Jesus and John Wayne
Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores sources of today’s White Christian nationalism.
by Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Liveright, 384 pp., $18.95)
Evangelical author Eric Metaxas was in a fighting mood when he sat down for an interview with conservative activist Charlie Kirk in December 2020. The supposedly fraudulent results of the 2020 election were “evil,” he said, a “rusty knife to the throat of Lady Liberty.” The only Christian solution was to “fight to the death, to the last drop of blood.”
A few days later, Metaxas emceed the “Jericho March,” a pro-Trump Christian rally in which attendees, clad in American flags and MAGA hats, carried Bibles and signs with slogans like “Donald vs. Goliath” as they listened to preachers, would-be prophets, and a pillow salesman expound on how God would restore Donald Trump to the White House. The organizers vowed to return to Washington the next month to provide spiritual succor alongside the larger “Stop the Steal” rally protesting Congress’ ratification of the election results. In the end, crosses and “Jesus Saves” flags would be seen intermingled among the crowd that finally broke into the Capitol on January 6.
Metaxas’ bellicose language and involvement in the “Jericho March” stunned his longtime friend, Rod Dreher. Metaxas, said Dreher, was “one of the sweetest men you could hope to meet, gentle and kind.” For years he was a writer for Veggie Tales, a children’s television program featuring cheerful tomatoes that sang praise songs to a God who infused love in people’s hearts. But Metaxas’ transformation must have been less surprising to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history at Calvin College and author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.
Jesus and John Wayne is an expansive synthesis of how a fusion of politics, religion, and popular culture over seventy-five years has driven many in the Evangelical movement to embrace a militant White Christian nationalism. The fulcrum of this evolution, says Du Mez, is a gender essentialism that exalts the archetype of the warrior (or the lone ranger) as the Christian masculine ideal—casting aside the Jesus who brings peace for the one who brings a sword.
As a Calvinist herself, Du Mez is unafraid to ask difficult questions of her faith. But in its interrogation of the blurred lines between creed and community, Jesus and John Wayne should prompt readers of all spiritual traditions to wonder whether there isn’t something in America’s cultural waters corroding the link between sound theology and religious practice that defies authoritarianism’s lure. Moreover, Du Mez’s book is a discomfiting reminder of the need to address the existential desperation leading modern men to worship a Christ molded in the image of GIs and gunslingers.
Although Jesus and John Wayne largely begins with the rise of Southern Baptist preacher Billy Graham in the 1940s, the strain of “muscular Christianity” that it traces has long, transatlantic roots. In the latter half of the 19th century, mounting anxiety over industrialization’s softening effects on middle- and upper-class male bodies led to an emphasis on sports and physical activity in schools across Great Britain and the United States. During this same period, Christian churches grew increasingly alarmed at the declining number of men in their pews and wondered, as Baptist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick did, whether the cause lay in the historic emphasis on Jesus’ “wan, sad face … his meekness and humility.” Instead of emphasizing the Jesus who humbly submitted to an unjust death, perhaps it was time to elevate the Jesus who whipped the moneylenders out of the temple. As Fosdick wrote in his 1913 devotional The Manhood of the Master, “Is not wrath a part of every great character’s equipment?”
Fosdick was a liberal theologian and a key figure in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy that drove conservative factions of various Protestant denominations—and almost all Southern Baptists—out of mainline seminaries and publishing houses. However, as the “muscular Christianity” that Fosdick endorsed gradually fell out of use in liberal Protestant denominations, it took root among conservatives. Their alienation from mainline institutions, says Du Mez, contributed to Evangelicals’ pervasive sense of embattlement. In a world where modern iniquity threatened fundamentals of the faith, such as the Bible’s inerrancy and the need to reform society according to God’s will, Evangelicals needed a protector, not a peacemaker.
It is no surprise that Billy Graham—one of the most prominent preachers of the 20th century, whose Baptist revival meetings made Evangelicalism an international phenomenon—used muscular metaphors to describe his own conversion experience. As Du Mez explains, “[To Graham], Jesus was no sissy—he was a ‘star athlete’ who could ‘become your life’s hero.’… Christian life was ‘total war,’ and Jesus was ‘Our Great Commander.’”
