JESUS AND John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a faith and fractured a nation
by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
“Kristin Du Mez is a radical feminist.” This was a fellow pastor’s response when a mutual friend asked if we had read her latest book. This pastor hadn’t read any of her books, and I suspect he held no meaningful definition of what actually constituted a “radical” feminist. More basic yet, labels such as “feminist,” “liberal,” and “conservative” are so overused, misused, and divergently used to be almost meaningless. I’ve been labeled a conservative, a Communist, a liberal, a feminist, a patriarchalist, a rabid fundamentalist, and more. Sometimes in a single day, almost always without any hint of accuracy. Even if that label was accurate, does that necessarily mean she has nothing meaningful to say? His dismissive comment only made me want to read the book more, even though I acknowledge Du Mez is outside my “theological lane,” so-to-speak. Though, as is usually the case, judging a book requires reading it.
Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her latest book, Jesus and John Wayne, is a pointed and astute historical analysis of how contemporary Evangelicalism has defined the notion of masculinity over the last 100 years. She then explores how these shifting definitions shaped the rise of Christian Nationalism and Evangelicalism’s entanglement with geopolitics. Lest there be any doubt regarding her own position on the subject, her subtitle provides much clarity: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
The book goes into far greater detail regarding the political ramifications of Christianity Nationalism and notions of biblical masculinity than this review will address. In fact, the book is mainly about those ramifications. My interests, however, are more theological than political. In the review below, I’ll focus on her analysis of the theological views of this movement.
WHERE I AGREE: Du Mez’s credentials as a historian are evident. As with all authors, her own biases and ideological commitments necessarily serve as the backdrop of any attempted ‘objective analysis.’ Nevertheless, she mitigates this in two ways. First, throughout the book, she does not attempt to conceal her perspective, thus allowing the reader to make his or her own judgments. Second, she has thoroughly sourced her materials. By providing ample contextualized quotations, we can hear the opinions of these Evangelical leaders in their own words.
Redefining Jesus: One of the most eye-opening and troubling aspects of her analysis is the mockery contemporary Evangelicalism has made of historical conceptions of Jesus. With figures like John Wayne being cast as the ideal version of God-ordained masculinity, any version of Jesus must fit this image. And since Jesus, by definition, must be the ultimate man’s-man, he couldn’t be the “sissified” weakling who was like those “pussyfooting pip-squeaks who tippy toe though the tulips” (quoting Edwin Cole, p.125). The Jesus with “long hair and flowing robes” was “effeminate” (quoting Falwell Sr., p.99). The ‘real’ Jesus couldn’t have been “the pale young man with flabby forearms and sad expressions” who was “a physical weakling,” “sissified,” and “meek and lowly” (quoting Bruce Barton, p.20). Neither could he be the “meek and gentle milk-toast character,” as such a man could never have inspired a “brawny fisherman like Peter to follow him” (quoting Gordon Dalbey, p.161). Jesus was the “ultimate man” who had been “demasculinized” by “a media that either hates and distorts Him or vastly misunderstands him” (quoting Stu Weber, p.165). According to speakers like Paul Coughlin, what is needed is is a total rejection of this “Bearded Lady” Jesus (p.187). The reason men avoid church is because they want nothing to do with “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ” who is depicted as being “the drag-queen Jesus”…”with long, flowing, feathered hair, perfect teeth, and soft skin, draped in a comfortable dress accessorized by matching open-toed sandals and a handbag” (quoting Driscoll, pp.193-194).
