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Onward, Christian Cowboys

American evangelicals profess to follow Jesus but emulate John Wayne

Jesus & John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Liveright, 368 pages.

The late, great comedian Bill Hicks liked to tell a story about how audiences responded to his brand of scathing, gleefully subversive comedy, which he once referred to as “Chomsky with dick jokes.” Hicks’s relentless skewering of American materialism, jingoism, and religious hypocrisy didn’t exactly endear him to the mainstream. An appearance on the Letterman show was infamously cut—it was taped, but not aired—for containing jokes about pro-lifers, who were among the show’s sponsors. After a set in Tennessee, the story goes, a couple of locals confronted the Texas-born comic and declared that they were Christians and they didn’t like his act. Without missing a beat, Hicks responded with “well then, forgive me.” Instead, they broke his arm.

You might think reacting in such a spirit of vengeance is pretty much the exact opposite of how any self-professed Christian is supposed to behave. Yet there were deeper and more distinctly American pathologies at work: the guys who supposedly beat up Hicks were responding politically, not theologically. It wasn’t an attempt to defend Jesus’ honor or the tenets of whatever church they might have belonged to—it was to show that little punk who was really boss. They probably didn’t even notice the irony; and why would they? They may have grown up in an evangelical culture, but that culture glorifies what we now refer to as toxic masculinity. This “muscular Christianity” encourages both aggression and victimhood, emboldening believers, especially men, to impose their collective will on the rest of the public whenever they suddenly feel empowered or aggrieved.

In Jesus & John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation the historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this moral schizophrenia. We know there are legions of people on the religious right who talk a good game about following Christ but end up voting overwhelmingly for venal, crass, blustering wannabe tough guys like the current president and his enablers in Congress. But much of the evangelical leadership is this way, too. It often consists of self-appointed alpha male types who write bestselling books with imposing titles like Dare to Discipline, and Never Surrender, and You: The Warrior Leader, and Why We [meaning Muslims, of course] Want to Kill You. A writer for the Christian Broadcasting Network even teamed up with a Baptist minister a couple of years ago to produce The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography. While trying to mimic the terse, stoic cowboy ideal of manhood nicked from old Western movies, these opportunistic showboats often end up sounding and acting a lot more like Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackie in Magnolia, the brash misogynist who gives conferences about how to seduce and destroy women and who turns out to be a basket case of Oedipal rage and self-loathing.

The use of John Wayne as an evangelical role model implicitly suggests how some people’s religious beliefs are akin to identifying with their favorite movie stars. If the all-powerful God is in charge of the whole universe, and my favorite actor demonstrates how to be in charge of the world around me, then maybe I can find a path. When I first started paying closer attention to movies, I initially avoided Wayne’s films because I assumed he was just another Jock Asshole. Once I started seeing the movies he made with John Ford and Howard Hawks I was surprised to discover that those old masters knew perfectly well what the audience was going to project onto Wayne’s characters and constantly subverted it. 

This “muscular Christianity” encourages both aggression and victimhood, emboldening believers to impose their collective will on the rest of the public whenever they suddenly feel empowered or aggrieved.

Classics like The Searchers, Red River, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are still resonant because they show how tyrannical, bigoted, emotionally stunted, and hypocritical Wayne’s swaggering characters often are, how they fool themselves and others and often end up putting people in danger because of their vanity and self-regard. Wayne’s characters might be leaders and tough hombres, but in his better films it’s made clear that this alone does not a great man make. The fact that in real life Wayne himself was pretty blatantly racist only reinforces the fact that the man who grew up as Marion Morrison wasn’t what he was projected to be.

The question is often asked (usually by people without firsthand experience) why the white evangelical community consistently supports people who don’t practice what the Gospels preach. Du Mez argues, using an extensive amount of research, that white evangelical culture often glorifies the aggressive, patriarchal idea of manhood, which has become intertwined with what it means to be a conservative Christian in the modern age. They conflate a guy like John Wayne with Jesus because their idea of evangelical Christianity rejects the gentle, egalitarian aspects of Jesus’ teachings in favor of all the usual culture war gripes about big government, gun control, immigration, and gay rights. Thus, “a nostalgic commitment to rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity serves as the thread binding them together into a coherent whole.”

