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About This Episode
Peter and Susannah speak with Tara Isabella Burton and Tim Shriver about their manifesto calling for a new “spiritual realism.” Should questions of the Good and of human purpose be off the table in serious political discussion, either because they’re subjective and not real, or because they’re too divisive and dangerous? No, argue Burton and Shriver – and the current state of the polity in fact demands that we take these questions seriously.
They argue that Enlightenment liberalism has proven insufficient to provide either a metaphysical or a political framework for human life, and call for citizens and leaders to build institutions that will support a more robustly moral realist vision of politics and community.
Then, Peter and Susannah talk with Boze Herrington and Hannah Long about Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne. Hannah, Boze and Susannah make the case that the genre of the traditional Western is not something which must only be deconstructed and criticized, but which in fact offers occasions to reflect on the deepest questions of human moral and political life: what is the role of force in an unjust world, what is the good of civilization, and what is the code that one ought to live by? Du Mez’s recent book, they argue, does not understand or do justice to the genre.
- I: Tim Shriver & Tara Isabella Burton: Spiritual Realism
- II: Tim Shriver & Tara Isabella Burton: A Culture of Us
- III: Hannah Long & Boze Herrington: Once Upon a Time in the West
- IV: Hannah Long & Boze Herrington: Jesus and John Wayne
- Hannah Long, “The Quiet Man,” Plough
- Boze Herrington, Editor’s Picks: God Loves the Autistic Mind, Plough
- Tara Isabella Burton and Tim Shriver, “Spiritual Realism,” Plough
- Tara Isabella Burton, Strange Rites
- Mary Townsend, “The Day No One Would Say The Nazis Were Bad,” Plough
- Susannah Black Roberts, The Little Way of Raymond Chandler, Front Porch Republic
Section I: Tim Shriver & Tara Isabella Burton: Spiritual Realism
Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the fourth episode in our new series, covering our Generations issue. I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.
Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough. In this episode, we will be talking with Tara Isabella Burton and Tim Shriver about Moral Realism, and with Hannah Long and Boze Herrington about Jesus and John Wayne.
Susannah Black Roberts: Tara Isabella Burton is the author of two novels, Social Creature (2018), and The World Cannot Give, (2022) and of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, (2020), and the upcoming Self Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. She’s a Plough regular, friend of the pod, and a dear friend of mine. Tara tweets at @NotoriousTIB.
Tim Shriver is the longtime chair of Special Olympics, the co-founder of the social and emotional learning movement, and recently the founder of UNITE, and of the recently launched Dignity Index, dignityindex.us.
Tara and Tim, welcome. Thank you guys so much for being here virtually.
You’ve written a really substantial piece, which we’re very excited to publish. Do you guys want to talk a little bit, Tim, do you want to talk about what the concept for this piece was? It’s called Spiritual Realism: Human Purpose in Pursuit of the Common Good and it clocks in at around 7,000 words and it’s something that we really hope our readers kind of chew on a good bit.
Tim Shriver: Well thank you and thanks for having us. I’ll just start by saying I’m enormously indebted to my co-author Tara Isabella Burton on this. Her both intelligence and brilliance and scope of knowledge about not just philosophical, sort of the epistemological questions in play, but also the contemporary challenges to the ways in which we think fundamentally has just been an enormous learning experience for me.
So thanks and super grateful that I’ve been able to work with Tara on this. I’ll just say very briefly that the piece is in some ways the fruit of my 40 years of work and my upbringing. I was raised in a family that believed that politics was fundamentally about bringing the deepest human values to life. I started my career in education where I worked with young people who I felt were starving for purpose and meaning in life as much as they were starving for knowledge of mathematics or science or social studies.
And then I spent twenty-five years in the Special Olympics movement, which is fundamentally about inviting a cultural shift of mind around the fundamental human dignity that all of us possess. People who’ve been treated in enormously humiliating and marginalizing ways, people with intellectual disabilities for hundreds if not thousands of years. The Special Olympics movement is trying to awaken culture, individuals, groups, collectives, religions.
Awaken us to the universal dignity that unlocks the capacity to see people so differently if we just embrace it. All of those experiences in my life have reinforced from me that the way in which we think about spirituality, the way in which we think about religious values as being separate from public discourse, as being walled off from political decision-making is being privatized outside of our collective and social action.
That’s all wrong. And so working with Tara, we’ve been able to make a pretty, I think, powerful argument that we’re on the cusp of a fundamental rethink about the relationship between our deepest spiritual values and our social and our cultural action. And that rethink can unlock a lot of change in our society.
Susannah Black Roberts: Tara, one of the sort of words that is associated with this kind of thinking is post-liberalism or I guess some kind of critique of liberalism. Do you want to give us just a basic, what is liberalism in this context and what’s the problem with it?
Tara Isabella Burton: Sure. I think defining liberalism, you sort of run into the cliché that there’s as many definitions as there are liberals as it were. But I think that when we talk about in this piece when we’re talking about liberalism, is roughly speaking a post-enlightenment school of thought, now culturally dominant in the western world, particularly in the English-speaking world that sees, among the hierarchy of goods which we might pursue, human freedom and autonomy, the ability to make our own choices as being not just a good among many but the highest good, the good towards which others should be ordered.
Secondarily, additionally, I think something that is integral to the liberal mindset that we are investigating in this project is the idea that religion, superstition, moral values, all of these things that are not sort of verifiable in a certain way have the potential to be dangerous in the public sphere.
That the public sphere should be pluralistic and while allowing individuals to have what might be considered from the liberal point of view, our own biases, our own particular mindsets but that the kind of institutions should not be putting their thumb on the scale, so to speak, to tilt in a particular direction. And of course this suspicion is completely understandable when you think of the history of liberalism as a sort of school of thought that arose in part out of seeing the astonishing centuries worth of religious warfare and the wake of the Protestant reformation.
Yes, of course religion and more deeply held moral convictions are potentially dangerous. And the idea that there’s a kind of epistemic humility involved in saying, well, we’re not sure exactly what is true. We are not sure exactly what is right. We are not sure exactly what is good. Ergo our public space must sort of account for these differences and opinions and perspectives.
All of that I personally think is sort of very good and very solid – and perhaps there are post-liberals who disagree with that part of it. But I think more broadly, the post-liberal movement over the past, I don’t know, few years, decades, is a sort of umbrella term for a group of thinkers generally, but not exclusively on the conservative side of things who think that liberalism has kind of reached its … run up against certain limitations, that we have lost something in our divinization of human freedom and our conviction that certain kinds of moral sentiment are too dangerous to be deeply wedded to public discourse in a certain way. They have to be sort of shuffled to the realm of the private.
And that these assumptions need to be challenged. But where I think we find in this piece a common cause with this wider school, this wider umbrella is our belief that there is something that is not just kind of nice to have or good or a fine addition about a certain kind of moral and spiritual sentiments in human life, but that it is already true, that there are moral assumptions, spiritual assumptions, metaphysical assumptions baked into any way that we talk about politics, legislate policy. That sort of insofar as neutrality seems to exist, it’s in fact simply the inculcation of a certain set of values, including as I said earlier, about human freedom.
We want in this piece to push back on that and say these moral questions, these metaphysical questions, these are at the heart of what makes us human and it would be shortsighted to not envision them as part of our political life already, let alone proscribe that they be made part of our political life.
Peter Mommsen: What are the factors, and you actually described them at the end of your piece, that make this seem like a particularly urgent question to address now, this need for matters of good and bad, the common good versus the common bad, not just be shoved aside to the realm of private opinion, but to actually be the center of our conversation as a society?
Tim Shriver: Nothing is more powerful evidence of that breakdown than the actual breakdown of our mental and social and cultural and emotional health.
The explosion of loneliness, think about it, should not be surprising in a culture that places the ultimate value on the individual alone. The breakdown of trust in institutions should not be surprising if the culture fractures and dismantles collective trust in the good, the meaningful, the valuable.
