Jesus and the 20 Percent
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I am still reading Kristin Kobe Du Mez’s book “Jesus and John Wayne,” but I have decided not to review it chapter-by-chapter here. In the future I may still respond to something in the book, or the book as a whole, but I don’t want to drag this out. I want to say something else about the subject matter.
Du Mez is telling us why eighty percent plus of white, American evangelicals voted for Trump in both of his presidential elections. She builds a strong case that a long history of patriarchy and distorted masculinity played a major role in that statistic. I could continue to point out flaws in her argument, but I’d rather not.
My concern here is to attempt to answer a different question—namely, why did about twenty percent of white evangelical Americans vote for Hilary Clinton and against Donald Trump. Given the evidence Du Mez marshals for her case, one might be surprised that as many as that voted for Clinton and against Trump. The portrait she paints of white American evangelicals is dark and depressing. Why the exceptions to it? Who are we white, American evangelicals who voted for Clinton and Biden and against Trump? Why didn’t all white American evangelicals vote for Trump?
I don’t have answers for all of us, the approximately twenty percent. But what saddens me is that now we are getting lumped in together with white American nationalists, misogynists, militant masculinists, simply because we still identify as evangelicals. Or we can stop identifying as evangelicals to avoid that. That is the route many of us have taken. I haven’t yet. I’m too stubborn and, as a scholar evangelical Christianity, I know it is a world wide spiritual-theological posture and not at all only American. In fact, I argue that most African-American Christians are evangelicals—in terms of their spiritual-theological ethos even if they don’t identify as evangelical.
All I can do is tell my story of why I belong to the almost twenty percent of white, American evangelicals who didn’t and don’t support Trump.
First of all, I think the region and type of evangelicalism in which I grew up has something to do with it. I grew up in the Upper Midwest among moderate Pentecostals who were quite ecumenical in terms of seeking out and enjoying real Christian fellowship with non-Pentecostals. But we, generally speaking, did not have Christian fellowship with real fundamentalists of the Independent Baptist, GARBC, or even Southern Baptist varieties. They rejected us even when we attempted to reach out to them. I was taught from a very early age that “we” were not “them.” In spite of being Pentecostal, we were also non-fundamentalist evangelicals. Conservative and orthodox in theology, sometimes agreeing with fundamentalists about doctrines, but not sharing their separatistic, theologically militant posture toward us and toward other Christians.
During my teen years I became deeply involved with Youth for Christ, a transdenominational youth-oriented evangelical organization that somehow or other began to affect me—moving me toward a “bigger tent” view of what it means to be authentically evangelical.
I was fortunate enough to attend and graduate from an excellent high school where I had very good teachers and classes and throughout high school (and even before) I read all kinds of books voraciously. I was a bookworm and a nerd and enjoyed drama club more than sports. (Although I “went out” for wrestling and enjoyed that very much.)
My college experience was extremely depressing. It was a Bible college that tried its best to make me fit into a certain mold into which I did not fit and could not fit. To illustrate—I loved all kinds of music. One day the president of the college discarded all non-sacred record albums from the school library. I was threatened with expulsion several times for not conforming to the ideals of the college, of a good Bible college student. I dared to ask questions that my teachers and the administrators found uncomfortable. I began to question some of the more extreme views with which I was surrounded, including extreme anti-communism and extreme American nationalism. I was uncomfortable with the prayer service where we were supposed to pray that God would deprive the Unitarian church across the street of their property and building so our college could have it. In short, I was labeled a rebel although I kept all the rules and some of the college’s leaders attempted to keep me from graduating. I suspect they were only not successful because my uncle was president of the denomination. I graduated magna cum laude but had difficulty getting that on my transcript.
I was blessed to attend a very moderate-to-progressive evangelical (Baptist) seminary where I was introduced to major moderate-to-progressive Bible scholars and theologians as well as to neo-orthodoxy or “dialectical theology” and to liberation theology and Juergen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg (through their writings).
I was accepted into a Ph.D program in Religious Studies at a major American secular university and had wonderful professors, met amazing special guest speakers and teachers, hobnobbed with world class theologians.
Through my seminary years and my doctoral studies I determined to remain evangelical but with a “difference.” I was determined to shed all remnants of fundamentalism and enter the mainstream of American evangelicalism and do my best to help it move beyond those remnants of fundamentalism that adhered to it (or that it adhered to).
