Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez – Here are my five lessons and takeaways

Jesus and John WayneChristian nationalism—the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians. It is linked to opposition to gay rights and gun control, to support for harsher punishments for criminals, to justifications for the use of excessive force against black Americans in law enforcement situations, and to traditionalist gender ideology.

FROM THE START, evangelical masculinity has been both personal and political. In learning how to be Christian men, evangelicals also learned how to think about sex, guns, war, borders, Muslims, immigrants, the military, foreign policy, and the nation itself.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

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I present synopses of business books at the First Friday Book Synopsis (in Dallas, in-person; and over Zoom).  And, I present synopses of books dealing with issues of social justice for the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare in Dallas (currently, only on Zoom).

For July, I presented my synopsis of the book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.  This is a provocative book, written by a careful researcher. (The author is a Professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University).

The book provides something of a history of my own intellectual life; at least, from a major chapter of my life.  I know the names well.  From Billy Graham to Bill Gothard, with plenty of Pat Boone mixed in, along with Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and others.  I felt like I was reading a history of the struggles of my lifetime.  Which, I was.

When I prepare my synopses, I always ask:  What is the point?  Here it is for this book:  Evangelicals adopted the stances of the conservative Republican culture as their own views, and built a network of reinforcing messengers that has led to Evangelicals becoming a most reliable voting block.

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This book provides something of a history of the rise of, and power of, the Evangelical movement over the last century.

#2 – This book explains the enduring power of John Wayne’s hold on America; and how the Evangelicals adopted that view as their own.

#3 – This book describes why the left has little chance of moving Evangelicals in their direction.

I always include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are quite a few of the best of the best from this book: 

But 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. … Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means.  

In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.  Donald Trump did not trigger this militant turn; his rise was symptomatic of a long-standing condition.

More than any other religious demographic in America, white evangelical Protestants support preemptive war, condone the use of torture, and favor the death penalty. They are more likely than members of other faith groups to own a gun, to believe citizens should be allowed to carry guns in most places, and to feel safer with a firearm around.  

Evangelical leaders bestow authority upon one another, blurbing each other’s books, defending each other on social media, and determining which up-and-coming writers, pastors, and organizations are worthy of promotion—and which should be shunned.   

When Rachel Held Evans and Jen Hatmaker ran afoul of conservative orthodoxies related to sexuality and gender, LifeWay stopped carrying their books. It did, however, stock Todd Starnes’s The Deplorables’ Guide to Making America Great Again (“Winning was just the beginning . . . change may start at the White House, but it finishes at your house”) 

Newt Gingrich called Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima “the formative movie of my life.” 

Representing federal government overreach or even an insidious communist agenda, desegregation also heightened the long-standing imagined threat to white womanhood. 

Evangelical militancy cannot be seen simply as a response to fearful times; for conservative white evangelicals, a militant faith required an ever-present sense of threat.  pg. 13 

In the American South, white masculinity had long championed a sense of mastery over dependents—over women, children, and slaves.  …Southern evangelicals found a way to define Christian manhood in a manner that sanctified aggression; to maintain order and fulfill their role as protectors, there were times when Christian men must resort to violence. 

But evangelicals never entirely abandoned a combative posture. …In matters of both church and state, defensive tactics had proven disastrous. Evangelicals must unite and take the offensive, before it was too late. 

In 1950, when the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) first organized, there were about 270 affiliated stores; by the mid-1960s there were 725, and by the end of the 1970s there were around 3000 scattered in small towns and cities across the country.  …The CBA solved the distribution problem, but it also changed the market—and the publishing industry feeding that market. …the Christian publishing industry helped create an identity based around a more generic evangelical ethos.   

It was in this milieu that evangelical celebrities—singers, actors, and authors, popular pastors and revivalists—would play an outsized role in both reflecting and shaping the cultural values evangelicals would come to hold dear.

…phrases Wayne uttered onscreen—“ Saddle up!” and “Lock and load!”—entered the lexicon of American conservatism.

