- Cowboy Christians by Marie W. Dallam
Marie W. Dallam's Cowboy Christians is an engaging, interdisciplinary analysis of one of the lesser studied, but certainly more interesting subcultures within the broader scope of modern American evangelicalism. Relying heavily on a mix of personal communication, first-hand accounts, and secondary literature, Dallam illuminates the human dimensions of this subculture. The result is a study that is informative, compelling, and consumable.
The book begins with an extended introduction of "cowboy Christianity" detailing its various definitions, characteristics, and iterations, including a discussion of historiographical placement and methodology. An associate professor in religious studies, Dallam is not a professionally trained historian. But she is clearly comfortable with many of the historio-graphical parameters that will be of great interest to historians, and she effectively positions her study within these parameters. She is particularly effective when discussing her work as part of a larger conversation about western mythos, as opposed to western history, not so much in distinguishing fact from fiction, but in the enduring value of the fiction as summative reflection on muscular Christian tradition in the United States. Dallam describes the incorporation of heroic, romantic themes like rugged individualism, liberty, and courage into the organizing soul of cowboy Christianity. [End Page 242] In her words, the "core of cowboy culture relates to an imagined history of white, able-bodied men riding horses across a pristine landscape, assuming authority as caretakers of land and animals, and interacting with each other in noble ways" (7). To the degree that adherents have perceived this culture to be under siege by the forces of secular modernity, cowboy Christians have rallied to a sort of movement in which nostalgia reigns and traditional order is well protected. However, the growth of cowboy Christian culture has also been enhanced by an ability to balance preservation of order with a raw, stripped down, pretention-free quest for authenticity that prioritizes personal conversion (justification) and growth (sanctification) ahead of collective behavior modification, politicized culture wars, or the "health, wealth, and prosperity" gospel of stereotypical suburban megachurches.
Thanks to more than fifty personal visits to cowboy church services, Dallam skillfully takes her readers into this world, or more accurately, into the arena. Though this book relies heavily on the author's personal experiences in Texas and Oklahoma, Dallam extrapolates most of her conclusions to all cowboy churches in the United States, a number that she estimates is between 500 and 1000. This approach seems justifiable and valid, but Dallam makes no effort to hide what some may see as potential holes in her methodology. Similarly, Dallam acknowledges that racial homogeneity, and possibly even an underlying belief in white supremacy, is part of cowboy culture; yet, for reasons briefly outlined, she does not use race as a lens for analysis. However, she does eagerly tackle issues of gender and sexuality, with laudable balance and sensitivity, because her goal is sociocultural understanding, not polemical agitation. In fact, as an evangelical myself, I applaud Dallam for her delicate and respectful tone, which avoids much of the condescension and judgment that in some ways inspires the very cowboy subculture she has written about. Even if those she interviewed choose to disagree with some of her conclusions, few should question Dallam's original intent, nor will many scholars find her critical assessments lacking in bite. I should add that the book is not only about church services, but also explores Christian consumerism, sport, and the growing dichotomies between rural and urban life, or perhaps more accurately, between exurban and suburban life.
In short, this is a good book that deserves a wide audience. It is a slice of modern Americana. One could quibble with the methodology, the bibliography, or the failure to chase a few seductive rabbits. But at the end of the day, one should not question its interdisciplinary value. [End Page 243]