It’s not hard to see that religion has always been one of the most effective ways of enforcing the social order, especially in a relatively young and wide open country like America. It’s more effective to tell the weirdos and the sissies—those pesky un-American types—to get off your lawn when you assume that the creator of the universe is in your corner. In a deeply Darwinist country that is nevertheless obsessed with religion and rugged individualism, where holding your own and taking no shit is considered a cardinal virtue, sticking to your guns (metaphorically and literally) is how you define the rules of the game and make sure you win it in the end. Harold Bloom once quoted Spinoza’s comment that one must love God without having any expectation that he loves you back, which he called the most un-American idea ever.

I’ve seen what Du Mez describes firsthand, albeit in generally milder forms. It may be my teenage apostasy talking but I do remember being a little creeped out as a youth by all the righteous gusto with which most of the men in the church around me defended Traditional Values, and how firmly they instructed us about the evils of abortion, sexual permissiveness, and cursing. I still remember the virginity pledges we once made in Sunday School, with little white cardboard boxes in which we were supposed to place notes to our future spouses. I remember the earnest, strained look on the faces of the men who instructed me that as far as homosexuality went, we had to “love” the sinner but hate the sin, which seemed odd and patently contradictory to me even when I was too young to explain why.

I remember finding the “Stand in the Gap” T-shirt in the bottom drawer one day and shuddering slightly at the memory of being dragged to that not-quite-million-man march on Washington, as a teenager coming of age in the thick of the mid-’90s culture wars. I remember a lot of middle-aged suburban men and their sons standing around feeling mighty pleased with themselves for their conspicuous devotion to being attentive husbands and fathers. Responsible fatherhood is certainly not the worst goal to have, but scrupulous moral commitment loses a lot of its dignity when proclaimed loudly in public by large groups of suburban white dudes on a glorified field trip.

Sooner or later, a kid who grows up religious will find out that the faith that they’ve been raised in is inevitably connected to a larger network of overlapping world views, implicitly recommending specific tastes and attitudes and hobbies and merchandise, which they may or may not actually want any part of. One of the book’s subtle insights is that being evangelical isn’t just about agreeing to a certain set of theological principles—that’s just where the rest of the lifestyle management begins.

Du Mez explains how today’s evangelism is an ever-shifting reaction to the changing political landscape. In the ’80s it was about a return to normalcy after the embarrassing failure in Vietnam and those dirty hippies making merry in the streets. Ronald Reagan was hailed as an avuncular savior from Hollywood who would surely pay back the evangelical vote that overwhelmingly put him into office—though he didn’t, much to their chagrin. George H.W. Bush had built up pretty strong conservative credentials, but the very wealthy WWII hero and former head of the CIA was not manly enough to satisfy the religious right. Bill Clinton was never going to be an easy sell but the presence of Hillary Clinton, who was treated like a castrating she-devil whose proud independence violated the passive, subservient, princess-like ideal of evangelical womanhood, was a bridge too far.

You don’t have to go very far in the evangelical world to see how a “God made boys to be aggressive” mentality is more or less taken for granted. Even if physical purity, restraint, and accountability are supposed to be the name of the game, plenty of pastors brag about how hot their wives are, and how the Bible encourages women to submit to their husbands sexually, and if their hubby strays, it’s their fault for not keeping him interested or satisfied. When notorious televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught with a hooker for the second time he refused to confess and told his congregation “the Lord told me it’s flat none of your business.”

Such confidence is seductive to a certain kind of white evangelical male. Du Mez points out that for many white men,

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.

For anyone who still wonders why the president’s base seems to hold fast no matter what he says or does, we should recall that inflicting the merciless cruelty—to dominate, as he often says—is the point.

Evangelicals want Darwin everywhere in society but in the classroom.

Dr. James Dobson, a major figure in the evangelical movement for decades, disdained the affectionate and encouraging parenting philosophy of Dr. Benjamin Spock and wrote books entitled Dare to Discipline and Emotions: Can They Be Trusted? which advocated for a sterner approach to child rearing. This mentality had real life consequences beyond the home. In 1971 Pat Buchanan convinced President Richard Nixon to veto a Comprehensive Child Development Bill establishing a national day-care system to help working parents, warning that it would bring about “the Sovietization of American children,” whatever that was supposed to mean.

Zooming out from the hierarchical model of the nuclear family, we then have divinely inspired conservative government, which now shows its attitudes toward discipline by deploying military might against rebellious citizens. Then, naturally, at the top of the social pyramid is the Lord God almighty, whose ways may be mysterious and capricious (and quite harsh at times) but since he’s the almighty master of the universe, he is the ultimate giver of Law and Order. Best get with the program in this so-called Christian nation. Call it “God’s chain of command” in a trickle-down theocracy.

So today all that wounded pride and self-assumed authority make large swaths of the religious voting public want to vicariously identify with the loudest, crassest, most ignorant and arrogant, and least constrained president in modern history. And if the ravages of Late Capitalism have left you feeling emasculated, since your job isn’t paying what it used to and it’s hard to get a new one, then the thrill of identifying with a very rich playboy who promises to stick it to the people who did you wrong becomes pretty obvious. One of the book’s missed opportunities is a more thorough exploration of the prosperity gospel, or the bizarre notion that, as one book put it, “Jesus Wants You to Be Rich.” If ultra-manliness is the goal, then for Americans raised on the Protestant ethic money is the means to that worldly end.

If you actually believe, as some Christians do, the Biblical principle that the devil is stalking the earth looking to devour vulnerable souls (1 Peter 5:8) then you’re not going to think twice about lining up to do political battle by way of spiritual battle. The difference between the two is almost nil. And the right wing has always known how to make that kind of paranoia work for them. The idea that money is spiritually corrupting is discarded, because money equates with political power and spiritual endorsement. Survival and success are all that matters, and it doesn’t come from being meek and poor. Evangelicals want Darwin everywhere in society but in the classroom.

When the societal stakes are raised so high in the battle for morality and the soul of the nation, and when those who oppose the right wing agenda aren’t just thinking differently but aiding and abetting real evil, then it’s not surprising how heated people get and how quickly they close ranks. In other words, when Jesus isn’t getting the job done, it’s time to call in the cavalry. Cue a rogues’ gallery of pseudo-studs to lead the culture war charges: John Wayne, Mel Gibson, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Sr. and Jr., and even the former Marine Oliver North, who briefly looked like a hero after breaking quite a few laws in the Iran-Contra scandal and who claimed to have come to Jesus after reading Dobson’s Dare to Discipline. Every single one of these men, and many more who Du Mez calls out, such as pastors and “teachers” Mark Driscoll, Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, and Dave Hyles, some of whom did some pretty vile stuff, end up ruining their reputations by their own hand without facing much in the way of consequence from their peers.

Of course, not all Christians fall into this trap. There are plenty of believers who see the president’s amorality for what it is and speak out. There are some eloquent and radical voices on the religious left. Think of people like Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, the author and activist Jim Wallis (Christ in Crisis? Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus), and former president Jimmy Carter. The religious left could conceivably make some headway in the next election if it organizes and plays its cards right—challenging the craven and venal GOP establishment from that angle could be promising since it carries the possibility of speaking to sincere Trump-doubting Christians in their own language.

Du Mez makes it clear that she’s not criticizing from the ivory tower or explicitly from the left. A history professor at a prominent Christian college, the author of A New Gospel for Women and a contributor to Christianity Today, she’s in an ideal position to expose the hypocrisy, crudeness, and chauvinism of the religious right. When she considers her deep roots in an Iowa city that welcomed a Trump rally with open arms, her personal pain speaks volumes about what’s really been lost amid the religious right’s rush to pound their chests and make Jesus Great Again: “standing on the stage where Trump now stood, I had led prayers, performed in Christian ‘praise teams’ and, during choir rehearsal, flirted with the man who would become my husband. We married in a church just down the road . . . as I watched those in the overflow crowd waving signs, laughing at insults, and shouting back in affirmation, I wondered who these people were. I didn’t recognize them.”