Corrupted a Faith and
Fractured a Nation
Kristin Kobes Du Mez begins and ends her assault on militaristic white American evangelical men with their contemporary sociopolitical leader, former president, Donald Trump.
In the Introduction we learn the short doctrinal list of what it means to be a Bible-believing evangelical, but the author posits that American evangelicals are more than a set of theological statements. Instead, since the early 1900s they have embraced a John Wayne view of what it means to be a Christian man—a powerful warrior for country and God—a man who leads his troops into battle to uphold the values of God’s chosen people, the Americans.
It was the title, Jesus and John Wayne, that was off-putting. I didn’t grow up with John Wayne films or a love of American westerns. I was after all British and even after living in America, we were more likely to watch sitcoms on TV rather than see Westerns in the movies. But my Canadian friend, Martin Mittlestadt, kept mentioning Jesus and John Wayne. I’m glad he did. Here’s my review.
As we follow the evangelical troops through history—mostly the last 50 years—we learn about the power of high-profile white men whose vision of American Christianity has dictated the distinctive roles that ordinary evangelical Christian men and women should play if they want to make America great. According to Du Mez, the current state of Christian America has been long in the making.
We saddle up in Chapter 1 when Americans are off to fight in World War I for God and country bolstered by the powerful voice of Billy Sunday and his contempt for pacifists. After a few more pages, we learn that a group of fundamentalists (her label) formed the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942. America was of course at war battling evil empires, which fits well with the image of what makes America Great. So far, I don’t see a problem. We British were fighters too and American troops and fire power saved the day. What’s not to like?
Soon, evangelicals would embrace a handsome “All-American” man, Billy Graham, as an unofficial leader. His rise to prominence was fuelled by the media and the conversion of cowboy Stuart Hamblen. Graham supported a growing evangelical network that included Wheaton College, Fuller Seminary, the National Religious Broadcasters, Campus Crusade for Christ, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to name a few well-known evangelical outposts.
Billy Graham hardly seemed like an extremist. True, his views on women are outdated but they weren’t unusual for the 1950s. And even looking back, he hardly seems like an aggressive religious bully. I’m not riding with the same posse yet.
Graham’s entry into politics had a rough start with President Truman, but he encouraged WWII hero Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for president. He did. And Ike invited Billy to help with religious support, which he did. Thus, early on, we see the link between white evangelicals and conservative politics. I get this as an important connection but, we British liked Ike too.
Our author pauses to backtrack a bit to trace the rise of John Wayne as his movies showed boys how to become swaggering men with a funny accent and led them to embrace a fierce anticommunist conservatism. Now I remember my boyhood friends trying to walk and say stuff like John Wayne did. I don’t know what they said but one old quote captures a lot of meaning:
“If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?’”
Du Mez brings Jesus and John Wayne together in a quote from Baptist Alan Bean:
“The unspoken mantra of post-war evangelicalism was simple: Jesus can save your soul; but John Wayne will save your ass.”
We’re in the 1970s now and learning about women.
Marabel Morgan writes a bestseller defining evangelical womanhood in The Total Woman. I remember that book, but I never read it. Apparently, evangelical women learn the secret of a happy Christian marriage, which involves treating their men like kings, catering to their needs, and admiring their masculinity. The biblical fix for marital strife: wives living in submission to their husbands—including sex. My wife says she had a hard time with the old traditional marriage vows in 1973—that bit about “to obey.” Anyway, we pledged our troths and we're still married.
Du Mez takes us on a rough ride through the manifest destiny of evangelical history. Story after story reveals generation after generation of white evangelical men preaching a gospel of male headship in the home, in the pulpit, and in society. Of course, men as preachers is normal in church, where men have ruled for nearly 2,000 years.
Here’s the genealogy in the gospel according to Du Mez. In the beginning, God called Billy Graham and he begot Franklin who lived as a fundamentalist leader unto the present. Jerry Falwell begot Jerry Falwell who declined in influence after Jesus and John Wayne was published. James Dobson dared to discipline and created a family-values empire characterized by strong men, disciplined children, and loving wives. Bill Gothard begat a decades-long ministry promoting men as leaders in a god-to-man chain of command. By the 1980s, Tim and Beverly LaHaye joined with Jerry Falwell and they created the foundations for the Religious Right. The Moral Majority was born at the end of the 70s in time to support the highly popular Hollywood Cowboy, Ronald Reagan and the Christian conference warrior favourite, Oliver North.