The argument here is not primarily a philosophical one, although we draw on the most important, I think, trends in the post-enlightenment world or post-liberal world. The argument here is that there’s a social and a cultural and a personal urgency to shifting the paradigm because we’re dying of loneliness and fear and anxiety and it’s the outcomes of those things which are self-harm and hostility and anger towards others.
We can’t survive that way. We individuals, human beings, countries, cultures can’t survive as a collection of nomads living in a meaningless universe in a war of all against all. The urgency is not primarily theoretical, the urgency is quite practical. Our culture is in some sense falling apart because of the myth that the value that supersedes all other values is simply the self.
Tara Isabella Burton: What that leads us to is a situation where it is, I believe incorrect, but I believe certainly understandable that we turn to ourselves, that we think we can rely on ourselves, that we have this cultural myth that looking inward is the closest way to get us to something we could rely on because I suppose the logic goes, “At least I know I’m not lying to myself.”
Now in practice, there’s a wealth of wisdom and theological and philosophical traditions on this. We lie to ourselves a lot. We don’t know what we want. We don’t know ourselves very well. Yet, I think this kind of cratering of public trust means that this isn’t just a problem that can be solved by, as much as I wish it could be, by some cultural change in the air that is simply about making people more communal.
We also need, on the policy side, and this is something that I think Tim’s career very much illustrates, the work he has done very much illustrates, that one needs to build institutions, actual mechanisms by which people can come together, that can earn public trust. That building a polity and changing a culture are intertwined projects.
Susannah Black Roberts: One of the things that I sort of like to think about just as a way to calibrate this and to talk about with people, explaining why this is a political project and what that kind of means is to think about Dr. King. I mean obviously he’s a touchstone and it can feel cliché to even talk about him.
But the phenomenon of him speaking to the American people as citizens and to legislators and calling everyone, calling all of us to match our laws to the natural law and to look beyond the existing positive laws to what he would think of as the law of God or the natural law and to encourage us to demand that our institutions in America and our laws reach beyond the unjust parochial self-serving laws that were of the Jim Crow era and match those laws and institutions to the law of God and to the natural law.
That’s something that’s deeply embedded in the American tradition at this point and deeply embedded in our vision of what the political good looks like. Does that ring true to either of you and is that something that you think might offer a little way in for people to understand what we’re talking about and what a real American version of this rather than a kind of nostalgic European version might look like?
Tara Isabella Burton: I think something that we would like to convey in the piece to a range of audiences, not all of whom have a particular religious vocabulary or tradition, is the conviction that there is something about us being the kinds of beings we are, something about us being human that is wedded to things that are ontologically true, that are ontologically good, that reality is not simply what we make it, what we would like it to be or subject to human will.
We can speak meaningfully, robustly about good and evil. That these are not outmoded or outdated terms, that the things that human beings hunger for in a kind of deep and palpable way, these are not mere projections of what we would like to exist. They’re not psychological fantasies.
They point to something real. I think it is a commitment that one has to make to hold to spiritual realism. I think it is a commitment one could conceivably not make and perhaps even make a case for not making. But I think that that would be incorrect. Tim.
Tim Shriver: Yeah, I share Tara’s kind of caution about natural law theory. I think some of that’s well out of date.
What I don’t think is out of date is Dr. King’s integration of the truly good, the truly meaningful, the truly valuable hunger of the human heart and the human spirit, with the cultural and political and social commitments towards justice and peace and equality or equity in today’s language. That’s irrefutably empirically provable. We are creatures who try not just to find what’s proximate but what’s true.
Not just what feels good but what’s good. Not just what adds meaning to my life, but what is truly meaningful. This is who we are, this is how we operate, this is how we think. This is why we wrote this piece because you have two people and maybe four people in conversation here. We’re all looking, we’re struggling. We have at our root, as Bernard Lonergan wrote many, many years ago, the question of God.
It is implicit in all of our questions. What King did masterfully in my view was bring the question of God, if I can use that language which is natural in the sense of natural law, which is natural to all of us and bring it to the surface as a part of our politics and our cultural discourse and challenge us, all of us in those days, but still today frankly, challenge us to answer the question, have we created the systems and structures that are truly good, that are truly loving, that are truly meaningful for the rest for the country or for the world, for that matter.
Peter Mommsen: Could we just talk about this term, spiritual realism, a bit?
Tim Shriver: OK. Well, look, what we’re trying to point out here is that the divide between the spiritual hunger that human beings experience, the divide between that hunger that’s deep within us and the culture and politics that we consider to be the providence of the real, the practical, the external, that that divide needs to change and we can change it. We can bring spirit to the most practical problems in our lives and in our culture.
We can bring the hunger for the good, the desire to serve, to sacrifice oneself, even the ultimate sacrifice of oneself for the other - we can bring all of that to our political discourse and our social discourse without believing that the “spiritual stuff” is purely subjective or purely arbitrary.
But the one thing people think, I believe because we’ve been told this, I’m going to call it a lie, we’ve been told this lie that spirit isn’t real and reality doesn’t include spirit. The purpose of this piece is to challenge both of those assumptions, to say that the spiritual hunger of the human experience and the real practical life of human beings both individually and together actually belong in the same dialogue and the same experience.
Peter Mommsen: This reminds me of a conversation Susannah and I were having with a mutual friend, Mary Townsend. She teaches philosophy at St. John’s University and she wrote a piece for Plough recently called “The Day No One Would Say the Nazis Were Bad.” And the part of it that this spiritual realism reminds me is her observation that often in the classroom with college students who I take it, she loves sort of helping them think along the same lines you’re describing but she finds that one of the blocks for many of them is they’ve learned quite early on in life, quite early on in their school education that the difference between fact and opinion begins whenever the word is good or bad enter the conversation.
That can’t be a matter of fact whether something is good or bad. That’s already automatically opinion when you’re assigning a moral valence to it. Does that have anything to do with what we’re talking about?
Tara Isabella Burton: Absolutely. I think that there’s sort of colloquially one thinks of realism, especially in political life as contrasted with political idealism. Sure, it’d be nice, if we lived in a certain kind of polity and the work we did politically was constructive towards the vision of a certain kind of community rather than a kind of harm mitigation or a discernment of the least bad of bad options and the realism view, political realism is possibly one step away from political cynicism.
Then of course there’s the vision of moral realism as opposed to moral relativism that one can speak meaningfully of good and of evil. I think what we wanted to do in this piece and in choosing that term spiritual realism, is to make the case that political realism, which is to say a realistic look at how we human beings live together in community and make the decisions towards the end of government has to also be morally and indeed spiritually realist.
I think the sort of two more robust views that I think we’re putting forward here is that our politicians, as it were our government, our polity should be taking a more active role in preserving and supporting initiatives that foster this kind of flourishing in human beings. And additionally, another robust claim that I think that does live behind this piece is that when we talk about good and evil, when we talk about human purpose, we are not merely even talking about human beings feeling good like they have found their own personal fulfillment, but rather that there is something real towards which we can aspire.
I think rather what we’re saying is that for a polity to work, for our political life, to allow for human flourishing, the path we have to start from is a path that takes seriously the notion that we are working together perhaps with the epistemic humility that at its best liberalism allows to preserve our freedom to investigate this together.
We are working out the good. I think that that is a way of thinking, that is a kind of epistemological pathway that is very, very different from, let me say the relativistic pathway that says all right. We want to get people to a position where they can choose for themselves what is good. There really isn’t such a thing as the good. That’s just some sort of outmoded fairytale.
