When Activism Masquerades as History
Evangelicalism has lost its way.
It’s a popular message on the Left in the post-Trump era. The Left never liked Evangelicals to begin with – too conservative, too anti-gay, too public in their objections to the prevailing secular creeds they would say – but Trump, whom Evangelicals supported in droves, gave their critics a new charge to level at them: hypocrisy. These high and mighty moralizers, the Left said, were willing to abandon any principle in pursuit of political power. They had no right to preach to others values they would not practice.
The Evangelical writer David French has been in the thick of this conversation writing on the intersection of evangelical faith, politics, and corruption with such essays as: “Why Christians Bond With Corrupt Leaders,” “A Nation of Christians Is Not Necessarily a Christian Nation,” and “Deconstructing White Evangelical Politics.”
“‘Deconstruction’ is a hot topic in elite Evangelicalism,” French says. “It’s a word with many meanings. At its best it can represent an honest, critical re-examination of not just your personal faith, but also the theology and behavior of your faith community. We should be in a constant process of interrogating our own beliefs and actions in light of the person and example of Jesus Christ. White Evangelical politics are due for deconstruction.”
History, or something else?
Enter Kristin Kobes Du Mez, whose book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, is cited by French as “a compelling and challenging argument.” Du Mez provides a historic account of “[t]he path that ends with John Wayne” – contraposed to Christ – “as an icon of Christianity,” of “rugged, heroic masculinity embodied by cowboys, soldiers, and warriors to point the way forward.” It is the account of a church that has commodified Christianity, intertwined faith and right-wing politics, and “invoked a sense of peril in order to offer fearful followers their own brand of truth and protection” and stoke “[e]vangelical militancy.” It is a church that has forgotten Christ.
We could concede, for sake of argument, some aspects of her account. The various moral failures of major figures in Evangelicalism are well documented. We could also dispute other claims, as various reviewers have here, here, and here. However, so as not to be duplicative of the work of others, we will focus on the foundational problems of her theoretical framework.
The facts recounted in any historical work are important, but so are the uses to which those facts are put, the tools used to analyze those facts, and the conclusions that are drawn from those facts. Accurate details can be both cherry-picked and omitted, and either of those can allow for the creation of a false narrative or leave the reader with a false impression. In short, what we want to know is whether or not the tools and analysis Du Mez employs in the curation of her historical record are sound, and whether or not the conclusions that she draws from that curated record are justified. That is, we want to know whether or not the house of Jesus and John Wayne is built on a solid intellectual foundation, and my contention is that it is not.
Jesus and John Wayne is built on the shifting sand of postmodernism. No Christian interested in her thesis can ignore the implications of her methodology. To embrace her work is to embrace the postmodern deconstruction of Christianity.
To understand Jesus and John Wayne, it is best to see it as a sort of answer to the question: “Why did Evangelical Christians, with their very conservative Christian moral ethics, come to be the backbone of support behind Donald Trump, a man who is infamous for his rude language and known for his (admitted) marital infidelities?” This is the question that Du Mez seeks to answer in her work.
Du Mez attempts to determine what exactly it is that conservative Evangelicals believe about masculinity, and how that relates to their view of who in society should be in positions of power. She claims to uncover the deeper sociological and historical reasons Evangelicals came to hold these views about gender and power. As she does that, Du Mez documents scandal upon scandal among the leadership in Evangelical circles. She places special attention on scandals involving Evangelical leaders at the forefront of fighting “the culture war.” Du Mez pulls up many examples of people who were caught up in financial scandals, sex scandals, abuse scandals, and various cover ups meant to hide all these scandals from public view.
All this she thinks adds up to the conclusions that Evangelicalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, and that Evangelicalism as it stands needs to be “undone.”
Du Mez readily admits that her work is a work of deconstruction, and that she is influenced by the work of postmodern philosopher Michael Foucault. Much of Jesus and John Wayne is a Foucauldian Archeology of Evangelical discourse around masculinity, and a Foucauldian genealogy of how that discourse developed.
If we follow postmodern methods to their ultimate conclusions, they dissolve every belief system and every philosophical framework to which they are applied, including postmodernism itself. A philosophy or method that dissolves everything proves nothing, save for the fact that the philosophy or the method itself is flawed. So it is with postmodernism.
On her own account, Du Mez is attempting to show that “constructs like ‘Christian worldview’ might reflect the interests of those who fashion them, even at times distorting biblical teaching.” The problem is, she never does a proper analysis of whether or not the doctrines, ideas, and beliefs she criticizes in this way are true.
