Cowboy Christianity: A Short Review of Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne

Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne has struck a chord with both Christians and non-Christians. It was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and received social media recommendations from Beth Moore, Jemar Tisby, Karen Swallow Prior, and Duke Kwon. As a historian, Du Mez charts the rise of “militant white masculinity” (p. 4) among evangelicals in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Her conclusion is that “evangelical support for Trump [was] the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad” (p. 3). Because this review will be net negative, I’d like to begin with the positive aspects of the book, those which make it so compelling to so many people, including a large swath of conservative evangelicals.

A Needed Critique

The relevance of the book is perhaps best understood by working backwards chronologically. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, sociologists and political scientists tried to understand how Trump became president with overwhelming evangelical support. Many evangelicals were asking exactly the same question: “How could evangelicals who’d turned ‘WWJD’ (‘What Would Jesus Do?’) into a national phenomenon justify their support for a man who seemed the very antithesis of the savior they claimed to emulate” (p. 3).

But Trump’s election alone doesn’t explain the book’s popularity. The rise of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements also caused Christians to ask hard questions about sexual abuse within the church. In Chapter 16, Du Mez documents scandal after scandal among conservative evangelical leaders, especially those who were at the time vocally fighting the “culture war.” Rape, adultery, pedophilia and, perhaps even more troubling, consistent denials or cover-ups are horrific in any institution, but how much more among people who claim to be serving God? Other rockstar pastors of the evangelical world like Mark Driscoll, Darrin Patrick, and James McDonald who had “all risen to prominence through their aggressive promotion of patriarchal power” (p. 275) were entangled in various scandals and were ousted from their positions. At the very least, evangelicals should recognize that putting immense unchecked power (or power that is checked only by a hand-picked group of yes-men) into the hands of any one pastor is exceptionally dangerous. Something is surely sick about a church’s culture when abusive leaders can command such a following for such long periods of time.

Another valid criticism pertains to the rise of Christian “militarism.” Here, I’m using the term to narrowly refer to reflexive, jingoistic enthusiasm for the U.S. military and warfare in general. Du Mez documents how evangelical Christians are consistently among the most supportive of warfare. For instance “After the Tet Offensive in the summer of 1968, a poll revealed support for continued bombing and an increase in US military intervention ‘among 97 percent of Southern Baptists, 91 percent of independent fundamentalists, and 70 percent of Missouri Synod Lutherans'” (p. 50). I’m inclined to agree that evangelicals have not thought carefully about just war theory and tend to simply rubber stamp the actions of their political allies in Washington. I can’t remember the last time a conservative evangelical leader insisted that a particular war or military action did not meet the criteria for a just war, and that should give us pause.

Evangelicals who downplay or ignore these issues are foolish at best. The Bible repeatedly warns us that we are to examine our own sin harshly and seriously before turning our gaze to anyone else. That admonition should be extrapolated to the sins of our local church, the sins of our denomination, and the sins of our theological tradition. I suspect that it is Du Mez’s willingness to pry up the floorboards and point out the cockroaches that has made her book so popular. Yet even if we greatly appreciate this crucial enterprise, we must still evaluate the book’s overall framework. And here, conservative evangelicals have reason for concern.

Making arguments without making arguments

While J&JW is frequently presented as a “history of evangelicalism” (see the back cover), it’s important to recognize that it is inescapably normative. In other words, it is not merely describing what happened, it is also making value judgments about what happened. We see this normative posture in the book’s subtitle: “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” Similarly, the book’s final paragraph states that “Although the evangelical cult of masculinity stretches back decades, its emergence was never inevitable…Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is… essential for those who wish to dismantle it. What was once done might be undone.” (p. 304). In between Du Mez talks about how “Doug Wilson, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, James Dobson, Doug Phillips, and John Eldredge all preached a mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity–of patriarchy and submission, sex and power [which] transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into an image of their own making” (p. 294). There’s little question that Du Mez is not merely analyzing historical trends, but is also urging us to resist or reverse the “corruption” caused by “conservative white evangelicals.”

Yet there are two serious problems with this position.

