Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Liveright Publishing, 368 pages
Reviewed by Emery J. Cummins
“Jesus and John Wayne” presents a serious critique of white American evangelical culture. By carefully connecting the dots across a century of shifting evangelical values, Kristin Kobes Du Mez provides a measured rationale for the subtitle: “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” She further makes a compelling case that white Christian evangelicals fell into lockstep behind former president Donald Trump because he embodies “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.”
Du Mez’ familiarity with evangelical faith and practice affords an insider’s perspective on the rise of the Christian right. Although she sometimes paints with too broad a brush, her exploration of evangelical evolution from the fundamentalist-modernist schism of the 1920s to the present delivers a strong justification for her thesis that Trump represented the fulfillment – not a betrayal – of white evangelical beliefs.
She argues that evangelical family values are intertwined with racial politics by presenting evidence that race and patriarchy have been at the heart of its dogma from the beginning. The ideal of evangelical masculinity also figures prominently in the movement’s appeal to those longing for a simpler time when men were men (dominant) and women were women (submissive). This dichotomy was idealized and promoted both by influential men (like Bill Gothard and Mark Driscoll) and women (like Marabel Morgan and Phyllis Schlafly), whose writings were widely disseminated throughout evangelical circles.
A significant dimension of evangelical culture is its embrace of militant masculinity, which links patriarchy to patriotism and celebrates men as warriors in the army of God. Popular books (like Doug Wilson’s novel “Evangellyfish”) and movements (like Promise Keepers) emphasized the importance of husbands taking charge of the family, thereby relegating wives and mothers to submissive roles. This macho ideal further led to enthusiastic support for the Second Amendment, which has become a major tenet in evangelical culture.
The conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention contributed mightily to politicized evangelical commitment to female submission. This shift also scorned LGBTQ acceptance and led the crusade against Roe v. Wade from the 1970s to the present. Her cast of characters includes secular notables like John Wayne, Mel Gibson, Oliver North and the Duck Dynasty clan, as well as such evangelical icons as Billy Graham, Tim LaHaye, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham. The latter group is known for its adherence to biblical inerrancy and support for strict gender divisions
Some may accuse Du Mez with portraying white evangelicals as an extremist cult. Nevertheless, her book shines a welcome light on the dark underbelly of 21st-century American evangelicalism, which has hitched its wagon to the cause of right-wing politics. This has given rise to an unholy alliance, which pays homage to the idols of white American patriarchy – Christian nationalism, homophobia and gun rights – while turning its back on traditional biblical Christianity.
Emery J. Cummins is professor emeritus of counseling at San Diego State University and a ruling elder in the Presbytery of San Diego.