Jesus and John Wayne: A Wake-up Call for Us All

Rachel Green Miller
Friday, March 12th 2021
You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.

Revelation 2:4-5 (NIV)
Few … seemed willing to critique behaviors they might otherwise have been expected to find repulsive, or at the very least troubling.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 267

Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez wrote her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, to answer the question of how Donald Trump became a hero to the Religious Right. As Du Mez asks in her introduction:

How could “family values” conservatives support a man who flouted every value they insisted they held dear? How could the self-professed “Moral Majority” embrace a candidate who reveled in vulgarity? How could evangelicals who’d turned “WWJD” (“What Would Jesus Do?”) into a national phenomenon justify their support for a man who seemed the very antithesis of the savior they claimed to emulate?[1]

Many commentators have struggled to explain Trump’s popularity with evangelicals and their steadfast support of him and his policies despite seeming contradictions with conservative Christian values. Du Mez explains that Trump’s evangelical support is not an aberration or pragmatism but the natural outworking of a system of beliefs built on patriarchy, racism, militant masculinity, and Christian nationalism.[2] She concludes:

Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity. He was the reincarnation of John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle, a man who wasn’t afraid to resort to violence to bring order, who protected those deemed worthy of protection, who wouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of saying what had to be said or the norms of democratic society keep him from doing what needed to be done. … He was the latest and greatest high priest of the evangelical cult of masculinity.[3]

While I don’t entirely agree with her conclusions, I found her book helpful in connecting the historical dots. Du Mez traces the history of evangelicalism and conservative politics from post-World War II to the present. Her research helped me fill in some gaps I had in understanding of the various movements and people involved. I appreciate the sheer volume of material covered and the copious footnotes and quoted sources. Jesus and John Wayne is an impressive resource for historical data.

I share Du Mez’s concerns with how beliefs about a natural hierarchy of male authority and female submission have influenced conservative evangelicalism. As she explains:

To obey God was to obey patriarchal authorities within a rigid chain of command, and God had equipped men to exercise this authority in the home and in society at large. Testosterone made men dangerous, but it also made them heroes. Within their own churches and organizations, evangelicals had elevated and revered men who exhibited the same traits of rugged and even ruthless leadership that President Trump now paraded on the national stage. Too often, they had also turned a blind eye to abuses of power in the interest of propping up patriarchal authority.[4]

This hyper-focus on authority and submission has caused significant damage to women and men in our homes, churches, and society. It has led to abuses of power and widespread abuse of people, which have been covered up all too often. As Du Mez notes, “Many of the men implicated in the abuse, or in covering up cases of abuse, were the same men who had been preaching militant masculinity, patriarchal authority, and female purity and submission.”[5]

I also appreciated Du Mez’s challenge for conservative Christians to consider our political beliefs’ origins and fruit. It’s wise to evaluate what we believe and why. Are there pagan or unbiblical ideas that we’ve unknowingly incorporated into our faith or our politics? Are there ways in which these beliefs are damaging the church or our nation? If so, we should be willing to reform.

Along these lines, I am thankful for Du Mez’s warning about the dangers of Christian nationalism and its growing influence on conservative politics. Christian nationalism is not the same as patriotism or wanting to defend religious freedom. It is also not the same as having a voice as a Christian in politics or recognizing the influence Christian ideals have had in forming the United States. Du Mez defines Christian nationalism as “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such.”[6] It is a marriage of faith and politics that leads to political idolatry. As Paul D. Miller wrote, “Christian nationalism takes the name of Christ for a worldly political agenda, proclaiming that its program is the political program for every true believer.”[7]

Any successful book has to pick an area of concentration and an audience. However, the book’s narrow historical/geographical and political/religious focus undermines the book’s thesis: “how white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation.” This leads me to what I found most disappointing about Jesus and John Wayne. Du Mez correctly outlines how certain conservative political ideas have damaged the church and the nation, but that is only one part of the story. There’s plenty of blame to go around for how politics have damaged Christianity and our country.

While conservative Republican politicians often have leveraged faith to motivate voters, they are not the only ones to have done so. Almost all American politicians have publicly aligned themselves with Christianity, whatever their private beliefs and practices may be. American civil religion crosses both sides of the aisle.

As one researcher found, there are “no differences in the ways those of different political parties … make use of the themes and symbols of the [American Civil Religion].”[8] In recent years, voters and journalists have called Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian candidates political “messiahs.” American civil religion also finds a home in most denominations, for example, Independence Day services and having political candidates speak from the pulpit on Sundays.

Like civil religion, misogyny, racism, militarization, anti-immigration, and even nationalism are not exclusively conservative or Republican issues. Abuse and cover-ups occur in egalitarian, progressive, and liberal environments and organizations. And while some aspects are particularly American, these problems aren’t unique to the United States.

America isn’t the only nation dealing with right-wing political concerns, including racism, anti-immigration, nationalism, militarization, and patriarchal masculinity. Brazil, Canada, Germany, Russia, and the UK are all experiencing significant political challenges along these lines. American evangelicalism and its love for John Wayne doesn’t fully explain how widespread these problems are worldwide. Something deeper is at work.

Pointing out these concerns isn’t “whataboutism.” I’m not defending evangelicals for the abuses and harm done in the name of conservative politics. We have a lot of work to do to repair the damages to our churches and our nation, which is why I wish Du Mez had addressed some of the broader concerns. I’m afraid that conservatives will be put off by her conflation of misogyny, patriarchy, and racism with legitimate concerns over sexual immorality, homosexuality, abortion, and other issues. As conservatives, we need to address what’s going on in our churches and our politics.

I’m also concerned that progressive and liberal-leaning Christians will have their beliefs about conservatives confirmed and won’t realize the need to address similar issues in their own camps. In the same vein, Christians in other countries may dismiss these concerns as “American problems” and turn a blind eye to what’s happening in their own churches and nations.

All of us need to remember our first love, Christ, and His Church. We need a renewed focus on the gospel. And we need to take a hard look at our politics and public engagement. How should we live as believers in a fallen world? How should we love each other and share the good news of Christ’s redemptive work for His people?

I’m thankful for Du Mez and her book. It’s a much-needed wake-up call for us all. We may disagree on politics and policies. We have freedom in our Christian liberty and personal convictions. But we must remember that politics isn’t our religion. Politics and politicians can’t save us. Our only hope of salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.

Rachel Green Miller is the author of Beyond Authority and Submission. She is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a popular blogger at A Daughter of the Reformation.

[1] Du Mez, 2.

[2] Du Mez, 2-3.

[3] Du Mez, 271.

[4] Du Mez, 272.

[5] Du Mez, 276.

[6] Du Mez, 4.

[7] Paul D. Miller, “What is Christian Nationalism?”, emphasis original.

[8] Anthony Squiers, The Politics of the Sacred in America: The Role of Civil Religion in Political Practice, (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 70.

Image: John Wayne & Ward Bond, photo by Insomnia Cured Here, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic {{CC BY-SA 2.0}}, cropped by MR.

Friday, March 12th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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