Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

“Hey, guess what,” DJ said to me last week. “Jesus and John Wayne came in!”

What he meant to say was this: “Remember you asked me to look for the book Jesus and John Wayne for you? The library called to say it came in today.” But my first mental image was of Jesus and John Wayne popping in to DJ’s office, as if they were in the area and decided to come by and say hello.

But I was glad to hear it, even if the reality turned out to be less exciting. I was looking forward to reading it, in my ongoing to attempt to understand exactly how the white evangelical church got to where it is now.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez wasn’t really a revelatory book for me. I grew up Southern Baptist and spent my teenage years in Bill Gothard’s ATI program. Our house was full of material from Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Rush Limbaugh, and Eagle Forum. During my introduction to HSLDA in the late nineties, I brushed shoulders with pre-Vision Forum Doug Phillips. I wasn’t just familiar with the white evangelicalism that this book talks about, I was one of those white evangelicals.

What this book does, however, is lay out my own religious history in a way that I never understood before. It showed me patterns of ideas and behaviors that still hold true today. And it also showed me just how far I drifted from my roots in the early 2000s, which was why I was shattered by the white evangelical church’s overwhelming support of Donald Trump, instead of expecting it as an inevitable outcome.

In fact, if I’d read this book before the January 6 breach of the Capitol, I wouldn’t have found that event nearly as shocking.

The book isn’t a dense read, especially for someone already familiar with most of the major players. Yet every time I try to discuss it, I get tangled up in so many thoughts that it’s hard to have a conversation. So what I’ll do here is highlight the patterns that struck me as significant.

Pattern #1: Evangelicals have always courted political power. I was taught that a real Christian doesn’t “put confidence in princes,” that we trust that God will work His own will no matter what. In practice, however, the leaders in my life were all about currying favor at the White House. It’s why Ronald Reagan is practically a saint in evangelical circles — he was very cozy with the powerhouse of influence, James Dobson, and other church luminaries. Billy Graham was instrumental in getting Richard Nixon elected. Both Bushes knew to appeal to the evangelical vote. Had I known all this, I’d have known that when Dobson, Franklin Graham, and other leaders fell over themselves to line up at Trump’s feet, they weren’t selling out principle for power. Their principle is power.

Pattern #2: Evangelicals create and then believe myths. From the first, John Wayne has been an evangelical icon of “real manhood.” The strong, rugged cowboy lives by his own code of honor, is indomitable in battle, doesn’t take guff from wimpy men or any woman, and earns the respect of everyone he encounters. He’s a real man. Of course, it’s a completely fictional construct. Wayne himself wasn’t a cowboy, never served in the military… heck, even the name “John Wayne” was fiction, replacing the much less craggy “Marion Morrison.” Yet the fact that the ideal has no roots in reality does nothing to diminish it. This myth is so strong that the evangelical concept of Jesus himself has been shaped to fit into this mold.

Similarly, ideal womanhood is built on the same myth-making process. The two examples of great evangelical women in my younger years were Phyllis Schafley and Elisabeth Elliot. Both were outspoken women, household names, and inspiring to young evangelical women. Both pushed hard the idea that a woman’s highest calling is as a mother, wife, and homemaker. Yet neither of these women lived up to that ideal at all. Schafley poured her energies into politics, not “staying home and baking cookies,” as Hillary Clinton was famously reviled for saying. After her missionary husband was killed, Elliot spent her life writing books, hosting a radio show, and traveling around the country to speaking engagements. She married twice more, but never took those men’s names for her professional life. In both cases, these women were able to fulfill their obvious gifts for leadership by reinforcing the idea that they supported “traditional” women’s roles. And just like in the case of John Wayne, evangelicals agreed to believe the myth instead of the reality.

Although it’s still astonishing how quickly the John Wayne myth sprang up around Trump, now I can see why so many evangelicals eagerly believed and invested themselves in it. It’s part of a long pattern.

Pattern #3: Evangelicals feed on fear. There’s always got to be a bad guy for these John Waynes to fight. In fact, I remember the moment when I was 18 and listening to David Barton (a problematic “historian”) at a Bill Gothard conference in Knoxville. We’d spent all week being reminded that America was on a path toward destruction because we, the small remnant of faithful, couldn’t keep her true to her Christian roots. Barton was telling how the Library of Congress was transitioning to digital files, and “destroying hundreds of books.” He implied that it was an Orwellian book-burning designed to erase the Christian foundation of the US, allowing evil people to snatch the country away from us. And all of a sudden my exhausted mind shut down and I thought, “I am so tired of being scared all the time.”

But like any subculture, evangelical leaders need something to keep their followers focused. For many years, the Communist threat was enough to keep the troops galvanized. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, it left the army at a loss. So evangelical leaders focused on domestic threats, such as feminism, homosexuality, and religious liberty. Not saying that there are no reasons to be concerned on any of these issues (have you read 1960s feminism? It has venom-dipped fangs), but evangelicals aren’t famous for their nuanced take on issues they oppose.

Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Evangelicals quickly coalesced around this new external enemy. Anti-Islamic panic was high. Reading this section of the book, I realized that these were the years when I was drifting away from my roots. I was vaguely aware of what was being said and passed around as facts about Muslim beliefs and behavior (much of which was highly exaggerated or sensationalized), but I rejected it as unChristian prejudice and racism. I suppose I assumed that most other people did the same. I was wrong, which I found out painfully enough about fifteen years later.

Du Mez keeps a narrow focus in this book. In describing the evangelical response to various events, she doesn’t give much room to presenting a well-rounded view. For instance, she discusses the evangelical distaste for Hillary Clinton, both as a First Lady and as a presidential candidate. Briefly she touches on concerns about Clinton’s policies and possibly corruption — which are valid, non-sexist, non-partisan considerations for any candidate — but she mostly focuses on the overblown rhetoric and rumors that evangelicals passed around among themselves. If you want more than just the evangelical reaction to any given person or incident, you’ll have to go back and fill in the gaps yourself.

I found this a helpful book on a very personal level. Intellectually, I left evangelicalism years ago. I gave up on political activism because I don’t like rallies and canvassing for votes and writing emails to Congress. DJ and I revamped our entire understanding of the “essential” doctrine of creationism. Once we saw the damage that “traditional” gender roles (man = leads, woman = submits) inflicted on our marriage, we cultivated a relationship based on mutual submission. Early in our marriage, we considered joining the Catholic church, but ran into too many theological roadblocks; instead we made our way into the Anglican church, with its focus on liturgy and social awareness. I’ve become sharply aware of the national sin of racism, and the need to for the white church especially to repent. I haven’t voted Republican in a national election since I opted out of the 2008 election (and now I wish I’d participated in the historic event of electing a black president). I’ve revisited and refined many opinions which, in my evangelical days, came pre-packaged with inflexible answers.

Yet I still love the people I came from, and I didn’t realize how far away I’d traveled until the rift became impossible to ignore. That’s why I have so many knots and tangles when it comes to discussing my thoughts on this book.

Your experience reading this will vary. The book might enlightening, uncomfortable, or disturbing depending on your relationship with white evangelicalism. I think it’s valuable regardless. If you’re at all interested in understanding the white Christian Republican devotion to Trump, then you should read Jesus and John Wayne.

Just be aware that you have to say the title very carefully. Not only does this dynamic duo make the rounds at DJ’s office, but I found myself asking, “Did anybody see Jesus and John Wayne in the living room?”

Revision in a Time of Quarantine

Nothing like rekindling your memories of your first great literary love just as a pandemic sweeps through the world.

To be honest, my daily life hasn’t change a whole lot even as everything is canceled and shut down. We already homeschool and we already prefer to stay home as much as we can. I’m used to shopping for a week or two at the time and feeding six people all day, every day. I’d also stocked up a bit because my mother told me to. DJ is working from home for a month, so that’s been a big change for him; but it turns out that my preferred lifestyle adapts pretty well to pandemic living.

While we continue with school and take long drives when the walls start closing in, I immersed myself yet again in that original Great Literary Work of mine.

An advantage of the revision of 2007 was that the story now had a plot. A disadvantage was that for some reason I decided to lower Ria’s age from 18 to 13, and I changed the tone of the story accordingly. It was not a happy choice. Re-reading it was, as my kids would say, massive cringe.

“Most of the time, she was just plain Ria. And this morning she was a very sulky Ria.”

“She didn’t intend to apologize to him, either, once she got her revenge.”

And to think she’d complained about being bored in her Castle. What a silly little princess she’d been!

Apparently in 2007 I was temporarily possessed by the spirit of an early 20th-century Sunday school teacher.

Earlier this month, I sat down to rewrite the terrible first chapters, and then send the rest to my sister. But once I got the first part in better shape, I couldn’t leave the rest of the tripe that Miss Flossie Jones of Millerville Baptist Church, circa 1902, communicated through me.

So for the past two weeks I’ve worked my way through the story, smoothing out the dialogue, creating better conflicts, and removing the saccharine moralization.

Since I returned Ria’s age to 18, I also reintroduced the romance that Flossie seemed very uncomfortable with. I suspect it was this aspect that made me decide to lower the age in the first place. I spent my teenage years in a real-life version of the Fellowship, so even at 30 I didn’t know quite how to handle romance in fiction.

The hardest part of the rewriting was Ria herself. She was a typical first-timer’s heroine. She had no real motivation, and she spent the whole story being propelled by other people’s decisions. She was also, as a writer friend of mine put it, “insufficiently hobbied.” What did Ria like to do in her spare time? The answer appeared to be “ride horses and complain about having nothing to do.” Ria’s sister, on the other hand, is always designing clever contraptions and figuring out how things work. She would have made a far better heroine. But this is The Ria Story, so I just had to try to work with what I had.

It was a lot of work… but so much fun. I stopped worrying about the unfixable worldbuilding problems and just let the story be what it is. Yesterday I finished it and emailed it to my sister. It’s not a great story, but I think I made it into a solidly “okay” story.