This depiction of Jesus as a quasi-quarterback, quasi-four-star general proved especially popular in Evangelical discourse as the nation transitioned from the ostensible stability of the post-World War II era to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Du Mez notes how the sexual revolution and the U.S. loss in the Vietnam War facilitated the entrenchment of Evangelicals’ siege mentality by undermining the natural order that God had ordained between the sexes and for America’s role in the fight against godless communism. However, instead of retreating further into their enclaves, Evangelical conservatives took these events as a sign that it was time to fight in the arena. They mobilized to reshape both religious institutions and national politics.
Du Mez’s narrative enters familiar territory as she describes the 1980s, detailing the rise of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting empire, Phyllis Schlafly’s successful war against the Equal Rights Amendment, and Jerry Falwell’s creation of the “Moral Majority,” which helped catapult Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Her detailed examination of Evangelical support for Col. Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair illuminates the foreign policy implications of the Evangelical movement’s fixation on a crusading Christ. Nevertheless, the most interesting figures in Jesus and John Wayne are not political activists but the legions of preachers and writers who tried to explain how modern men could better emulate a broad-shouldered Messiah.
If there is primary source type at the heart of Jesus and John Wayne, it is the self-help book. Du Mez’s argument is sharpest when she analyzes the deluge of manuals on masculinity that flooded a growing Christian publishing market in the last decades of the 20th century. Pastors certainly wrote many of these works. However, the decentralized nature of Evangelical theological formation, coupled with an emphasis on “populist hermeneutics” (i.e., the notion that the simplest reading of the Bible was the truest), allowed Christian authors of all backgrounds to write authoritatively on how to best emulate Jesus’ divine brawn—with help from some of the chiseled gods in the pantheon of American popular culture.
The examples that Du Mez selects are instructive. In Point Man: How a Man Can Lead His Family, pastor and Vietnam veteran Steve Farrar argues that “leading a family through the chaos of American culture is like leading a small patrol through enemy-occupied territory.” Calvinist theologian Douglas Wilson’s Future Men: Raising Boys to Fight Giants asserts that Christianity is inherently violent, that the peace to be “ushered in by our great Prince will be a peace purchased with blood.” Thus, “boys must learn that they are growing up to fight in a great war.” The bestselling Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul breathlessly compares God to William Wallace, while No More Christian Nice Guy celebrates Jesus as “a criminal, a fugitive, an outlaw, a rebel with the highest cause.” (The respective authors, John Eldredge and Paul Coughlin, make no bones about their lack of pastoral experience or divinity degrees). John McDougall’s Jesus Was an Airborne Ranger, well, speaks for itself. And Eric Metaxas’ own 7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness describes John Wayne as an essential “clue” to understanding ideal Christian masculinity.
Du Mez argues that underscoring these martial visions of God’s design for men is the Evangelical emphasis on male headship in the family hierarchy. While this is a deeply contested point in Christian theology, it is worth acknowledging that this belief—along with complementarianism more broadly—is one sincerely held by many people who are respectful of women and involved in loving, mutually sacrificial marriages.
However, Du Mez makes a compelling case for how quickly problems arise when a complicated theological point is repeatedly filtered through pop psychology fixed on male virility and need for conquest. What starts as an exploration of male difference can quickly metastasize into a defense of monstrosity: Just ask ex-Southern Baptist writer Beth Moore; the Evangelical women counseled to endure abusive marriages; the hundreds of victims of sexual predators like Pete Newman and Ravi Zacharias; or the church leaders left stunned as their congregants anointed a serial adulterer and sexual abuser to serve in the highest political office in the United States.
One of those flabbergasted Evangelical leaders was Russell Moore. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Baptist theologian doubted polls tracking Trump’s surging popularity among Evangelicals, arguing that respondents “probably haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.” Moore is just one of the figures Du Mez quotes to reveal that Jesus’ reincarnation as Braveheart has not gone uncontested in the Evangelical community.
Du Mez also cites scholars who have pointed out that works like Eldredge’s Wild at Heart misconstrue fundamental tenets of Christianity by making armed conflict central to God’s plan for masculinity rather than a consequence of humanity’s fall from grace. Nevertheless, Du Mez’s fundamental thesis is that critics like Moore failed to appreciate the way Evangelicalism’s half-century obsession with masculinity catalyzed the institutional, theological, and sociopolitical forces that built a foundation for the eventual alliance with Trumpism.