With this “effeminate” Jesus removed from his throne, he is replaced with a version that is a “winner,” “strong,” “magnetic,” and who can “inspire great enthusiasm and build great organizations” (quoting Barton, p.20). This Jesus is a “warrior” (Dalbey, p.161), “a man with muscles”, the true “he-man” (quoting Falwell, p.99). He rides “a white warhorse, in a blood-spattered robe, with a sword in His mouth and a rod of iron in His hand” (quoting Weber, p.165). The Jesus we need is “an Ultimate fighter warrior-king who has a tattoo down his leg and who rides into battle against Satan, sin, and death on a trusty horse” (quoting Driscoll, p.194). According to Doug Wilson, we need a “theology of fist fighting” to train boys to be “future warriors,” just like the Jesus we now worship (p.178). An entire cottage industry of Christian-themed clothing has emerged for young Christian men. Are you an MMA enthusiast? Then buy the “Jesus Didn’t Tap” T-shirt (because Jesus would never give up in a cage match). Do you enjoy lifting weights in your local gym? Then be sure to sport the long-sleeve T picturing Jesus ripped with muscles so large that even professional bodybuilders are envious. For added encouragement, your shirt can add the words “Reps for Jesus.” You, too, can be like Jesus if you only follow his example and pump out those last few reps at the bench press.
I’ve seen too many Christian men embrace this re-imagined ‘John-Wayne-kind-of-Jesus.’ Several years ago, during a Good Friday service, we played a clip from The Jesus Film depicting Jesus being nailed to the cross. As the hammer came down and drove the nail through the palm of his hand, the character playing Jesus cried out. Almost immediately, in the back of the room, a man began shouting angrily and continued doing so for several minutes. After the service, he was still livid. Why? As he put it, “I don’t worship no wimp. Jesus was a real man, and real men don’t cry in pain.” That was his last day attending our church, as he refused to sit under a “fag pastor who preached a fag Jesus.” But I remember something else about that encounter. I remember his wife standing by his side, though slightly behind him. Silent, eyes fixated on the ground and welling with tears, hands trembling, embarrassed, dominated, instinctively jerking every time he waved his arms wildly in anger. It gave me a window into that marriage, albeit opaque. A marriage, by the way, that would last only a few more years before breaking apart with allegations of abuse and sexual infidelity.
This ‘warrior-Christology” is troubling because it distorts the biblical record of Jesus. Yes, the Bible does depict Jesus as the coming warrior, with blood-stained robes, before whom all of humanity will one day bow in submission. That same Bible also portrays him as a gentle lamb, a tender pacifist, and an encouraging friend. Even if we find “meek and gentle Jesus” lacking, we dare not scrub Jesus clean of meekness and gentleness. Jesus must be understood on his terms, and only when we understand him in this way can we begin to understand who we are called to be.
Redefining the Enemy: In this new hyper-masculine version of the faith, we were taught to be vigilant against ‘the enemy’. In the New Testament, our enemy is the Devil (1 Peter 5:8) and our own sin. The apostle Paul warns of the sin “living inside” us (Rom 7:17), and the apostle John cautions we “deceive ourselves” if we don’t believe we have a sin problem (1 John 1:8). James even tells us our real problem is that we are “enticed” by our own sinful desires (James 1:14-15). Despite Scripture’s clear teaching, entire “generations of evangelicals learned to be afraid of communists, feminists, liberals, secular humanists, the homosexuals, the United Nations, the government, Muslims, and immigrants” (p.13). Certainly there are troubling, even sinful, aspects to many of those philosophies and organizations, but how can these possibly be our enemies when Scripture plainly tells us “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12)? Sure, we might still give lip-service to the reality of sin, but now sin has been redefined as something “Commies, liberals, and gays” do. As Du Mez puts it, “in the Evangelical view, Satan and the Communists were united in the effort to destroy the American home” (p.26). The job of the Christian, then, is to oppose them. True, Peter may have believed our enemy was the Devil (1 Peter 5:8), but he wasn’t facing the Communists, which was increasingly considered “the greatest threat [Christians] have ever known” (p.35). And perhaps God did warn Cain “sin was crouching at your door, seeking to devour you” (Gen 4:7), but certainly the Marxists and gays are an even greater enemy! The chief problem with Barach Obama, we were told, wasn’t that his policies were unhelpful (supposedly) or his stance on abortion was wicked (though that wasn’t ignored by Evangelicals), but that he was a Muslim! According to Franklin Graham, Obama was “born a Muslim” and the “seed of Islam” had been passed onto him (p.238). Obama’s tendency to bring up America’s trouble past or criticize previous actions such as the treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans only confirmed in the mind of many Evangelicals that he must be the real enemy. America is God’s nation, a Christian nation, and therefore anyone criticizing it must be the enemy of Christianity. The enemy certainly couldn’t be ourselves. It must be something ‘other’, and since Obama wasn’t even born here he most certainly was ‘other’.