And now I’m at loose ends again.

Well, unless you count my actual serious novel. I’ve left Richmal and Co. cooling their heels in the third draft for nearly two months now. I’ve been stuck on a pretty thorny plot problem. Oh, hey, here’s a message from a reader who has a suggestion! BlessedAssurance.millertownbc points out that Richmal’s story features a lot more kissing than it does Bible reading, and she would be happy to take over the writing for a while.

Get thee behind me, Flossie.

The Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention

“Your an example of why women should stay silent.”

The putdown was posted by some brilliant wit on Twitter. I said it better, and more grammatically, in The Fellowship:

“I don’t think God wants me to stay silent if I see something out of line.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. God hasn’t appointed you to a position of authority. He doesn’t expect you to do anything except obey.”

In both scenarios — one real, one fictional — a young woman was questioning a pastor about his teachings. And in both settings — one real, one fictional — the challenger was shut down.

The Fellowship takes place in a small Southern cult, where the women must wear long dresses and can’t work outside the home. Not very many people have lived in that specific setting.

But I guarantee you’re familiar with the story as it unfolds.

My newsfeed has been full of the scandal of Paige Patterson, misogynist ex-president of Southwestern Theological Seminary. If you aren’t caught up, here’s the statement by the Board of Trustees of Southwestern as to why they fired Patterson. And well they should have. But what about all the years leading up to this? Surely someone thought he was going too far when he counseled wives to return to abusive husbands? Or any number of other questionable teachings?

On a related note, I’m not Catholic, so didn’t follow the fallout of their abuse coverup very closely. I never was part of Sovereign Grace Ministries, so that didn’t register on my radar much either. But I almost could have lifted my novel material from those scandals.

Meanwhile, the #metoo movement, highlighting the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexism, proved the downfall of several prominent men in the entertainment and political realm.

It’s all the same story as my little Southern Bible cult. No one could challenge these men. They silenced their accusers and protected their power.

Your details might not be the same as my fictional Bekah and her struggle to be a woman under an oppressive patriarchal system. But the structure is the same. Authority without accountability, used to protect the powerful.

This structure enables abuse, encourages misogyny or misandry, and its ultimate goal is to protect the institution over the victim. Every time.

The insult I quoted at the beginning was part of a long Twitter battle in which women tried to engage a pastor (again, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which is in serious need of repentance and reevaluation — and maybe a good disinfectant). You can read the synopsis here.

That particular aspersion was cast by a supporter of the pastor, but don’t worry, the good Brother gets in quite a few jabs himself. The sexism aside, it’s obvious that the pastor’s goal isn’t to empathize, or even engage opponents in a debate — but to silence the challenges to his power.

When I wrote The Fellowship, I was drawing from my own experience with Bill Gothard (Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute) and Doug Phillips (Vision Forum), and my husband’s experience with an older New England cult. I kept saying, “My little novel is for a niche audience. Not many people will ‘get’ it.”

Three years later, as the voice of the oppressed grows louder and people are less willing to tolerate injustice from those in “authority,” I now realize that my book joins many others in telling and retelling a familiar story. It’s the story of our time.

 

Sabbath Restlessness

I occasionally see a meme that thinks it’s solved my church problem for me. It informs me that if I stopped going to church because someone hurt me, then it’s obvious I was focused on people instead of Jesus. In short, if I find church a hard place to be, it’s my own fault.

Do I need to say that I hate that meme? No? Good.

It’s difficult for me to attend church. Even when I don’t fall prey to a panic attack, I find the whole process exhausting. When my choice is to go to a coffee shop and be refreshed, or go to church and be tired… well, the choice kind of makes itself, doesn’t it?

But I try. After all, we’re part of a healthy and safe church now. Nobody reminds me that I have to stay under authority. Nobody is twisting up Scriptures. Nobody watches my kids and judges my parenting. I know it’s a good place.

But it’s hard to feel that.

Recently I attended a service. I even took along colored pens and a journal with faux-reclaimed paper that my daughter got me for my birthday. I listen best when I can doodle, something I no longer apologize for.

Halfway through the sermon, I’d filled up two pages like this:

Untitled design

When I start journalling like that, it means I’m desperately trying to outrun panic. And I didn’t make it this time. I left long before church was done.

When I looked at the pages later, I was struck at how it captures the frenzy of my thoughts in church. Not only am I reliving and grieving past hurts, but I’m also evaluating every word of the sermon to make sure it’s “okay.” My radar, so long suppressed, is on high alert at all times.

No wonder I get tired.

My husband is very understanding, but a lot of people aren’t. A lot of people look at spiritual abuse survivors and criticize them for not getting involved in a church. Well, here you go — handy-dandy photographic evidence of what a service looks like to someone who has been hurt by people in the church. 

I don’t skip church on Sundays because I’m spiritually apathetic. I avoid it because I’m on spiritual hyperdrive. And I long for the day that a church sanctuary is as safe and restful a place for me as a shabby-chic hipster coffee shop.