THR Web Features   /   February 24, 2021

Engaging Jesus and John Wayne

In praise of nuance and self-reflection.

John D. Inazu

( A late evening thunderstorm lights up the sky above the Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado, August 2, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley))

I like well-written and well-argued controversial books. I like less the reviews and tweets about those books, which too often feel like fans cheering on opposing sides of a high-stakes sporting event, one rooting effusively and the other critiquing relentlessly. So I was pleasantly surprised by a recent Mere Orthodoxy symposium on Calvin University’s Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s new book, Jesus and John Wayne. The symposium included a laudatory review by Sean Michael Lucas and critical ones by Kirsten Sanders and Jamie Carlson.

Jesus and John Wayne’s subtitle makes clear that Du Mez takes us into contentious territory: “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” She makes a strong argument about the influences of toxic masculinity and unchecked patriotism on white evangelicalism. Lucas believes that Du Mez persuasively “connects the dots.” Carlson and Sanders both find Du Mez’s account less compelling.

Sanders notes, for instance, that Du Mez omits large swaths of white evangelicalism and suggests that Du Mez’s narrative assumes a great deal of causation. I had similar impressions reading the book. But Jesus and John Wayne is not a comprehensive history of a movement or all of its key figures—it is a story about important dimensions of evangelical culture related to gender and patriotism.  

Carlson suggests that Du Mez makes unsubstantiated claims and fails to cite “trustworthy sources.” This critique goes to the core of the academic craft, and Du Mez takes it seriously. In a thoughtful Twitter response to Carlson, Du Mez persuasively argues that her citation practices are the norm for crossover academic books. Still, Carlson and Sanders are right to suggest that Du Mez’s critics should focus on evidence-based arguments. And I would like to offer one such argument.

Du Mez mentions the United States Air Force Academy to illustrate a combustible mix of masculinity, patriotism, and evangelicalism, and then references “an epidemic of sexual assault within the ranks.” She writes:

Some estimates put the number of women victimized at nearly 20 percent of all female cadets, and it appeared that a systemic cover-up had been going on for years. Victims were blackmailed, threatened, or expelled, while the accused were ‘allowed to graduate with honors despite multiple accusations.’ At the time, the sexual assault scandal and the coercive religious atmosphere seemed like two distinct problems, connected only inasmuch as the academy was eager to avoid another public relations fiasco in the aftermath of disclosures of abuse. Yet there was another statistic that suggested the two problems might not be entirely disconnected; one in five cadets felt women didn’t belong among them.

In 2003, I was part of a Pentagon team tasked by the Secretary of the Air Force to review these allegations. I spent a year on the investigation, during which we interviewed hundreds of witnesses and examined thousands of pages of documents. I was also one of the principal drafters of the June 2003 report to the Secretary of the Air Force, which was subsequently reviewed by Department of Defense and Congressional investigations. All of this is to say I know something about the circumstances to which Du Mez refers. And her description is both wrong and tendentious.

As documented in the various reports and news coverage at the time, our investigation found little evidence of the charges Du Mez details. More importantly for Du Mez’s purposes, there was nothing to suggest that instances of sexual assault were linked to a “coercive religious atmosphere.” Du Mez’s support for her account is a 2008 book, With God on Our Side: One Man's War Against an Evangelical Coup in America's Military, written by Michael “Mikey” Weinstein and Davin Seay.

With God on Our Side focuses on Weinstein’s efforts to expose Christian influence at the Academy. I reviewed a number of Weinstein’s official complaints in my Pentagon job. And while my recollection of those complaints is less clear than my year-long work on the sexual assault investigation, my general sense is that while Weinstein had an axe to grind with the Academy, he also brought to light important issues related to Christian influence there. Much of that portion of Du Mez’s account rang true. But her attempt to connect Christian influence and sexual assault at the Academy is simply unsubstantiated. And its inclusion in her book is not simply another vignette; it is an effort to link the bad actors in her account to other bad things, and it illustrates the kinds of concerns raised by both Sanders and Carlson.

I’ve detailed my critique of Du Mez’s treatment of the Air Force Academy because this is what scholars do (and because I happened to know one small part of her story very well). We document our claims, and we respond to evidence-based challenges to those claims. I do not know Du Mez, but I assume she will welcome others dissecting her claims and footnotes. And I would guess that despite some flaws and errors along the way, the central story she tells will hold up remarkably well.

Lucas concludes his review by asserting that “Jesus and John Wayne should be required reading for those who live and move and have our being within American evangelical denominations and churches.” He’s right, and critiques like mine do little to derail the core thesis of the book. But I’ll see Lucas’s endorsement and raise him one: Jesus and John Wayne should also be required reading for those who live and move outside of these evangelical circles and who spend their time critiquing those circles. That includes journalists, pundits, and a number of Du Mez’s academic colleagues in history and religious studies. These readers should engage both positive and negative reviews in a similarly holistic fashion: asking not only what Du Mez gets right but what she misses, not simply reveling in her dismantling of one echo chamber but asking hard questions about their own. That kind of nuance and self-reflection will help us all continue the important dialogue that Du Mez and her reviewers have started.