First, Du Mez offers no exegesis of key biblical passages about gender, power, or authority. Indeed, the book offers little if any theological reflection at all on these issues. Rather, it simply assumes without argument that the conservative views it describes are perversions of genuine Christianity. Yet how can we know whether that’s the case in the absence of appeals to Scripture? Granted, the cultural zeitgeist is surely on Du Mez’s side. Yet this is dangerous ground for a Christian. One could easily imagine giving a parallel historical account of how an adherence to Protestant theology has led to religious wars over the centuries. Or how a belief in the divinity of Christ has led to the persecution of Jewish people. But the falsehood of Protestant theology or the divinity of Christ would not be demonstrated by these accounts. They might function well as propaganda, but not as valid argumentation. The claim that white evangelicals “corrupted” Christianity is a theological one; therefore, it cannot be supported by bare historical analysis.*

Second, serious problems arise when we place Du Mez’s various normative claims in the context of broader Christian history, such as her claim that evangelicals corrupted our nation’s understanding of masculinity and femininity. Even the most cursory glance at church history shows that this assertion is implausible. Here I could quote Chrysostom, or Augustine, or Luther, or Spurgeon, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make the point that male headship in marriage and in the church is not a modern invention. Indeed, quoting these authors would reveal far more, as many of them made extraordinarily sexist comments that make conservative 20th-century evangelicals sound like Betty Friedan. If history shows us anything, it is not how masculinity was co-opted by evangelicals, but how millennia-old understandings of gender rapidly vanished during the 20th century, except for a few enclaves within conservative evangelicalism. For the record, I think that many of these revisions were healthy. However, Du Mez’s book gets the trajectory exactly backwards.

What is “patriarchal”?

One of the main targets of Jesus and John Wayne is a “patriarchal” vision of masculinity. Du Mez’s thesis is that this understanding of gender is a corruption of the faith. I’ve already discussed the problems of levelling any kind of normative critique without an appeal to the Bible. However, it’s also worth noting just how expansive this (negative) category is.

On the one hand, Du Mez legitimately criticizes the tendency of evangelicals to remake Jesus in their image, as when Bruce Barton presented Jesus as a “‘winner,’ a strong, ‘magnetic’ man… who could ‘inspire great enthusiasm and build great organizations'” (p. 20). She also rightly criticizes the absolutization of gender stereotypes (e.g. boys play with trucks, girls wear bows) and silly activities like those at GodMen revivals where “participants watched video slips of ‘karate fights, car chases, and “Jackass”-style stunts,’ offered prayers of thanks to God for their testosterone, and raised their voices in ‘manly’ anthems like ‘Grow a Pair” (p. 187).

Yet her criticism of “evangelical masculinity” is wide-ranging. For example, in Chapter 4 – “Discipline and Command” she simultaneously criticizes Rousas Rushdoony and James Dobson. Rushdoony “opposed interracial marriage, looked unfavorably on the education of African Americans and women, and disapproved of women’s suffrage and of women speaking in public” (p. 75), In contrast, James Dobson argued that men like sports and hunting, while women don’t (p. 82-83) and that it’s a “mistake to tamper with the time-honored relationship of husband as loving protector and wife as recipient of that protection” (p. 83). Yet she writes “At the center of Dobson’s worldview–and that of many conservative evangelicals–was the strict enforcement of patriarchal authority” (p. 86). In her mind, both of these men are upholding the patriarchy, albeit in different ways and to different degrees.

Similarly, she devotes an entire section (in Chapter 9 – “Tender Warriors”) to the Promise Keepers movement, which promoted the idea of “servant leadership [through] obligation, sacrifice, and service” (p. 153). She refers to this idea as a “patriarchal bargain” (p. 154). In the same chapter, she describes the creation of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood as an attempt to “fashion a scriptural defense of patriarchy” (p. 166). The Danvers Statement too, which dictated that “a husband’s headship [should] be humble and loving rather than domineering,” is characterized as “a biblical defense of patriarchy and gender difference” (p. 167). Finally, she writes that “CBMW and [Southern Baptist] seminaries [helped] build a network of evangelicals committed to advancing a patriarchal version of Christianity” (p. 168).

Based on comments like these, Du Mez is not merely criticizing particular expressions of gender roles but the very existence of gender roles, either in the church or in the family. Here, the omission of any kind of biblical argument for her position becomes particularly noticeable. Certainly, complementarians can try to appreciate the truth in some of Du Mez’s critiques. But we have to do so with the understanding that she is operating from an entirely different understanding of gender roles.

Deconstructing Power

The main focus of J&JW is gender, but in Du Mez’s view, gender is intimately tied to ideas of race, power, authority, militarism, and even theology more broadly. For example, in her discussion of the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist convention, she writes that “the battle over inerrancy was in part a proxy fight over gender” (p. 108). She continues:

Al Mohler, who oversaw the purging of moderates from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, offered a revealing glimpse into this process: ‘Mr. And Mrs. Baptist may not be able to understand or adjudicate the issue of biblical inerrancy when it comes down to nuances, and language, and terminology,’ he acknowledged. ‘But if you believe abortion should be legal, that’s all they need to know…’ The same went for ‘homosexual marriage.’ Inerrancy mattered because of its connection to cultural and political issues. It was in their efforts to bolster patriarchal authority that South Baptists united with evangelicals across the nation… Patriarchy was at the heart of this new sense of themselves (p. 109)

Needless to say, this view of the fight over inerrancy is extremely cynical (see the more complete quote from Mohler for a better sense of his intention). It implies that conservatives didn’t really care about inerrancy, but merely used it as a tool for a particular political program. It’s natural to wonder what effect this kind of deconstruction will have on other theological issues. As it turns out, Du Mez makes this connection explicit later in the book.