Section II: Tim Shriver and Tara Isabella Burton: A Culture of Us
Susannah Black Roberts: One of the ways that these questions of dignity and personhood and the real good as opposed to what makes you feel good, one of the ways that these questions has really bit into the news cycle recently is in the discussion of MAID, medically assisted death or medical assistance in death in Canada in particular where a number of disabilities rights organizations have pointed out that the approach to human flourishing that this practice seems to promote is one where only people who are at the physical peak of their … are sort of the best types, kind of get the full dignity of society telling them that they shouldn’t die. You can see the corrosion of the idea of human dignity there in a way that seems really striking to me. Is that something that either of you have given much thought to?
Tim Shriver: Well, of course I’ve given some significant thought to this question because I’ve spent more than two decades in my life in partnership with and trying to follow the lead of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who for centuries have been treated as less than valuable, not just less than valuable, but exterminated, sterilized, institutionalized, incarcerated.
Not because of anything they’ve ever done, but because of who they are. The question of the value of a particular human life is central. People with intellectual disabilities – I was with Frank Stevens, a man who has Down syndrome, when he spoke one time at the Capitol and he started his remarks off the cuff by the way, in front of a group of congressmen and senators. Kind of got choked up and we all thought he had lost his way in terms of what he wanted to say and he just lost his texts and he looked up and he said, “I want you to know my life has meaning.”
It was not lost on any of us that he had to say that. And so we don’t have to look just to the end of life questions, we can look to the entire life cycle to see the way in which the medical systems often prioritize people who have wealth, who have power, who have access to resources and so on, and they deprioritize, whether it’s in the dispensation of primary care or things like transplants or other kinds of things.
People with intellectual developmental disabilities are always, I’m sorry to say, almost always, treated as second-class people, as people who don’t deserve, who don’t have the same dignity as others. I’m not going to underestimate the enormous struggle and adversity of people with chronic fatal diseases, but when systems and cultures and political systems start to give broad latitude to people in effect to end someone else’s life, red flags ought to go up for all of us.
Caution ought to be enormous because the track record of having doctors and even I dare, I’m sorry to say, family members making decisions for other people about whether their quality of life constitutes something worth preserving. Someone else starts to make those decisions, beware. The most vulnerable are likely to suffer.
Tara Isabella Burton: I’ll just say that I think I’m with Pope Francis here. I think we do live in a culture of disposability. And I think that that is a broader cultural phenomenon than this particular instance. But this particular instance absolutely reflects I think the way in which the idea that to be a certain kind of “burden,” to be vulnerable in certain ways, to maybe not even have certain kinds of autonomy in a culture where autonomy is that which makes us human, where it is the kind of yardstick against our humanity as measured, it logically follows that when we enter into those states, be it childhood, old age or illness that make us less autonomous, we are somehow less human, less fully human.
I do think that unchecked and unrefined, the tendency to see human autonomy or human freedom as the highest, again good among goods, does produce in us a tendency that if left unchecked does lead us to think that we are less human when we are less autonomous and when we are less human, we are more disposable.
Peter Mommsen: One of the things I loved about your essay is that when we get to the end, you actually put forward some suggestions for how to steer the ship around.
Tim Shriver: Yeah. I think our feeling is that there are emerging trends in the culture that point towards a different future.
That whole trend to turn to yourself might meet with great religious and spiritual trend of the mystics and all those great teachers throughout history who have invited us to see within ourselves the hunger for the divine. You can see it in the culture. In the flourishing of meditation and mindfulness and all these yogic type practices. They’re not always... some of them are narcissistic, so don’t scream at me. But many of them are trending towards a deep kind of connection to silence as a way of discovering your deepest hunger.
We try to identify in this piece, what are the building blocks of a spiritual realism that we’re already seeing manifest in the culture. The expression of universal dignity, the willingness to go to the margins, to include and not exclude those who are at the margins as Greg Boyle has written and practiced so powerfully in his work at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles.
What are the skills of connection and communication that would mark kind of an empathic listening to others, the capacity to listen deeply for the good in others? These are all patterns that we lay out here as, if you will, what we’ve tried to pull from the great spiritual traditions is some of the great practices that if we put in the culture we could use to navigate questions just like the ones you’ve brought up about healthcare.
How would we answer the question of healthcare if we really believed, deeply believed in the dignity of each person?
Susannah Black Roberts: Your focus on personal, what might be called spiritual disciplines or personal practices, Tim, seems to me to be a way of saying the safety that we need in talking about this can’t be found in external structures because we need to be vulnerable to each other.
The safety that we need in order to be able to live in a world that is not constrained to liberal individualism has to do with individual transformation. Not individualism, but just like each of us needs to become the kind of person with whom it is safe to pursue the good. Does that sort of ring true?
Tim Shriver: I think yes. I think we each need to do it, but Susannah and we try to say in the piece that we can build institutions that increase the probability that that vulnerability will be normal. That that expression of dignity will be normal.
We point here, yes, we can point to the Thirty Years War, but for most people, the Thirty Years War is pretty far in the past. Religious violence is not far in the past, don’t get me wrong. But we could also point to the Peace Corps. We could also point to the Special Olympics movement, where millions and millions of people come out to help people with Down syndrome run a 100-meter race. They’re not doing that because they’re going to get paid for it. They’re not doing it necessarily because it’ll advance their stature. They’re not doing it because it will necessarily increase their employability.
They’re doing it because they’re starving for experiences in which the walls break down, where they feel free to be themselves, their best selves. That’s true of many institutions and cultural organizations. This piece is in a sense, an invitation to see the best in us, not just the best in me.
“Find the best in you.” Yes, we all have that work to do. We all have the inner work to do, but build institutions, polities to use Tara’s language more than mine, to build a polity that normalizes that search for the best in us, that recognizes and values it as the normative hope of our collective lives, not just of my individual life.
Yes, it’s not bad to worry about enforcement of an oppressive version of someone else’s good over my own. Yes, we have to guard against that. But we also have to unleash the hunger, we each have to show up for each other, to act on our noble aspirations and to see what happens when we do that. Think of the heroes even of our current news cycles.
Think of Scarlet Lewis who lost her child at Sandy Hook Elementary School at the age of six, who’s dedicated her life to the memory of her little boy Jesse, but also dedicated her life to the memory of Adam Lanza, who took her own child’s life.
Her program is called Choose Love. She teaches it in schools and prisons elsewhere because she believes that Adam, if someone had chosen to love him more deeply, wouldn’t have taken her own child’s life. This is a fabulous example of the human heart freed somehow. I don’t know how she does it, to forgive the most painful of crimes, the murder of your own child, freed to forgive that crime in order to act in the goodness and hopefulness of the future of others.
We’ve seen this in some of the worst violence in our streets, where parents say afterwards, “Calm, peace, forgiveness.” We saw this in the Charleston murders where the people in that congregation did not ask for revenge.
In fact, pleaded for forgiveness for the person who took the lives of their brothers and sisters and parents. It’s unimaginable, but that skips the news cycle. It becomes a little rounding error that happens sort of at a memorial service instead of an enculturated normative hunger that we have to build the institutions that act in those spaces.
We’re at a point now where we need to also build new kinds of institutions that normalize our spiritual hunger and bring it to life and new kinds of businesses even, and maybe even a new form of capitalism someday that will get us closer to who we actually want to be.
Tara Isabella Burton: I want to cut in here and bring up bike lanes, which is a joke. Which is to say is one thing to have certain kinds of political division on Twitter or even in the kind of political race that is covered by the news cycle.
It is another thing entirely to look at your neighbors whom you know and live with every day within whose community you exist in the book of your life and still think of them in the same bombastic terms, you might think of your political enemy you’ve never met.
And so I think that one of the important futures for spiritual realism is advocating for initiatives that allow smaller communities, New York neighborhoods even, communities where you actually live to operate well and together and that foster ways in which we are encouraged to move in the physical geographical landscape of that space in a way that gets us to know one another.
Ways that crossing a certain street or highway is as safe not just for the young and the healthy, but for children or the elderly who might be endangered.
