There’s a funny skit involving two German officers in Hitler’s Nazi army, a “crack SS division” at that. As the officers are manning the ramparts, preparing to fight the Russians, one of them has a sort of existential crisis sparked by a moment of dawning comprehension.
He notices that their caps have skulls on them. In fact, the skull is their main symbol. And as he struggles to reason how skulls could be used to represent the good guys, he eventually verbalizes the horrifying question: “Are we the baddies?”
Evangelicals are a funny bunch. This hard-nosed reality is underscored by the fact that, even as I bring them up, there is a need to do some definitional spadework. Who counts as an evangelical these days?
Noted historian Iain Murray in his work, Evangelicalism Divided, pegs the origins of the term all the way back to 1525 when it coincided with the phrase “gospellers.” And historically that’s what the term, and association, have meant. The word “evangelical” simply comes from the Greek word “euangelion,” which means “good news” or “Gospel.” Thus, evangelicals, far from being primarily a sociological grouping, are first and foremost defined by a theological claim about the person and message of Jesus Christ.
Evangelicals are nothing more or less than orthodox Protestant Christians. We believe in the divine personhood of Jesus Christ, his salvific work on the cross, the necessity of repentance and faith, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the obligation to fulfill the Great Commission in Matthew 28 by taking the saving message of Christ to the “end of the earth.”
One way to think about evangelical beliefs is George Marsden’s definition. He defines evangelicalism as a commitment to five core beliefs: “1. the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2. the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture; 3. eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4. the importance of evangelism and missions; and 5. the importance of a spiritually transformed life.”
Despite the ongoing effort to outgroup evangelicals, I’m still quite happy to associate myself with the term. For, if you look closely at Marsden’s definition, you can see how it excludes the mainline liberal variety, of whom J. Gresham Machen warned us about in Christianity and Liberalism. They wear the label “Christian” as a cheap skin suit, stuffing it full of “moralistic therapeutic deism” and CNN-approved social justice activism instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
My main interest in examining what an evangelical actually is and what we believe is to remind us of who we are. Despite the current crop of dissenters’ best efforts to remake evangelicals into something we are not, we are in fact “gospellers.” We are those who have been born again by repentance and faith and seek now to submit all of our lives, including our political engagement and cultural preferences, to King Jesus.
Such a glorious tradition should yield rooted confidence. Yet so often evangelicals seem somewhat ashamed of who we are and what we stand for. When I watch us take the field in the game of public discourse, I can’t help but notice that many walk with a limp. After the last five-plus years of a steady and increasingly extreme barrage of criticism, can you blame them? As book after book rolls out attacking us for our Christian ethics faithfully expressed in politics, or our biblically-based beliefs about gender roles in the Church and home, there’s no doubt that some of the rhetorical punches have landed.
In short, too many otherwise godly, gracious, and sound Christians are walking around, asking themselves in hushed tones, “Are we the baddies?”
I set the table like this in general terms because there has been one particular book of late that has really ginned up the baddie complex. And I’m here to tell you it’s high time to just ignore it.
That’s right, I am talking about none other than Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.
If you aren’t familiar with the work, I’m not going to encourage you to read it. That’s not because it’s not good to read opposing views or consider serious critiques of one’s traditions. It is. But the point I’m trying to make is that some criticisms come from such fundamentally hostile sources in the first place, they aren’t worth our attention. The whole point of some critiques isn’t to help us be better, but to make us ask if, nay confess that, we are the baddies — even though we aren’t. Jesus and John Wayne is one such work.
For the graciously uninitiated, here’s a good taste of the rhetorical flavor and unsubstantiated accusations that run across the entire book like a herd of wild horses:
“Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, 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.”
Oh, I see. The Christians who voted for Trump definitely didn't do it out of the hope of ending abortion. It was just about power.
In short, Du Mez’s central claim is that, “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 a community defined chiefly by theology. Evangelical views on any given issue are facets of this larger cultural identity.”
Du Mez reduces all the glorious and rich heritage and history of evangelicals down to one, somewhat fringe, cultural artifact: The American Western.
In doing so, Du Mez aims to indict evangelicals for their support for Donald Trump. And keep this in mind, this book could have never been written if Trump lost in 2016. But he didn’t. So, Jesus and John Wayne comes along, brandishing the ballot punched “DJT” as irrevocable proof of evangelicals’ commitment to patriarchy, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and the naked quest for political power.
Is this a serious critique? Honestly, no.
When asked if she had “any tips on how the average person can analyze power and cultural systems so that we aren’t held captive by them,” Du Mez answered: “I should have a better answer but for me it wasn’t one source but years spent reading social and cultural histories, histories of gender, Foucault, Gramsci, Adorno, Habermas … ”
In case you don’t know, none of those guys are good guys. They actually are the baddies. None were Christians. All were wicked. But perhaps the most egregious name on that list is the well-documented groomer and pervert, Michael Foucault. That seems … notable.
So, what should evangelicals do in response to such accusations claiming that, among other things, we have “corrupted a faith” and “fractured a nation?” How should pastors and faithful pew-fillers in churches across the nation reply? Not with second-guessing.
No, we should respond like Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is more known for wall-building than one-sentence silencers, but in Nehemiah 6 he displays the exact type of energy that evangelicals should seek to channel when defending themselves.
At the start of Chapter 6, a group is identified as the “enemies” of those rebuilding the wall in Jerusalem. One of these characters is Sanballat, who has been harassing Nehemiah in the work and hurling increasingly wild accusations at him. They try to bait Nehemiah into abandoning his work, but Nehemiah won’t be deterred. Then, in verse 5, we read that for:
“The fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: It is reported among the nations — and Geshem says it is true — that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.’”
These are some serious accusations. The Jews are plotting a revolt. Nehemiah aims to be king. It’s all planned out! Of course, they aren’t just rebuilding the wall. What they are really after is power. Sound familiar?
Nehemiah’s answer is instructive:
“I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like that you are saying is happening; you are just making it up in your own head.'”
One sentence. One answer. Conversation over. Nehemiah knows that Sanballat isn’t his friend. He knows his accusations aren’t made in good faith. So, what does he do? He summarily dismisses them. Nothing of what you are saying is true — you are literally making it up.
We learn further in verse 9 that Nehemiah is also able to discern why Sanballat was saying such outlandish things: To scare Nehemiah and his fellow workers into inaction. But instead of second-guessing himself, Nehemiah prays for God to strengthen his hands and he gets back to work.
So don’t let them deter us with bright book jackets hiding hit jobs that reduce our ancient faith to absurd cultural artifacts. Be like Nehemiah instead. Spare a one-sentence answer at most: “Not true.” Then let’s get back to work.
Originally published at the Standing for Freedom Center.
William Wolfe served as a senior official in the Trump administration, both as a deputy assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon and a director of legislative affairs at the State Department. Prior to his service in the administration, Wolfe worked for Heritage Action for America, and as a congressional staffer for three different members of Congress, including the former Rep. Dave Brat. He has a B.A. in history from Covenant College, and is finishing his Masters of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Follow William on Twitter at @William_E_Wolfe