Even today, ‘the Marxist threat’ fills the majority of Evangelicals with fear. Jerry Falwell and other Evangelicals of his day notoriously opposed the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Ostensibly, this was because both were deemed Marxist plots meant to gain control of the United States. The underlining concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement are likewise dismissed, though in this case some in that movement have made no secret of being influenced by at least some Marxist concepts. But in the consciousness of the average Evangelical, the sin of racism isn’t the real problem, and for many, it’s not even a contributing factor. Our sin isn’t the actual enemy. It’s Karl Marx, those ‘blacks’ waiving “No Justice, No Peace” signs in downtown protests, and the crazy Antifa college drop-outs out in Seattle. As one very dear friend bluntly told me this Summer, “America doesn’t have a race problem. That’s just Marxist propaganda.”
And who is to rescue us from this danger? Not Jesus, for even this re-imaged, hyper-masculine ‘Bro-Jesus’ isn’t up to this task. What is needed, in Pastor Robert Jeffress description of then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016, is “the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find.” And Trump fit the bill perfectly. He infamously encouraged students at Liberty University to “get even” with anyone who crossed them in business deals, boasted to students at another Christian college that he would “shoot someone” on 5th avenue and not lose any votes, and openly bragged that he “punches back twice as hard”. Those punches aren’t reserved for terrorists or rogue nations. It was equally applied to journalists, politicians who criticize him, and even 16-year-old girls who said things he didn’t like. A ‘real man’, it seems, is allowed to bully children, and make fun of handicapped journalists as long as it is in the service of standing up to the liberals and Marxists. He can even tell racist jokes about Asians, especially if they are Communist Asians. The ruder and the cruder, the more he was loved by Evangelicals who welcomed him with raucous applause and cheers. The reason, according to Du Mez, is because Evangelicalism has remade Christianity in the hyper-masculine image of the rugged, no-nonsense American cowboy who ‘aint gonna take nothing from nobody’. In the words of John Wayne’s character in The Shootist, “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on.”
Redefining Morality: Since Jesus is the warrior, and the Commies & liberals are the enemies, a new version of ‘masculine morality’ has also developed. Biblical notions of peace, patience, kindness, and tenderness are no longer seen as traits that define Spirit-led Christians, male and female alike. Instead, these are scoffed at as being “womanly virtues” (p. 16). The theologian Wayne Grudem is a prime example. Grudem initially opposed Trump’s candidacy, only to reverse himself and endorse him, then to reverse himself again, and then do yet again (if you’re confused, that means he ended up endorsing and defending Trump, arguing for the very positions he attacked in his original position). What is notable is that while trying to rationalize Trump’s blatantly unChristlike demeanor, he admitted Trump “offends the sensibilities” of Evangelicals. Sensibilities? The implication is clear. In the crude words of Jerry Falwell Jr, what is needed is for Evangelicals “to grow a pair”. If you are offended, then you’ve already surrendered your ‘man card’. With a single word, the entire moral code of the New Testament, much of which comes from the very mouth of Jesus, is dismissed as mere “sensibilities.” Real Christian men should overlook such womanly sensitivities.
What is needed, according to Jack Hyles, is to teach our young boys how to be “winners.” In his book “How to Make a Man out of a Boy,” he says this focus on making winners “is how we get our General MacArthurs. This is how Billy Sundays are made.” Hyles then draws a direct link to geopolitics and his vision of a ‘Christian America’. It was the failure to teach boys to be tough (their spiritual birthright!) that allowed “the strongest nation on earth to bow down in shame before a little nation like North Vietnam” (p.53). For this same reason, Falwell Sr would publicly lament that the United States was “no longer the military might of the world” and “no longer committed to victory” or “committed to greatness” (p.111). Du Mez’s criticism isn’t that these men wanted a strong military, but instead that they wanted a strong military precisely because they believed this warrior-masculinity was inherently Christian. According to Falwell, if America would only “repent of its sins and turn back to God,” our military would be restored (p.111). Even though Jesus repeatedly told us his kingdom was not of this world, according to Falwell, real faith produces tough men and tough troops in the here-and-now.
