Jesus and John Wayne in a Field of Straw Men

The creation of headlines and book titles in the modern age has become something of an art form. To be successful in the noisy media world the ability to attract attention to one’s work is crucial. Titles must be provocative and compelling at the same time. The provocative part is never a problem as the sensationalism in such rags such as the National Enquirer will attest. The challenge is to make the content compelling enough to live up to the headlines.

A clever title such as Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez is definitely provocative but the content ultimately fails to live up to it. We are left with what amounts to a long exercise in barking up the wrong tree.

John Wayne? I doubt the image of The Duke triggers much of anything in the minds of evangelicals when it comes to their self understanding. The same is true of the bulk of the others Du Mez deems evangelical “heros.” The book is little more than a lengthy straw man critique of evangelical masculinity as it is portrayed by the media along with an overblown screed about the sins of patriarchy.

A straw man argument is a type logical fallacy and a favorite tool of sensationalist media that depicts the target in the weakest possible light (creating a “straw man”). Once created, knocking down the “straw man” is a simple matter. Straw man arguments are a step or two away from outright lying and is one reason the media is held in such low regard today — they just don’t render the reality.

Caricature is one technique in setting up straw men — or women as it were. In Du Mez’s discussion about the influence of Hobby Lobby amongst evangelicals, for example, this: “… for evangelical women, shopping at Hobby Lobby can be akin to an act of religious devotion, objects that find their way into evangelical homes reinforce the gender ideals at the center of conservative evangelicalism.“

Shopping as a religious devotion? Come on. Catty swipes like this do nothing to make her argument more compelling. What’s more, don’t non-evangelicals, Catholics and atheists (and everyone else for that matter) buy objects to reinforce their gender ideals? Or is it only evangelical women who do that? What’s the point other than taking shots at the sort of women she doesn’t like?

Another technique is qualification and misdirection. Du Mez peppers her discussions with comments here and there that are nothing more than irrelevant digs at people she holds in disregard. In her discussion about James Dobson’s Focus on the Family audience she adds this qualification, “…For all its religious diversity, however, Dobson’s audience remained predominantly white.” In a nation that is predominantly white is this a surprise? Such qualifications serve as subtle signals that something is not quite right with the target despite appearances, i.e., wink, wink…just a reminder to those reading this — he is one of them.

Later in the discussion she writes,

As evangelicals began to mobilize as a partisan political force, they did so by rallying to defend “family values“. But family values politics was never about protecting the well-being of families generally. Fundamentally, evangelical “family values“ entailed the reassertion of patriarchal authority. At its most basic level, family values politics was about sex and power… Family values politics, then, involved the enforcement of women’s sexual and social subordination in the domestic realm and the promotion of American militarism on the national stage.

Du Mez simply asserts that the end goal of what she calls “family values” is political and not social. This is misdirection and plainly wrong. No, the goal of “family values” is and always was the well-being of families, despite what Du Mez believes are the political implications. Full stop.

Another technique is guilt by vague innuendo. In her discussion about the evangelical cult of masculinity she claims that,

… The vast majority of books on evangelical masculinity have been written by white men primarily for white men; to significant degree, the markets for literature on black and white Christian manhood remain distinct. With few exceptions, black men, Middle Eastern men, and Hispanic men are not called to be a wild, militant masculinity. Their aggression, by contrast, is seen as dangerous, a threat to the stability of home and nation.

It’s tough to know where to start with this. Who exactly is doing the “…not call[ing]…” or “…not see[ing]…” here? Apparently, we are to conclude that white evangelicals by way of their the white authors and their white readers are guilty of racism — or something. It’s not altogether clear. So, if there is a distinct literature aimed non-white men should it not be distinct? Should white men treat the problems of non-white men (if they are indeed different) as though they are the same as theirs? Wouldn’t white men writing for or about non-white men be seen as racist lecturing? Should the lesson about aggression be the same for a young male from the streets of the inner city as one stuck in the basement of his parent’s suburban home? It makes one wonder whether Du Mez really understands the evangelical take on masculinity beyond superficial political and race-driven platitudes.

To be clear, the evangelical church, and the church in general, has always been susceptible to corruption and straying from the truth — it has never been perfect nor will it ever be. The church needs to be reminded that Jesus himself reserved his harshest words for the religious types; and that the New Testament is full of unflattering images to illustrate. He likened the church to a tree with noisy birds roosting in its branches. He referred to tares amongst the wheat and goats amongst the sheep. In the culture of first century Judaism, Jesus would be speaking to men. What was true in the first century applies to the twenty-first. In this sense, Du Mez makes some valid points about the excesses of the church’s ongoing discussion about men’s issues.

But Du Mez’s overall argument seems to be that evangelical orthodoxy’s greatest sin is that it doesn’t line up with a religious rendering of secular progressive orthodoxy in regards to politics, masculinity, patriarchy and so on.

Start with the sins of Donald Trump and the evangelical support for such an amoral scoundrel. Without a doubt, Trump is a vulgar man as were the likes of many past presidents, Bill Clinton being a previous example. This isn’t news to evangelicals. Politics is a nasty business and in order to accomplish anything any president worth his salt has a streak of ruthlessness in him, and, as such, are often grievously flawed. The Bible is full of such flawed “heroes.” Israel’s greatest king, King David, was a warlord, a racketeer, an adulterer and a murderer. The Bible says that God wouldn’t allow him to build the temple in Jerusalem because of his blood-soaked hands. Instead, he saved that task for his grievously-flawed son Solomon.

