Jesus and John Wayne

How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

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Kristin Kobes Du Mez
  • New York: 
    Norton
    , June
     2020.
     368 pages.
     $28.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781631495731.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Jesus of white evangelical Christianity, writes Kristin Du Mez, is a veritable “badass.”

This Jesus, or rather, the evangelicalized trope of Jesus, is an archetype of a militant masculinity that evangelicals have fashioned to anchor their battles against the major wedge culture wars of our time (295). As a religious history at the intersection of gender, white evangelicalism, and popular culture, Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation advances a provocative argument: White evangelical Christianity over the course of the last century has been distinguished more through its endurance as a cultural and political movement than by its theology (298), and the mark of its particular cultural moorings is its coalescence around the assertion of authoritarian white masculinity. Du Mez’s study persuasively illustrates how the fusion of race and gender have effectively transformed religious and theological notions of sex, power, and political choice among white evangelical demographics, thereby shifting the course and tonality of American evangelicalism in the process.

As an historical survey, the book covers several overlapping historical periods in American Christian culture. As such, this review is framed thematically rather than strictly chronologically. The central thematic foci addressed throughout: (1) the centrality of Christian nationalism to the evangelical vision, (2) masculinity as an evangelical cultural and political project, and (3) the shift of evangelical Christianity as a pillar of far-right politics.

Christian nationalism, as Du Mez notes, is premised upon the belief that “America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such” (4). Christian nationalism stipulates a moral and social order in American society in which righteousness, virtue, and normality is wholly encapsulated by white, male, and Christian embodiment and worldviews. Du Mez illustrates that the ingratiation of evangelical Christianity into American culture began with early interventionist and disciplinary cultural scripts that lauded the myth of rugged individualism, family values, and traditional gender roles as a response to the cultural uprisings linked to communism, women’s liberation, and the Civil Rights Movement. Between the 1950s and 1960s, white Christians, displaced by the changing of the cultural guard(s), looked to evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, among others, to reclaim the social order thought to be waning in influence. While Graham and others built alliances with conservative politicians and presidents, definitions about Americanism, patriotism, and specifically, manhood and family, were also entering the cultural imagination in provocative ways.

Du Mez’s attention to white evangelical womanhood as a catalyst for many of the debates on family values and traditional gender roles, is particularly noteworthy. The writings on sex, marriage, and Christian womanhood from Marabel Morgan, as well as the writing and political consciousness of Phyllis Schlafly, Du Mez argues, helped “defend traditional femininity and masculinity” while also becoming central to the grassroots activism (and later the Christian literature marketplace) that energized the Religious Right (66). The defense of evangelical gender norms, more than just embracing a theology of biblical manhood and womanhood, was grounded in the pursuit of patriarchal power, not only at the familial level, but also as a collective cultural project for white evangelicals.

Du Mez traces these trends to the post-war emergence of a “Christian reconstructionism” which held that all social ills dealt by feminism and progressive social policies could be traced to the breakdown of a social order that lacked divinely ordained male leadership in the family and the larger culture. This brand of reconstructionism also spotlighted American military strength: the reconstruction of families under God and the patriarchal authority of men was the macro-level representation of authority, strength, and order that guided, or should guide, militarism and national defense. Christian masculinity, pre-figured and conceptualized according to biblical manhood models in evangelical home life, was grafted unto new visions of American military power in defense of free-market capitalism and liberty, and to rebuff the hold of “godless communism” and liberalism.

Gradually, evangelicals mobilized as a deeply partisan religious and political force. As a feature of patriarchal authority, family values and the pursuit of a Christian moral order shifted from the personal (within the home) to the national stage. This shift proved to be central to the efforts of the Religious Right to grab power, and the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, the Bush dynasty, (and most recently, Donald Trump), revealed a stronghold over Republican political choices and agendas. Along the way, particularly into 1990s, Du Mez documents the entanglements of evangelical masculinity, extending from the benevolent patriarchy of the Promise Keeper’s men’s movement, to the Christian masculinity literary market, featuring writers like John Eldridge and his Wild at Heart (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2001), and into purity culture with its descriptions of biblical courtship, abstinence-only education, and doctrines of female chastity.

The enthusiastic fusion of evangelical gender scripts, Christian nationalism, and specifically a militant, authoritarian masculinity, Du Mez notes, not only molded men, but also established the “spiritual badass” who represented the quintessential standard for patriarchal authority and political leadership. Embodying the militant masculinity “entrenched within the heart of American evangelicalism” (218), the embrace of the spiritual badass was and is largely an exercise in extending Christian nationalism to its dominionist denouement. The spiritual badass embodies the spirit of Christ’s mission as a rough-and-tumble man’s man who advances “his kingdom” in the home, the community, and world (247). Evangelicals embraced this masculinist and political trope as a means of promoting their vision of a Christian moral and social order. It is for this reason that Donald Trump was deemed the right warrior to lead the charge, warts and all. Trump, in the ruggedly masculine and right-wing vein of John Wayne, served as both a refutation of the racial and liberal excess and success represented by the Obama era, and was a living representation of the American strongman who could redeem and save America. The demigod, Christological characterizations notwithstanding, Trump has become the standard-bearer of Christian Right, and a paragon of the long-fought evangelical crusade to get behind militant Christian masculine leadership.

Jesus and John Wayne is a well-researched and innovative religious history that covers new ground in its approach to prompting broader public understandings of religion, race, and nationalism in American political culture before, during, and after the Trump presidency and further into the continued radicalizing of far-right political demographics. Gender theory offers a useful way of interpreting the ties between race, religion, and power in America—and on this score, Du Mez’s study does not disappoint. Therefore, Du Mez’s critique of white masculinity as a particularized catalyst and foundation for evangelical Christianity represents scholarship that is more intersectional in its approach to the study of American religion. Whether read alongside  ethnographic studies on religion and race, or simply as a topic for the casual reader interested in American religious cultures, Jesus and John Wayne is an excellent resource to help make sense of the racial, cultural, and religious ideological fronts that currently shape evangelical Christianity and political alignments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darrius D. Hills is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University.
 

Date of Review: 
May 16, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University and the author of A New Gospel for Women. She has written for the Washington PostChristianity TodayChristian Century, and Religion & Politics, among other publications.

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