As president, Eisenhower maintained a close relationship with Graham and his evangelical supporters. …he appeared at the first National Prayer Breakfast in 1953, an annual event organized with Graham’s assistance by members of “The Fellowship,” a secretive group.   

The civil rights movement, Vietnam, and feminism would all challenge reigning dogmas, and for evangelicals who had found a sense of security and significance in an America that affirmed “traditional” gender roles, a strong national defense, and confidence in American power, the sense of loss would be acute. …They would not go down without a fight.

TO WHITE AMERICANS who were willing to listen, the civil rights movement argued that America had never been a country of liberty and justice for all. 

…one that upheld Robert E. Lee as its patron saint. In this tradition, fundamentalist pastors like W. A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas (Robert Jeffress’s future home) crusaded against integration as “a denial of all that we believe in.” …many denounced Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist agitator.   

In the early 1950s, Billy Graham began to integrate his crusades, going so far as to personally remove ropes separating the seating between whites and blacks. …In 1957, he invited King to pray at his New York City crusade. Yet Graham was wary about moving too fast, and he urged the Supreme Court to proceed with caution to quell “the extremists on both sides.”   

By backing away from their support for civil rights, evangelicals like Graham ended up giving cover to more extremist sentiments within the insurgent Religious Right. Today some historians place race at the very heart of evangelical politics, pointing to the fact that evangelical opposition to government-mandated integration predated anti-abortion activism by several years.   

In 1961, Pepperdine College, a hotbed of Sunbelt evangelicalism popular with conservative donors and Christian celebrities alike, hosted a “freedom forum.” …Kennedy’s Catholicism was cause for serious concern among fundamentalists in particular, and the contention that Kennedy was soft on communism—

…disbanding President Kennedy’s Peace Corps, and commending the extremist John Birch Society. The highlight of the event was a televised luncheon with Barry Goldwater. 

Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and John Wayne then followed suit. But it was pop star Pat Boone who stole the show that night, closing with an impromptu address that Reagan would recall years later: “I would rather see my four girls shot and die as little girls who have faith in God than leave them to die some years later as godless, faithless, soulless Communists,” Boone asserted. 

Nixon’s “Southern strategy” helped draw former segregationists into the Republican Party. 

When Nixon came under fire for his secret bombing of Cambodia, Chuck Colson tapped the Southern Baptist Convention to pass a resolution endorsing the president’s foreign policy.   

When the young army lieutenant William Calley faced trial for his role in the murder of some five hundred Vietnamese men, women, and children in what came to be known as the My Lai massacre, Billy Graham remarked that he had “never heard of a war where innocent people are not killed.”  …His moral reflection in the pages of the New York Times was remarkably banal: “We have all had our Mylais in one way or another, perhaps not with guns, but we have hurt others with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act or a selfish deed.” 

But The Green Berets (1968)—the only major motion picture in support of the Vietnam War filmed during the war years—was John Wayne’s most direct contribution to Cold War militarism.  To conservatives, the fact that both films (The Green Berets; The Alamo) were “viciously panned and vilified, dismissed as rightest message films and artistic duds,” was another point in their favor, even more confirmation that cultural elites disdained heroic masculinity.

In a 1971 interview in Playboy, John Wayne was particularly harsh in his assessment of “the blacks”—“ or colored, or whatever they want to call themselves: they certainly aren’t Caucasian.” …I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people. …Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival.” People needed land “and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”   

By any measure, Rushdoony was an extremist. The Civil War wasn’t a battle over slavery, he insisted, but rather a religious war in which the South was defending Christian civilization. In his view, slavery had been voluntary, and beneficial to slaves. He opposed interracial marriage, looked unfavorably on the education of African Americans and women, and disapproved of women’s suffrage and of women speaking in public. Some of his writings bordered on anti-Semitism. …he believed that God-ordained authorities in each sphere of life—family, church, and government—should function without outside interference.   

James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline was not an overtly political book, but it did address the political moment. 