And that’s not all. Some golden oldies from the 80s were: Phyllis Schlafly, R. J. Rushdoony, Howard Phillips, Gary North, Pat Robertson (God told him to run for president), D. James Kennedy, Tony Perkins, Bill Bright, Ken Starr, Michael Farris, Jesse Helms, John Ashcroft, Trent Lott, Richard DeVos, Elsa Prince, Erik Prince, Wayne LaPierre, Richard Viguerie, Grover Norquist, Gary Bauer, Paul Weyrich.
This is the era of the televangelists and their sex scandals: Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Marvin Gorman. These evangelicals happen to be Pentecostals--a group I have studied a lot. I guess their moral failures required a mention. Perhaps Du Mez wants us to see a preview of evangelicals gone wild, which will come later.
You might recall that the Clintons weren’t the kind of Christians loved by the evangelical juggernaut. But Bill does provide justification for the Religious Right to call attention to the need for men of character when choosing a president. You can tell Du Mez is setting us up for a “go-figure” moment with The Donald.
In the 1990s, the Christian culture war gets some powerful support from the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the cast at Fox News. Bill McCartney kicks off Promise Keepers and a revival of Christian manhood. On the clergy front, John Piper and Wayne Grudem explain “complementarianism”—that’s God’s design for the two sexes who are equal before God but different when in comes to their gender roles. (In case you didn't know, evangelicals generally believe God created only two sexes and each matches their gender.)
Another component of the evangelical good news is that God has given his people sex to enjoy. So, sex evangelists Josh McDowell and Josh Harris become popular. Sex also gets a boost from the likes of Mark Driscoll on Mars. Stay tuned, the purity ball will get tarnished by the end of the book.
Through the decades, high profile white evangelical men have one target or another to galvanize the troops’ hunger for an enemy worthy of righteous anger and godly hate. You know the phrase, “hate the sin” to which some add, “and love the sinner.” Two persistent top ranked sins are abortion and same-sex relationships. These two sins have stood the test of time when it comes to defining features of who is an American evangelical.
Somewhere along the line, anti-abortion becomes pro-life. And, in one form or another, the evangelicals in this litany will remind America about homosexuality—it’s a word with considerable purchase unlike the preferred letters LGBTQ+. Du Mez repeats the abortion and homosexual issues, perhaps because they occur so frequently in the ongoing culture war, which has not yet ended. By my Kindle count of her book, abortion = 51 and homosexual = 32 occurrences.
After 911, Islam replaced communism as the major threat to Christian America. Socialism is in there somewhere too but Du Mez doesn’t make much of the socialism taunt.
The evangelicals are rocked by the election of president Barack Obama—no surprise there.
All this history leads up to the red-capped Donald Trump 2016 election triumph for white evangelical Christians. Du Mez traces his rise in the primaries and the powerful defences evangelical leaders deliver to cover outlandish comments and hypermasculine sex-infused juicy stories in the media. We are reminded that 81% of white evangelical voters carried Trump into the White House. What about his immorality…his foul mouth, divorces, and Stormy’s sex? Du Mez recaps the evangelical defence. I refer to John Wayne:
“Never apologize and never explain – it’s a sign of weakness.”
In the final chapter, Du Mez leaves the presidency to focus on the demise of hypermasculine clergy. One after another, men fall from positions of authority. They are tagged for their aggressive leadership or their sexual abuse. Du Mez strips so many men of their moral robes that it seems like a sexual pandemic. They stand before us naked as their violations of women, girls, and boys appear in the media.
Du Mez concludes her cultural critique:
…understanding the catalyzing role militant Christian masculinity has played over the past half century is critical to understanding American evangelicalism today, and the nation’s fractured political landscape. Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it. What was once done might also be undone.
Du Mez writes in an easy-to-read style as she weaves together quotes, survey data, and historical events to show the close connection between white evangelical male leaders and Republican politics, which culminated in their greatest moment in recent history with a friend in the White House who served four years as a John Wayne-like cultural warrior for their agenda. Like knights at the proverbial round table, evangelicals finally had a king they could follow. They won a major battle and they remain in charge of vast cultural, religious, and geographic territory.
