Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history and gender at Calvin University in Michigan, was a project born of the question: How was Donald Trump, the seeming antithesis to Christian social ethics embodied, able to capture the hearts (and votes) of an overwhelming majority of conservative evangelicals in 2016?
Du Mez answers, in over 300 pages of historical, social, and doctrinal analysis: Rather than being a rejection of evangelical ethics, Trump was actually the culmination.
For the last half century or more, evangelical leaders have been propagating three core beliefs: 1. Christian men ought to exemplify a militaristic masculinity characterized by aggression and a robust (and often unruly) sexual appetite; 2. For the Christian home, and ultimately the nation, to be successful, there must be a patriarchal authoritarian structure, which necessitates the submission of meek and gentle women and strict gender norms and roles; and 3. Everyone is out to get us.
With this healthy sense of their own victimization, evangelical leaders have thrived when they felt threatened. And after eight years of perceived persecution and isolation under the Obama administration, they were fed up and ready for a fight.
Enter Donald Trump.
There might come a time when I will handle the history and doctrine presented in this book academically; but while I was reading, I held little space for an intellectual engagement with these ideas. Rather, my reaction has been overwhelmingly emotional.
Du Mez wrote this book for me; I was raised in the exact religious and social tradition she examines. She does not shy away from naming names, and an overwhelming majority of the men she mentioned had influence over my life:
- James Dobson wrote the child-rearing books my parents read.
- John Eldrege and Josh Harris wrote the books on gender and sexuality I read in adolescence.
- John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem edited the study Bibles we had at home.
- Doug Wilson held great sway over the private Christian high school I attended and even spoke at my graduation.
- Michael Farris was the Chancellor of my college alma mater.
Many others mentioned – Doug Phillips, Al Mohler, John Piper, Mark Driscoll – were literal household names, referenced in Bible classes at school, authors of books we were expected to read, doctrinal authorities where the buck stopped.
Despite this concentrated and steady diet of the principles of conservative evangelicalism, there were many times in my teens and during college that I questioned what I was being taught. The first pillar to fall for me was easily and predictably the patriarchal authority and suppression of women.
This book was a total validation of my frustration with the hypocrisy of evangelical leaders, especially when it came to the sexual ethics of Trump. Du Mez spends ample time examining the sex scandals that plagued the evangelical community during the 2010s especially. Almost every evangelical leader mentioned was implicated, having either committed a sexual indiscretion himself (everything from affairs to rape of a minor) or having helped cover up the crime of someone else. Even at their most “tame,” these leaders contributed to a culture that viewed sexual aggression as normal and the use of women as the antidote.
As Du Mez writes, “In the end, [these leaders] all preached a mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity – of patriarchy and submission, sex and power. It was a vision that promised protection for women but left women without defense, one that worshiped power and turned a blind eye to justice, and one that transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into an image of their own making.” (294) And it ultimately leaves many critics asking, “were men defending patriarchy because they believed it to be biblical, or were they twisting the Scriptures in order to defend patriarchy?” (298)
I am glossing over the undercurrent of racism inherent in all of this, but it must be said that starting with opposition to civil rights and school integration in the 1960s, evangelical leaders have a robust history elevating their whiteness alongside their masculinity. “The vast majority of books on evangelical masculinity have been written by white men primarily for white men … With few exceptions, black men, Middle Eastern men, and Hispanic men are not called to a wild, militant masculinity. Their aggression, by contrast, is seen as dangerous, a threat to the stability of home and nation.” (301) For me, no where has this dichotomy felt more real than in the evangelical condemnation of BLM marches and protests over the summer of 2020 while praising or excusing the rioters who attacked the Capitol last week.
So after all this, what’s a girl to do? Honestly, I wish the book had one more chapter that gave us an idea of how to dismantle this harmful ideology. But at the very least, understanding this history and these ideas is an essential starting point. Moving forward, I appreciate knowing I am not alone in fighting against these terrible influences. If you feel remotely the same way, this book is a must read.
The next time you see a blog post from Doug Wilson or a sermon from John Piper shared by a Christian friend to shore up their own Christian nationalistic tendencies, rest in the fact that these men do not have all the answers. The crisis we are now living in is one they helped create, and unless and until they reject these toxic foundations, they have no hope of showing us a way out.