Falwell was “fighting a holy war,” a war to resist feminism, abortion on demand, government intervention in the family, the abandonment of Taiwan, IRS interference in Christian schools, children’s rights, and “rampant homosexuality”—the very things that had corrupted the nation’s morals and blunted its ability to resist communism. 

In the pages of Christianity Today, Charles Colson argued that the Clarence Thomas hearings were the result of feminism run amuck. …It wasn’t just the family that was under attack, but something even more fundamental: “the very notion of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.” …Schlafly slandered Anita Hill as the epitome of the “phony pose” feminists adopted when they wanted to grab power: …This can be explained in part by the greater good evangelicals hoped to accomplish with the ascension of another conservative justice to the Supreme Court. 

Reflecting the less militant strand of 1990s evangelicalism, Bush had campaigned on a message of “compassionate conservatism.” The terror attacks, however, would transform him into a crusader. …The very existence of the nation again depended on the toughness of American men, and raising young boys into strong men became elevated to a matter of national security. …“When those two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, what we suddenly needed were masculine men. Feminized men don’t walk into burning buildings. But masculine men do. That’s why God created men to be masculine.”

In October 2002, five evangelical leaders sent a letter to President Bush to assure him that a preemptive invasion of Iraq did indeed meet the criteria for just war. Written by Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and signed by fellow evangelicals Charles Colson, Bill Bright, D. James Kennedy, and Carl Herbster, the “Land letter” expressed appreciation for Bush’s “bold, courageous, and visionary leadership” and reassured him that his plans for military action were “both right and just.” 

It was John McCain’s surprising choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate that helped the old guard regroup, remaking the election into a familiar culture-wars contest. …McCain’s pick changed James Dobson’s tune. The selection of Palin was “one of the most exciting days” of his life. …SEVENTY-FOUR PERCENT of white evangelicals voted for the McCain/Palin ticket.

When it came to Trump’s obvious shortcomings, James Dobson urged evangelicals to “cut him some slack.” …by July he’d penned an essay arguing that voting for Trump was not the lesser of two evils, but rather “a morally good choice.” …Trump was “a good candidate with flaws.” …Pence, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative evangelical, explained why he’d agreed, “in a heartbeat,” to join the ticket: Trump embodied “American strength,” and he would “provide that kind of broad-shouldered American strength on the global stage as well.”

They quoted Michele Bachmann at length on Trump’s “1950s sensibilities,” by which she meant that he really did “believe in a strong America because he grew up being proud of the United States—‘a John Wayne America.’” Unfortunately, children today were being taught that the United States was “an evil country and that somehow we’ve hurt the rest of the world,” but this was “one of the biggest lies” young people were being told.

Trump believes in “strength” and a “strong America” that corresponds to traditional masculinity. The “John Wayne America” ideal man sits tall in the saddle; doesn’t whine or complain; …may speak with machismo—but never effeminacy; and communicates hope even when it defies logic. …Trump, in other words, was a real man, a man whose rugged masculinity was forged in 1950s America, a time when all was right with the world. 

And in the last portion of my synopses, I include key points from and about the book.  Here are a few of the ones I included for this book: 

