In a little over a week, my new book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation will find its way into the world. When I started the project, I couldn’t have imagined the world it would be launching into. Now, with the release date quickly approaching, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on the winding history of the book itself.
The project’s origins go back to around 2004 or 2005, my first years teaching at Calvin University (then College). Struggling as I was to keep up with new course preps, I looked for every opportunity to bring my own expertise to bear on survey material. For a course on US history from 1877-1920, this looked like a unit on Teddy Roosevelt, a unit largely based on Gail Bederman’s analysis of Roosevelt through the lens of race, gender, and power in her masterful book Manliness and Civilization. Bederman had been one of my graduate mentors, and she was the professor who first introduced me to gender as a category of analysis. Coming from a small Christian undergraduate institution where I hadn’t even had a female professor, I was fascinated with how ideas of femininity and masculinity not only changed over time, but were connected to economics, religion, race, and even foreign policy. In my own classroom I wanted to open my students’ eyes in similar ways. That semester, it worked.
Like me, my students were shocked by how attention to race, gender, and power challenged their received narratives, how the old stories about Teddy Roosevelt suddenly seemed insufficient. One day after class, some of my (white, male) students approached me. I can’t remember now if they had a book in hand, or only told me I needed to read it: John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart.
Eldredge’s book was all the rage at that time on Christian college campuses and in evangelical churches. It wasn’t long before my own church was hosting a men’s Bible study on it, and soon after a women’s Bible study on the book’s feminine counterpart, Captivated. My students wanted me to read the book because Roosevelt was one of Eldredge’s heroes, for the very reasons that Bederman had deconstructed in Manliness and Civilization. (Roosevelt wasn’t Eldredge’s only hero; other favorites included mythical cowboys and American soldiers, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and of course Mel Gibson’s William Wallace.)
Trained to see the connection between gender and nation, my students sensed that there was something significant going on in a book most critics brushed off as trivial or even laughable. (The book went on to sell more than four million copies in the US alone.) This was the era of the Iraq War, a time when evangelical militarism was in full throttle. Evangelicals not only supported the war in Iraq at rates far higher than other demographics, but they also supported preemptive war generally, condoned the use of torture, fueled a virulent islamophobia, and provided crucial support for a president pursuing “shock and awe” tactics on the global stage. It was to explore connections between evangelical gender ideals and foreign policy that I first began my research into the book that became Jesus and John Wayne.
In 2006 I gave my first talk on the subject, “Onward Christian Warriors.” The talk was sponsored by Calvin University’s Paul Henry Institute, and it didn’t draw a huge crowd. But after I’d finished speaking there was a line of young Christian men waiting to talk to me, thanking me and urging me to keep going with this research. “There’s so much more,” they told me.
I kept up the research into evangelical masculinity and militarism for a year or two, but eventually I decided to set it aside for a time. The most pressing reason was that I was finishing up my first book and realized that writing two books with two (later three) young children at home was…challenging. But there were other reasons, too. Frankly, I found the topic incredibly disheartening. I was discovering disturbing patterns of thinking that appeared to have radical repercussions. At the same time, it wasn’t entirely clear to me how mainstream these patterns were. As a person of faith myself, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to dedicate myself to a project intent on shining a bright light on the dark underbelly of American Christianity. Today, I’m troubled by that protectionist instinct.
I finished my first book, a study of Christian feminism in which early-twentieth-century Methodist women played center stage, but instead of returning to the study of evangelical masculinity, I’d become distracted by another project involving a progressive Methodist feminist—Hillary Clinton. I began to investigate her fascinating religious formation and start to piece together the way her story had been shaped by (and had shaped) the contours of American religious history. And then she declared for president.
It was with an eye on Clinton that I spent much of 2015 and 2016 closely tracking white evangelicals’ political affinities and watching them slowly coalesce behind Donald Trump. The first inklings of this affinity seemed to come from grassroots evangelicals, not from elites. By early 2016, evangelical leaders had begun to follow suit.
By the summer of 2016, white evangelicals were solidly in Trump’s camp. (Together with a student research assistant, I reflected on this phenomenon here at Patheos in what would become my most widely read blog post.) But then, in October, the Access Hollywood tape released. I remember the day well, because the next morning I was scheduled to give a live TV interview with CTV on what to expect in the second presidential debate. The question everyone was asking (except, it turned out, my interviewer, who was more curious about the software program I used to do a linguistic analysis of the candidates’ speeches) was: Will white evangelicals abandon Trump?
Over the next week I watched closely, as several prominent evangelical women expressed their disgust with the Republican candidate and disappointment with fellow evangelicals for supporting him. I watched other evangelical leaders waver in their support for Trump. Within the next couple of weeks, however, I saw evangelical support return to nearly full strength. It was then that things clicked for me. I dusted off my earlier research on evangelical masculinity and militarism.
One month later voters went to the polls, and white evangelicals elected Donald Trump to the presidency. The election had helped clarify for me the question of mainstream vs. margins. Timed to Trump’s inauguration, I published a preview of what would become Jesus and John Wayne at Religion & Politics, and the response to the essay convinced me to set aside the Clinton project to write this book first.