I think my own neighborhood of Red Hook is bounded from the rest of New York by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, this enormous overpass. And physically crossing out of the neighborhood is kind of dangerous. I’m always struck by the success of really local institutions, hyper-local institutions from the village, the Village pub or the coffee shop to the Mutual Aid Society and the community fridge. I do think that we start there. As Tim said, we build from the bottom up.
Susannah Black Roberts: Just because every time I think about Red Hook, I get irritated at Robert Moses again. As you know Tara, this is something that just plagues me, not least because I like visiting you but it’s a pain in the neck to get there.
I wonder whether Tim, as part of the final sort of rallying cry of this piece, you did talk about the role of … you guys did talk about the role of public servants and the role of leadership as well as the community grassroots bottom up aspect of this.
How should we be thinking about what responsibilities our leaders have or how can we help each other become leaders who can promote these kinds of interactions and this kind of approach to our lives together?
Tim Shriver: Yeah. Well, it’s a huge challenge. We’re in a deep hole and it’s not just a conceptual one, it’s practical. Tara’s point, people are scared of others, scared of saying what they think, scared of going to work, scared of political discourse, scared of violence, scared of racism and sexism, these kinds of things. Scared of being called out instead of called in as my colleague Van Jones sometimes says.
I think we’ve got to start with some very, very, very basic, I would call spiritual values and that is listening and treating others with respect and dignity. You can’t solve problems if you’re screaming at each other, if you’re demonizing each other, if you’re trying to humiliate people. I think we all can start with baby steps, which is listening as we teach in the social emotional learning field, assuming positive intent of others. It’s hard. No, but I mean, it is hard. But it’s hard when we’re in these trenches politically and we’ve been inflamed. If you watch the news, you are treated to toxins. It’s powerful inflammatories, really, for the soul. So we’ve got to learn the quality of heart and mind, the disposition that allows us to listen to one another.
I know that sounds pretty boring and basic, but imagine if that’s all we did for the next year or two is try to change the quality of the discourse at the level of decision-making in communities and in governments and in cultures and in companies, and in organizations so that we actually treated each other with some degree of dignity.
I think it would begin to unlock both an easing of divisions and divisiveness, reducing as we like to say in the Dignity Index, reducing the probability of violence, easing divisions, but then most importantly, beginning to help us solve problems at a deeper level.
Susannah Black Roberts: Well, I think that with this piece and with this discussion, the two of you have begun to promote those kinds of conversations. I’m so grateful for both of your time for meeting with us this morning and I’m so pleased to be able to publish this. It’s going to be coming out in the next couple of days, and I look forward to where this goes next. Thank you both so much. This has been wonderful.
Tim Shriver: I’m very grateful to you and to Plough for giving us the chance to share this point of view and hopefully invite others to join us in a dialogue about how we can take it to the next level. So thank you.
Section III: Hannah Long and Boze Herrington: Once Upon a Time in the West
Susannah Black Roberts: And now, we’ll be speaking with Hannah Long and Boze Herrington. Hannah grew up in Appalachian Virginia, where her family has lived for nigh-on 250 years; she now lives in New York City and is another dear friend. While her day job is in publishing, on the side she has provided cultural commentary and film criticism for the Dispatch, Angelus News, Arc Digital, P. J. O’Rourke’s American Consequences, the American Cinema Foundation, and Athwart. Twitter: @HannahGraceLong. Boze Herrington is a mystery and middle-grade novelist. His essays have appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Lit Hub and Nerdist. He tweets about books and faith and co-runs the Dickens Chronological Reading Club with Rachel Murphy. Twitter: @SketchesbyBoze. They are both Plough contributors. Welcome Hannah and Boze!
Thank you guys both for being here, Boze Herrington and Hannah Long, legendary tweeters both. Anyway, we are here to talk about Jesus and John Wayne, and Jesus and John Wayne, the book, and also various Westerns. We have a lot of feelings and opinions, which I think we’re about to get into.
Peter Mommsen: It might be useful at the beginning to hear from both of you, your connection to Westerns and John Wayne. Boze, I think you actually live in Texas.
Boze Herrington: I do, but it’s not the reason I like Westerns. For whatever reason, I went through a Western phase in 2015 or 2016 and I was trying to watch all the classic Westerns. I think I was trying to get a sense of the basics of black and white storytelling … black and white, not as in color, but moralistically black and white storytelling. I found that I gravitated towards the type of Westerns that weren’t so much black and white Westerns like Shane or The Searchers, or last night I watched Ride the High Country. They’re kind of morally complex with interesting character dynamics. I like how the genre started to become self-aware and deconstruct itself in the late fifties and early sixties. That’s how Hannah and I became friends is we were talking about deconstructing westerns.
Susannah Black Roberts: Hannah, you have a piece on its way to being in our current issue, I believe.
Peter Mommsen: “Guns in the Afternoon: Revisiting a Western Fable of Decline, Inheritance, and Hope,” on Ride the High Country.
Hannah Long: I got into Westerns in the winter of 2021, and that was sparked by a sort of conversation I’d had with my friend, Terry Teachout. I’d been watching a few at the time anyway, and I watched Ride the High Country. I was just really struck by its moral universe, which is very … I mean, Boze talks about it in terms of ambiguity and there is that. There are a lot of very complicated characters with complicated beliefs, but they all seem to believe the idea that there is something higher than them to adhere to, or rather the main character who does believe that turns out to be vindicated in the end. That’s maybe a better way of putting it.
I think everyone else doubts that, but the film itself tends to believe that there is something higher, that there is the language used and the cultural touchstones that are brought to bear by the people that do believe in the “high country.” Essentially, metaphorically speaking, it implies that there is a God, that there is some sense of an absolute morality that you can adhere to. I was just really struck by that. There’s just a great poignancy in the fact that it was made by Sam Peckinpah, who went on to have this tragic life of womanizing, alcohol, drugs and just all of this in his personal life as well as just the fact that he’s now well known for being the guy who really brought hyper violence to the fore in a lot of cinema. There was just a real poignancy to the irony of that. It sort of sparked for me an interest in the genre as a whole.
I started watching just Western after Western. We were all snowed in that winter, there were 18 inches of snow in New York, and I was stuck in a basement apartment with very little natural light, working from home.
Susannah Black Roberts: I’m so glad you’re out of there.
Hannah Long: Oh gosh, it had so much more space than our current place. Anyway, but it was a mental escape from the circumstances and it was something that I just felt elevated by these stories where, and to quote Terry Teachout who had a very, very thoughtful sort of exegesis of the genre in the Weekly Standard twenty-some years ago, they were about choices that were always clear but rarely easy. The ambiguity was in what it cost you to make those choices, not in the choices themselves, which I think is an interesting distinction and which allows you to tell complicated stories in a black and white world.
Susannah Black Roberts: Then, shortly after you went through your Western apotheosis, you decided that you needed to inflict this on the entire friend group. You’ve been leading us through a curriculum, which included watching Ride the High Country two nights ago in fact in your new place, which has more light but less space.
Hannah Long: That’s right, yes. It does have more light.
Peter Mommsen: John Wayne’s spiritual exercises.
Hannah Long: Something along those lines, yes. We started sometime like, I don’t know, March of last year. We started with Stagecoach, which is the beginning of the curriculum. It’s often considered the first important or great Western. There were a lot that had been made before that were sort of cheaper or not made by great filmmakers. I think Orson Wells watched it forty times before making Citizen Kane, so it really did have this enormous influence on not just Westerns, but cinema in general.
Susannah Black Roberts: Now, we’re talking about this in the context of a recent book by Kristin Kobes Du Mez that came out called Jesus and John Wayne, which wasn’t really about either Jesus or John Wayne in interesting ways, but was about a group who she doesn’t like very much who are white American evangelicals.
