This important book, “Jesus and John Wayne,” addresses the often-asked question of how a man whose life is wildly inconsistent with the teachings of evangelical Christianity could so capture the support, even adoration, of so much of the evangelical community in the last two Presidential elections. It turns out we must take a broad historical perspective to truly answer this.
Author Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University, a well-respected evangelical Christian school in Grand Rapids MI. She is the author of a previous book, “A New Gospel for Women,” as well as numerous articles in Christian and secular outlets. She is clearly a gifted writer who holds a reader’s attention throughout, as she brings a much-needed historical perspective to this question.
As one might expect from a historian, Du Mez argues that this is not primarily a Donald Trump phenomenon but in fact has roots decades earlier. As such, this book is not an anti-Trump diatribe, although the author is clearly not a fan. Rather, its origins lie in the hypermasculine “warrior Christianity” and its accompanying extreme sexism from earlier eras of our nation’s history.
These deeper roots go back a century or more. The author discusses some early influences such as President Theodore Roosevelt’s image remaking from pampered rich scion to self-styled cowboy and warrior. Concerned that Christianity in the Victorian period was too feminized and emasculating, some early 20th-century Christian men sought to recast the faith as warlike, aggressive, and gun-loving, preparing soldiers to fight in World War I. But the warrior Christian image continued after the war, through radio evangelists as well as mainstream Protestantism’s disillusion following the battle carnage in Europe. The rise of evangelical Christianity during this period, especially its more rigid Fundamentalist wing, played into this.
A media figure who came to epitomize this militant Christian was movie star John Wayne. Like later “naughty” Christian heroes Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, Wayne was no born-again Christian and was in fact a hard drinker, womanizer and chain smoker. Evangelicals’ attraction, however, was to the masculine ideal. Wayne’s lead in the pro-war “The Green Berets” (1968) helped to solidify this and further disdain the so-called cultural elites for their criticism of traditional masculinity.
The Vietnam War was pivotal in this developing evangelical identity. While much of the country in the late 1960s became disillusioned with American greatness, goodness and militarism, evangelicals inferred the opposite lesson, namely, that it was the absence of military power that had led to the Vietnam debacle.
Du Mez also examines anti-feminists like Marabel Morgan (“The Total Woman,” 1973) and Phyllis Schafly (“A Choice Not an Echo,” 1964), with their messages encouraging women to be subordinate to men and support political activism against feminist causes like the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights.
Media evangelists like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard and Tim LaHaye actively promoted such views, many becoming increasingly political. Born-again Southern Baptist President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) particularly drew their ire for his alleged “weakness” by pardoning draft evaders, signing a nuclear arms treaty, turning the Panama Canal over to Panama, and failing to bring the 52 American hostages home from Iran. His 1980 opponent Ronald Reagan’s victory owed much to religious support for his tough-guy image. This played out during his presidency (1981-89) in evangelical support for the right-wing contra insurgency in Nicaragua and the self-styled military hero Oliver North.
This warrior Christian mentality continued in the 1990s with the evangelical men’s movement and evangelical opposition to President Bill Clinton, another Southern Baptist. The rise of secular right-wing cable news figures like Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan and Bill O’Reilly further stoked these fires.
Although there were always some dissenting evangelical voices, most notably from the African-American church and the progressive evangelical minority, these voices often seemed like cries in the wilderness.
After the turn of the millennium, evangelical masculinity had another cowboy ally in the White House (George W. Bush, 2001-09), whose militant responses to the 9/11 attacks delighted the warrior Christians. They also had allies in some less overtly political forces like the Christian home-school movement and morality-based groups against homosexuality and abortion rights. Both the more political right-wing forces and the morality-based groups coalesced against Barack Obama (2009-17), at times playing the unspoken race card dog whistles to varying degrees in subtle ways.
When Trump arose on the scene in 2016, his rhetoric seemed to embody the tough-guy macho positions on many issues. Although some minority evangelical voices warned against supporting Trump, his support of discipline and authority, his promises to appoint conservative judges and stem the tide of left-wing “cultural elitism” proved stronger arguments for many voters. His approval rating in office was twice as high among evangelical voters as in society at large. Du Mez argues this should not have been a surprise given the last century of political-religious interaction.
This book is detailed and well-documented and a critical read for those seeking to understand conservative Christian support for persons and causes that do not seem very Christian. At times it is difficult and troubling but one that rewards the reader with important insights.
Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.