As I reflected on Calvin University professor Kristin Du Mez’s brilliantly provocative and painful, Jesus and John Wayne, I realized how many different intersections I had with her subject. After all, I serve as a pastor in a Presbyterian denomination that is committed to male-only ordained leadership. I worked at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I’m a two-time graduate of Bob Jones University, that bastion of fundamentalism, after spending a year at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. I’ve been to all three “levels” of Bill Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles (basic, advanced, and pastors). I went to a white-flight Baptist academy for high school in northern Virginia, graduating right after George H. W. Bush became president. As the young people say, “I have the receipts.”
Thus, while I might quibble with some of the details in Jesus and John Wayne, I finished this book and felt like Han Solo in The Force Awakens: “Crazy thing is, it’s true—all of it. It’s all true.”
Jesus Plus Masculinity for America’s Sake
And especially true and irrefutable is Du Mez’s main contention. In trying to explain the pervasive evangelical support for Donald Trump, Du Mez argues that this support “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” (3).
After a quick orientation to the early part of the twentieth century, Du Mez connect the dots between evangelical Christianity, masculinity, and nationalism, starting with Billy Graham’s rise to prominence in post-World War II America. Graham nimbly linked these three themes together in his “crusades,” bringing a range of manly (and popular or powerful) men into his orbit, whether Stuart Hamblen or Pat Boone, Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. All of this was in an effort to bring revival to America through a restoration of order to families, churches, and eventually nations.
The 1960s brought a massive political and ecclesial realignment. “At the heart of this realignment were attitudes toward civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and ‘family values,’” Du Mez wrote. “For conservative evangelicals, a defense of white patriarchy would move to the center of their coalescing cultural and political identity” (33). Strikingly, when conservatives talked about what they believed Christian manhood looked like, they inevitably invoked John Wayne—a man’s man, willing to fight for his beloved country in order to protect his wife and children, willing to bend the rules if necessary in order to succeed. Wayne’s masculinity was imperial, violent, politically incorrect, unapologetic.
Wayne’s masculine appeal, coupled together with evangelical Christianity, came together in the 1980s. In Reagan’s America, the Soviets were evil, Ollie North was a hero, and Americans were under siege. In order to preserve the next generation, the Christian homeschool movement rose up to equip parents in the training of their own children away from the godless factories of public education. The homeschool movement reinforced the linkage between evangelical Christianity, patriarchy, and Christian nationalism through curricula produced by soft Christian reconstructionists like Doug Phillips or Arminian perfectionists (my evaluation, not Du Mez’s) like Bill Gothard.
After the Bush and Clinton years, evangelicals believed that the situation was dire. The nation needed a strong leader, a John Wayne-type, who will protect evangelical Christianity and so maintain American greatness. When Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in 2015, his self-proclaimed virility was what drew so many evangelicals to him. As Du Mez notes, “Donald Trump did not represent the betrayal of many of the values [evangelicals] had come to hold dear. His testosterone-fueled masculinity aligned remarkably well with that long championed by conservative evangelicals” (268). This strength—and the hope that Trump would use it for evangelical aims as their “ultimate fighting champion”—led white evangelicals to support him in vast numbers, both in 2016 and, as it turned out, in 2020.
There’s obviously a lot more here. As someone who grew up in this world and still has a range of connections to it, the cast of characters and their positions were quite familiar. But I look at this not simply as a participant, but also as an observer—a historian who has spent a great deal of time trying to understand modern American evangelicalism. While Du Mez’s contribution is undoubtedly anchored in her demonstration of the role that militant patriarchy plays in this evangelical story, there’s (at least) two other significant historical contributions that she makes.
The first is her observation that evangelicalism is less defined by theology and more by culture. Du Mez observed, “Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology” (297-98). I think this is very important and exactly right with an important caveat. It is not as though any cultural system can somehow place its intellectual commitments outside of the system to maintain them in their purity. And so with evangelical Christianity—as theological commitments bump up against other commitments, regarding gender, education, region, class, race, or whatever, often it is the other commitments that will shape the way we read the Bible or think theologically.
The real question is not whether evangelicals experience an interplay between theology and culture (we all do); rather, it is whether evangelicals are willing to be self-critical enough to recognize that there may be significant cultural blind-spots that are hindering the advancement of the Gospel itself. And what comes clear from Du Mez’s book (and from any given day on social media) is the answer to that question is a resounding, “No.” And that, in the end, is what is profoundly troubling.
Any Christian who reads this book to the end, especially the final chapter, has to question whether the emphasis upon patriarchy has been good for evangelicalism. And yet, what is more likely for most evangelicalism would be “yeahbutism”—as in, “Yeah, but there were extenuating circumstances, his theology was bad, he was a jerk, he had no oversight.” Complementarian evangelicals may be reading the salient biblical texts on gender correctly—but surely, we have failed repeatedly in living out basic Christian morality and have abused power over and again. As Walker Percy once noted, you can get all A’s, but still flunk life; and so here.
I fear that the evangelical response to Du Mez will be more evidence of the culture-evangelicalism (used here with a nod toward H. Richard Niebuhr’s “culture-Protestantism” category from Christ and Culture) that proves unwilling to look hard in the mirror and instead demonizes those who dare to question the status quo.
Evangelicalism’s Odd Friend Named Fear
The other historical (and really, pastoral) contribution that Du Mez makes is the way she puts her finger right on the heart of evangelicalism’s public stance. As she puts so well, “Fear had been at the heart of evangelical postwar politics—a fear of godless communism and a fear that immorality would leave Americans defenseless” (59). For those who grew up in evangelicalism, the twin evils trumpeted in the 1980s were Communism and secular humanism; fast forward past 9/11, those were exchanged for radical Islam and the militant gay agenda; today, “critical race theory” would fit somewhere in the rogues’ gallery.
But while the rogues change, it is fear upon which evangelical leaders always trade. That’s how all too often they build their platforms, secure donations, justify their reasons for existence. And fear is what drove the past two national election cycles: fear of Hillary Clinton, fear of various agendas, fear of Black Lives Matter, fear of “socialism” and AOC, fear of “losing our country.” Fear is what has caused evangelical believers to fall for QAnon and will keep them from receiving the COVID vaccine.
Of course, as a historical explanation, identifying fear as a motivator and catalyst for evangelical political engagement is important, as important as historian Richard Hoffstader’s observation of the “paranoid style in American politics.” But pastorally, fear is utterly inimical to Christian discipleship. As Marilynne Robinson noted, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” For Christians, we are told that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and self-control (2 Tim 1:7). Surely that means when we engage in the public square, we aren’t looking for enemies to fear or power to seize, but others to serve and justice to seek. And surely the biblical teaching about the Christian’s dual citizenship—not only here in our various nation-states, but more importantly in heaven (Phil 3:20)—should shape the way we think about national (or state or local) elections, not as fear-filled, but ultimately hope-full.
All to say that Jesus and John Wayne should be required reading for those who live and move and have our being within American evangelical denominations and churches. And the first thing we should do is to look in the mirror and say, “It’s true—let me see myself as I am.” Then, going forward to change will prove whether we evangelicals are doers of the Word or just hearers only.
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- I tried to make a similar point in my For a Continuing Church: The Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2015). ↑
- See here Sean Michael Lucas, “Church History as a Pastoral Discipline,” in The Pure Flame of Devotion: The History of Christian Spirituality, ed. G. Stephen Weaver and Ian Hugh Clary (Toronto: Joshua, 2013, 20-23. ↑
- Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: FSG, 2016), 125. ↑