Peter Mommsen: I think the subtitle kind of captures her take, which is “How white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation.”
Susannah Black Roberts: Right, so she’s not a fan of this people group. You guys both kind of are white evangelicals … or at least I don’t think that you would call yourself an evangelical anymore, Boze, but both of you grew up in that world. Do you guys want to each talk about a little bit where you’re coming from with this?
Hannah Long: Well, I think one thing I would jump in and say is … just to give a bit of a recap for how Boze and I met is we’re one of each other’s oldest Twitter friends. I remember meeting him in … what was it? 2015 I think, and I was about nineteen and I was in community college and I didn’t have any friends in real life anyway, so I was just meeting people on Twitter and pathetically trying to make friends. We became fast friends talking around genre fiction, not Westerns, but murder mysteries, which I think Boze would be mad if I didn’t manage to work both murder mysteries and Dickens into this conversation in some way. Another part of it though was that we bonded over talking about our evangelical backgrounds. I mean, as you said, I’m really the only white evangelical on the call in that I’m both white and evangelical. But we did have a similar background in that we had grown up in these smaller towns in the South, just some of the experiences we’d had.
I remember being really struck by the fact that Boze, and I don’t know how much he’ll want to share about that, maybe he can do a little bit of a recap, had been through some very, very bad experiences with evangelicalism and that he still had faith through it. That was just something I was really struck by, impressed by, and a little bit mystified by. I wasn’t sure if I would’ve come through some of those things with the same faith. I pitched this question to Boze last night because I was curious what his response to that would be, so I’ll pitch it over to him. But it was just from the earliest moments of our friendship, the tension between some of the things we’d experienced and our faith was really a theme in it.
Boze Herrington: I’m not sure how much it would be appropriate to get into my whole backstory, which you can read in various places online, but I was raised a Southern Baptist, but the really, really strict kind of fire and brimstone Southern Baptist, the world is going to end tomorrow kind of thing. Then, in college I joined a Pentecostal prayer group with three or four friends and we ended up … after we left college, we stayed together and kind of became an End Times cult and it got really violent, frankly. I was severely punished by the group leader in horrifying ways. My best friend, Bethany, took her own life shortly after marrying the cult leader. There’s been quite a bit of religious trauma that I had to work through. When I met Hannah, I was struggling with all these questions like what if the universe just ends? What if there’s no soul, et cetera, which I’ve slowly, in the last seven years I’ve gotten more of a faith, a hope, and a perspective. But I was really struggling in 2015 and Hannah helped me work through a lot of that.
Peter Mommsen: Wow. Thanks, Boze. I think that touches on some of the issues that we do want to talk about. Maybe it would help to first talk about Westerns and the ideals that are put forward in them because there is a kind of old-fashioned integrity, I think is the word you used in your piece, Hannah.
What is that? There’s so much talk of searching for a good masculinity and non-toxic masculinity. When these movies were made, that was a much less conflicted set of questions it seems, and yet the answers given in those movies is not as caricatured as some might think.
Hannah Long: The classic era of Westerns, which I tend to put between 1939 and 1962 ending with Ride the High Country and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, was a lot more varied in its perspective on masculinity and right and wrong than you might expect. As early as the 1940s, John Ford was deconstructing American imperialism in the film, Fort Apache. You had films like The Ox-Bow Incident, which I cannot remember what year it was, but it was also quite early, it was Henry Fonda. It was about a lynching, I mean it was a very cynical view of American society and of society’s tendency to punish those that it wants to scapegoat. There are all of those ideas throughout there. I think that what makes it distinct from the more morally gray world of the 1960s and ’70s Westerns and further on is, again, just that assumption that there is some sort of code. That doesn’t necessarily mean a religious code, but there’s some sort of assumption, I think this is partly a genre assumption, that cowboys behave in a certain way.
That’s not really how it was in the Old West, I think. This is very much myth: trying to teach us something, but it’s using this framework to allow the characters to operate within a world of certain expected behaviors. You can’t shoot a guy in the back, that … you’ll see it over and over again in the Westerns where it’s John Wayne versus some guy, Wayne ducks out from behind a tree, but then he yells the guy’s name to make sure he turns around before he shoots him. It’s maybe not entirely fair to be honest: as someone who has shot a handgun, I don’t think that’s actually going to give you too much of an advantage. But there are certain rules of fair play that are assumed in these Westerns. In most cases, there was an assumption that civilization is to be preferred to wilderness or lack of order, but then in others, the civilization itself can often be very corrupt.
High Noon is a very cynical view of a civilization which has no gratitude for the people that protect it, which I think is more of a conservative takeaway than John Wayne did.
Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, one of the things that was interesting to me in rereading the Du Mez book, which I’ve read I would say 90 percent of at this point, she has this line, “On screen good triumphed over evil, and the lines between the two were clearly drawn.” She doesn’t like this for various reasons and various ways. I was just sort of struck by the way that that’s kind of true, but it’s also, she makes it sound as though these are cartoon movies, like there’s something simple about them. As you say, there’s a moral realism to the universe. You have to make choices that are in accord with that moral realism, but those choices definitely are not simple choices, they’re not easy choices, and they’re not choices that advantage you always.
The point is that they disadvantage you, that you’re giving up something. Sometimes you’re giving up the benefits of the civilization that you helped preserve. One of the strangest things about the book, which maybe we’ll turn to talking about now, is that it doesn’t really strike me that she’s seen very many of these movies. I can’t recall if she really goes into talking about any of the way that Westerns work or any of the plots of any of the specific movies other than the things that you could get from a Wikipedia summary or something like that.
Hannah Long: That was my impression as well.
Susannah Black Roberts: Yes, that was why the book was surprising to me because it’s called Jesus and John Wayne and it’s really not about either Jesus or John Wayne as an actor/movie-maker. It’s more about John Wayne as a kind of concept, but that concept doesn’t really match very well with Westerns even as a genre or with John Wayne.
Hannah Long: Well, before we move on, I appreciate the point you made about her dislike of a moral universe where you just have two choices and the good guys always win. I think that there’s a modern sort of critical assumption that it exists in a lot of … it’s an unexamined assumption by a lot of critics that something is better if it’s more complex or if there are lots of choices and none of them obvious, that you can’t tell an adult story in which by some rule of the genre, the good guys always win, that there needs to be some level of uncertainty there. I don’t think that any of those assumptions are defensible if you think about them. I think that they might be … at least they’re not defensible from my ideological point of view, I think that you can absolutely tell interesting stories in which the genre is a little bit more set in its goals.
The Hays Code was a big part of this, was that it really did limit what you could and couldn’t do. But that meant often, because you had those expectations, people were curious about what you would do in order to meet them because you could do a lot of interesting things in-between those points. If good has to win, how do you make it really interesting that good will win? I think that’s just something that is not thought through enough by people who are thinking about storytelling in general.
Peter Mommsen: I mean, that seems to have its analog in so many art forms. How are you going to make this sonata form work out? How are you going to make the three unities in French theater interesting? How are you going to make any type of ghost story different than the last ghost story?
Boze Herrington: I realize this is probably tangential to Kristin Du Mez’s main point, but I almost wish that one could go over to her house and sit down with her for a weekend and just marathon all the classic Westerns just to give her a real feel for the genre.
Susannah Black Roberts: Seriously, yes.
Boze Herrington: But also, I was thinking … not to be the mystery novelist person, but I would compare the classic Westerns of the forties and fifties to the golden age of British detective fiction in Britain in the forties and fifties. They’re very similar in the sense that I think W. H. Auden said, “You have a detective who’s the agent of God’s justice, and in America you have these Western movies in which there is the cowboy who is the agent of God’s justice, who brings order to the frontier in the same way that the detective brings order out of the chaos of a murder.” It’s interesting how Britain took the hunger for that and channeled it into the detective form, and America took the hunger for that and channeled it into the Western form.
