Jesus and Ronald Reagan
*Why no picture: I have tried to find a picture of Ronald Reagan that would fit here but none will be allowed due to limitations of size (number of pixels).*
*Note: If you comment, do not include any links or photos. Also, please keep it calm. Thank you.*
*Note: Kristin du Mez is annoyed that some men are reviewing her book without reading it—as she should be. But, as I have here before, with other books, I am reviewing it as I read it. I earlier responded to an interview with Du Mez, but I did not there say I was responding to the book. My immediately preceding post, “Jesus and Roy Rogers,” was the beginning of my review series. What follows here is the second part of the review and I am reading the book.*
I am continuing a series about the background to white American evangelicals’ love affair with Donald Trump and the Trumpist Republican Party using Kristin Kobe Du Mez’s book “Jesus and John Wayne.” However, you don’t have to read the book to understand what I say here and in this series generally. However, it would help. I highly recommend a critical reading of the book. It is an insightful, if somewhat biased (IMHO), perspective on the subject.
The first post in this series was the most recent one: “Jesus and Roy Rogers.” You might want to begin by reading that one. Here I am responding to Chapter Two: “John Wayne Will Save Your Ass.” (That’s part of a quote; the longer version is “Jesus will save your soul, but John Wayne will save your ass.”)
In Chapter Two Du Mez (or is it Kobe Du Mez?) tells her story, based on her research, of white American evangelicalism and politics in the 1950s through the 1980s. I’m sure there is more of the story yet to come in the book.
Du Mez knows the facts, the events, from her research; I lived through the events she recounts as facts. I won’t quarrel with her facts. All I want to say is that it is one thing to study them and something else to live through them.
One of my earliest memories is of seeing President Eisenhower. My family and I were watching a parade through downtown—from the third floor of a large parking garage. President and Mrs. Eisenhower rode in an open car below us. I could tell that my parents were excited. I was only about seven or eight, so I didn’t understand why.
My parents and probably most of our church members (like most white American evangelicals) supported Nixon in all of the elections in which he ran for president. They also supported Goldwater versus Johnson. Why? Du Mez thinks white American evangelicals’ support for Goldwater and Nixon and later Reagan had something to do with John Wayne—indirectly, of course. That is, it had something to do with the rise of militant masculinity as a guiding norm among white American evangelicals.
It’s worth considering, although it doesn’t explain why most white American evangelicals supported Jimmy Carter. She acknowledges that but skims over it. To me, the turn away from Carter to Reagan was an enormous “sea change” in white American evangelicals’ political posture. It’s possible that Carter was perceived as too soft on Iran or just too soft. Who can say for sure?
Frankly, this chapter embarrassed me. Reading it was like reading someone writing about my family and dragging all the skeletons out of our family closet. I won’t deny for a moment that something changed in white American evangelicalism during the time period under consideration. I felt it. Whatever it was, for me, it went too far—especially when my fellow evangelicals supported Reagan against Carter. By that time I was in seminary and joining what Du Mez (and others) call “the evangelical left.” I don’t think any of us were then or are now really “leftists” in a full ideological sense. Our political posture, however, leaned more toward the socialist side than the unfettered capitalist side and we saw enemies besides communism and “the evil empire” of the Soviet Union.
I will save my comments about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the New Religious Right tribe for later. Du Mez hasn’t really gotten there yet.
Back to the 1960s. We, white American evangelicals, like many others, were terrified of communism. I well remember in the late 1950s and into the 1960s having nuclear “fall out” drills in schools and learning where the nearest fall out shelters were located. We half expected a nuclear war with the Soviet Union at any time. Du Mez acknowledges that terror but I don’t think she quite understands what it was like and why so many Americans became petrified about the Soviet Union and China. As the terror grew, many of us looked for a leader who would really stand up to the communists. Jimmy Carter just didn’t seem like that guy. (However, I voted for him—against Reagan.)
Somehow or other, our anti-communism became blended with our evangelicalism and I think that is what led to white American nationalism even among evangelicals. Alongside that was our horror at the sexual revolution of the 1960s and other rapid changes taking place in American culture, society, and the world generally.
I do not recall that in “my evangelicalism” John Wayne held any special place of honor or respect. But Ronald Reagan did. Maybe there was some connection, but the 1970s and 1980s evangelicals I knew and rubbed shoulders with did not consider John Wayne anyone special. Most of them did consider Ronald Reagan someone special. And that because he stood up to “the evil empire.”
I know the story Du Mez tells very well, but her book is showing me a somewhat different angle on it—the angle that toxic, militant masculinity played a bigger role in the changes I experienced than I thought. I am pondering that as I read.
After about 1980 I could no longer consider myself “at one” with the majority of white Americans who called themselves evangelicals. When I taught at Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) in Minnesota from 1984 to 1999 I functioned as something of a subversive—doing my best, without risking getting fired, to undermine students’ prejudices. I probably didn’t do a very good job of that because I really didn’t want to rock the boat too much; I saw what happened when my friend and colleague Greg Boyd did that (unintentionally). And there were others before him.
My evangelical heroes during the 1980s and 1990s were Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, Tom Skinner, and Don Dayton. Don did his best to teach white American evangelicals about their spiritual ancestors in the 19th century who were in the forefront of social reforms. (See his book Discovering an Evangelical Heritage.) But I “adopted” other heroes who weren’t identified by themselves or others as evangelicals—Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Juergen Moltmann, Gustavo Gutierrez, Justo Gonzalez, Elaine Starkey, and, yes, even James Cone (although critically). I smuggled liberation theology into my classes and eventually taught elective seminars on the subject, especially at Truett Seminary. All through that time I lobbied in favor of egalitarianism, against racism, and for a modified kind of socialism. In presidential primaries I voted for Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and other left-wing candidates. Later I voted for Ralph Nader for president.
All that means I am NOT a white American evangelical, right? Some would say “Right!” And they would say it very loudly. I wonder what Du Mez would say?
Through all that time I served on the editorial board of “Christianity Today” and wrote numerous articles for CT (and also for “Christian Century!”) I served as chief editor of “Christian Scholar’s Review” and wrote books about evangelical theology published by leading evangelical publishers. I became part of the white American “evangelical establishment,” I guess.
The story Du Mez tells grieves me deeply because, even if I don’t entirely agree with her main thesis, I agree with her argument that sometime, somehow during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s white American evangelicalism went off the rails—if by “evangelicalism” we mean a movement.
I have argued here, and I wish Du Mez and others like her would “get it,” that there is a difference between the evangelical ethos and any evangelical movement. When I identify as evangelical I mean that I seek to embody and live according to the evangelical ethos, but I do not mean I identify with any particular evangelical movement. I once did, but it left me more than I left it.