Cowboy Christians

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Marie W. Dallam
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190856564.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

When I teach anthropology students about religion, I illustrate the holistic integration of a religion and its wider cultural context with examples from the US like Christian dating (e.g., Christian Mingle), Christian cartoons (e.g., “Davey and Goliath” or “Veggie Tales”), Christian wrestling, Christian clowning, Christian archery, Christian comics (e.g., Kingstone Comics), and of course Christian country, rock, and rap music. I will now add cowboy Christianity to that list.

Marie Dallam’s study of cowboy churches is a good exploration of the inculturation of religion—of how a religion can absorb cultural influences in tailoring its message to a particular audience. In this case, that audience is the “cowboy,” or American West subculture, which leads to a loose congeries of congregations of essentially evangelical Protestants “in which everything is western heritage flavor, almost like a cowboy-themed church” (3)—although the qualifying “almost” in the quotation seems superfluous, since they arecowboy-themed churches. 

As Dallam stresses in the introduction and second chapter and reminds us constantly throughout the book, this commitment to cowboy culture confronts the movement with a number of challenges and paradoxes, not the least of which is “authenticity.” Who, for instance, is a real cowboy, and what is the true cowboy culture? Aspiring pastors and church leaders in particular must demonstrate their authentic cowboy identity (sometimes literally preaching from horseback), and the style and space of worship must convey a convincing cowboy ethos. Matters are complicated by the complexity and diversity of the cowboy subculture, which includes not only working ranch hands, but also rodeo performers, “entertainment cowboys” (that is, actors and singers like John Wayne and Roy Rogers), and their families and other enthusiasts. Still, altogether this makes for a distinctly limited clientele, and one problem faced by cowboy churches is their small, fluid, and relatively unstable groups.

An additional area of considerable interest, examined in the second chapter, is the culturally-constructed image of the American cowboy. Aside from the fact that nineteenth-century cowboys were notoriously hard-living—“indulging in liquor, gambling, and prostitutes” (35)—they were also notoriously indifferent to and uninformed about religion. So the idea of “Christian cowboys” is a modern invention, just as the very image of cowboys and their culture is. Nevertheless, that invented tradition now provides “numerous markers of authenticity” (41) to which would-be cowboy churches must conform.

In the third chapter, Dallam discusses how the cowboy church movement arose from rodeo chaplaincies and ministries. Like other sports, especially dangerous ones, chaplains appeared at rodeos in the late-twentieth century, both to comfort athletes and to change the “debauchery [that] ran amok behind the scenes” (67) at the events. These efforts coalesced into institutional ministries like Cowboys for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys, leading to the overview of the contemporary cowboy church movement in the fourth chapter. Here we see that “certain core principles” of a diverse movement have begun to emerge in regard to meeting styles, music, physical spaces and such. In their effort to be open and welcoming (to the cowboy subculture, at least), these churches tend to minimize the conspicuously religious aspects of worship (as many megachurches also do) and to “lower the bar” on morality while striving to “keep it cowboy.”

Part of keeping it cowboy, unsurprisingly, is perpetuating a male-dominant culture and a patriarchal authority structure in the churches, as evidenced in the fifth chapter. In the tradition of muscular Christianity, cowboy churches tend to be “focused on men’s faith and men’s salvation” (137) with males at the helm. Even so, Dallam finds that perhaps a majority of members are women and that not all members or leaders hold the same attitudes about female subordination; in fact, some female leaders have risen in the rodeo and racetrack ministry.

Dallam brings to our attention a fascinating and revealing corner of modern American Christianity and does an effective job of linking cowboy Christianity to broader trends like the “new paradigm church” movement, muscular Christianity, and revitalization movements in general. Cowboy Christiansis explicitly not an ethnographic study; it collects most of its data from interviews with pastors as well as archival research. The next step, then, is for anthropologists, sociologists, or religion scholars to conduct ethnographic fieldwork among the congregations of cowboy Christians to learn more about the actual beliefs and practices in this noteworthy manifestation of vernacular religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
April 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marie Dallam is Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma Honors College. Her previous books include Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer (2007) and the co-edited collection Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (2014). Her research focuses on intersections of religion and culture in the United States.

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