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Centering the Strongman

Review of "Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation"

What explains the continuing strong support by evangelical Christians for a president whose actions are the antithesis of following Jesus?  Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez answers that question in her new book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. It’s more than a pragmatic choice to get certain judges appointed or specific pieces of legislation passed. It’s deeper than a grab for power and it won’t automatically disappear if short-term goals are achieved. 

Du Mez, an accomplished cultural historian at Calvin University, charts the roots of our current context through a 50 year history that transformed traditional evangelicalism into Christian nationalism, an ideology that fuses love of God and love of the United States, at the expense of the former. Using her gifts of storytelling and careful attention to detail, Du Mez helps her readers connect the dots between familiar elements within North American Christianity.  While enjoying the story, readers also sense the embedded distortions of the gospel and worship of false gods.  

Billy Graham, Focus on the Family, Mel Gibson, Promise Keeper rallies, Duck Dynasty, The Total WomanWild at Heart and Tender Warrior, Purity Bracelets, Veggie Tales, Hobby Lobby, The Dude’s Guide to Manhood: these and more familiar symbols of Christian America are connected in the story of how Christian nationalism shaped the cultural choices for many Christians. John Wayne, in the title of the book, captures the influence of strong man icons, the fearless and ruthless cowboy/soldier defending a certain conception of America for God. As a celebrity hero for Christians, in spite of immoral behaviour and racism, he shaped the culture more than following Jesus’ teachings; he serves as a pre-cursor of the current president. The counterpart, of course, is the submissive woman, who is God’s gift to serve man, within a strict social order determined by men. 

Central to Christian nationalism, as Du Mez unfolds the history, is a strong belief that Christian masculinity means patriarchal authority at home and a callous use of militarized power to defend God and the United States as God’s chosen country. Key to the success of the takeover was permeating popular culture with celebrities, music and movies, gender-specific consumer goods, emotional experiences, and social pressure to conform with one particular way of being a Christian American. 

Another essential element is fear of a powerful enemy, held up as a mortal threat requiring strong men to defend God. First was communism, replaced by the civil rights movement, feminism, Vietnam, Saddam Hussein, Muslims, homosexualism, and now threats to religious freedom. 

Du Mez also describes the tremendous harm done by this ideology, harms that are ignored or dismissed by its leaders. These range from sexual abuse of women, including by leaders in the movement, to entrenched racial and economic discrimination, to killing civilians as collateral damage in global military adventures.  

I was shaped by this culture in my formative years. It was much easier to go along with it and be accepted than to question it and be accused of disloyalty to God as well as family and friends. 

Reading the story of how this takeover unfolded, including original quotes and familiar events, is eye-opening. It is a gift to help Christians understand the spirits of our time and find a path forward that re-centers Jesus rather than John Wayne.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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