Then, America’s take on the detective story was really different from the British take in that you had the noir, which was kind of a response to the Western films for the forties and fifties. What Hannah was just talking about was morally murky, more ambiguous, and so you had a population that was sort of split between those who enjoyed more black and white storytelling and then you had your Westerns and those who enjoyed more complex stories with no resolution, such as the film noirs, like The Big Sleep, et cetera. Personally, I enjoy both of them, I enjoy the classic Westerns and the mysteries. But I think there’s something to be said for the Western as people craving something similar to religion, like a religious tradition or wanting to see a priestly character, in this case the cowboy writing wrongs and bringing visions to evil-doers as God does. Does that make sense?
Susannah Black Roberts: Yes, I absolutely agree. But I do also want to say that I think even in the noirs, there is … my dad is obsessed with this Raymond Chandler essay called “The Simple Art of Murder,” which he claims is the greatest work of moral philosophy of the twentieth century.
Peter Mommsen: Small claim.
Susannah Black Roberts: This is a quote from the introduction, “Down these mean streets, a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man, and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.” I mean, that actually has always struck me as pointing towards more similarities between the noir and the Western genre. They’re both obviously also takeoffs on stories of chivalry. One of the questions that I kept wanting to ask Du Mez while I was reading this book is, “Are there any good versions of this? Do you see nothing good about the idea of a man of honor? Is that just a disgusting idea to you?” If it is, that just seems very sad to me, not least because that kind of cuts you off from a lot of, not just Westerns, but many of the main genres of literature, film, and poetry from before 1965 or so when everyone did start to think of the idea of the man of honor as something suspect or vicious.
Peter Mommsen: Well, one other genre that we haven’t mentioned, but we can just throw in there because it’s also a bit the same time period, is fantasy. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, these are also morally non-complex stories in terms of where they lined up. I mean, there’s clear good and there’s clear evil, which is why so many people love them. They’re very comforting. You similarly have this attempt then in more recent fantasy literature to complexify things. Again, I couldn’t agree more with Hannah, this unexamined assumption that greater complexity means greater sophistication.
Hannah Long: Well, again to just kind of return to Terry Teachout, because he had a theory of both Westerns and noir. I haven’t gotten into watching noir as much, but he also had a very specific noir definition; he did an excellent series of podcasts, almost a class on this with Titus Techera. He defined them as being about a man who had a moral choice and usually made the wrong choice at the beginning of the plot and that was where everything went wrong, like in Double Indemnity when Fred MacMurray decides he wants to trust Barbara Stanwyck, who is so obviously untrustworthy. People tend to see them as complex because they usually don’t have happy endings, but that I don’t think necessarily means that they’re not existing in a world with fairly clear moral choices, it’s just people are making the wrong ones.
Section IV: Hannah Long and Boze Herrington: Jesus and John Wayne
Peter Mommsen: I wonder though, since getting back to Kristin Du Mez, the book’s called Jesus and John Wayne, but I think actually what the book is about is more what the subtitle is about, which is white evangelicals and specifically white evangelical Christian males.
Susannah Black Roberts: Yes, it’s interesting because it’s part of this genre of books about this group that a bunch of people came out with, Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead came out with about four each, that’s an exaggeration.
Peter Mommsen: We made fun of their Christian nationalism criteria in a previous episode.
Susannah Black Roberts: We did. But it’s a very bizarre genre, this critique of white Christian nationalism genre because it’s sort of sociological, but it’s as though you were a sociologist and you were writing this book about a tribe and you were just like, “This is the worst tribe in the world, this people group sucks. They’re bad at their own religion, which is dumb, and they have bad taste and their gender roles and beliefs about sexuality are stupid. They’re personally all corrupt and unintelligent. They’re a bad influence in the world, especially in the country where they’re one of the major people groups. I’m going to write this kind of objective sociological book about them.” It’s very weird. It’s a phenomenally interesting, I don’t know, publishing tendency.
Hannah Long: It’s interesting. I mean, it’s tribalism. I say this as someone who is not unsympathetic to a critique of the blind spots of white conservative evangelicalism, I’ve seen them myself and I grew up around them, and I may tell a story about that in a little bit. But that it’s so determined that white evangelicals fall on the wrong side of history in everything that it covers, that it just feels like such a partisan and narrow view of history as a whole that I really have a hard time reading through it and thinking, “I trust this as a view of history.” It’s so scornful of this group that it’s trying to under … It doesn’t seem like it’s interested in understanding.
I mean, I would hope that if I were examining subgroups of which I was not a part, and I attempt that on occasion, that I was able to find something that I liked about them and convey that. I think that you’re not really going to be able to understand anything if you can’t understand what’s likable about it at all, be that thing John Wayne or just whatever ideology I don’t like at the time. If you can’t understand that facet of it, if you can’t understand why it would be appealing to anyone, then I don’t think you’re going to be able to explain it to anyone.
Peter Mommsen: It’s ironic that a book that critiques stark moral black and whites actually just assumes pretty stark moral black and whites.
Susannah Black Roberts: I was thinking about that. Obviously similarly, there are tendencies which some people in the white evangelical world have exhibited, as there are people in every world, that are terrifying and awful, because human beings can exhibit terrifying and awful tendencies and be bad versions of themselves. But I guess the thing that baffles me, and that actually seems to relate to a lot of themes in Westerns actually, is there a good version of yourself?
Hannah Long: I think a lot of this does come back to the fact that all of this was written in the wake of Trumpism. Trumpism as a thing and as an experience tended to break people’s ability to look back at history with anything without reverse engineering that into every other story, making every other conflict in history about finding the Trump in that story. This allows you to keep from seeing fine distinctions. I mean, for instance, using symbols here, she sees John Wayne as the exact same sort of figure in evangelicalism, which is of course the fantasy of the book, which is a very engaging one. It’s a very engaging explanatory fantasy that evangelicals have always fallen for figures that are not Christian and that use the language and the logic of paganism and of vengeful power-seeking, and they try and baptize that. She’s essentially saying that the things that they did with Trump, which I’m pretty sympathetic to that description of what happened in 2016 and in the next few years, not that I don’t understand why people may have voted for the man, et cetera.
But I felt very at sea as a young evangelical in the South when a lot of the people that had told me things, the religious right mantra about character mattering in politics, suddenly that didn’t seem to matter at all when you had this more utilitarian goal to achieve. I felt really bruised by it. I mean, I felt like I was completely at sea all of a sudden. I don’t know, I was twenty-one in 2016, and during the week I would be at this very liberal arts college and I love a lot of people there, but I was extremely in a minority as a conservative and a vocal conservative in class. I’ve never not been vocal, it’s my curse. I would be fighting everybody in class because I thought I had to own everyone. Then, on the weekends I would come home and see friends and family who were much more right wing and who thought I was a fake and a phony because I didn’t like Trump and that I wasn’t really pro-life and I wasn’t really this or that. I felt like I hadn’t moved and everybody else had moved, and it was this really weird just sense of betrayal and of hypocrisy. I really was bruised by it, I think. I’m very sympathetic to her tackling that phenomenon, which I think is what she’s trying to do. I think she identifies a certain idol-making tendency on the right, and that tendency needs to be identified, but I think that it’s also possible that we all make our idols and if we’re not able to see our own, it’s going to be hard to critique others.
Peter Mommsen: I mean, there is a real thing that she’s responding to. There are militaristic forms of Christian-branded nationalism that have been pretty influential in this country, and if you remember back to the beginning of say the Iraq War were just everywhere, I was newly out of college at that time, that was the air that people breathed, even in New York State. That’s not so long ago, as distant as that may seem a cultural memory right now. Are there distortions in particularly white Christianity in the United States? Well, if we look at our 200 years of history, absolutely so. I mean, the theological justifications for slavery, for manifest destiny, for native dispossession, et cetera, et cetera. To bring it to the Jesus point, this is not the Jesus of the four gospels. Boze, I’d be curious what you think because you grew up probably in something a lot closer to the kind of culture that Du Mez is critiquing here than where I did.