Rarely does Du Mez argue that the theology of Evangelicals is wrong on the merits. She does not show that they have made an interpretive mistake, nor does she argue, prove, demonstrate, or otherwise show that the tenets of American Evangelicalism are not warranted. Instead, she asserts that they are defined by cultural and political commitments and then draws negative inferences on that basis alone. Du Mez is attempting to tear down the edifice of Evangelical theology by appealing to elements in the sociological situation in which Evangelical theological claims and justifications were formed. On Du Mez’s telling, Evangelicals’ concerns about family were really about sex and power, their views of biblical innerancy were really a proxy for fights about gender, and their opposition to abortion was really about trying to push back against the gains made by feminism. Arguments of this type abound in Jesus and John Wayne.
The method relies on a fallacy that has been rebutted by John Searle, namely:
If we have justifications for our beliefs, and if the justifications meet rational criteria, then the fact that there are all sorts of elements in our social situation that incline us to believe one thing rather than another may be of historical or psychological interest but it is really quite beside the point of the justifications and of the truth or falsity of the original claim.
This is the heart of the problem with Du Mez’s book. Her account of Evangelicals – they are animated by wrong motives, hidden agendas, unfair biases, and power-seeking;, they’re complicit in a litany of terrible things – is not an argument. Du Mez is attempting to tear down the edifice of Evangelical theology by casting elements of the sociological situation in which Evangelical theological claims and justifications were formed in the least charitable possible light. But, as Searle points out, whether or not our sociological situation inclines us toward one belief or another is not relevant to whether or not those beliefs are actually true.
The entire danger here is that we end up with a way of analyzing and understanding theology that is utterly unmoored from the truth. It doesn’t even matter whether Du Mez perceives herself to be operating in such a deconstructionist fashion: Her method sets aside the difficult work of determining truth and replaces it with the cheap substitute of speculating about people’s perceived interests and motives. Searle describes the danger of critique unmoored by the search for truth:
What are the results of deconstruction supposed to be? Characteristically the deconstructionist does not attempt to prove or refute, to establish or confirm, and he is certainly not seeking the truth. On the contrary, this whole family of concepts is part of the logocentrism he wants to overcome; rather he seeks to undermine, or call in question, or overcome, or breach, or disclose complicities.
In this way Du Mez thinks that she can “see through” the theological claims of Evangelicals, and as such she can set them aside. In a passage in the concluding section of Jesus and John Wayne Du Mez makes this clear:
Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology. Evangelical views on any given issue are facets of this larger cultural identity, and no number of Bible verses will dislodge the greater truths at the heart of it.
This literally can’t be argued with. Nobody can argue with this because any Evangelical who disputes Du Mez’s account of faith is beholden, himself, to “facets of [Evangelicalism’s] larger cultural identity,” unable to see the truth of his situation. It does not matter what Evangelicals will say in response. It does not matter what they sincerely believe. She will tell them they misunderstand Evangelicalism as a phenomenon. She will entertain only those arguments that accept her framework and dismiss any theological appeals, because Evangelicalism is not defined by theology, no matter what Evangelicals themselves claim.
Once the reader realizes that this is what Du Mez is up to, he can make sense of how it is that she arrives at many of her conclusions. She simply ignores the Evangelical’s own claims about what drives him, and decides to analyze Evangelicalism through the lens of cynicism she has constructed. Du Mez’s slanders are as casual as they are broad:
As evangelicals began to mobilize as a partisan political force, they did so by rallying to defend ‘family values.’ But family values politics was never about protecting the well-being of families generally. Fundamentally, evangelical ‘family values’ entailed the reassertion of patriarchal authority. At its most basic level, family values politics was about sex and power.
Got that? Du Mez tosses aside the Evangelical’s stated motivation about caring for families. The pro-family reader is told his real concern is sex and power. This is pure Foucault. Foucault is famous (or infamous) for arguing that claims to truth about a given topic are often masks for power-seeking, or are corrupted by power-seeking. This is what we see here.
What Du Mez is doing here is precisely the thing that John Searle said the deconstructionist does. She “seeks to undermine, or call in question, or overcome, or breach, or disclose complicities.” This is why sympathetic readers must bear in mind that she is engaged in a deliberate project: the deconstruction of Evangelicalism and the dismantling of the Evangelical view of masculinity. She did not stumble into such a project; she readily admits it is the aim of her work:
Although the evangelical cult of masculinity stretches back decades, its emergence was never inevitable. Over the years it has been embraced, amplified, challenged, and resisted. Evangelical men themselves have promoted alternative models, elevating gentleness and self-control, a commitment to peace, and a divestment of power as expressions of authentic Christian manhood. Yet, understanding the catalyzing role militant Christian masculinity has played over the past half century is critical to understanding American evangelicalism today, and the nation’s fractured political landscape. Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it. What was once done might also be undone.
