Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020. pp. 356. ISBN: 978-1-63149-573-1, $28.95.
In the fall of 1976 Newsweek magazine ran a cover story titled ‘The Year of the Evangelical’. The impetus behind this media splash was the nomination of Jimmy Carter – a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, peanut farmer, and governor of Georgia – as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President. Prior to this, few people in the upper echelons of government, education or media knew what an evangelical was, let alone what they believed or stood for. But Carter’s Christian commitment, defined as ‘evangelical’, aroused curiosity and brought the movement to the attention of America’s cultural gatekeepers. Forty years hence evangelicals became front page news and dominated interactions on social media for their support of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency. Given that Trump was the opposite of Carter in personal morality, biblical knowledge, and public demeanor, it begged the question of how those who said they worshipped Jesus of Nazareth could not only vote for such an individual but also lend him their verbal, financial and political backing.
In her engaging and provocative new book, Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes Du Mez provides what she believes is the answer to that question. For Du Mez, Trump was simply the culmination of a decades long evangelical emphasis on hyped up masculinity rooted in patriarchal views of marriage, family and society combined with a militant mindset. For Du Mez, Trump wasn’t an outlier or ‘one-off’ for evangelicalism; he was, instead, an unsurprising manifestation of all that has been wrong with the movement since the early twentieth century. Starting with the admiration of such masculine luminaries as Teddy Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur and especially John Wayne, the evangelical sub-culture created an ethos which over time made it not only susceptible to the sexist and vicious ramblings of someone like Trump but all too eager to embrace him as ‘one of their own’.
In order to build out her thesis, Professor Du Mez walks her readers through a series of developments within the evangelical sub-culture which she believes pointed directly towards its uncritical embrace of Trump. She begins with the strident fundamentalism of revivalist Billy Sunday in the 1920s but quickly moves ahead to the Neo-Evangelical movement of the late 1940s and its poster-boy, Billy Graham. Du Mez chronicles Graham’s relationships with various America presidents, arguing that he ‘preached a gospel of heroic Christian nationalism with unparalleled passion’ (p. 25). Moreover, Graham’s seemingly uncritical embrace of Richard Nixon and his policies in Vietnam laid some of the groundwork for later, more ominous ties between evangelicals and the Republican party. But that was just the beginning of evangelicalism’s hard shift to the right. Faced with what they perceived to be the onslaught of radical feminism, evangelicals turned to the writings of Chrisitan pop authors such as Marabel Morgan (The Total Woman) and the political machinations of Phyllis Schlafly to stem the feminist tide. In fact, Du Mez argues that Schlafly’s political opposition to the ERA helped give rise to the Religious Right in the late 70s and early 80s. Even though Schlafly was not an evangelical (she was a Roman Catholic), her influence ‘helped unify white Christians around a rigid and deeply conservative view of family and nation’ (p. 73).
Separate from Schlafly but equally important in creating the culture wars of the 80s and beyond were Bill Gothard, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye (chapters 4 and 5). Gothard’s seminars on Basic Youth Conflicts, Dobson’s Dare to Discipline and LaHaye’s litany of books all taught and argued for a strong hierarchical view of life rooted in patriarchal authority and female submission. Yet even the supposedly widespread influence of these men and their work left many in the evangelical sub-culture feeling impotent when it came to engaging a society they felt had gone morally and spiritually astray via Roe v. Wade, growing homosexual activism and their belief that Carter was a failed President. It was at this point that evangelicals became politically prominent thru the activism of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, their support of Ronald Reagan in his defeat of Carter (1980) and their public loyalty to controversial Iran-Contra operative Oliver North as the exemplar of American heroism. In Professor Du Mez’s view, evangelicals had now unequivocally signed on to an unholy alliance between church and state. As she notes…
Like North, conservative evangelicals defined the greater good in terms of Christian nationalism. It was this conflation of God and country that heroic Christian men would advance zealously, and by any means necessary, with their resurgent religious and political power (p. 117).
Yet much still seemed amiss within the broader evangelical sub-culture. Men needed to be awakened to their Christian responsibility to lead their families and communities with strength. Into this apparent vacuum stepped Bill McCartney and Promise Keepers as well as authors Gordon Dalbey (Healing the Masculine Soul), Steve Farrar (Point Man: How a Man Can Lead His Family), Stu Weber (Tender Warrior), John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) and the seemingly ubiquitous John Eldrige, best known for Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. This male-focused literature and ‘conference-attending’ was not mere spiritual window dressing; rather, it was designed to provide evangelical men with a framework for exercising a masculine Christianity. Moreover, in Du Mez’s view, its cumulative effect was to teach men that they were created in the image of a warrior God, making them receptive to the war-mongering of the Bush administration following the catastrophe of 9/11.
But with the failure of the Bush administration and its increasingly unpopular war on terror, Barack Obama was elected President in 2008. According to Du Mez, Obama’s defeat of John McCain and Sarah Palin not only shook the old evangelical guard but ignited their fervent opposition to the new president and his liberal policies. Evangelical notables such as Gary Bauer, Franklin Graham, Wayne Grudem, James Dobson and Eric Metaxas all lined up in their public opposition to Mr. Obama, despite his claim of being a Christian. Publicly articulating feelings of marginalization and resentment, these men appeared to represent the majority of evangelicals, 74% of whom voiced their opposition to President Obama at a time when over half of all other Americans gave him a ‘thumbs up’. Each of these factors, combined with the presidential candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, set the stage for evangelical support of Donald Trump, the man Professor Du Mez labels ‘the latest and greatest high priest of the evangelical cult of masculinity’ (p. 271).