With Christianity itself being so drastically redefined, a ‘Christian America’ was instilled with the God-given role of being a “virtuous nation, a benefactor to the entire world, a savior from enslaving dictatorships” (quoting Cole, p.126). Sure, the apostle Paul may have told us we are to be ambassadors of peace (1 Cor 5), but in this re-constituted Christianity, our spiritual diplomacy is conducted with tanks and heat-seeking missiles. In Hyles words, “God pity this weak-kneed generation which stands for nothing, fights for nothing, and dies for nothing” (p.53). Fighting for America and fighting for the faith had become one and the same. As Billy Sunday put it, “in these days all are either patriots or traitors, to your country and the cause of Jesus Christ.” Du Mez notes that Sunday would regularly leap atop his pulpit waving the American flag during his revival meetings. With Christianity thus defined, it is little wonder that “more than any other religious demographic in America, white Evangelical Protestants support preemptive war, condone the use of torture, and favor the death penalty” (p. 3-4). Measured against all other demographics, Evangelicals have the highest percentage of individuals (68%) who “do not think the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees” fleeing despots and terror states (p. 4). We have little use for biblical commands about justice and mercy for immigrants when we are fighting a War on Terror.
WHERE I QUESTION: I suspect Du Mez and I would probably disagree on many issues. While her book doesn’t directly address hermeneutical principles, gender identity, homosexuality, gender roles, or abortion, I infer (rightly or wrongly) from some of her comments she takes positions on those issues that would be far more “liberal” that my own. These are not insignificant issues, and anyone desiring to be faithful to Scripture cannot set aside these as secondary disagreements. Yet, I recognize I am not fully aware of her views on these subjects, and thus discussing those issues here would be misguided and unhelpful. Additionally, Evangelicalism’s more conservative wing (my theological home) has historically been too quick, and too severe, in distancing itself when disagreements arise. Thoughtful and respectful engagement, with boldness and clarity, is needed. As we have seen over the last several decades, distancing ourselves has only produced intellectual and spiritual ghettos. In this case, Du Mez is a brilliant academic and skilled historian. Frankly, I would love to pick her brain for a few hours over a cup of coffee. I can only imagine that conversation would make me a better thinker and a better Christian. Still, I offer a few areas where I question her conclusions or wish for greater clarity.
First, Du Mez accurately portrays the patriarchalism and hyper-masculinity of Evangelicalism to be culturally driven, rather than biblically driven. While I agree, I wonder if she sees egalitarianism/feminism in the same light? The book presents patriarchalism as arising from ideological commitments, not Scriptural analysis. Does this mean that Egalitarianism is more objective and more free from such cultural blinders? To be clear, I am inferring this possibility in the book. Implications belong to the author; inferences belong to the reader. And we must admit this book isn’t about feminism or egalitarianism, so one should hardly expect to find a critique of those movements in its pages. Even so, readers should be aware of her presuppositions, and what is perhaps an understandable tendency to give those presuppositions a pass.
Second, throughout the book, Du Mez takes Evangelical leaders to task for their blatant adoption of hyper-masculinity and patriarchalism. But are we then to conclude there are no meaningful differences between the sexes? While the biological differences are clear, even to the cellular level, do these differences have no impact on our respective psychology? Thought patterns? Emotional processes? Is it patriarchal to believe God intended men to use their inherent physical strength to protect women and children? Or is that merely a false value system rooted in non-biblical mindsets? Does Scripture teach that Christian men are called to be the spiritual leaders of their home, or are such concepts holdovers from Greco-Roman paganism? Even if we concede that many of the differences in gender expression are cultural, are none rooted in biology? To be fair, Du Mez does not seek to answer these questions, let alone even raise them. Still, criticisms of incorrect definitions of masculinity will only hold weight if we can determine correct ones. I would love to hear her thoughts on this important topic.
