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Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and…

af Kristin Kobes Du Mez

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A thoroughly researched investigation into a particularly white Evangelical cult of "masculinity" over the past 75 years.

The author's primary title is chosen advisedly: the entire work analyzes the history of white Evangelicalism with a focus on the encouraged expression of militant masculinity embodied in the characters portrayed by John Wayne. The author does well to note how the characters of John Wayne, and the actual John Wayne, were different in many respects; the irony is not lost throughout.

In a very real sense the work is an attempt to understand Evangelical support for Trump: the work is introduced by one of Trump's speeches, and concludes in the wake of his election. By the time you get to the end you much more fully understand how Trump was not aberrant, but in fact the embodiment of a type of militarist fighting style which has been championed in white Evangelicalism for years.

The author begins with the antecedents from the second great awakening and the early 20th century but really focuses on the era of Billy Graham and following. The veneer on Graham is highly chipped in this telling, with a focus on his rabid anti-Communism, foreign aggression, intense politicking, fondness for Nixon, and his awful quote in the NYT about everyone having their own type of "My Lai." After this it becomes much easier to understand Graham fils' affection for Trump.

The narrative continues with all the events of the late 20th century with a focus on the development of this particular brash masculinity in white Evangelicalism: highly patriotic and militaristic, aggressive, rarely rationalized in terms of Scripture, but certainly willing to shape views of Biblical characters in light of the John Wayne/Braveheart/etc. model. The author addresses the changes of the Sixties, the war in Vietnam, political agitation as segregation was condemned by society, the anti-ERA crusade of Schlafly (who becomes a major character throughout the work), the establishment of the "Moral Majority," the apotheosis and disappointment of the Reagan presidency, a nadir under Bush I, and resurgence under Clinton. We read of the development of the homeschool emphasis, the Gothard collective, Phillips and Wilson, Dobson of course, and what they were all about. The Nineties are filled with the Promise Keepers and a momentary hope for racial reconciliation: it is perhaps at this moment when the author's tendency toward Midwestern snark and cynicism is perhaps a bit misplaced, for whereas yes, these emphases would be lost as the 21st century came about, it would not be hard to imagine a possible 21st century in white Evangelicalism that maintained this kind of emphasis. It might have been better to underscore how the Promise Keepers movement was damaged by its emphasis on racial reconciliation as a harbinger of what was to come.

With the 21st century we get Eldredge and his crowd, the acceleration of this particular view of "masculinity" over the "softness" of the Nineties, and of course the post-9/11 demonization of Islam and Muslims which became quite prevalent within white Evangelicalism. Again white Evangelicalism was at a nadir with the unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis; yet again it would draw strength by finding an enemy, this time Obama, and in their demonization of him. All of this leads directly to Trump: the author spoke of the 2016 primary and election in great detail, particularly in terms of the Evangelical response to Trump. How they took to him as their champion and defender is the appropriate conclusion to the whole.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the book is in its marketing: this is a work of historical analysis taking a critical look at the history of white Evangelical characterizations of masculinity (and, by necessity, its view of femininity as contrast) from 1950 to the present, and how those characterizations help to inform Evangelical culture and political engagement. It does not pretend to be a wide-ranging history; it was not designed to be sympathetic. The secondary title is highly inflammatory, although the author has made strong arguments to both ends: the masculinity which white Evangelicals have promoted is not the masculinity of Jesus, but a particularly romanticized American aggressive masculinity without anchor in Scripture, and which has distorted white Evangelical perspectives on what "Biblical masculinity" might involve; the promotion of these various causes and views are at least partially responsible for the divisions present in America, although it would be inaccurate to suggest they are the only catalysts for such fracturing.

That the "tone" of the book is being criticized speaks to the unassailable nature of the historical evidence marshaled and the discomfort the work causes to those regarding whom it is written. There is good reason why this book is so lauded: the quality of the scholarship, and the abundant evidence for its propositions, demand a reckoning. There are certainly plenty of more "hagiographical" histories of white Evangelicalism, but gone are the days when they set the tone for how white Evangelicals are understood in history. White Evangelicalism is going to undergo a lot more critical review of its history as here and in Posner and Butler, among others, and such a reckoning is long due.

If you have lived as a Christian and have been influenced by "popular Christianity" at all over the past 75 years, read this book. See if and how you have been unduly influenced by these portrayals of masculinity. Allow the context to help explain it, and prove willing to repent by no longer using American popular conceptions of masculinity to inform how one views the Biblical witness, and prove willing to reconsider what the Biblical witness is saying about what it means to be male and female in Christ. ( )
  deusvitae | Feb 6, 2021 |
Despite the provocative title, this is a well-researched, well-documented, thorough history of the evangelical movement of the past half century. For those of us outside the faith, it has long been baffling how the so-called "moral majority" defends rapists and child-abusers, and supported the most immoral man to ever sit in the oval office. This book explains a LOT. ( )
  Tarawyn | Jan 27, 2021 |
An interesting read that offers lots for thought although the author clearly has an agenda and her style allows for no counter claims. There are some factual issues such as her blaming "The Fellowship" for having “In God We Trust” added to US currency in 1955. It was made the US motto that year but first appeared on coins in 1864, long before there was such a thing as Evangelicals. There are many instances of "guilt by association" without providing sources so I'm unsure if her claims are accurate. I was also dismayed that she spent little time on white Evangelicals who are not of the type she wants to portray. Her claim is that "white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation" so she spends no time on white Evangelicals who don't fit that paradigm and I only counted one BIPOC associated with them as the exception that proves the rule I suppose. All in all she fails to prove her thesis but provides enough material for three stars. ( )
  True54Blue | Oct 27, 2020 |
What a timely, well-researched, fascinating, gripping book Du Mez has written. It traces the rise of white Christian evangelicalism from a small and fringe group to the powerhouse that dominates huge swaths of commerce, politics, and education. And how this group's view of Jesus is not that of the gentle, robed man who advocated "love thy neighbor," but instead a warrior whose mighty sword will swiftly kill millions of enemies.

The myth of the heroic warrior male in American history starts with Teddy Roosevelt, a short, high-voiced man who chose the cowboy persona and became President and patron of the West. But it didn't stop there, and morphed from Teddy Roosevelt to John Wayne to Ronald Reagan to Trump. None of these men were evangelical, but that does not seem to matter to this movement: they are brash, swaggering, and insistent that women stay in their appointed places. Boys are bullied into being men, girls are brainwashed into total submission, and any difference from these norms, including sexual assault, are the victims' fault. And her father's, because he did not protect "his" daughter/property well enough.

It is a quick read by a professor who has done an extraordinary amount of what must have been difficult research, and documents how we came to be where we are now. ( )
1 stem threadnsong | Oct 11, 2020 |
Usually I will stay away from books on religion. Everyone’s passions overtake their judgment, facts are few, fleeting and ignored, and no minds are changed in the reading. But the pop culture intersection of American politics and American evangelicalism proved tempting, and thankfully, most worthwhile. For a title like Jesus and John Wayne, I broke my rule.

“To be an evangelical, according to the National Association of Evangelicals, is to uphold the Bible as one’s ultimate authority, to confess the centrality of Christ’s atonement, to believe in a born-again conversion experience, and to actively work to spread this good news and reform society accordingly.” There is no mention of watching Fox News or voting Republican straight ticket, carrying guns, supporting the patriarchy or proselytizing the military. But those facets have taken over evangelicalism. The rest of the requirements have pretty much dropped away.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez hails from this environment, so she is intimately familiar with it and how it operates. She has written an exhaustive study of the evolution of American evangelicalism, with emphasis on its political effects. She has assembled all the top personalities and all the turning points in a fast-moving, if stomach-churning history that ultimately explains how America adopted Donald Trump. It is less than pretty.

Putting John Wayne and Jesus Christ in the same box takes a little work (for the uninitiated, like me). Wayne was a philanderer, married three times in an era when divorce was shameful. He was hard-smoking and swearing. He was a racist who claimed the Indians got what they deserved because whites needed more land and Indians were selfishly occupying it. For all his patriotic ballyhoo, he avoided the draft and never served. You might not see how this would be the ideal role model for evangelical Christians. But then, millions would say the same of Donald Trump. And that is the point.

Wayne was a swashbuckler onscreen. He took no guff from anyone. He was his own man; everyone else be damned. That is what evangelicals aspire to. They demand it of their president. And they also attribute all these qualities to Jesus Christ.

Throughout the last hundred years, evangelicals have glommed on to very flawed, most un-Christian characters as their heroes. Du Mez examines the histories of numerous televangelists who bilked millions from their viewers, only to be humiliated out of business by sex scandals. Two-faced politician-hypocrites are nothing new, and whoring Hollywood stars are the kinds of people evangelicals want everyone to look up to. Trump is not a difficult case to rationalize; he fits the cast perfectly.

Evangelicals believe in the patriarchy. Men rule, women are submissive. Men need to be serviced, women are only there to serve and support. Men are wild conquerors, saving and protecting the family. Women prefer it this way, needing to be swept off their feet by a bold knight in shining armor, rather than a pretty Prince Charming. There is stability and order in the patriarchy; equality means chaos.

Evangelicals are against anything that dilutes the power of men. They are against abortion (women having control over anything), women dressing like men, working outside the home or in politics. They are against (most) immigration and any form of foreign government they object to. This means constant war, the main thing they seem devoted to.