Evangelicals are not beyond criticism. However, it is not enough to point out that there is hypocrisy, bad behavior, wrong acts, or pain caused by people who hold a view. There is plenty of that associated with every view, and in every movement. Among other things, Du Mez accuses Evangelicals of hypocrisy, turning a blind eye to abuses of power, and making family values about sex and power. Even if we were to grant that these things were true (and not overstated through omissions and cherry-picked facts), what would any of that have to do with the theological claims in play? Du Mez asks us to dismantle American Evangelicalism without ever demonstrating that its views are false. There is no need to demonstrate Evangelicals’ views as false; better simply to persuade them to confess their guilt and error.
Deconstruction Never Ends
There can be no stopping point in Du Mez’s deconstructive method. This is because Du Mez appears to have adopted two further ideas:
1. All Views, including her own, are historically and socially constructed.
2. There are no objective and timeless propositions. Propositions must always be interpreted, and interpretation is always a product of historical and cultural circumstances and always done from a particular cultural and social position.
These two ideas leave Du Mez in the position of having to accept a sort of epistemological relativism. If all interpretation is a matter of cultural circumstances, and all interpretation is bound by cultural and social position, then getting an objective interpretation of anything is impossible. No two cultures, times, or places are identical, and therefore there will never be any two interpretations from different cultures, times, or places that will be identical. If we accept that, then on what grounds do we adjudicate the truth of these interpretations? If people from different cultures, times, and places interpret Scripture in ways which are logically contradictory, how do we decide the truth of this, and on what grounds do we assert that the interpretation that we settle on is correct?
It is a form of relativism that comes out of social constructivism. Again, John Searle describes it as follows:
The social constructivist is anxious to expose construction where none had been suspected, where something that is in fact essentially social had come to masquerade as part of the natural world. Many social constructivists find it liberating because it frees us from the apparent oppression of supposing that we are forced to accept claims about the world as matters of mind-independent fact when in reality they are all socially constructed. If we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer.
Something similar is at work in Jesus and John Wayne, but rather than arguing that “something that is in fact essentially social had come to masquerade as part of the natural world” Du Mez is laying the groundwork to argue that Evangelical interpretations of Scripture are in fact essentially social and cultural but have come to masquerade as the objective meaning of Scripture.
Once a person has accepted the social constructivism Du Mez has embraced, he has no option but to conclude that it is impossible to pull any objective, timeless truth out of Scripture. In fact, if one applies these two ideas to interpretation of truth generally and not just to textual interpretation, the entire project of attempting to find any absolute, objective, eternal truth becomes impossible.
The same methods that Du Mez uses to see through and set aside Evangelical claims can be used to see through and set aside every claim, including those made by Du Mez herself. For it is entirely possible for one to apply the same methods to the postmodern theorist that the postmodern theorist applies to everyone else.
To quote C.S. Lewis:
The kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever.
The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.
If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
The kind of reasoning that can see through and dismiss any justification for a belief can be used to see through and dismiss every such justification. If postmodern philosophy is correct that arguments, reasons, and justifications are masks for attempts to take power, then the arguments, reasons and justifications of the postmodern theorist are also to be viewed in the same way. The solvent of postmodernism dissolves itself.
However, it is not merely that postmodern thinking dissolves itself, it is that it has no stopping point, and no limiting principle. If we adopt Du Mez’ postmodern methods, it would be no problem to deconstruct everything from substitutionary atonement, to the Church, to the Nicene Creed. Many are already knocking on that door. Activist theologian Robyn Henderson-Espinoza writes:
The ways of Jesus were never intended to be institutionalized. They were institutionalized as a result of power and control and the ways that post-Constantine Christianity can only be understood as empire religion.
If we are to accept this view, we can predict how the argument will go from here: The Council of Nicea was structured to produce a creed that benefited the interests of both Constantine and his empire, while at the same time legitimizing his theology and preserving his views permanently in a creed that defined orthodoxy for Christianity. Further, since the Nicene Creed was created entirely by men, the creed is warped by the both the interests of the men who made it, and by the absence of queer people and women. This means the very creed used to define orthodoxy was built on a foundation of patriarchy and injustice. Finally, since the Nicene creed was a product of a particular time and place, it is a product of the cultural biases of those who fashioned it and therefore not an objective statement of timeless truth.
The above argument follows naturally from the very methods and reasoning used by Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne. One need not know a single fact about American Evangelicalism or a single claim of faith held by Christians to disprove Evangelicalism on this basis alone. A Christian reader wishing to avoid that conclusion, or who sees why that reasoning does not work when applied to the Nicene Creed, might second-guess his embrace of a book dependent on the same priors.
A Sword That Cuts Both Ways
We can turn the same skepticism that Du Mez uses in her critiques of various Evangelical networks right back on Du Mez herself to see just how little weight her critique should be accorded.
