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Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne March 24, 2021

Summary: The whole jigsaw puzzle. A sweeping history of sexism, power and toxic masculinity in white evangelical Christianity.

I’ve written about the paradox of Donald Trump. He’s a beloved leader of the religious right who embodies the total opposite of the values they’ve always claimed to stand for: a narcissistic, prideful, greedy, sexually predatory tycoon who scarcely even pretends to be religious. And yet, white evangelical Christians are devoted to him with cultlike intensity, more so than for many other politicians with actual Christian bona fides.

I’ve argued that this is no accident. Trump was the culmination of a mythology that white evangelicals spent years constructing. Now I’ve read a book that makes this argument far better than I could: Jesus and John Wayne by Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. (She also blogs at Patheos, at Anxious Bench.)

Jesus and John Wayne is a history of white evangelical Christianity in America in the 20th and 21st centuries. It shows how evangelicalism has adapted and evolved in response to the times, but has always centered a certain set of ideas about masculinity, race, hierarchy, militarism and authority. It builds a quietly damning case that Donald Trump not only isn’t an aberration, but the most consistent expression of this ethic.

Du Mez is a Christian herself, but this book is a secular work of history and analysis. It doesn’t say anything about what God wants, nor does it make any arguments about who is or isn’t a true Christian. There’s nothing that would stick in an atheist’s craw.

Reading this book was like watching someone assemble a jigsaw puzzle. I knew about most of the individual pieces she presents – the names, the institutions, the events, the theologies – but Du Mez’s expertise is in showing how they fit seamlessly together into a bigger picture. The cumulative effect is a perspective shift, like seeing a portrait emerge from scattered fragments.

Briefly summarized, the book’s thesis is this. Over the decades, white evangelicals have constructed an image of their ideal leader: a man (obviously) who’s unpolished, tough-talking, and rough around the edges; who may not fit the choirboy ideal, but is unrestrained by political correctness or wishy-washy liberalism; and who, most importantly, believes that the world is a dangerous place and the only way to be safe is to be tougher than all adversaries.

This ideal leader is always ready to unleash violence to defend his world – whether that’s his wife and kids, or Western civilization as a whole – against the hordes of barbarians at the gates. As Du Mez puts it, they want “a protector, an aggressive, heroic, manly man… someone who would break the rules for the right cause”.

You can see how Trump fits into this mold, but he’s just the latest in a long line. Du Mez describes how this mythology was born in the crucible of the world wars, when – believe it or not – it was conservative Christians who were tarred by liberal believers as insufficiently patriotic.

After Pearl Harbor, they were determined to make sure that never happened again. They consciously refashioned themselves in the image of the red-blooded American, embracing the myth of the cowboy, the frontiersman, the soldier. And they sought out cultural figures who embodied this ideal.

Their first icon was John Wayne, who was a forerunner to Trump in many ways. Wayne was married three times, divorced twice, and notorious for high-profile affairs and a heavy drinking habit. He was a popular actor in jingoistic war movies, but he never actually served in the military. He was also a conservative who supported McCarthyism and white supremacy, and his crassness and belligerence were part of his appeal. He embodied the era when white men believed it was their duty to make the world safe for white women by subduing Native Americans, communists, Black people and immigrants.

During the Cold War, evangelicals identified a looming enemy in the “godless” Soviet Union, which led them to support American militarism and imperialism. At the same time, they felt threatened by the cultural shifts of the era. They saw rising movements for peace, civil rights and feminism as a dangerous challenge to their patriarchal notions, which held that the nation and the household should both be ruled by stern, authoritative white men. This is what they refer to as “family values”. Religious-right cold warriors like Tim LaHaye, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell got their start in this era.

The second big Trumpian precursor was Ronald Reagan. Like Wayne before him, “Reagan’s religious credentials left something to be desired”: he was divorced, rarely attended church, and as governor of California, supported the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion. But what evangelicals had in common with him, and what attracted them to him, was his hardline anticommunism, his America-can-do-no-wrong nationalism, and his nostalgia for an idealized past. Reagan symbolized resistance to the cultural shifts of the ’60s and ’70s, and evangelicals voted for him over Jimmy Carter, the actual evangelical Christian in the race.

Leading into the 1990s and 2000s, Du Mez chronicles the rise of complementarianism (which claims that gender roles are rigid and immutable, and that men are meant to lead and women to submit) and purity culture (which preaches patriarchal insistence on male control of female sexuality). She discusses popular evangelical authors like John Eldredge (whose bestselling book Wild at Heart argues that men were designed for battle and aggression) and pastors like Mark Driscoll (who I wrote about here).

Many of these pop-culture evangelicals drew their ideas about manhood from fiction, looking up to literary characters like James Bond, Indiana Jones, or Mel Gibson’s heavily fictionalized William Wallace in Braveheart. After 9/11, they added virulent prejudice against Islam, which replaced communism as the enemy du jour. And in the Obama years, birtherism came to the fore, as white Christians concocted conspiracy theories about why a Black man was an inherently illegitimate president.

That brings us to Donald Trump. Du Mez quotes – without explicit editorial comment, but with clear irony – the bushels of evangelical leaders who denounced Bill Clinton’s affairs, who insisted that good character is essential for a leader, only to make a 180-degree turn.

But while their words were hypocritical, their actions were always consistent with the spirit of Trumpism. Du Mez cites a long list of prominent evangelicals who were exposed as sexually rapacious abusers. The fact that they preached absolute masculine authority and the heroism of manly aggression isn’t incidental to this. As she writes:

“Masculine authority, militarism, and the sexual and spiritual subordination of women have simply been part of the air evangelicals breathe for decades.”

I don’t usually comment on an author’s writing style, but Jesus and John Wayne is extremely well-written. Although it’s a work of academic history, it never gets bogged down. It reads as lightly and quickly as a fast-paced novel. Du Mez has a talent for drawing connections, using deftly chosen details to illuminate the currents of evangelical thought. Even if you’re acquainted with the history and politics of the religious right, this is a book that’s worth reading and may well give you a new depth of understanding.

PSA: If you’re interested in hearing more, you can listen to Feminist Coffee Hour’s interview with Kristin Du Mez about the book.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


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