Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

This was a fascinating book to pick up. Being a member of a religious faith myself, and having many friends who are involved with religious academia, I’m around many discussions about God and faith and faith culture and how various interpretations of scripture develop. I’m curious about other faiths, and the evangelical community in America has certainly gained its own kind of notoriety in the last few years to be sure. So I looked at this book as a way to see the history of that faith movement and as a way to possibly get a better grasp on the mindset of someone of that faith.

“For conservative white evangelicals, the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity.“

This quote was the overall message I gathered from this book. Having grown up and worked in the South, home to a large population of evangelicals, I’ve been more closely involved with and aware of that community. Some would argue that I come from an “orthodox” religious background (in some sense of the word, anyway), and I personally view my religious observance as more progressive than others (and of course “progressive” can be defined a few ways too), so I think that means I look at the evangelical church a little more critically for that reason. I’m not here to argue theology, and I’m not well-equipped to do that, but I have to look at other religious cultures through my American Christian lens since that’s what I know.

The thesis the author presents of how the current evangelical community’s culture and views developed was interesting to me, tracing how actor John Wayne portrayed the kind of rugged masculinity that was the ideal American male, and therefore how American evangelicals came to interpret their version of Christ – they didn’t and don’t care for that meek and quiet version of Christ that others used, that was too feminine and lacked the energy they wanted to have themselves. They wanted a Christ who could beat up a person.

“There are those who rarely consume media produced outside of this world; when it comes to music, news sources, books, and radio, these individuals inhabit a separate and sanctified consumer space.”

I can’t fault a religious tradition or culture for this kind of homogeny explicitly. We all feel comfort with the media that we can share with others that reaffirm our views. But I have been in my share of Lifeway Christian bookstores that dotted the South… I mean, I view myself as having some highbrow ideas of media and culture, so I do critique a lot of evangelical media maybe a little too harshly than I should. However, I can’t get on board with bibles packaged to look like teen magazines or are so totally gendered that one is pink and glittery and another is in camo and they’re supposed to be for adults. My own personal preference is to have holy scripture be revered and to strive to live UP to its ideals, not bring it down to yours. But that’s another discussion.

The idea that people can purchase the home decor, the clothing, the music, the various accouterments of the evangelical community to be a part of that community without ever going to church fascinated me. What an interesting comment on not only consumerism in general but also on how this particular religious community operates, where you can so easily acquire status. It makes perfect sense, once I read that. There can potentially be such a superficial way to find your way into the good graces of a culture.

What I very much appreciated about this book was the laying out of the history of the evangelical tradition in this country over the last 80 years or so. Following certain pastors and other figures and their families and how their rhetoric developed, along with reasoning for shifts and changes. And then it seemed like the narrative of the Reagan era to present really zoomed by with the Moral Majority and a whole slew of policies and political figures who still resonate today. And if you’re like me and watching Mrs. America on Hulu, you’re getting a pointed taste of that influence as well.

The book confirmed many notions I have about the evangelical community. I don’t automatically assume when I meet one that they’re a racist, but they often have some racist thinking that quickly comes out. Their concept of a super masculine Jesus bewilders me. I can take the strength and fortitude of it, but when Christ’s message of love and forgiveness seems to be completely overlooked or even ignored I very much dislike how the concept of being a Christian gets weaponized, and can even be looked at with disdain by people outside the community. Not to mention how this view of masculinity frequently translates to a subordinate, inferior, and even an infantilized view of women.

I don’t intend for this to be the only book I read on this community and religious thinking. It opened up a few more ideas and trains of thought to explore. But it’s a reasonable introduction to a history of the evangelical community and may help readers uncover and learn more about the religious community’s lineage and cultural mores.

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