John Wayne, Jesus, and Me

I finally read Jesus and John Wayne (JJW) by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. It helped me put many things into place and start to understand how we (“evangelicalism,” though I don’t think that name is redeemable anymore) got to the depths of despair.

Some personal background:

In the 2016 presidential election cycle, I really wanted John Kasich to win and still can’t fathom that Donald Trump got the nomination. I’m pretty sure that’s when I jumped off the train. I still couldn’t bring myself to vote for Hillary Clinton, and am in Washington state (reliably Democrat in Federal and statewide races) and didn’t figure it really mattered, so I wrote in a candidate. It was the first time ever I hadn’t voted for an (R) candidate that was on the ticket.

It was the beginning of my wilderness wandering.

After the 2016 election cycle I was consistently disappointed by the perception of uncritical support by the “evangelical” church for Donald Trump, particularly the sycophantic B-list group of pseudo-Christian celebrities who sucked up to him with all their being, just to be in the orbit of his presidency and feel powerful. Yes, I’m thinking of Franklin Graham (and others). The phrase “sold it all for a bowl of pork and beans” comes to mind if I stop and think about it.

I was also consistently disappointed by the same people and groups (those claiming to be “evangelical”) on issues of race and gender. This disappointment turned into complete frustration during the start of the pandemic and the upheaval of society in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

What I don’t think I realized until sometime in 2017 or 2018 was that it was my own views that were changing. Back during the election, I remembered conversations I had about immigration with friends who were enamored with Trump’s hardline approach and I was incredulous. I realized I was more pro-immigration than I thought.

So, back to JJW.

I could follow most of the history because I lived it. I mean, I was on the outskirts of evangelical (fundamental) culture from the late 70s through the 2010s.

Heck, I remember being in 2nd grade when Ronald Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter (I’m old, OK). My dad was in the Navy so I grew up in a Navy town. I remember being on the playground and talking with a kid (again, I’m in the 2nd grade here) about how he shouldn’t support Jimmy Carter because Ronald Reagan would increase the defense budget and that would be good for us Navy kids.

I remember Oliver North in the Iran Contra hearings.

I remember when Promise Keepers was cool.

I went to a Don Francisco concert when I was in Junior High.

I listened to Dobson on the Christian radio station if I happened to be in the car when it was on. I know the names “Jerry Falwell” (not Jr. but Papa), “Oral Roberts,” and many of the others. My first encounter with Bill Gothard and Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP) was in the late 1990’s when it was my job to bid work on converting their books into Logos Bible Software format. (Apparently my price was too high, because it never happened. You can thank me later.) But man those books were creepy.

I’ve since had more direct experience with the effects of BG’s IBLP on people and families I know and love, and WOW. Let’s just say I don’t consider the Duggars (who are BG and IBLP devotees) as heroes or entertainment, and I’m not surprised at recent events with their oldest son. Nobody should watch their train wreck of a show, even if you just think it is “entertainment.” They need their platform destroyed, and the voyeurism needs to stop.

I went to a Christian college. Northwestern College in Orange City, IA (class of ’93!); a Reformed Church in America [RCA] school, literally 10 minutes from where JJW starts at Dordt College [our nemesis and a CRC school] in Sioux Center, IA.

I wrote a letter to the editor of my hometown paper in 1991 after the first Gulf War started in support of the war. I worked the phone bank for a Republican senatorial candidate in Iowa and even got to drive a minivan in a Presidential motorcade when Bush 43 came to Sioux City, IA to campaign and fundraise for him. It didn’t work, Tom Harkin won the open seat that year, and Bush 43 lost too. Sure was fun to speed through Sioux City with a police escort, though.

The thing which I’m most afraid (ashamed?) to admit publicly: I went to a Carman concert. I know. I’ve repented, and moved on.

I redeemed myself and rocked out at Cornerstone 1992 (77s rock!). Spent a spring break in the French Quarter doing street evangelism. Spent a summer as a counselor at a Christian camp in Illinois. Graduated college in 1993. Became a productive member of society (got a job) after I graduated working for an upstart Logos Bible Software, selling Bible software over the phone.

I guess I’m saying that I lived exactly in the world and times of a large chunk of JJW. I watched Rush Limbaugh on TV. I voted against Bill Clinton and thought he should’ve been impeached and convicted for lying under oath (still do) and for receiving oral sex from an intern while in the oval office. I remember the outcry. I remember the “Moral Majority.”

Heck, I was even accepted to Regent College for fall of 1994 because I “felt called” to pursue an M.Div., but I didn’t get any financial aid and couldn’t swing it on a student visa (read: no job) so moved on.

ANYWAY.

Back to JJW (again). Reading this book connected the dots between all these seemingly disparate ministries (and many others) in ways I would have never considered, but now can never un-see.

As I said above, I still didn’t understand how on God’s green earth Donald Trump won the nomination in 2016. I certainly didn’t understand how anyone could vote for him after the “grab ’em by the p*ssy” comments and the revelation (but were we really surprised?) he’d paid off women to be quiet about his extramarital affairs with them.

