Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

“Hey, guess what,” DJ said to me last week. “Jesus and John Wayne came in!”

What he meant to say was this: “Remember you asked me to look for the book Jesus and John Wayne for you? The library called to say it came in today.” But my first mental image was of Jesus and John Wayne popping in to DJ’s office, as if they were in the area and decided to come by and say hello.

But I was glad to hear it, even if the reality turned out to be less exciting. I was looking forward to reading it, in my ongoing to attempt to understand exactly how the white evangelical church got to where it is now.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez wasn’t really a revelatory book for me. I grew up Southern Baptist and spent my teenage years in Bill Gothard’s ATI program. Our house was full of material from Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Rush Limbaugh, and Eagle Forum. During my introduction to HSLDA in the late nineties, I brushed shoulders with pre-Vision Forum Doug Phillips. I wasn’t just familiar with the white evangelicalism that this book talks about, I was one of those white evangelicals.

What this book does, however, is lay out my own religious history in a way that I never understood before. It showed me patterns of ideas and behaviors that still hold true today. And it also showed me just how far I drifted from my roots in the early 2000s, which was why I was shattered by the white evangelical church’s overwhelming support of Donald Trump, instead of expecting it as an inevitable outcome.

In fact, if I’d read this book before the January 6 breach of the Capitol, I wouldn’t have found that event nearly as shocking.

The book isn’t a dense read, especially for someone already familiar with most of the major players. Yet every time I try to discuss it, I get tangled up in so many thoughts that it’s hard to have a conversation. So what I’ll do here is highlight the patterns that struck me as significant.

Pattern #1: Evangelicals have always courted political power. I was taught that a real Christian doesn’t “put confidence in princes,” that we trust that God will work His own will no matter what. In practice, however, the leaders in my life were all about currying favor at the White House. It’s why Ronald Reagan is practically a saint in evangelical circles — he was very cozy with the powerhouse of influence, James Dobson, and other church luminaries. Billy Graham was instrumental in getting Richard Nixon elected. Both Bushes knew to appeal to the evangelical vote. Had I known all this, I’d have known that when Dobson, Franklin Graham, and other leaders fell over themselves to line up at Trump’s feet, they weren’t selling out principle for power. Their principle is power.

Pattern #2: Evangelicals create and then believe myths. From the first, John Wayne has been an evangelical icon of “real manhood.” The strong, rugged cowboy lives by his own code of honor, is indomitable in battle, doesn’t take guff from wimpy men or any woman, and earns the respect of everyone he encounters. He’s a real man. Of course, it’s a completely fictional construct. Wayne himself wasn’t a cowboy, never served in the military… heck, even the name “John Wayne” was fiction, replacing the much less craggy “Marion Morrison.” Yet the fact that the ideal has no roots in reality does nothing to diminish it. This myth is so strong that the evangelical concept of Jesus himself has been shaped to fit into this mold.

Similarly, ideal womanhood is built on the same myth-making process. The two examples of great evangelical women in my younger years were Phyllis Schafley and Elisabeth Elliot. Both were outspoken women, household names, and inspiring to young evangelical women. Both pushed hard the idea that a woman’s highest calling is as a mother, wife, and homemaker. Yet neither of these women lived up to that ideal at all. Schafley poured her energies into politics, not “staying home and baking cookies,” as Hillary Clinton was famously reviled for saying. After her missionary husband was killed, Elliot spent her life writing books, hosting a radio show, and traveling around the country to speaking engagements. She married twice more, but never took those men’s names for her professional life. In both cases, these women were able to fulfill their obvious gifts for leadership by reinforcing the idea that they supported “traditional” women’s roles. And just like in the case of John Wayne, evangelicals agreed to believe the myth instead of the reality.

Although it’s still astonishing how quickly the John Wayne myth sprang up around Trump, now I can see why so many evangelicals eagerly believed and invested themselves in it. It’s part of a long pattern.

Pattern #3: Evangelicals feed on fear. There’s always got to be a bad guy for these John Waynes to fight. In fact, I remember the moment when I was 18 and listening to David Barton (a problematic “historian”) at a Bill Gothard conference in Knoxville. We’d spent all week being reminded that America was on a path toward destruction because we, the small remnant of faithful, couldn’t keep her true to her Christian roots. Barton was telling how the Library of Congress was transitioning to digital files, and “destroying hundreds of books.” He implied that it was an Orwellian book-burning designed to erase the Christian foundation of the US, allowing evil people to snatch the country away from us. And all of a sudden my exhausted mind shut down and I thought, “I am so tired of being scared all the time.”

But like any subculture, evangelical leaders need something to keep their followers focused. For many years, the Communist threat was enough to keep the troops galvanized. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, it left the army at a loss. So evangelical leaders focused on domestic threats, such as feminism, homosexuality, and religious liberty. Not saying that there are no reasons to be concerned on any of these issues (have you read 1960s feminism? It has venom-dipped fangs), but evangelicals aren’t famous for their nuanced take on issues they oppose.

Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Evangelicals quickly coalesced around this new external enemy. Anti-Islamic panic was high. Reading this section of the book, I realized that these were the years when I was drifting away from my roots. I was vaguely aware of what was being said and passed around as facts about Muslim beliefs and behavior (much of which was highly exaggerated or sensationalized), but I rejected it as unChristian prejudice and racism. I suppose I assumed that most other people did the same. I was wrong, which I found out painfully enough about fifteen years later.

Du Mez keeps a narrow focus in this book. In describing the evangelical response to various events, she doesn’t give much room to presenting a well-rounded view. For instance, she discusses the evangelical distaste for Hillary Clinton, both as a First Lady and as a presidential candidate. Briefly she touches on concerns about Clinton’s policies and possibly corruption — which are valid, non-sexist, non-partisan considerations for any candidate — but she mostly focuses on the overblown rhetoric and rumors that evangelicals passed around among themselves. If you want more than just the evangelical reaction to any given person or incident, you’ll have to go back and fill in the gaps yourself.

I found this a helpful book on a very personal level. Intellectually, I left evangelicalism years ago. I gave up on political activism because I don’t like rallies and canvassing for votes and writing emails to Congress. DJ and I revamped our entire understanding of the “essential” doctrine of creationism. Once we saw the damage that “traditional” gender roles (man = leads, woman = submits) inflicted on our marriage, we cultivated a relationship based on mutual submission. Early in our marriage, we considered joining the Catholic church, but ran into too many theological roadblocks; instead we made our way into the Anglican church, with its focus on liturgy and social awareness. I’ve become sharply aware of the national sin of racism, and the need to for the white church especially to repent. I haven’t voted Republican in a national election since I opted out of the 2008 election (and now I wish I’d participated in the historic event of electing a black president). I’ve revisited and refined many opinions which, in my evangelical days, came pre-packaged with inflexible answers.

Yet I still love the people I came from, and I didn’t realize how far away I’d traveled until the rift became impossible to ignore. That’s why I have so many knots and tangles when it comes to discussing my thoughts on this book.

Your experience reading this will vary. The book might enlightening, uncomfortable, or disturbing depending on your relationship with white evangelicalism. I think it’s valuable regardless. If you’re at all interested in understanding the white Christian Republican devotion to Trump, then you should read Jesus and John Wayne.

Just be aware that you have to say the title very carefully. Not only does this dynamic duo make the rounds at DJ’s office, but I found myself asking, “Did anybody see Jesus and John Wayne in the living room?”

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