Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
The year that has passed since Kristin Kobes Du Mez published her New York Times best seller, Jesus and John Wayne, has been a politically rocky one, to say the least. The USA’s divisions were on clear display in our debates over mask-mandates, racial justice, and the integrity of our election process. As the calendar turned over from 2020 to 2021, evangelicals continued to overwhelmingly support Donald Trump with exit polls from the November 2020 election showing 75% of white evangelical votes cast in his favor even as he lost to Joe Biden. Afterward many evangelical leaders stood by Trump as he contested the election results and protests broke out across the country and at the capitol in response. Through both news analysis and casual conversations, many of us are still trying to make sense of it all. And one question that seems to constantly recur is: why have so many white evangelicals continued to support Donald Trump, who, despite his promises to defend them, seems to share so few stated evangelical values and beliefs? In her book, Du Mez begins by proposing her own answer to this question which first arose following the 2016 election. She argues that, on the whole, white evangelicals voting for Trump were neither simply making a pragmatic decision nor betraying evangelical values, but rather their decision was consistent with a long-standing preference for militant masculine leadership which is shaped by a prominent evangelical commitment to patriarchal authority.
Although the 2016 election of Donald Trump serves as a jumping off point for her argument, it is really but one mark on the timeline of the past 70 plus years Du Mez reviews in evangelical history. Her intention in the book is to help the reader understand the “catalyzing role” of militant Christian masculinity in American evangelicalism and how this has contributed to the increasingly divided political landscape of the United States in the past half-century. As she traces this history, Du Mez draws out thematic connections between some more marginal figures and movements and those that are more well known. In doing so she shows how consistently various movements within evangelicalism have sought to centralize the importance of patriarchal authority and how frequently this value has been linked with militarism and Christian nationalism either explicitly or implicitly.
Some have criticized Du Mez (and the same criticism has been made of pollsters) for defining evangelicalism beyond adherence to a list of theological beliefs, particularly the authority of the Bible, that many would claim are central to evangelical identity. Instead, she argues that “evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology.” (298) Certainly, such a perspective is more appropriate to the historical analysis that Du Mez is presenting. As a professor of history, she leaves it to others to examine the biblical, theological, or moral reasoning some evangelicals have made to explain their own positions and decisions. Instead, she observes that by sharing their views through publishing, radio, and involvement in the public sphere evangelicals have created a broad tent that includes many more people than those who could clearly describe the four theological distinctives outlined by the National Association of Evangelicals or any other such list. Being identified as an evangelical has more to do with degrees of participation in the evangelical marketplace. Shoppers at Hobby Lobby and watchers of Duck Dynasty who may only have a loose commitment to an evangelical congregation (or none at all) are nonetheless influenced by the evangelical values rooted in the things they consume. And one of those very clearly communicated values is, “a nostalgic commitment to rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity [which] serves as the thread” binding together many of evangelicalism’s favored political issues. (4)
Du Mez shows how this commitment to a particular view of masculinity and femininity which reinforces patriarchal authority is also linked to evangelicals’ focus on topics like abortion and gay rights as well as to militarism and Christian nationalism. She reminds us that Trump was not the first man who more closely matched this powerful masculine ideal rather than that of a model Christian and yet was elected with the help of conservative Christians. Many men with histories of personal failings or sexual transgressions have been revered in their roles as heroes and leaders within the evangelical community despite their sins. Meanwhile, women, supposedly in need of male protection in this patriarchal vision, are disbelieved or blamed for becoming the victim of a strong man’s aggression and desire. These moments in evangelical history, which are more frequent than we might like to admit, are part of the dark side of evangelicalism that Jesus and John Wayne challenges us to examine with eyes wide open.
For many years I have wrestled with whether I could call myself an evangelical, even as I branched out from my Reformed Church roots to study the church and feminism at Wheaton College, a flagship evangelical institution. I sympathize with many evangelicals I know who express their desire to reclaim that identity and recall the wide-ranging movement to its roots in following Jesus and prioritizing the authority of Scripture. Yet this desire itself demonstrates that perhaps Du Mez’s definition of evangelicalism as a cultural phenomenon is not so unfair as some would claim. And though it may be uncomfortable at times (I was alternately appalled by what I learned and strangely comforted at having someone name what I felt I’d known deep down), her book calls those of us who claim the title evangelical or who are influenced by its reach into our culture and politics to examine its historical roots. And make no mistake, this includes understanding the central role that a militant Christian masculinity has played in shaping evangelicalism’s commitments and values. I consider Du Mez’s book essential reading for both my evangelical friends who want to reclaim the roots of their faith tradition and for my progressive friends who want to address the militant white patriarchy that continues to assert its power in our society. If you want to understand “how we got here” in the post-Trump presidency, this book is a place to begin.