Boze Herrington: I think it goes back to what Hannah was saying earlier about contextualizing the book within its historical context. The time it was written, 81 million evangelicals had voted for the Republican candidate. This was kind of a shattering moment for a lot of young people who had grown up in the Evangelical church because they were looking at their elders who had told them, “Don’t vote for anyone who has sexual misconduct and lies to you. Don’t vote for that person, don’t vote for a person of bad moral character,” but then they went and voted for this person who was the embodiment of the seven deadly sins. There was four or five years of young evangelicals looking at themselves and going, “Where did this movement go wrong? These values that I was raised in, how can I inculcate them authentically? I’m not seeing them inculcated authentically in my church.” You see this deconstruction, this reexamining the roots of the faith to get at the problems in the faith, and I think that’s what Kristin Du Mez is doing here.
Hannah Long: I noticed that Kristen Du Mez pointed out that Evangelicals often favor the tougher side of Jesus, the table-flipping Jesus, and ignore the more peaceful side of Him. But of course, the thing I think we have to look at there is that she didn’t try and balance those things because she seemed to imply without getting further into it, that we should only prefer the peace-loving Jesus. I think that the paradox of the gospel and the difficulty of it is that there are both those elements in there, is that He’s a God of justice and of mercy. The cross is the resolution of those things, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to reconcile both of those things all the time. Figuring out what is the use of force, and how is force and justice … how do those things interact in anything like righteousness? Is there a righteous way to think about those things?
I think that the classic Westerns are a very interesting setting in which to examine those questions. They’re very concerned with how violence affects us with what the cost of justice is, because I mean, there has to be some sort of form of justice or someone creating justice in the society is usually the unacknowledged assumptions in most of these Westerns. But, what does that do to us and what costs does it result in? I mean, you end up with guys like Ethan Edwards, who are condemned to be outside of society because they’ve been wielding the sword. I mean, essentially sort of like King David who is not allowed to build the temple because his hands are hands of blood. I think that these are very interesting questions that are examined with great thoughtfulness within the classic Western, at least the better versions of them, that someone who is concerned about these issues and who is concerned about a lot of those themes, it’s worth checking them out.
Here’s going to be my slightly troll-y take: that the book should have been called Jesus and Clint Eastwood, because Sergio Leone’s Westerns are much, much less conflicted about killing people because it makes you look like a badass, it’s way more focused on the aesthetic coolness of the Western hero as opposed to his moral virtue or his heroic sacrifices. Not completely, there’s still some of that in there, but in a lot of ways they’re more morally simple because they’re so focused on just an aesthetic version of something. There’s no sense of what is violence doing to The Man With No Name, I don’t know, I mean he looks pretty cool when he’s doing it, let’s get a poster of him. I was thinking about film analysis and film criticism and looking at what it is instead of assuming that we know what it is because of the cultural assumptions about it.
There’s a lot of bad film writing about classic film in general, just a lot of assumptions that don’t actually track with when you look at it. I mean, I said earlier that there’s usually an assumption that the black-hat/white-hat world ended in the sixties and then suddenly we entered this world of artistically interesting films as opposed to whatever happened before, which is if you watch anything from before that you could see that that’s a gross simplification. I think that, like I said, there’s a lot of bad film writing about classic film, and John Wayne’s politics make him a particular target for that, sloppiness, assumption, and cherry picking. Du Mez does some of that, and I don’t think she’s alone in that, I was a little bit disappointed since he’s in the name of the book that she hadn’t seen through some of it.
But it’s really hard when you have not been trained to think critically about classic film to see through some of the general cultural assumptions. I think that a lot of people just see it as settled opinion about it, that you can just take all of these things as truisms. I certainly did when I first started watching them, and some people kind of had to correct me, “Well, no, that’s not actually the way it was. You haven’t actually seen any of these, you just kind of have picked up on stuff from cultural osmosis.” It’s easy to reduce everything to just symbols, which she does it, and she sort of turns John Wayne into this evangelical icon, which really …
Peter Mommsen: The symbol of the American conservative 1950s.
Hannah Long: Yes, which reduces him in a lot of ways. Probably, for one thing, he was a lot bigger than Evangelicals, he was the biggest film star in the country for three years or so, the biggest box office star. He was just ubiquitous, everybody would’ve known John Wayne well before he became a conservative icon, which he started becoming more outspoken as time went on, which we all regret to some extent. But there was a lot more to him than just whatever has filtered down into the Americana cheap posters you see at gas stations. He was an artist that had a life outside of that character. Partly I think that you can’t really say anything intelligent about him unless you acknowledge that John Wayne was an invented character and he was invented by someone else, and that someone else was Duke Morrison, which was John Wayne’s real name, more or less. His real name was Marion Michael Morrison, but he went by Duke.
Duke Morrison and John Wayne were not the same people as each other, and that goes both ways, is that they were both better and worse than each other in interesting ways. Duke was probably more of a right-wing firebrand than John Wayne for the most part. John Wayne in the films was a more nuanced character, and he was often painted by directors who leaned more left-wing than … It’s a much more complicated thing to actually watch his films because the first film that he made that really shot him to the prominence was … well, besides The Big Trail, which didn’t do well, was Stagecoach. He plays this astonishingly sweet and boyish figure, almost a Christ-like guy who is protecting this young woman on a stage coach ride when everyone else is judging her. I mean, there’s just a real sweetness and heroism to him.
That’s the one I think I would show Du Mez if I wanted to rattle her idea of what he could be a little bit. I mean, because the way she describes his films, she talks about … I was pretty salty in the group chat about this last night, the first two of his films that she talks about, she gets completely wrong. I mean, so wrong that I’m like, “I don’t understand what movie you’re watching.” She talks about his breakout moment in ’48, which I’d say that’s an accurate statement. He starred in two Westerns that year, Red River in which he played the role of a cattle rancher whose love interest was slaughtered by Indians. That’s certainly a way to summarize Red River, but it doesn’t really describe this horrifying Mutiny on the Bounty performance where Wayne becomes this dark, controlling, and dominating figure who is … It’s sort of an early version of the role he plays in The Searchers where you’re horrified by him.
There’s a real moral complexity, and it’s a deconstruction of his image that he was very intentional about. It’s a very interesting and complicated moral film because of that, it was supposedly the one that John Ford watched and said, “Gosh, the big son of a bitch never told me he could act,” and so he decided he needed to start casting him in big things. But then the other thing he made that year was Fort Apache, which was also … It was a John Ford film, I guess it was the one where he decided he could make the big SOB act.
She describes it as, “He played a Civil War captain who went on to subdue the Apache in the Western frontier,” which is also certainly a way of describing this film, it’s just that it ignores the fact that he’s the character who is defending the Apache and who reluctantly ends up fighting against them under the commands of his racist superior, Henry Fonda. But he’s throughout the defender of the Apache who wants them to be treated with honor and respect, and only very reluctantly eulogizes Fonda at the end with these clear mixed feelings.
I mean, if you’re going to get just the basic facts of those films wrong, I don’t think you can really understand what the character of Wayne meant across his film career and across all of that. Anyway, I think there’s something much more interesting to be said if you really do look at what he was and what he did, because on the one hand, you had very diverse reactions to him even in the seventies, like Pauline Kael calling him “So archaic it’s funny” in the seventies.
But then on the other hand, you had Joan Didion who wrote … I’ll leave you with this quote as this is the end of my notes, but I thought this was too good not to quote, which is “When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams. In a world we understood early to be characterized by finality, doubt, and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world. One which may or may not have existed ever, but in any case existed no more,” which I think really gets at the mythic meaning of a character that is just not at all evident in Du Mez’s analysis of him, and which is important to consider despite his numerous personal failings and the wicked things that he had said at different points, that it’s a much more interesting story to engage with that because I think you’re missing something if you don’t.
Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, there is that line in the Du Mez book where she says, “In films like The Searchers, Wayne portrays unapologetically racist characters,” and yes, that’s why he’s essentially the villain. It’s a terrifying character and you’re meant to be terrified, and seeing that kind of dark animus, that’s the point of the movie. I found that very confusing.
Hannah Long: I see quite a few people react to The Searchers that way. I think I might have reacted to it that way the first time I saw it, partly because you have such low expectations of films from that period that a lot of the times you don’t realize, “Wait a minute, this is trying to tell me something without handing it to me on a plate. What? How could that be?” But, they were much more sophisticated than we give them credit for.
Peter Mommsen: I do want to go back to one comment you made, Hannah, and this is involved too in Tolkien. Even as a pacifist, I love Tolkien, I love these movies. I’m reminded of one thing, this is going back to our discussion too about where’s the Jesus in it, of what’s sometimes called a red letter Christian reaction to American Christian idolatry, which can go so far the other way that in its dislike of militarism, of bad masculinity, of bad forms, of all the things that are implicitly praised, whether in Westerns or in Tolkien or we were talking about murder mysteries, it kind of ends up chucking out a good piece of the faith too. You’ll find a pretty strong strain, for instance, in some modern pacifist Christian thought that actually takes a super dim view of an Old Testament, specifically of King David, he’s the original war criminal. There’s a way that in the name of pursuing a red letter Christian reaction to bad forms of some of the things we’ve talked about, you end up eating your own faith alive because, of course, King David’s not an unimportant figure, the ancestor of Jesus himself.
I guess that’s what I came away with from this thing is there’s a strange analogy between this super strong critique of the morality of the Westerns perhaps to people’s pretty strong discomfort with the first two thirds of the Bible.
Hannah Long: It’s interesting you make that connection because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the fact that the Old Testament and Westerns have a lot of crossover. This is not an observation that’s original to me, a lot of people have noted that these are essentially stories that feel like they’re said in the Book of Judges where every man does what is right in his own eyes because there is no human justice to wield the sword essentially, to be the sheriff. There is this sort of a limbo space between a civilized city and the anarchy of the frontier. Again, to emphasize this is not necessarily a historical view of what actually happened in the American frontier, but it’s a way of talking about these issues. People have noted from both directions. There was some theologian, I have to remember who it was who talking about the Book of Judges, and he said, “This is kind of like the Old West.”
Then Walter Hill, who is … he’s a director of Westerns and he recently made Dead For a Dollar this year, actually. He was saying that whenever he wants to make a Western, that he just picks up an Old Testament story and starts there. He’s not a Christian, he grew up religious, but he was saying that all of those themes are in there. Vince Gilligan has said pretty much the same thing, and he also grew up Christian in Virginia – represent Virginia Christians! But I think that everyone who understands those ideas in that space recognizes that there’s a real similarity between the genre at least of parts of the Old Testament and of classic Westerns where … I guess the question then is, are there many classic Westerns that move beyond the Old Testament to the New? Because in a lot of these cases, there’s sort of a lack of that sense of grace and sacrificial honor.
I think Ride the High Country, surprisingly enough, is one of them because … It’s surprising because of who Sam Peckinpah was. But I think that there’s a real sense of sacrificial honor and of the ideal of a hero who loses everything, that he is not lauded by the world at the end of the story, and yet there’s no sense of sadness about that. It’s a sense that he has triumphed, not because he has ended up with a lot of gold – in fact, he ends up with no gold – or because he has ended up living happily and into his old age – he doesn’t live. But there’s nothing sad about this, which is quite a counter-cultural assumption, I don’t think that many modern Westerns would make it anymore either. I guess I’m dancing around a little bit the specifics of the ending of it, but the final shot of the film is an astonishing one, it was one of the great shots in movies.
It is a shot of a man falling out of the shot and he sort of topples like he’s a dinosaur or a mountain falling over, and yet behind him there’s left the high country, the values, the hills to which my eyes go. Throughout all these stories, in John Ford especially in Monument Valley, these mountains represent the eternal things, the values that don’t go away. You could have turned your camera the other way, you could have turned it to the dirt that he is lying in, and yet Sam Peckinpah didn’t do that.
Susannah Black Roberts: I mean, one of the ways to think about it is if you look at the trajectory of the stories that these are telling, they’re stories about someone like King David who can’t build the temple because his hands have shed blood, or Moses who can’t enter into the Promised Land. Then, there’s stories about people like Jimmy Stewart’s character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who are essentially … that’s Solomon, he’s the judge, he’s the senator. He’s bringing full civilization and the full promise to fruition of this civilizing process. But there is this kind of what’s left out, what was the cost? That is a kind of question... Is civilization worth it? Is there anything beyond mere civilization? That’s a question that points towards the New Testament in a way.
I’m not sure … I mean, I think that shot does get back there because if there’s one thing that we can feel from these movies is that whatever it is that is beyond the good of mere civilization, it has to do with the values that these men have been wrestling with the whole time, sometimes unsuccessfully as David did. I don’t know. I’m not sure there is a real strong New Testament themed Western that I can think of.
Boze Herrington: Hannah was asking about that, and I would argue that The Ox-Bow Incident from 1943 starring Henry Fonda, which she mentioned earlier, is a bit of a passion narrative because …
not to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but there is a series of lynchings and it is revealed that the lynchings were done unjustly and that the men were murdered without cause. It almost seems to be following the trajectory of the New Testament story in making these men who were killed into Christ-like figures.
Hannah Long: They do end up with a voice beyond death too. These are stories about the soul, the good thereof, and whether or not it’s saved. There’s a sense in which the characters have to strive for eternal good as opposed to temporal good. If there is a sense in which there is a life beyond death, then that endorses whatever sacrifices they are making and it makes them not futile. That’s a very strong assumption throughout most of these Westerns, that there are things that it’s worth risking your life for, that this is not all there is, that there is something beyond this. That assumption itself just leads us to a lot of assumptions about life, about God, and about the way the universe is that are not very common in films now, that are much more about winning, are much more about having something.
Roger Ebert pointed this out: modern action films tend to be about winning and achieving as opposed to the tension between losing the world versus gaining your soul. In all of these older films, there’s always a sense that the soul is a thing, that eternity is a thing, and that there is life beyond death, and that really matters to how you act in the world.
Peter Mommsen: I believe that’s called the pedagogic value of the law, pointing us to the gospel. Thank you so much, both of you. This podcast will hopefully be a spur to our listeners to definitely check out Hannah’s piece on Ride the High Country. Also, Boze has recently written us a great review as well, and we’ll drop that in the podcast notes. Hannah, whenever you get around to it, maybe you could share the curriculum, the classic Western curriculum, and we could share that with our listeners as well.
Susannah Black Roberts: Absolutely.
Hannah Long: Will do.
Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out plough.com for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to plough.com to learn more.
Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, we’ll be speaking with Pater Edmund Waldstein about his family, the generations of a monastery, and ethnonationalism, and with Matthew Lee Anderson about IVF.
Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.Learn More
Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.Learn More
Tara Isabella Burton is an author, a columnist for the Religion News Service and a contributing editor at the American Purpose.Learn More
Tim Shriver is the longtime chair of Special Olympics, the cofounder of the social and emotional learning movement, and recently the founder of UNITE.Learn More
Hannah Long grew up in Appalachian Virginia, where her family has lived for nigh-on 250 years. She freelanced for The Weekly Standard during college, and after graduation moved to New York City, where she now lives.Learn More
Boze Herrington is a mystery and middle-grade novelist. His essays have appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Lit Hub and Nerdist.Learn More