I strongly disliked Carl Henry and his ilk of mainstream evangelical theologians. I gravitated toward Bernard Ramm, Donald Bloesch, Ron Sider, and others who Carl Henry later called, to me, personally, “mediating theologians” (as opposed to true evangelicals). I studied liberation theology and became sympathetic with it; I studied feminist theology and adopted total egalitarianism. I became anti-capital punishment, moderately socialist (under the influence of John Rawls and Juergen Moltmann), anti-nationalist (but still patriotic), anti-war (without adopting absolute pacifism), and pro-civil rights for all people without regard to race or ethnicity or gender. I voted for Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm in Democratic primaries.
And yet, through all of that, I was determined NOT to veer off into liberal theology. I read liberal theologians, belonged to three liberal congregations (in sequence), and experienced what I believed to be the spiritual-theological vacuity of liberal theology. I did not want to be that.
After receiving my Ph.D in Religious Studies and spending a year studying theology with Wolfhart Pannenberg in Munich, I found myself in the odd situation of having only one option for a full-time teaching position—at Oral Roberts University. How that came about I won’t tell here. I do feel now that I was sent there by God to undermine what students were hearing in chapel services (namely, the prosperity gospel of health and wealth) and introduce my students to real theology. I taught four classes of systematic theology as well as philosophy of religion and Christian ethics. I spent much of my class time “cleaning up” after chapel services. I knew I could not last at ORU as I saw Oral himself going insane (IMHO) and his son Richard moving up to replace him as leader of the university.
In 1984 I was offered a position teaching theology at Bethel College and Seminary (now Bethel University) in Minnesota. I thrived there for fifteen years and moved further in the direction of being a moderate-to-progressive evangelical, attending a Baptist church pastored by a woman and introducing my students to liberation theology. All was well until the open theism controversy broke out during which I did not identify as an open theist but defended open theism as a legitimate evangelical option—for which I was vilified by many conservative evangelicals becoming neo-fundamentalists.
During my time at Bethel I fully supported women in ministry, without limitations or qualifications, and equality of women with men in every area of society and church. I wrote several books of historical theology and was eventually recruited away from Bethel, at the height of the awful controversy over open theism, to teach theology at the relatively new Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. There I taught liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, all the while remaining solidly evangelical in terms of my commitment to the so-called “Bebbington Quadrilateral.” I eventually came to know David Bebbington personally, as well as many important evangelical and non-evangelical theologians, sociologists of religion, philosophers and others.
I supported Barak Obama in both elections. I developed the concept of “post-conservative evangelicalism” to counter the growing movements of neo-fundamentalism and American nationalism. I joined a Baptist congregation pastored by a woman. I encouraged women students to reject patriarchy and misogyny and I encouraged men students to be totally ethical in their thinking and acting toward women as well as other men.
As I read Du Mez’s account of white American evangelicalism I don’t see myself there. I and others like me considered Jack Hyles of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana someone not to take seriously. I and others like me were horrified by Jerry Falwell’s claim to speak for all evangelicals. I and others like me scoffed at Phyllis Schlafly and supported the ERA amendment and we considered Maribel Morgan and “The Total Woman” a joke.
I don’t recall ever considering John Wayne a Christian or a model of true masculinity for boys or men. I stayed loyal to Billy Graham while recognizing his mistakes even as he also recognized and admitted them. I wrote articles for “Christianity Today” and “Christian Century” and did my best, through my articles, to counter the rising tide of neo-fundamentalism among evangelicals. I wrote books like “Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology” and “How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative.”
I used my blog to criticize: American flags in Christian worship spaces and “God and Country worship services,” capital punishment, complementarianism, racism, unfettered capitalism, the United States’ mistreatment of immigrants, etc., etc. I very much wanted a woman to finally be president of the United States and voted for Hilary Clinton even while disagreeing with some of her policies. I gladly voted for Biden even while disagreeing with some of his (and the Democratic Party’s) policies. I never joined any political party.
Yet, through all of that I remained evangelical in terms of my spiritual-theological ethos and the only people I knew who questioned by evangelical credentials were people I consider neon-fundamentalists, strict inerrantists, heresy-hunters.
I will finish by asking Du Mez and others who highlight the eighty plus percent of white American evangelicals who voted for Trump—are we of the nearly twenty percent not also evangelicals? Is “evangelicalism” defined by political postures? Is white American evangelicalism so corrupted by toxic masculinity, nationalism, patriarchy and even misogyny that it is solidly defined by those attitudes and postures? Does the sordid history of white American evangelical (including fundamentalist and neo-fundamentalist) toxic masculinity define “evangelical Christianity?” I will keep reading “Jesus and John Wayne” and look for her answers there. But, so it seems to me so far, her book will contribute to the media stereotype of ALL white, American evangelicals as Trumpists.