Jesus and John Wayne is an important book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the picture it paints of contemporary evangelicalism. Moreover, the fact that evangelicals loosely defined make up at least 25% of the American population requires that we interact with their (our) social, ideological, and political impact on the culture. Professor Du Mez tries to do that here and, in my opinion, an in-depth analysis of her work would require a lengthy article. But this is a book review with limited ambitions and, therefore, I’m going to lay out where I think Jesus and John Wayne hits the mark and where it falls short. So let me start with the former. One of the book’s strengths is its underlying theme that evangelicalism isn’t just a system of beliefs ala the famous Bebbington quadrilateral but a nebulous and often dysfunctional religious subculture rooted in consumerism and celebrityism. As Du Mez makes patently clear on a number of occasions, evangelicalism is intensely market-driven and often times less than discerning in its tastes. One of the most glaring examples of this was Duck Dynasty, a Christian reality show featuring the Robertson family. As the author notes…
Duck Dynasty was a show made for Red State Americans. And for American Christians. Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, was a self-described Bible-thumping convert, and his son Al was a pastor. Onscreen and off, the entire Robertson clan committed themselves to “faith, family, fellowship, forgiveness and freedom.” (p. 245)
Moreover, Christian retailers like Thomas Nelson latched onto their popularity and ended up publishing a Duck Family version of the Bible as well as a family devotional marketed along the same lines. After showing the enormous influence of such consumeristic celebrityism, Du Mez cuts to the chase: “By the early 2000s was it even possible to separate out ‘cultural Christianity’ from a purer, more authentic form of American evangelicalism?” (p. 246) This is a question that every thoughtful pastor, scholar, teacher and committed layperson within the evangelical camp needs to take seriously.
A second place where, in my view, Du Mez hands out some righteous cudgels is in her penultimate chapter ‘Evangelical Mulligans: A History’. Here she chronicles the moral failures and public meltdowns of evangelical superstars Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, Darrin Patrick, James MacDonald, Bill Hybels and Ted Haggard. Noting the arrogance and moral subterfuge of these individuals makes for maddening reading if one cares at all about evangelicalism as a Gospel movement. It also reveals that evangelicals have never honestly addressed the inherent problems that come with notoriety, wealth, and influence – in other words, power. From 1985 to 2015 popular American evangelicalism gave birth to a number of people who became very powerful and the children morally devoured the mother.
Let me now turn to the limitations of the book. The first is Du Mez’s inability to convincingly demonstrate the historical reality of her thesis. This is a book of popular history that draws mostly on secondary sources to make its case. The footnotes reveal that there is little real, empirical research to back her strident claims of a patriarchal, toxic masculinity dominating the evangelical movement for over 70 years. There is little or no evidence of a direct historical connection between Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry and Henrietta Mears in the 1950s and noted Trump supporter, Robert Jeffries, in 2016. None of the former three represented the world view that Du Mez ascribes to the movement nor would they have countenanced Trump’s amorality and irreligious shenanigans. Moreover, at a personal and anecdotal level, I have been part of the evangelical subculture for over forty-five years and I can attest that I don’t know anyone who subscribes to a patriarchal hyped-up masculinity that revels in militaristic metaphors. And I have never met anyone who holds up John Wayne as a spiritual icon. In fact, the first evangelicals I met in 1970s were opposed to movie-going because it was seen as ‘worldly’. Perhaps a different way of explaining some of the evangelical support for Trump is to default to the popular adage ‘Politics makes for strange bed-fellows’. My own suspicion is that people vote as they do for a wide range of economic, social, and psychological reasons, not just because a particular candidate fits a preconceived notion of leadership. And, as an aside, how does Du Mez explain the millions of non-evangelical women who voted for Trump not only in 2016 but even more so in 2020?
A second limitation of this book is its inability to draw some sharp and necessary distinctions on crucial elements of faith and politics in the modern American context. For example, Professor Du Mez fails to delineate fundamentalism and its proponents from those who composed the neo-evangelical movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. As George Marsden and other scholars proved decades ago, the essential difference between these two streams of American Christianity was the former’s intentional separation from society while the latter sought to ‘re-engage’ the culture with a winsome Gospel witness. Obviously, people and groups can’t always be rigidly defined but Jack Hyles and Jerry Falwell were fundamentalist icons and never ‘evangelicals’ in any real sense of the word. Given that, they should not be viewed as part of the long, tangled history of evangelicalism that Du Mez tries to weave. Moreover, on the political front, the author ascribes the defeat of the pious Jimmy Carter by the apparently ‘nominal Christian’ Ronald Reagan in the presidential election of 1980 to the fact that ‘Reagan projected the rugged, masculine leadership they (conservative evangelicals) believed the country so desperately needed’ (p. 106). But in 1980 inflation was at 19%, over fifty Americans were being held as hostage in Iran and there were long lines at almost every gas station in America. Reagan won the election in a massive landslide not due to his ‘rugged masculinity’ but because he offered a fresh and compelling vision of America in the face of a completely inept Carter presidency. Even most Democrats later admitted that Carter was a failed President. To chalk up Reagan’s victory to the support of conservative evangelicals (who would have only made up for 25% of the total electorate at most) for his ‘irrefutable masculinity’ is naïve at best and bad scholarship at worst.
Given our current cultural divide in the areas of religion, politics, morality, and world-views I suspect that Jesus and John Wayne will attract a lot of attention and sell thousands of copies. But as an accurate analysis of the intersection of historic evangelical faith and contemporary politics supposedly culminating in the weird spectacle of Trump’s presidency, it simply does not make the necessary connections to prove its point. Read it if you must but be wary of its claims as you do.
Scott Wenig, PhD
Professor of Applied Theology
Haddon Robinson Chair of Biblical Preaching