Du Mez makes much of the fact that John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Douglas Wilson, worked with each other somewhat frequently:
Wilson invited Driscoll to speak at his church; Piper invited Wilson to address his pastor’s conference; leaders shared stages, blurbed each other’s books, spoke at each other’s conferences, and endorsed each other as men of God with a heart for gospel teaching. Within this network, differences—significant doctrinal disagreements, disagreements over the relative merits of slavery and the Civil War—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.
Through this expanding network, ‘respectable’ evangelical leaders and organizations gave cover to their ‘brothers in the gospel’ who were promoting more extreme expressions of patriarchy, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish margins from mainstream. 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.
In light of those comments, what then are we to make of the fact that Robyn Henderson-Espinoza (The previously mentioned theologian who said all of Christianity post-Constantine is an “empire-religion”) shared a stage with Brian Mclaren and that Brian McLaren endorsed both Henderson-Espinoza’s book and Jesus and John Wayne? What are we to make of the fact that in response to McLaren’s endorsement, Du Mez said, “And @brianmclaren is in it too, but he’s one of the good guys”? Since Du Mez is endorsing Mclaren as “one of the good guys,” and since McLaren endorsed the very book in which Henderson-Espinoza declared that all of Christianity post-Constantine is an empire religion, are we now permitted to draw conclusions about Du Mez in the same way she draws conclusions about others? Is this book blurbing, endorsing, and sharing of stages not exactly what Du Mez says Piper, Wilson and Driscoll did when she lumps the three of them together?
Du Mez makes it very clear that she wants to very carefully examine the social networks within American Evangelicalism:
I tried to take pains to differentiate even as I identified affinities. And many evs are variously shaped by mainstream and ‘extreme’ influences. What is a feature and what is a bug? We might come down in different places, but this is an essential question. [For the record], I remain more convinced now than ever that it is indeed ‘the relationship between the centers and the margins that demands scrutiny.’
Du Mez is eager to “interrogate” the informal (and sometimes formal) networks Christians use to spread their ideas. We can do the same things with Du Mez and her ideas. Let’s map out who on the progressive side is platforming each other, sharing stages, signal boosting, and otherwise creating informal and formal networks to spread progressive ideas. Let’s see where Kristin Kobes Du Mez fits into that network, which relationships she benefits from, and which ideas the people she is associated with are promoting. Perhaps we can reinterpret (and maybe even deconstruct) Kristin Du Mez’s work on the basis of how those questions are answered.
Du Mez is tripped up by her own standard. To quote Jesus, “By your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned.”
The postmodern methods, attitude, and reasoning that Du Mez uses will dissolve everything to which they are applied. Nothing can survive the acid bath of postmodern analysis. The difference between these methods and the methods of Christian thought is the difference between illuminating the world and burning it down.
In his book On Deconstruction, Jonathan Culler says “The effect of deconstructive analyses, as numerous readers can attest, is knowledge and feelings of mastery.”
However, let the reader understand: although the first sip of deconstruction and postmodernism will taste like mastery and liberation, relativism and nihilism are waiting for you at the bottom of the glass.
 Kristin Du Mez, Twitter post, January 1, 2022, 11:08 p.m., https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1477491956121051141?s=20&t=dEaTFifQSEk3As57T6vCZA; Kristin Du Mez, Twitter post, December 31, 2022, 12:53 p.m., https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1476974873377443844?s=20&t=dEaTFifQSEk3As57T6vCZA.
 John R. Searle, “The Word Turned Upside Down,” New York Review of Books, October 27, 1983, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1983/10/27/the-word-turned-upside-down/.
 Searle, “Word Turned Upside Down.”
 Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright Publishing, New York, 2020), p. 365.
 Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, p. 110.
 Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, p. 363.
 Kristin Du Mez, Twitter post, January 1, 2021, 11:02 p.m., https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1345218989191000064?s=20.
 Peter Wehner, “Trump is Tearing Apart the Evangelical Church,” The Atlantic, October 24, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/10/evangelical-trump-christians-politics/620469/; Kristin Du Mez, Twitter post, October 20, 2021, 3:19 p.m., https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1450904437661315083?s=20; Kristin Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women: Katherine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism (Oxford University Press, 2015): “For faith communities who believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, biblical interpretation, and not just the Bible itself, can take on an air of timelessness; if the Holy Spirit is not bound by time, neither is the insight wrought by the Spirit.”
 John R. Searle, “Why Should You Believe It?” New York Review of Books, September 24, 2009, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2009/09/24/why-should-you-believe-it/.
 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2009), pp. 80-81.
 Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Activist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019), p. 87.
 Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, p. 244.
 Kristin Du Mez, Twitter post, February 21, 2020, 7:14 p.m., https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1231009208532979713.
 Kristin Du Mez, Twitter post, January 29, 2021, 10:33 p.m., https://twitter.com/kkdumez/status/1355358423701999618?s=20&t=dEaTFifQSEk3As57T6vCZA.
 Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 225.
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