What happened to the Moral Majority? What happened to these same people who were so worked up about Clinton’s extramarital activities disqualifying him yet so seemingly chill about Trump’s extramarital activities and the several credible abuse accusations against him?

And there are parts I still don’t understand and probably never will. I’m totally flummoxed by Christians over-obsessed with protecting their “freedom” (and to hell with everything else) when Jesus literally told us to love God with everything, and to love others as we love ourselves. Wear the mask, people.

But I do see now, thanks to JJW, how the “evangelical” church has these threads of patriarchy, male power, and female submission woven all throughout it (with a twist of really unhealthy attitudes about sex within marriage, and sexuality in general). I see how church leaders all throughout try to deal with conflict, by quieting it down, by muting and typically blaming the victims, and leaving the perpetrators with largely little comparative consequence (again, see current situation with Josh Duggar for how this works out).

I see how the evangelical church (as a whole, I realize there are exceptions), just about every time some popular or well-placed group or ministry had an opportunity to change course due to a scandal or some other situation coming to light, has basically doubled down.

I keep coming back to Kristen Kobes Du Mez’ quote from … I don’t remember the source. But here it is:

Jesus will save your souls, but John Wayne will save your ass.

That is, as I read it, at this point in time the “evangelical” church is pretty much exalting the people it sees as strong, who will save their ass if and when the time comes. Preach Jesus, but pack heat. Put people in power who will protect your interests. Their morality is irrelevant; their strength is the primary qualification.

QED, Donald Trump.

As for me, I do not consider myself to be an evangelical anymore. I mean, I would love to keep that word because it is a great word and it does describe how I’d like to be: One who evangelizes, one who supports and proclaims the gospel. But the social group that word is now tied to has corrupted it beyond repair. It has become synonymous with “Trump supporter.” And I cannot be in that group. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve probably been here since 2016 and Trump’s election.

Some people I know will think I’ve totally jumped the shark, that I’m naïve, and that I’ve bought in to some woke stuff.

Maybe they’re right.

But I know this: Look at what “evangelicalism” tells you today. Their primary message has either been about a need to uncritically support Donald Trump (the twice-impeached one), or it has focused on division. By that I mean the primary messages from evangelical voices with platforms are pretty much about broadcasting what people shouldn’t be doing, and about telegraphing what the in-group people should be against. BLM. LGBTQ. Immigration. COVID-19 public health regulations. Democrats. 1619 Project. Critical Race Theory.

I can’t abide this any more, and really haven’t been able to since 2016 or so. I simply don’t think matters are that clear. These things aren’t black and white; it is a spectrum and we live in the middle of the gray. You can’t just decide what your view is going to be and double down on it forever. But that’s what evangelicalism has done for at least the past 75 years.

The best and most succinct enunciation of this I’ve ever heard was in a story I heard on the radio about a guy in Seattle who spends his time on weekends setting homeless folks up with portable toilets. It is an awesome story, it is less than 9 minutes long, and you should listen to it. Anyway, this guy says the most incredible thing somewhere between 7 and 8 minutes in, but please listen to the minutes before this to get the full context of the statement:

If you have moral clarity, you aren’t in deep enough.

Mark Lloyd

We live in a complex world. As Ferris Bueller says, “Life comes at you pretty fast.” Me? I am part of a transracial family. In our immediate family unit of five, we are Asian, we are Pacific Islander, and we are African American; on top of the Dutch/Norwegian/Irish and pastiche of other European influences.

I didn’t do it on purpose, but I got in deeper. And any moral clarity I may have thought I had has been thrown out the window. The simple solutions simply don’t work anymore.

I’m not sure how to wrap this all up, and I feel I’ve drifted a bit.

Suffice it to say, I am still a Christian. But it is like real life, the life I have lived and experienced in the past 10 years or so, has totally obliterated all the theoretical theological glass houses that used to be so comfortable. It is a bit cliché, but those glass houses are broken and gone. I’m not sure if I’m deconstructing, deconstructed, reconstructing, reconstructed, or just confused.

Jesus and John Wayne has helped me reconcile, to a degree, the recoil I’ve been experiencing for the past four years trying to understand how people who profess to believe the essentials of what I profess to believe can have such a different (and I think dangerous) take on political and social issues, not to mention the gospel. And for this, thank you, Kristen Kobes Du Mez.

One thought on “John Wayne, Jesus, and Me

  1. My heart goes out to you, Rick. I’m praying for you right now as I write. I, too, have recoiled from enthusiastic evangelical support for Trump. It’s been deeply unsettling, because I so specifically recall all my trusted evangelical leaders insisting that moral character was essential in a president—oh, long about 1998… David French and Ross Douthat have been my lifelines during the last five years. And actually, a number of our fellow colleagues have comforted me by being as surprised and dismayed at full-throated evangelical support for Trump as I have been. If I were literally alone, I would be truly confused. I cling to Scripture, even though I recognize that that’s just what evangelical Trump supporters (often) say they’re doing. As with all disputes over the meaning and application of Scripture, I’m content to let Christ judge us all on the last day.

    Like

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