I recommend Jesus and John Wayne to anyone who wants to understand the powerful connection between militant white American evangelicals and their champion, former Bible-carrying President, Donald Trump. However, I have a few thoughts about the psychosocial implications of her work.
1. Du Mez is a historian, and I am not. I won’t pretend to critique her work as history. However, I am aware that the biblical authors praised the ancient warriors who, credited God’s leadership as they killed the inhabitants of Canaan and reached their promised land. And thanks to the evangelical’s American president, Israel’s capital at Jerusalem was finally recognised with an embassy move. The history of the warrior God is thousands of years old. And anyone familiar with Christianity knows evangelicals believe Jesus will come again to ride a crimson tide of sinner’s blood in the final battle of humankind.
So, I think what’s missing from Du Mez castigation is an appreciation of the way fundamentalists read the same sacred text known to Du Mez. John Wayne is a crusader by another name. True, the gun is mightier than the sword. But in the hands of fundamentalists, the sacred text is a powerful two-edged sword dividing truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil. The sword cuts in two-ways.
I doubt we would have a Jesus and John Wayne moment if Christianity did not have a warrior God who, according to classic theology, never changes.
And I doubt we would have a large militant evangelical force if American clergy learned to read the sacred text in a less fundamentalist manner.
Psychologically, fundamentalism is quite appealing. A clear-cut narrative separates good from evil, fits ancient traditions, and reduces the need for that slow cognitive effort (see Kahneman) needed to find nuances in old texts and contemporary issues. (More on the psychology of fundamentalism.) In my view, to undo the connection, Christian leaders will need to deal with the warrior God and consistently communicate more viable interpretations of the sacred text.
2. I don’t see a lot of women in the battle. Du Mez does not ignore women’s voices. And of course, she is a woman with a strong voice. Perhaps it’s not her fault. I mean, the point is that evangelical women were good women if they submitted to a man’s authority. However, there are evangelical women, many of whom are in the Pentecostal and Charismatic tribes, who believe in equality (see pcpj position). If Du Mez revises her work, I’d suggest she consider giving more time to evangelical women who don't affirm the submissive rhetoric.
3. My study of moral philosophy and psychology suggests the importance of emotion as vital to understanding the powerful forces at work beyond the beliefs documented in Jesus and John Wayne. Du Mez has aptly exposed the considerable downside of slavish support for the moral virtues of authority, loyalty, and that which is sacred and pure without a consideration of the importance of such virtues to a well-ordered society. Her focus on the harm done to women and society as well as the damage caused by inequality is noteworthy and should not be missed.
I suggest a broader moral sense (see The Righteous Mind) and a recognition of the depth of emotion giving rise to the powerful motivations she documents would provide a stronger basis for considering how we might undo the damage of an extremely divided society. Fundamentalist morality is broadly based on foundations or authority, loyalty, and purity, which Du Mez does not fully consider as she focuses on the morality of equality and harm.
4. The conclusion leaves us wanting a solution. Consider this quote from the conclusion:
Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it. What was once done might also be undone.
I agree that a cognitive appreciation of what happened is important to undoing the harmful effects of vicious rhetoric, misguided “all in” obedience to self-styled authorities who rob us of freedom even as they claim the banner of freedom, and a shameful call to uphold that which is sacred and pure while supporting immoral conduct with excuses and misplaced loyalty; however, understanding does not lead to change as any psychotherapist knows. Galvanizing action to change evangelical minds requires a strategy that recognizes the powerful role of human emotions coupled with widely promoted militant interpretations of the Bible that give rise to unrighteous minds and the concomitant violent behaviour that threatens the foundations of democracies.
For now, it seems evangelical culture has been bifurcated. Fundamentalists have captured more and more cultural territory including evangelical colleges and universities. Many elites have escaped to find a home in progressive Christianity leaving behind an unarmed remnant to anxiously survive in no man’s land.
About Du Mez
Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University and the author of A New Gospel for Women. She has written for the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Christian Century, and Religion & Politics, among other publications. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
About this reviewer
Geoffrey W. Sutton is a psychologist, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, and author of A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures and over 100 publications.
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Introduction + 16 chapters + conclusion in 304 pages followed by acknowledgements, notes, end matter for 356 pages.
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Dr. Kristin Du Mez on Jesus and John Wayne
An image I saw in a local store comes to mind.