Third, while Du Mez does recognize a “soft patriarchy” exists (p.152) and treats that version with more gentleness, very little coverage is given to this movement. Again, her focus throughout the book is on those movements and influencers holding to more aggressive definitions of masculinity. Yet, by minimizing the coverage on what is arguably a large percentage of Evangelicalism, the author runs the risk of painting with a brush broader than the circumstances warrant.
A Plea for Fairness: Having read various reviews and comments from friends (pastors, theologians, etc.) on social media, I find much of the angst and anger toward Du Mez concerns matters she doesn’t address in the book. She never claims it is wrong to have voted for Donald Trump. Nor does she repudiate the idea of having a strong military or a secure national border. She doesn’t even explicitly take to task the notion that the Christian man ‘is the spiritual leader of his home.’ I could guess as to where she stands on those issues, but it would only be that. As an academic, her focus is relatively narrow and appropriately so. Those engaging with her book must be aware of this narrow focus and judge it accordingly.
A FINAL WORD: If you’ve read the above review in full, I want to offer some clarity. I do find much agreement with Du Mez’ critical assessment of Evangelicalism. I join her in being disgusted by how Evangelicals have made Muslims, liberals, Marxists, and homosexuals our enemy. I recognize how unfairly Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were treated by our white Christian brethren. I also repudiate the harsh and patriarchal definitions of masculinity. As I read through her book I winced repeatedly at the egregious comments of my Evangelical and Fundamentalist forebears. I also grieve at how many Evangelicals defended, even cheered, at some of President Trump’s most immoral actions and statements. I am angered by our consistent refusal to acknowledge, let alone address, racial injustice in society and racists mindsets still within the Church. I am appalled at our lack of empathy for immigrants and our wholesale endorsement of pre-emptive wars. I personally believe Christian Nationalism is the greatest threat to the purity of the Church, and has been for some time. We belong to another kingdom.
Nevertheless, I recognize Islam, Liberalism (at least classically defined), Marxism and the LGBTQ movement are founded on a philosophies that are incompatible with a biblical worldview. They may not be our enemies, but these ideas must be opposed. President Obama, for all his remarkable giftedness, did advance moral agendas that cannot be squared with biblical morality. He certainly isn’t a Marxist or a Muslim, but neither has he embraced anything approaching orthodox Christianity. I believe there is a uniqueness to men and women, respectively, that expresses itself in various ways, including gender roles (even though I see this is as a truism, disagreeing with my brethren who view ‘roles’ as a biblical mandate). I do see a biblical call for Christian husbands to be Spirit-led leaders in their home, being in a relationship with their wives based on mutual submission (i.e. ‘a leader who also follows’). I also understand there were legitimate reasons to vote for Trump, and having done so doesn’t necessarily imply one has adopted Christian Nationalism or adheres to some form of Christianized, aggressive patriarchalism. The abortion issue alone was determinative for many Evangelicals, and others applauded his pre-pandemic economic policies which they believed lifted people out of poverty. I suspect Du Mez would agree with me on some of the above conclusions, while disagreeing with others.
Finally, some of you may be wondering why I don’t “hit harder?” Where are my denouncements? Why isn’t there a single sentence in this review which calls her out for her feminism and liberalism (or whateverism)? Why do I lack the guts to “call a spade a spade?” Well, because I repudiate that ‘style’ of Christianity as spiritually bankrupt and unChristlike. The “Christian-man-as-angry-cultural-warrior” doesn’t get us closer to Jesus, but further away. Quite frankly, we haven’t done a great job listening to those outside our circles (even more so when they are women or people of color), and often fail to acknowledge our own biases in this regard. This is pride, not the humility that marks a people led by the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, because Jesus has called all of us to a ministry of reconciliation, peace, and love. One of our Jesus-given identity markers is the unity we extend to one another (see John 17:23).
Du Mez has graciously offered us a gift by pointing out where our movement has erred. At the very least, we should be able to respond with an equal measure.
Thank you for a balanced and kind review.
Thank you so much for this gracious review of a very very compelling historical survey of the white evangelical movement.
Well done. Civil. Thank you.
I really appreciated the tone of this review. Civil and gracious critique is needed. This blessed me.