I had the assistance of a fabulous team of student researchers who worked tirelessly to gather sources and track down leads. By May 2018 I had a contract in hand with my dream publisher, and so began an intense year of writing. As tends to happen, the project morphed as I wrote. One of the trickiest problems I faced was where to begin. I’d wanted to focus on the 1970s to the present, but I knew I needed to go back earlier, at least to the 1940s, but possibly to the 1920s or 1910s, or maybe even to the 1870s… (A common dilemma for historians, I know.) The project became more expansive in other ways, as well. When my agent was first shopping the proposal around, one editor told me point blank that what I really had here was a new history of evangelicalism. I pushed back. I was after something far less ambitious. I simply wanted to trace a strand within white evangelicalism and keep a more modest focus. Two or three months later, after I’d signed with my publisher and plunged into writing, I found myself wrestling with a couple of chapters at the heart of the book and trying to map out intricate connections between individuals and institutions, networks and markets. Suddenly it dawned on me: I was writing a new history of evangelicalism. The editor’s words came back to me and I felt a pang of guilt for rejecting his insight. (And yes, we’ve been in touch since and I did confess to him that he’d been right all along.)
As I wrote, I realized that simply by following my sources I was backing into a couple of historiographical positions that I hadn’t initially anticipated. First, I found that dominant theological definitions of evangelicalism were insufficient to my purposes. I wasn’t, however, interested in replacing existing rubrics or definitions. Rather than looking for a timeless rubric that could “define” evangelicalism, I wanted to examine evangelicalism as a religious and cultural movement in a particular historical moment, less as a tradition and more as an amorphous but intricately connected network that surfaces questions of boundaries and power, where theological and institutional histories are not disconnected from histories of race, gender, and nation.
As I parsed together this story (with the help of sticky notes and wall charts and, again, my fabulous student researchers), I began to see that parts of this story had already been mapped by journalists who had been painstakingly tracking the rise of the Religious Right as a political movement. Books by Chris Hedges, Jeff Sharlet, and Michelle Goldberg provided critical insight into the behind-the-scenes power brokers that religious historians frequently overlooked, and more recent additions like Anne Nelson’s Shadow Network and Katherine Stewart’s Power Worshippers continue in this tradition. Among historians of evangelicalism, however, these books had frequently been disregarded, written off as overblown or agenda-driven, or simply ignored. Part of the reason for this dismissal, I think, was the assumption that good social and religious history should focus on understanding historical actors with empathy, and on their own terms. Brilliant contributions such as Marie Griffith’s God’s Daughters and Kate Bowler’s Blessed bear out the virtues of this approach. But at least part of the reluctance to engage this literature also seemed to have something to do with the fact that many histories of evangelicalism were written by evangelicals themselves—evangelicals who had an insider perspective on the tradition. It wasn’t that these scholars had been uncritical—George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Joel Carpenter, and many others had critiqued the tradition from within, often in gentle, loving, and lamenting tones. Even so, as academics (and it may also be worth mentioning, as respected white evangelical men), their vantage point was a privileged one that revealed some facets of the tradition (its intellectual and theological underpinnings) more clearly than others (its more popular and populist manifestations).
I grew up “evangelical adjacent” in a small town in Iowa, part of a Reformed Christian subculture that had long identified itself against American evangelicalism (as well as against secular society). Looking back, I can see that it was largely through popular culture that evangelicalism made inroads into my Dutch ethnic community—the local Christian bookstore sold books that were decidedly not Reformed in their theology, as well as the latest CCM cassettes and all varieties of religious knickknacks. More significantly, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio infiltrated via local airwaves on a daily basis.
It was my own immersion in the popular culture of evangelicalism that gave me some credibility in evangelical circles once I left my hometown, but as a woman, my place was never at (or even near) the center of power. (For Black Christians who have spent time in white evangelical circles, this distance from the centers of power is often far greater.) My own experience, together with my training in the methods of cultural history, inspired the underlying questions I brought to Jesus and John Wayne.
How might our histories of evangelicalism change when we observe the tradition not from the centers of power, but rather from the margins?
How might a critical attention to power change the stories we tell? And what happens if we don’t dismiss abuses of power within evangelicalism (and evangelical politics) as deviations from the norm, but rather as logical outcomes of the system itself?
What happens if we don’t always take evangelical leaders (or followers) at their word, but explore the ways their religious beliefs reflect and reinforce deep cultural loyalties and prejudices?
How might new perspectives shift what counts as the mainstream within evangelicalism and what gets relegated to the margins? And might this shift necessarily require us to reassess the nature of evangelical leadership, and perhaps the nature of evangelicalism itself?
I don’t claim to offer definitive answers to all of these questions. At most, I hope to have sharpened the questions in a way that opens up new avenues for exploration and new possibilities for conversation and collaboration among scholars and journalists, insiders and outsiders.
Jesus and John Wayne explores all of these questions through a cast of characters that includes Billy Graham, Bill Gothard, Tim LaHaye, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, and Mark Driscoll, but also Ollie North, Jerry Falwell Jr, Eric Metaxas, the Duck Dynasty clan, and, of course, John Wayne. It is a history that takes popular culture seriously, and refuses to separate religion from politics. Ultimately, I think the book does deliver on its promise to show how white evangelicals transformed the faith itself, and how they’ve brought the nation to our fractured state.
Now, back to that other project: Hillary Clinton and the Polarization of American Christianity.