Back in June, in anticipation of the book’s release, I published Jesus and John Wayne: the backstory. Now, nearly three months out from publication, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the book’s initial reception—more specifically, on the surprising (to me) way white evangelicals themselves have embraced the book.
Against all odds, the book found a small window into which to release in the midst of pandemic lockdowns, a summer of protest, and the general chaos that is 2020. Thanks to my fabulous publisher (W. W. Norton’s Liveright Publishing), the book received some early attention, most notably a pre-publication review at the Boston Globe, an interview with Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition the day it released, and coverage at Vox, The New Republic, and an array of other outlets.
With white evangelical support for Trump remaining the question of the hour, the book has continued to find a national audience, and indeed an international audience, with national media coverage in Germany, Australia, and China—and with coverage in the Netherlands and Japan coming soon.
Still, the book’s success thus far is largely due to its reception among white evangelicals themselves. As the subtitle suggests, the book is not a gentle one. One reviewer described it as “urgent” and “sharp-elbowed,” and I think that gets it exactly right. For this reason, I’d anticipated significant pushback from evangelical critics. Instead, I’ve been astounded by the gratitude expressed by evangelicals themselves.
The very first week, I started receiving letters from evangelical women and men who were reading the book. Nearly every letter contained some version of, “this is the story of my life.” Because Jesus and John Wayne is a cultural history of evangelicalism that focuses on evangelical popular culture, it tells a story that many ordinary evangelicals recognize as their own. In good evangelical fashion, nearly every writer has shared a personal testimony, describing specific ways in which their own lives align with the narrative of Jesus and John Wayne. All of these letters are fascinating, and many are deeply moving. More than one woman who has encountered the harsh edges of evangelical patriarchy has described writing to me “with tears streaming down” her face. Countless men have delineated how they’d been caught up in the teachings of militant Christian manhood, how most if not all fell short of the ideal (as nearly every many must), yet how they’ve also come to acknowledge their complicity in propping up this ideology for far too long.
I’ve been too overwhelmed to keep an accurate count of the number of letters I’ve received, but I’d estimate that they number around two hundred at this point in time. Most days I continue to receive several new messages, the vast majority from current or former white evangelicals, but also some from Black Christians and other people of color who have spent time in white evangelical circles where they frequently ran up against the intertwined racial and patriarchal power structures that define white evangelicalism.
Some of my letter writers have left the faith entirely, but many continue to be embedded in white evangelical churches and organizations. For many, Jesus and John Wayne reads almost like a family album, filled with stories of people and events with which they are intimately familiar, even as they acknowledge having never fully understood how all of the pieces fit together. As one man wrote, “I bumped up against a lot of these trees, but I never saw the forest before reading this book.” Many acknowledged that they’d been willing consumers of aspects of this faith, but never appreciated the full contours of the ideology they were participating in.
To be sure, Jesus and John Wayne wasn’t their first clue that something was amiss; the last four years have made this abundantly clear. But the book has filled in the missing pieces and connected the dots, helping individuals make sense of how a movement they thought they knew could end up promoting values diametrically opposed to the values they believe to be at the heart of the Christian faith.
Aarik Danielsen captured this sentiment well in a review of Jesus and John Wayne published at Christ & Pop Culture:
Jesus and John Wayne is history as confession, history as lament, a type of history that hopes in a God who never puts us to shame, even as hope in America does. Du Mez leaves us with both good and bad news. The bad news first: “the story” we are living through “does not begin with Donald Trump. Nor will it end with him.” This means the work of uprooting, of putting on and putting off, will extend well beyond this November, no matter its results.
The good news echoes Chesterton’s assertion that the “Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Early in the book, Du Mez calls our attention to the oft-obscured reality that white American evangelicalism is not “the only possible interpretation of the historic Christian faith; the history of American Christianity itself is filled with voices of resistance and signs of paths not taken.”
Reading between Du Mez’s lines means believing a more generous, balanced American Christianity is possible. A collective expression of faith that rejects patriarchy and shows of force has been left untried by too many white evangelicals. They have either been content to swim in this stream or felt afraid of what leaving the water might mean.
Let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear understand what Du Mez—and our moment—tells us. The church will tell and live a better story when we move strongmen out of the frame to focus on the man of sorrows.
I confess that when I finished writing Jesus and John Wayne, I did not have much hope for change. When pressed by my editor (“can you give us anything here, Kristin?) I added the final sentence of the book. Even as I did, it felt feeble. Since then, the outpouring of support I’ve received from disenchanted white evangelicals has given me reason to hope. Not just for American Christianity, but for the nation itself. It is, however, a measured hope.
Many of those who remain within evangelical churches and communities have been reluctant to speak out boldly against the corruptions of their faith that they now lament. Evangelical pastors know that by speaking out, they may well lose their jobs, and lose the chance to minister to people they believe they can still reach. Employees of evangelical organizations fear that they, too, may lose their livelihoods if they speak out. Perhaps even more coercively, the desire to maintain friendships, to avoid being disruptive, to keep peace in families and in churches has created and perpetuated a culture of silence. Even as there are many evangelicals who would resist the ideology of evangelical militancy that Jesus and John Wayne describes, there is still too often a balance of power that ensures that those voices remain muted. This balance of power explains why so many readers have not only thanked me for the book, but also thanked me for having the courage to write it. This speaks less to any courage that I might have than it does to the fact that they themselves are inhabiting spaces where expressing similar sentiments carries significant risk.
Right now, all eyes are on Nov. 3. I’m not foolish enough to try to predict the white evangelical vote. Some are suggesting that we might see some movement away from Trump, but I haven’t seen much evidence of that in my circles. For evangelical resistors, however, the concern extends beyond the election, to the future of their faith itself.
To achieve both political and religious change, boldness will be required, individually and collectively. For some white evangelicals, jobs may be lost and relationships frayed. But new institutions can also be established, new alliances forged, and some relationships reestablished on a more honest basis. Continuing in silence, however, may well endanger the viability of the faith, and quite possibly of American democracy.