Call it the evangelical version of realpolitik, but evangelical support for a president is predicated on perceived competence, an adherence to a set of fundamental social principles and a willingness to stand up to and weather the attacks from the powers and principalities of the secular world. One example is abortion: his or her stance against it is a given. Support for the nation of Israel is another. Unlike previous presidents Trump saw through the promise to move the capital of Israel to Jerusalem and spawned the Abraham accords in spite of the conventional wisdom of naysayers, protests from the BDS movement and resistance from the veins of anti-Semitism running through our political culture. On these issues Trump’s accomplishments shine.

All of this “trumps” the cynical media’s guffawing and feigned indignation about the president’s moral character as such cynicism and indignation disappear once “their guy” is in office. Moreover, as the saying goes, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future; no one is beyond redemption. In the minds of evangelicals God can use anyone to advance his purposes — even a scoundrel like Donald Trump.

But the main thrust of the book is Du Mez’s criticism of “militant masculinity.” From the introduction,

But 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 enshrined 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 the derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they resolve to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.

Aside from her snarky tone she simply gets evangelical’s picture of Jesus wrong. It is quite clear that the Jesus of the Gospels was no wuss — evangelicals get that part right. The Romans did not execute Jesus for being too nice a guy and the Jewish authorities did not hate him for no good reason. He was perceived as a threat. The portrayal of the “gentle Jesus” roaming about the fields of Galilee needs to be balanced with the one starting a fight as he flipped over tables in the Jerusalem temple. The masculine Jesus of the New Testament is multifaceted — the “warrior” Christ of the book of Revelation is Jesus too despite the implied “militancy.”

The question is what sort of masculinity would replace the “militant” one? To be sure, Jesus shouldn’t be likend to a gun-toting, tobacco-chewing good ol’ boy from Alabama, but what should a masculine Jesus look like? Regarding “militancy,” the Gospels and Acts generally portray military types (mainly Roman soldiers) in a positive light and Paul often uses martial images in his writings as well. I dare say that some early readers of the New Testament who had been on the receiving end of Roman brutality would have frowned at this as much as Du Mez does John Wayne in the modern age.

Is the “brand” of masculinity at issue? Or, is it the notion of masculinity itself? The often clumsy treatment of the subject of masculinity by evangelicals is aimed at getting men into church — reaching them via their natural inclinations as male image bearers of God. The trick is, as always, to handle the “sin” side of the image-bearing equation.

Men have serious issues in American culture. Suicides are at epidemic levels, especially amongst middle-aged white men. Young black men murder each other at levels that are off the charts and young men in general suffer from depression and anxiety at alarmingly high rates. Men of all ages are increasingly disengaged from family and life in society whether through singleness, divorce or otherwise. The works of people like Jordan Peterson and Aaron Renn go to great lengths to engage men, encouraging them to embrace their proclivities as men while warning them of the darker side of their gender.

Du Mez seems to treat masculinity itself as a cult or an ideology, as though the nature of men is malleable and can be reinvented according to the fashion of the day. As such, she is drifting along the cultural current that gender is purely a social construct and has no basis in biology. Evangelicals in general hold fast to the notion that masculinity, like human nature, is fixed and gender is binary however unfashionable it may be.

And then there is patriarchy.

As far as an “enshrined” authoritarian patriarchy goes, the question is, as opposed to what? An enshrined authoritarian matriarchy? Patriarchy has been the norm throughout time and across cultures. Like it or not, in the scope of human history patriarchy works and matriarchy doesn’t. Witness the American inner city where upwards of 70 percent of households are headed by women. The underlying cause of many of our modern cultural maladies that are, as Du Mez herself might put it, “fracturing the country,” is due to the defacto matriarchy in many American subcultures. As a root cause this is a well-known but rarely acknowledged phenomenon. Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out the alarming breakdown of the family in the black community more than 50 years ago. Things have only gotten worse since then. For a more recent treatment read Coming Apart by sociologist Charles Murray or Fatherless America by David Blankenhorn, among others.

Replacing patriarchy with some sort of utopian egalitarian ideal is the real thrust behind the call to “dismantle” patriarchy. Egalitarianism is a fanciful mirage as the history of the twentieth century bears witness. Here we go again in the twenty first. Recent comments by 1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones, for example, reveal the naïveté regarding the discrepancy between the promise and the reality of equality in the wake of recent Cuban protests. In classic bait-and-switch form, such notions of a promised utopian egalitarianism always descend into some sort of authoritarian, oligarchical hierarchy.

Du Mez concludes her book as follows,

…understanding the catalyzing role militant Christian masculinity has played over the past half century is critical to understanding American Evangelicalism today, and the nation’s fractured political landscape. Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it. What was once done might also be undone.

Here is where Du Mez takes a hard turn. The nation’s “fractured political landscape” is a result of an already fractured social one. In many respects masculinity and patriarchy have already been dismantled and the results have been disastrous. The current cultural turmoil is a result of two very different views of humanity. One sees human nature as fixed and permanent and must be dealt with as given. The other sees it as malleable to be recreated or refashioned at will in the image of someone or something else or dismantled entirely.

Such “dismantling” without thought as to what might take its place is simply destruction. How this all turns out is anyone’s guess.

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