In Chapter 11, Du Mez critiques the New Calvinist movement, along with related groups such as Acts 29, the Gospel Coalition, and Together for the Gospel. These organizations, she argues, are responsible for allowing fringe views held by figures like Douglas Wilson and Doug Phillips to go mainstream through conferences and parachurch organizations. In the chapter’s closing paragraphs, she writes the following:

Within this expanding [evangelical] network, differences…could be smoothed over in the interest of promoting ‘watershed issues’ like complementarianism, the prohibition of homosexuality, the existence of hell, and substitutionary atonement. Most foundationally, they were united in a mutual commitment to patriarchal power… Over time, a common commitment to patriarchal power began to define the boundaries of the evangelical movement itself, as those who ran afoul of these orthodoxies quickly discovered. Evangelicals who offered competing visions of sexuality, gender, or the existence of hell found themselves excluded from conferences and associations, and their writings banned from popular evangelical bookstores and distribution channels. (p. 204)

The referent of the phrase “these orthodoxies” is incredibly important. It refers here to what follows: “competing visions of sexuality, gender, or the existence of hell.” Moreover, these doctrines are taken to be synonymous with “the boundaries of the evangelical movement” which are defined by “a common commitment to patriarchal power.”

The implications of this statement are troubling, to put it mildly. If “patriarchal authority” is not only broad enough to include all complementarian views but is also the motive force behind evangelical commitment to a traditional view of inerrancy, gender, sexuality, the existence of hell and even substitutionary atonement, what happens if we commit ourselves to deconstructing “the patriarchy”? Worse still, how can we defend these doctrines on the ground that they’re biblical? Such an attempt could merely be dismissed as an effort to “protect patriarchal power,” whether it comes from a man (“male privilege”) or a woman (“internalized sexism”).


I sincerely wish that this book had been written by a complementarian. But I just as sincerely wish that this book had been written by an egalitarian. Or a radical feminist. What do I mean? I mean that I wish the book had been written by someone who was explicit about their own theological commitments, who made overt appeals to the Bible, and who provided arguments for their claims. As it stands, the book subtly encourages a very corrosive approach to doctrine, one that appeals to our reflexive moral intuitions and to skepticism towards power rather than to exegesis or to careful argumentation. If we begin to see doctrines as expressions of privilege, rather than as objective truth claims made by Scripture, it will be difficult to turn back. This approach, once embraced, is spiritually deadly.

Without question, all Christians can learn from J&JW; its critiques of the horrifying scandals and abuses that have plagued the evangelical church over the last few decades are sorely needed. But I hope that we’ll also keep our eyes open. To adapt C.S. Lewis: the safest road to deconstruction is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

Related articles:

Other quotes:

“Christian nationalism–the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such–serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology” (p. 4)

“what sort of Jesus are [evangelicals] imagining? Is their savior a conquering warrior, a man’s man who takes no prisoners and wages holy war? Or is he a sacrificial lamb who offers himself up for the restoration of all things? How on answers these questions will determine what it looks like to follow Jesus.” (p. 5)

“For conservative white evangelicals, the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity” (p. 6-7).

“conservative Christians define the greater good in terms of Christian nationalism…[the] conflation of God and country” (p. 117).

“Having embraced the military, evangelicals would find it difficult to articulate a critique of militarism” (p. 131)

“[the crusade theory of warfare] could be employed to justify aggression against threats both foreign and domestic. Among Christian nationalists, it could effectively sanctify any engagement where the United States resorted to force” (p. 132)

“As for its ‘unmistakable’ presence [of masculine warrior imagery] in Scripture, no one could debate the warrior imagery of the Old Testament, but Weber insisted that God was the warrior of both testaments” (p. 165)

“this new position of the Baptist Faith and message [rooted the submission of women in the pre-Fall creation, not as a result of the Fall–overturning previous characterizations of submission issued in 1984” (p. 169) cites Dowland and Flowers, not BFM. 1984 resolution, “Resolution On Ordination And The Role Of Women In Ministry”: While Paul commends women and men alike in other roles of ministry and service (Titus 2:1-10), he excludes women from pastoral leadership (1 Tim. 2:12) to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall (1 Tim. 2:13ff)”

“For many evangelicals, the masculine values men like John Wayne, William Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, Jordan Peterson, and Donald Trump embody have come to define evangelicalism itself” (p. 301).

*Sentence added 3/15/21 to clarify what “normative” means in the context of claims about Christianity being “corrupted”