Since its release in June 2020, Kristin Kobes du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation has been required reading for anyone seeking to gain a full perspective on the Christian Nationalist movement in the United States and how it got this way.
A huge announcement!
Before I get into the book review, I want to share some very exciting news: I’m starting a new job as the Design Associate for Americans United for Separation of Church and State! If you know anything about me at all (or about them) then you will know that this opportunity is so perfect, I can still hardly believe it’s real.
Ironically, I first learned what AU is when writing one of my first book reviews about Christian Nationalism in 2020. And even more unreal is that I’ll be working directly with the author of the first Christian Nationalism book I ever read or reviewed: Andrew Seidel! This is an especially exciting time for him and everyone at AU, since his second book releases this week. You know I’ll be reading and reviewing that as soon as possible.
What is Jesus and John Wayne about?
Jesus and John Wayne is a quintessential piece of backstory to fully understand the erosion of the separation of church and state. When I shared a quick summary of the book last month on OnlySky, I knew the basic premise of the book, but not much else:
Jesus and John Wayne tells the story of how white evangelicals transformed Jesus from a radical socialist to the pinnacle of rugged masculinity in only 75 years. And scariest of all, these evangelicals have decided that Donald Trump is right there next to him, like a character from a Western nightmare where we ride horseback into a Christian Nationalist sunset.
It’s a little oversimplified, but it’s not wrong. The term “rugged masculinity” is a perfect description of what it means to be a “real man” within white evangelical Christianity today.
The origins of toxic Christian masculinity
The book calls itself a “seventy-five year history,” but white Protestants started feeling that their religion was too feminine around the 1890s, according to Du Mez. She explains that the catalyst for this shift in American Christian masculinity came from the increase in white collar jobs as opposed to blue collar.
A new corporate, consumer economy meant that more men were earning a living by punching the clock, and self-discipline no longer promised the same payoff. As men moved to cities, the work they did changed significantly. For men whose strength had become superfluous, who no longer identified as producers, their very manhood seemed in question. . . .
For American Christians, the challenge was to reconcile this aggressive new masculinity with traditional Christian virtue. With its emphasis on gentility and restraint, Victorian Christianity suddenly seemed insufficiently masculine. Virile, aggressive men could hardly be expected to submit themselves to such an emasculating faith, and so in the 1910s, Christian men set out to “re-masculinize” American Christianity. Seeking to offset the “womanly virtues” that had come to dominate the faith, they insisted that Christianity was also “essentially masculine, militant, warlike.” It was time for men to take back the church.Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, pp. 16-17
Du Mez details exactly how they did that: by “tinkering with Christian virtue” and “defin[ing] Christian manhood in a manner that sanctified aggression,” even though it “seemed to conflict with the egalitarian impulses of evangelical Christianity.” Du Mez’s evangelical and historical background gives her a unique perspective in debunking Christian toxic masculinity theologically, historically, and socially.
The author guides us through the biggest players, icons, propagandists, and even abusers in twentieth-century Christianity in a way that is more gripping than I’ve come to expect when reading books on “the history of [blank].” One of the obvious stars is John Wayne, whose persona was startlingly similar to Trump’s today.
To many conservatives, including evangelicals, Wayne personified “a tone of life” that needed to be recovered if the country was to reverse course “from the masochistic tailspin of this prideless age.” He modeled a heroic American manhood that rallied the good against evil; took pride in the red, white, and blue; and wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. That Wayne never fought for his country, that he left behind a string of broken marriages and allegations of abuse—none of this seemed to matter. Wayne might come up short in terms of traditional virtue, but he excelled at embodying a different set of virtues. At a time of social upheaval, Wayne modeled masculine strength, aggression, and redemptive violence.Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, pp. 58-59
Following this history, we have no choice but agree when Du Mez explains that the only way anyone could have been confused about Trump’s election was if they hadn’t been paying attention for the past century.
How could evangelicals identify with a man who fueled racist tension, endorsed religious discrimination, advocated war crimes, and promoted incivility and intolerance, a man “who holds a highly sexualized view of power as dominance, rather than seeing power as an instrument to advance moral ends”?
Perhaps Gerson [the one asking] hadn’t been paying attention. Trump was hardly the first man conservative evangelicals had embraced who checked off this list of qualifications.Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, p. 160
I myself had been stunned to see Trump’s nomination and election. I had certainly not been paying attention. But to Gerson’s question, Jesus and John Wayne had me writing in the margin, “How could they not?”
Knowing how fervently evangelicals had supported Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and more, their acceptance of Trump despite his unpolished way of speaking and his public sexual threats made sense. Ideologically, he was the same as them. He just didn’t sugarcoat anything. In fact, he amplified the sourness that evangelicals had come to embrace.
Du Mez seamlessly put into context several evangelical leaders, pastors, and organizations that I was already (unfortunately) familiar with, in large part due to my subscription to Fundie Fridays on YouTube. Here is a list of the topics from the book that Jen and James have also covered so far if you want to learn more:
- Bill Gothard
- Jerry Falwell, Sr.
- Jerry Falwell, Jr.
- Jack Hyles
- Hobby Lobby
- Mike Pence
- Duck Dynasty
- Focus on the Family
- Mark Driscoll
The high priest
While Americans United is a nonpartisan organization, I can’t help but notice that Trump’s evangelical voter base goes plainly against AU’s motto of “Freedom without favor, equality without exception.” There is nothing they want more than to be favored.
Support for Trump was strongest among those who perceived their status to be most imperiled, those who felt whites were more discriminated against than blacks, Christians than Muslims, and men than women. In short, support for Trump was strongest among white Christian men. The election was not decided by those “left behind” economically, political scientists discovered; it was decided by dominant groups anxious about their future status.Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, p. 267
I found this concept fascinating, even though the thought process it describes is entirely backwards. This amount of context in political and social trends is something that I love about deep dives like the one in Jesus and John Wayne. Illogical phenomena are explained logically; if we don’t understand the root of why people vote for someone like Trump, we have no hope of changing course.
That’s why the entire book of Jesus and John Wayne is so powerful. Du Mez puts into great historical and social context an event that left so many Americans entirely dumbfounded. It is an essential tool for any of us working to fight against Christian Nationalism. With that, I’d like to end by sharing the final quote from the chapter on Trump, “A New High Priest”:
Trump wasn’t just a nationalist, he was a Christian nationalist, and he wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around.
Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity. He was the reincarnation of John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle, a man who wasn’t afraid to resort to violence to bring order, who protected those deemed worthy of protection, who wouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of saying what had to be said or the norms of democratic society keep him from doing what needed to be done. Unencumbered by traditional Christian virtue, he was a warrior in the tradition (if not the actual physical form) of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace. He was a hero for God-and-country Christians in the line of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Oliver North, one suited for Duck Dynasty Americans and American Christians. He was the latest and greatest high priest of the evangelical cult of masculinity.Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, p. 271