In other words, Jesus and John Wayne builds a powerful case explaining how a children’s TV writer can become an apologist for insurrection in a few easy steps. But it suffers from a problem of definition. As other critics have noted, Du Mez’s quest to reach a broad audience leads her to paper over some important distinctions among different parts of the Evangelical movement, like that between the Southern Baptist Convention and its more radical, fundamentalist offshoots. Moreover, does the term “Evangelical” even apply to someone who doesn’t actively attend church or subscribe to the faith’s four pillars of conversion, crucicentrism, Biblicism, and activism? And what does it mean that more Trump voters identify as “Evangelical” now than they did four years ago?
But perhaps the more interesting point is that the gendered phenomena Du Mez describes are not unique to Evangelicalism. The image of a muscle-bound Christ has increased its resonance in the Catholic Church as well, especially in the United States. It is easy to find the influence of a militarized theology in the words of American cardinals who fret that female altar servers are driving future “Knights of the Altar” away from the priesthood, or in lay periodicals like the provocatively titled ChurchMilitant.com, which receives millions of views a month for publishing articles on how the rosary is a “Gatling gun [for] lighting up the diabolical.”
There’s also no shortage of overlap between popular culture and militancy in Catholic circles. At October’s “For God and Country: Patriot Double Down” conference, the Catholic actor who portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ gave a speech that called the Holy Spirit a “shield” and Christ a “sword” to be wielded in the “storm,” a cosmic struggle that adherents of the QAnon conspiracy believe will lead Trump to remove evildoers from positions of national and global power. His speech was approvingly retweeted by the Archbishop of Tyler. Paleoconservative Pat Buchanan—who, in Du Mez’s words, “parroted” Wayne’s signature “Lock and Load” rallying cry during his presidential bid—was Catholic. So is Steve Bannon. There’s a gap in our public discourse about the ways in which muscular Catholicism intersects with American populism and the current vogue for integralism in parts of the intellectual class.
One cannot underestimate culture’s weight in the tug of war between theology, praxis, and actual practice. Apart from a few periods of existential stability that were arguably purchased at the price of massive international wars, men in the United States seem to have spent over a century struggling to define their role in modernity’s brave new world. It is undeniable that some men continue to monopolize the highest echelons of political and economic power. Yet, due to a complicated and probably inextricable mixture of biology and socialization, a generation of American men now face declining educational attainment, participation rates in the labor force, and successful marriages. If anything for men is growing, it is deaths of despair.
There may be something in the language of struggle that is especially useful for reaching lost men. Religion can either use this language to mold men into forces for good and compassion in their respective communities or forge a brittle armor within which they can rage at a world that no longer guarantees them exclusive dominion. An insightful part of Jesus and John Wayne is Du Mez’s chapter on the “Promise Keepers,” an Evangelical men’s organization formed in the early 1990s by former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney.
In contrast to angry, testosterone-driven depictions of Jesus found in masculinity tracts from the 1980s and early 2000s, this group promoted the ideal of the “tender warrior” and “servant leader:” the man who takes his family responsibilities seriously, does his share of housework, and is involved in his children’s care. Even as they occasionally employed militarized rhetoric, the Promise Keepers counted Christians who embraced marital egalitarianism and those who believed in conservative complementarianism among their ranks. They read works like Gary Oliver’s Real Men Have Feelings Too and even organized programs to foster racial reconciliation within the Evangelical community. Unfortunately, Du Mez notes, this latter pivot led to a sharp drop in their membership after 1996.
The Promise Keepers may have actually been onto a way to move beyond the worst excesses of John Wayne hermeneutics. Unfortunately, they are just an interregnum in Du Mez’s otherwise worrying narrative. Even with some of its omissions and generalizations, Jesus and John Wayne is essential reading to understand the fury behind some of the cultural forces tearing apart not just churches but our entire political fabric.
Instead of conjuring up dragons to slay out of paranoid fantasies and existential despair, we need to form men capable of embracing the battles of everyday life. After all, this is a field of war that women know all too well, no strangers they to what Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has singled out as the purportedly “manly virtue” of courage. The challenge for church leaders and believers alike is finding a way to encourage men to pursue virtue in all of its forms without carving too many beatitudes out of bell curves, nor forgetting—as St. Paul reminds us—that in Christ there is no male or female.
Nicole Penn, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, is program manager for social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image: Web Gallery of Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., online collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3373066
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe