A Feature Review of
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Since 2016, no shortage of ink has been spilled on exploring the bafflingly-high support of Donald Trump among white evangelicals in America. Many explanations have been offered, from the pragmatic (they just wanted supreme court justices), to the immense dislike of Hillary Clinton, to the corruption of the term “evangelical” itself by the news media and pollsters, to fear and persecution complexes, to insidious and pernicious racism. While these explanatory attempts have various degrees of merit, most acknowledge that there seems to be a blatant tension and contradiction between the “values” that conservative evangelicals hold and the “values” displayed by Trump himself, and it is this very contradiction that so many commentators have sought to explain or resolve.
But what if there isn’t actually a contradiction? What if Donald Trump actually embodies the very values that conservative evangelicals have been shaped to hold dearly? What if his evangelical support shouldn’t be viewed as a surprise, but rather as a natural outworking of a subculture of deep patriarchal, militant and nationalistic imagination that has been specifically cultivated in white American evangelicalism for over 75 years? What if Donald Trump is simply the fruit of the white American evangelical tree?
for Assessing its Present and Future
This is the thesis of Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s stunning new narrative history of the last century of white American evangelicalism. Du Mez’s writing is lively and well-researched, her critiques both fair and unsparing, and her historical analysis perceptive and devastating.
The historical narrative of “Jesus and John Wayne” really takes shape in the Cold War-era 40s and 50s, especially through the fiery, anti-communist and explicitly political early activity of Billy Graham. The roots, however, are a bit deeper, as Du Mez begins the book by exploring antecedents in the early 1900s, through the lionization of figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Billy Sunday, to introduce the central theme of her argument: the white American evangelical infatuation with rugged, individualistic, brazen, cowboy masculinity. And of course, no one better symbolizes this than John Wayne, who, though not an evangelical himself, remains a constant backdrop in the activity of evangelical pastors and political heroes in the decades since the peak of his Hollywood career. Tracking the myriad ways in which evangelical leaders have referred to John Wayne in books, sermons, or political speeches through the decades, Du Mez makes a convincing case that he embodied a “shared masculine ideal” (31) that would go on to animate evangelical culture and activism. John Wayne was not the cause, but he is an effective symbol, and a surprisingly effective through-line for the book.
The masculine ideal that Du Mez explores intersects with issues of race (“white” is in the subtitle, after all), militarization, nationalism, strictly patriarchal societal and family structures, and of course, gender roles and sexual ethics. At the center of her argument is the notion that a hyper-militaristic, racialized, nationalistic and patriarchal ethic is deeply encoded in white evangelicalism in America, and that it repeatedly rears it’s head, albeit in different forms, through Christian cultural movements since the 1940s. The way in which Du Mez traces these forms, comparing and contrasting them, as well as situating them in their historical context, is masterful and compelling.
For example, a militarized movement will paradoxically glory in triumph, as in the Reagan era, but also thrive when embattled, as under the Obama administration. This back-and-forth, with militant masculinity at its unchanging core, becomes shockingly clear in Du Mez’s telling, and is hard to “unsee” after its exposure.
Even more telling is the way this movement has adopted unlikely figures, while casting away others. How does one explain the evangelical disdain for bona fide Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter, but the fawning over liberal divorcee Ronald Reagan? Or the mythologizing of Oliver North in the 1990s? Or the sneering and suspicion towards Obama, who spoke openly and eloquently about theological issues and his own Christianity, but the embrace of Donald Trump, who couldn’t articulate his favorite Bible verse when asked? Rugged, ready-to-fight masculinity, Du Mez argues, provides an explanatory key.
Du Mez’s research is also deep. One with even a cursory knowledge of evangelical history would expect names like Falwell, Dobson, Eldredge, Driscoll, and Piper to occupy important pieces of this story, but lesser-known influencers like Stuart Hamblen, Bill Gothard, R.J. Rushdoony, Doug Wilson are also included. Du Mez’s sources are not limited to men, either, as the work of Marabel Morgan, Phillis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye, and others is incorporated into the effort of ensconcing patriarchal masculinity into white evangelical culture. The reader of “Jesus and John Wayne” is rewarded with a deeper familiarity with the contours of the work of each of these figures, and their place in recent history. Each is fairly represented, from the more extreme (Driscoll, Wilson) to the more nuanced (Eldredge, Piper), even though all are ultimately in service of the hyper-masculine vision Du Mez puts forward.
Finally, the historical connections Du Mez articulates are enlightening. The ways in which the quest for a common enemy in this militant Christian vision have shifted from virulent anti-Communism (which also impacted white evangelical tepid-at-best response to the Civil Rights movement) to virulent anti-Islam in the wake of 9/11, or how the Vietnam War was leveraged to increase nationalistic attitudes and solidify evangelical military loyalties, or how the spate of public televangelist scandals in the 80s prepared white evangelicals for a new hero figure in the 1990s, or how the Promise Keepers movement launched a renaissance of masculine-focused Christian publishing in the early 2000s are all convincingly presented. The takeaway is a cohesive and sobering account of how the election of 2016 actually represented “a culmination of [evangelicals] half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity.” (271) From John Wayne to Donald Trump, a shockingly consistent thread can be followed.
In an absolutely devastating closing chapter (titled “Evangelical Mulligans”) Du Mez traces many accounts of the all-too-frequent public failings of prominent evangelical leaders, and the knee-jerk efforts of those in similar positions of power to defend them while invalidating the abused. After reading Du Mez’s account of the previous century, the connections become abundantly clear. “Those lamenting evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of ‘family values’ fail to recognize that evangelical family values have always entailed assumptions about sex and power.” (277) For those interested in exposing and dismantling those assumptions, or even those who simply want to understand how they gained prominence in the white evangelical landscape, “Jesus and John Wayne” is an absolute must-read, a stunning work, and one that deserves serious attention and further conversation.