Jesus and John Wayne is a sweeping, revisionist history of the last seventy-five years of white evangelicalism, revealing how evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism―or in the words of one modern chaplain, with “a spiritual badass.”
As acclaimed scholar Kristin Du Mez explains, the key to understanding this transformation is to recognize the centrality of popular culture in contemporary American evangelicalism. Many of today’s evangelicals might not be theologically astute, but they know their VeggieTales, they’ve read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, and they learned about purity before they learned about sex―and they have a silver ring to prove it. Evangelical books, films, music, clothing, and merchandise shape the beliefs of millions. And evangelical culture is teeming with muscular heroes―mythical warriors and rugged soldiers, men like Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and the Duck Dynasty clan, who assert white masculine power in defense of “Christian America.” Chief among these evangelical legends is John Wayne, an icon of a lost time when men were uncowed by political correctness, unafraid to tell it like it was, and did what needed to be done.
Challenging the commonly held assumption that the “moral majority” backed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 for purely pragmatic reasons, Du Mez reveals that Trump in fact represented the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values: patriarchy, authoritarian rule, aggressive foreign policy, fear of Islam, ambivalence toward #MeToo, and opposition to Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community. A much-needed reexamination of perhaps the most influential subculture in this country, Jesus and John Wayne shows that, far from adhering to biblical principles, modern white evangelicals have remade their faith, with enduring consequences for all Americans.
Du Mez has become quite the lightning rod for attacks from highly conservative evangelicals. Granted, I have not read this book or any of her writings, but it seems like many of the attacks seem to forget that she is writing as an expert in history. Although I’m certain her own personal bias cannot be 100% removed from her writing, her writing is very different in that regard from much of the “here’s how to be a Christian better” writings that the projectile-flingers are used to reading.
I’ve honestly lived through enough evangelical history that I don’t need to read her books to see what has transpired over the last few decades.
Living on the other side of the Pacific, in a country where Evangelicalism has little influence, and US-style Evangelicalism even less, I have hardly “lived through” any Evangelical history, but the history in the book goes back considerably further than “the last few decades”. I’m only one seventh of the way through the book, but these are things I’ve learned from it so far, that I found surprising:
That the muscular, masculine-dominated, Christianity thread dates back to the urbanisation and corporatisation of America in the early 20th Century.
That “Christian Nationalism” dates back at least to WW!, but during that period it was mostly a liberal Christian thing (Billy Sunday being the most prominent conservative exception).
That the name a grouping of Fundamentalists took for their new organisation in 1942, the National Evangelical Association, was a strategic rebranding, to disassociate themselves from more reactionary elements within Fundamentalism.
That during WWII, and during the Cold War thereafter, Evangelicalism aligned itself more closely with (a fairly strongly militaristic) Christian Nationalism, with Billy Graham being a leading figure in this realignment.
This Christian Nationalism contributed to Evangelical ambivalence towards the Civil Rights Movement (whose historical narrative was seen as undercutting the US’s special place as a Christian Nation).
This was all quite surprising to someone who had been under the impression that the “muscular” interpretation and Christian Nationalism were recent features within conservative Evangelicalism.
Growing up in Australia, I saw “evangelical” as a purely theological term. Now resident in the USA, that left me confused. Because here, “evangelical” turns out to be far more a political and cultural term. Many churches that I would have considered “evangelical” (based on theology) are instead classified as “mainline protestant”.
I have started reading the Du Mez book (Kindle edition).
This book seems to describe a heedless and deep-rooted Evangelical quest for power, over wives and family, over church and over country, a quest where the end very frequently seems to justify the means.
And as Lord Acton famously said:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
One would have thought that a religion that makes such a big deal over the ‘sinfulness of man’ would be big supporters of checks and balances. But it seems that Evangelicals are perpetually surprised when those they place in (often near-absolute) power over them abuse that power.
It does not surprise me that an Evangelical culture that could valorise Oliver North’s betrayal of the public trust (by the Iran-Contra misappropriation of public funds) and lying under oath, would have no problem with a standard-bearer as blatantly dishonest and corrupt as Trump. (I had not previously known of the North-Evangelical connection, if I had, the 2016 election would have made far more sense.)
I cannot help but think, in their quest for a hypermasculine and ruthless leader, that their ideal is not so much Trump, but Putin. This may explain why so many on the Far Right are so ambivalent over the Ukraine War.