Two things can be drawn from this: 1) America can never be seen as wimpy. It must strike fear in the hearts of all other nations, and go to war to prove it, repeatedly. And stay until it wins completely. 2) America’s leader must be a warrior-king: loud, bold, unafraid, hard-nosed and direct. Evangelicals will vote against anyone who doesn’t fit that description. So Jimmy Carter, despite being an evangelical himself, had to go. So did George H.W. Bush. Trump over Clinton was an easy choice. And when they vote, it is en bloc, like north of 80% of them voting for this caricature of a president.

The other thing all their requirements spell out is White Supremacy. Guns are for all whites (44% of evangelicals have one), but not for blacks. Immigration is for white Europeans, not Central Americans. John Wayne cleared those people out of his path, and so must evangelicals – and their presidents. And they insist Jesus was like that too.

Evangelicals have twisted Christianity to fit their needs. For them, Jesus was a warrior, more Rambo than Mister Rogers. Fearsome, not loving. As Jerry Falwell said in 2004 – “God is Pro-War.” And millions took that to heart. At several points in the book, evangelicals refer to Jesus as a “badass”. This aggressive interpretation has led evangelicals to the US military. Not to serve, but to convert. They get onto military bases, give lectures, show Christian films (Mel Gibson is the new John Wayne), and actively work on individual soldiers. Today, 40% of active duty servicemen consider themselves evangelicals, fighting for Jesus, the patriarchy and White Supremacy.

This is also closely tied to the rape culture so prominent in the military. Women are there for the taking, and not for active duty service. Victims are hounded out of the service. A favorite strategy is to blame the victim for being there at all. With evangelists, there is always a woman to blame. In one of the numerous sex scandals among celebrity evangelists, blame was assigned to the preacher’s wife, who clearly hadn’t satisfied her husband sufficiently to keep his eye from wandering. He was clearly innocent.

Which brings out another of the many distasteful aspects of evangelicals: sexual hypocrisy. While busy telling the faithful how to have sex, they themselves are total pigs. Du Mez examines numerous scandals around numerous evangelists. They blame the victim, they deny, they ignore, they get away with it (though they often have to resign – for a while). It is astonishing how low quality so many evangelists are. As inspirations and moral models, they are total failures.

What they are good at is profit. The God business is booming. All the celebrity evangelists have built massive multimedia empires that funnel cash back to the center. They write Christian books by the thousands. (They love to write highly instructive sex manuals for men and women, the juicier and more explicit the better). They have theme parks, museums and tours like rockstars. As a friend of mine told me just yesterday – any shepherd will tell you, the flock must be fleeced as often as possible.

Evangelicals maintain they are conservatives. They abhor government participation in anything they do. Unless it involves free money, like federal funds for the sexual abstinence for teens effort. They lobby government, cozy up to politicians, and press a religious agenda. In this, they are obviously and blatantly hypocritical and totally un-Christian. The rights of no one else count worth a damn.

They venerate the Bible, but are most selective in what they follow. Turning the other cheek is out, as is never coveting another man’s wife. The Golden Rule is ignored in favor of violent deaths. Bearing false witness? Please. Love thy neighbor? Only if they’re white evangelical Republican Americans.

There is a ton of irony throughout the book. My own favorite is from Phyllis Schlafly (one of the very few women evangelicals respected). She said of Bill Clinton’s impeachment that if he got away with lying, “Americans can look forward to a succession of TV charlatans and professional liars occupying the White House.” She was correct. In another bout of irony, 77% of evangelical leaders believe Islam is “dedicated to world domination.” Takes one to know one, I’ve heard say.

The “family values” evangelicals propound are just a cover for patriarchy, submissive women and masculine power, Du Mez says. In the “always a woman to blame” mode, not satisfying husband’s sexual needs led him to abuse children. He is innocent. She is the guilty party. Evangelicals pressure women to restore violent and abusive husbands and fathers to the family. They knowingly allow child abusers and rapists to marry in the church and are surprised when there is trouble later. Counseling will be needed – from the church. They have created a mountain of abuse cases by themselves. In this Me Too era, 700 victims came forward in the Southern Baptist Conference alone.

All in all, Jesus and John Wayne makes Christian evangelicals look like a very ugly cult. Unlike so many others that bloom, fester and disappear, this one has staying power. It is successful, and it is a shame.

David Wineberg ( )
6 stem DavidWineberg | Mar 29, 2020 |
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On a bitterly cold day in January 2016, Donald Trump stood on the stage of an auditorium at a small Christian college in Iowa. (Introduction)
The path that ends with John Wayne as an icon of Christian masculinity is strewn with a colorful cast of characters, from the original cowboy president to a baseball-player-turned-preacher to a singing cowboy and a dashing young evangelist. (Chapter 1)
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