  • Thinking about this book:
  • a “religious” book…
  • an “American history book”
  • An American political observation book…
  • The great disconnect…
  • To be an evangelical, according to the National Association of Evangelicals, is to uphold the Bible as one’s ultimate authority, to confess the centrality of Christ’s atonement, to believe in a born-again conversion experience, and to actively work to spread this good news and reform society accordingly. …Evangelicals claim to uphold the Bible as the highest authority in the Christian life, but there are more than 31,000 verses in the Bible. Which ones are considered essential guides to faithful Christian practice, and which are readily ignored or explained away?
  • today many people count themselves “evangelical” because they watch Fox News, consider themselves religious, and vote Republican.
  • (so…whatever happened to “Family Values; “Compassionate Conservatism”? – How could Evangelicals support…Nixon? Trump?)
  • So, where do Evangelicals stand?
  • 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 decline of “denominational loyalty” for a “broad-based identity”:
  • It creates affinities across denominational, regional, and socioeconomic differences, even as it divides Americans—and American Christians—into those who embrace these values, and those who do not. 
  • from denominational bookstores, to “generic” Christian bookstores, to Walmart and Hobby Lobby…
  • With a broader Christian market replacing denominational distribution channels, authors and publishers needed to tone down theological distinctives and instead offer books pitched to a broadly evangelical readership.
  • Some thoughts about the “propaganda/indoctrination” machine
  • White evangelicalism has such an expansive reach in large part because of the culture it has created, the culture that it sells.
  • They’ve learned more from Pat Robertson, John Piper, Joyce Meyer, and The Gospel Coalition than they have from their pastor’s Sunday sermons.
  • The diffusion of evangelical consumer culture extends far beyond the orbit of evangelical churches. …Denominational boundaries are easily breached by the flow of religious merchandising.
  • The products Christians consume shape the faith they inhabit. Today, what it means to be a “conservative evangelical” is as much about culture as it is about theology.
  • gatherings; seminars; associations; groups…too many to list (The Moral Majority, The Family Research Council; Promise Keepers; and many, many others…)
  • Rush Limbaugh…leading up to Fox News
  • Within two decades, the influence of Fox News on conservative evangelicalism would be so profound that journalists and scholars alike would find it difficult to separate the two.
  • The outsider does not realize that there are “acceptable” religious voices, and unacceptable religious voices…
  • e.g., Robert Jeffress; in – Jim Wallis; out… (including – “out churches” and “in churches”)
  • As a diffuse movement, evangelicalism lacks clear institutional authority structures, but the evangelical marketplace itself helps define who is inside and who is outside the fold.
  • And, what about John Wayne?
  • NOT a practicing Christian (not remotely!) – Thrice married, twice divorced, Wayne also carried on several high-profile affairs. He was a chain-smoker and a hard drinker. The affinity was based not on theology, but rather on a shared masculine ideal.
  • Wayne would come to symbolize a different set of virtues—a nostalgic yearning for a mythical “Christian America,” a return to “traditional” gender roles, and the reassertion of (white) patriarchal authority.
  • 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. 
  • The big names (note: there are so many…) – and, note, few were denominational leaders:
  • Theodore Roosevelt… Pat Boone; Billy Graham; James Dobson; Bill Gothard; Phyllis Schlafley; Tim LaHaye; Jerry Falwell; Oliver North; Franklin Graham; Ralph Reed; Phil Robertson and the Duck Dynasty family; among others
  • Pat Boone was perhaps their greatest crossover celebrity; with roots in the Church of Christ and a lineage that could be traced back to Daniel Boone, he became one of pop music’s all-time greats. Second only to Elvis Presley in his day, Pat Boone was the pride and joy of postwar evangelicals.
  • Imagery:
  • Military imagery
  • Athletic imagery
  • All strong-masculine imagery
  • Women were “crying out” for men to recover their manly strength, Dalbey insisted. They were begging men to toughen up and take charge, longing for a prince who was strong and bold enough to restore their “authentic femininity.”
  • The statement attested that God had established male headship as part of the order of creation and closed the door to women in church leadership.
  • The story in a nutshell:
  • From Theodore Roosevelt through to John Wayne, the appeal is to a militant, masculine, male-first, and…therefore, white male first… hierarchy.

And the Evangelical churches embraced this wholeheartedly; and used it to spread their influence and seek to shape a political Party and a very nation.

I always conclude with my own lessons and takeaways.  Here are my five lessons and takeaways from this book:

#1 – There is no “we just follow the Bible” movement in reality.

#2 – Culture shapes religious belief, far more so than religious belief can shape culture.

#3 – Denominational lines utterly gave way to a shared Evangelical culture.

#4 – Power brokers could let people in; and definitely could keep people out.

#5 – Protecting our “place,” protecting our “ways,” is the great motivation for Evangelicals.

You may fully support the “white nationalist movement.”  You may be against this movement.  Either way, this book will help you understand the roots of, and the breadth of, this movement.  I strongly recommend it; put Jesus and John Wayne on your reading stack.

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