to encourage you to read it. That’s not because it’s not good to read opposing views or consider serious critiques of one’s traditions. It is. Nor is our evangelical faith and culture immune from honest criticism. It isn’t. But the point I’m trying to make, one that struck me recently, is that some criticisms come from such fundamentally hostile sources in the first place, they aren’t worth our attention. The whole point of some critiques isn’t to help us be better, but to make us ask if, nay confess that, we are the baddies — even though we aren’t. Jesus and John Wayne is one such work. It’s past time to just ignore it, particularly after the latest review by Mike Young, which has arguably punched a final nail in the coffin of the credibility of the entire project.
For the graciously uninitiated, here’s a good taste of the rhetorical flavor and unsubstantiated accusations (from the introduction) that run across the entire book like a herd of wild horses:
“Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad. By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses.”
Oh, I see. The Christians who voted for Trump definitely, definitely didn’t do it out of the hope of ending abortion. It was just about power.
In short, Du Mez’s central claim is that, “Despite Evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, Evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than a community defined chiefly by theology. Evangelical views on any given issue are facets of this larger cultural identity, and no number of Bible verses will dislodge the greater truths at the heart of it.”
And what is this larger cultural identity? In a phrase, militant masculinity. In a person, John Wayne. Du Mez reduces all the glorious and rich heritage and history of evangelicals down to one, somewhat fringe, cultural artifact: The American Western.
In doing so, Du Mez aims to indict evangelicals for their support for Donald Trump. And keep this in mind: This book could have never been written if Trump lost in 2016. But he didn’t. So Jesus and John Wayne comes along, like a disapproving woke scold, brandishing the ballot punched “DJT” as irrevocable proof of evangelicals’ commitment to patriarchy, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and the naked quest for political power.
Is this a serious critique? Honestly, no. And not only is the critique unserious, the person delivering the critique is so blatantly hostile to the people she is eviscerating, the best response is probably no response at all.
First, the entire book itself is evidence of said hostility. But also relevant is how Du Mez has publicly admitted some rather eyebrow-raising points of reference. Bear in mind she is a historian who focuses on gender studies, a field not known for faithfully defending and upholding a devotion to God’s creation order, to say the least. As an active scholar in this field, she recently name-dropped quite a rogue’s gallery of “influences” on her thoughts and studies.
When asked if she had “any tips on how the average person can analyze power and cultural systems so that we aren’t held captive by them,” Du Mez answered like so: “I should have a better answer but for me it wasn’t one source but years spent reading social & cultural histories, histories of gender, Foucault, Gramsci, Adorno, Habermas…”
In case you don’t know, none of those guys are good guys. They actually are the baddies. None were Christians. All were wicked. But perhaps most egregious name on that list is the well-documented groomer, pervert, and child-rapist Michael Foucault. That seems…notable. Even Wikipedia admits, “Foucault was a proponent of adult-child underage sex and of pedophilia, considering them a form of liberation for both actors; he argued young children could give sexual consent.”
Amazingly, that’s not the only time Du Mez has admitted Foucault’s influence on her work. In fact, she invited her critics to associate her with postmodernism through Foucault.
Du Mez is then 1) belligerent in her accusations and rhetoric in her book; 2) shoddy in her historical methods and deterministic conclusions (what she does with Teddy Roosevelt is a travesty); 3) admittedly influenced by a notorious child-rapist; 4) engaged self-consciously in a work of postmodern deconstruction; and 5) unwilling to treat evangelicals as the theologically-defined group they are and not the political group she so desperately desires them to be.
To which I just have to ask: Why is any evangelical letting this book make you ask yourself if you’re the baddie? Stop it.
I recognize the irony of me writing yet another post about Jesus and John Wayne in which I claim evangelicals need to stop writing about Jesus and John Wayne, yet such is life. In order to encourage us to stop talking about it and start ignoring it, words must be formed to such ends.
So what should evangelicals do in response to such accusations claiming that, among other things, we have “corrupted a faith” and “fractured a nation?” How should pastors and faithful pew-fillers in churches across the nation reply? Not with second guessing. Not with reflexive internalization of the cascading blame cast by those who haven’t shown a wholehearted commitment to key tenets of biblical discipleship.
No, we should respond like Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is more known for wall-building than one-sentence silencers, but in Nehemiah 6 he displays the exact type of energy that evangelicals should seek to channel when defending themselves before the cowboy court of John Wayne.
At the start of Chapter 6, a group is identified as the “enemies” of those rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem. One of these characters is Sanballat, who has been harassing Nehemiah in the work and hurling increasingly wild accusations at him. They try to bait Nehemiah into abandoning his work, but Nehemiah won’t be deterred. Then, in verse 5, we read that for
“the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written:
It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.’”
These are some serious accusations. The Jews are plotting a revolt. Nehemiah aims to be king. It’s all planned out! Of course, they aren’t just rebuilding the wall. What they are really after is power. Sound familiar?
Nehemiah’s answer is instructive. He doesn’t wring his hands. He doesn’t commission five lengthy rebuttals to be published in the Jerusalem Post. No. Look at verse 8:
“I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like that you are saying is happening; you are just making it up in your own head.”
One sentence. One answer. Conversation over. Nehemiah knows that Sanballat isn’t his friend. He knows his accusations aren’t made in good faith. So, what does he do? He summarily dismisses them. Not today, Sanballat, not today. Nothing of what you are saying is true — you are literally making it up.
We learn further in verse 9 that Nehemiah is also able to discern why Sanballat was saying such outlandish things: To scare Nehemiah and his fellow workers into inaction. But instead of second-guessing himself, Nehemiah prays for God to strengthen his hands and he gets back to work.
My evangelical brothers and sisters: Let’s all take a page out of Nehemiah’s playbook. When accused of corrupting a faith or fracturing a nation, laugh it off. Look at the accuser and say, “You’re just making that up.” And then let’s get back to work.
Because we have to see this: The point of books like Jesus and John Wayne isn’t really to prompt introspection, it’s to induce paralysis. The Du Mez’s of the world see this active, thriving, Bible-believing, church-going, kingdom-working, Gospel-sharing, baby-having, complementarian-living, pro-life voting, country-loving group of evangelicals as opponents and obstacles to their egalitarian, deconstructing, anti-white, Foucault-influenced, LGBT-affirming, liberal agenda.
So don’t let them deter us with bright book jackets hiding hit jobs that reduce our ancient faith to absurd cultural artifacts.
If you want to read more about Jesus and John Wayne, again let me encourage you to read Mike Young’s review at American Reformer. But if you want to write more about it — just don’t. Be like Nehemiah instead. Spare a one-sentence answer at most: “Not true.” Then let’s get back to work.