I just finished reading Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristen Kobus Du Mez. It was a revelation.
Du Mez clearly knows of what she writes. She’s a professor of history at Calvin University and the author of A New Gospel for Women. She has written for publications ranging from the secular Washington Post to religiously-focused outlets including Christianity Today, Christian Century, and Religion & Politics, among other publications.
Before reading Jesus and John Wayne, I was well aware that, in America, Evangelical Christianity had “evolved” into Christian Nationalism. (You would have to be willfully blind and deaf to miss the racial and anti-Semitic bigotry that animates its adherents). What I had missed–what I had utterly failed to recognize– was the degree to which misogyny and male dominance have become central to whatever it is that the Evangelical belief system has become.
Du Mez has marshaled reams of evidence, tracing how the Jesus of Evangelical imagination has morphed from the “wimpy, feminine” prophet my Christian friends and family members continue to worship into a “manly, dominant” John-Wayne-like warrior.
Du Mez shares data showing that today’s White Evangelical Protestants support behaviors previously considered un-Christian, like preemptive war. Today’s Evangelicals condone the use of torture, and favor the death penalty–and they do so in percentages far exceeding those of other religious communities.
The core reality documented in this very readable, very worrisome book, is summed up by the following observation:
For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity.
The book explains that what has been seen as a conundrum–the overwhelming support of supposedly “family values” Christians for a man who had been married three times, had cheated on his wife with a porn star, whose language was crude and belligerent, and whose biblical knowledge was non-existent. (According to polling, 81% of Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020.) As Du Mez reports,
Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.
One of the virtues of Du Mez’ book is her explanation of the significant role played by centralized “Christian” (Evangelical) publishing and media in the formation of a patriarchal culture.
An article about the book in The Washington Post pointed to another of its strengths: its “deep dive” into the hucksters and con men (and women) who latched onto the movement and encouraged its embrace of “warrior” Jesus.
The book also described a pattern of abuse and its coverup by several mainstream evangelical leaders, many of whom are still in leadership. Du Mez contended that evangelical leaders’ emphasis on militant masculinity created a culture where abuse was able to flourish and often kept secret, an argument that has both caught fire and created controversy.
Du Mez, who teaches at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote that mainstream evangelical leaders such as John Piper, James Dobson and John Eldredge, preached a “mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity — of patriarchy and submission, sex and power.”
“The militant Christian masculinity they practiced and preached did indelibly shape both family and nation,” Du Mez wrote. Russell Moore, now a public theologian for Christianity Today magazine, said that many evangelicals are trying to understand recent developments like Trump’s rise and revelations of sexual abuse in evangelical spaces.
Moore, a theologian, ethicist, and preacher whose refusal to endorse the embrace of Trump led to his ouster as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention), was one of the few major figures to emerge from the book with his integrity intact. He is quoted as saying that Du Mez has shown that “much of what has passed for evangelicalism over the past decades was more John Wayne than Jesus” and that some of the characters in her book who were once thought of as “fringe” turned out not to be fringe at all.
Jesus and John Wayne joins The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones as essential to understanding the transformation of Evangelical Christianity and recognizing why its control of the GOP is so dangerous. Both books–together with a veritable mountain of social science research–document the transformation of a significant number of White Christian Americans into a cult, with members who are hysterically resisting cultural and demographic change– especially the looming loss of White Male Christian privilege and dominance.
I’d previously understood the “White” part; this book explained the “Male” part.