Saturday, April 11, 2020

Book Review: 'Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation' by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Usually I will stay away from books on religion. Everyone’s passions overtake their judgment, facts are few, fleeting and ignored, and no minds are changed in the reading. But the pop culture intersection of American politics and American evangelicalism proved tempting, and thankfully, most worthwhile. For a title like Jesus and John Wayne, I broke my rule.

“To be an evangelical, according to the National Association of Evangelicals, is to uphold the Bible as one’s ultimate authority, to confess the centrality of Christ’s atonement, to believe in a born-again conversion experience, and to actively work to spread this good news and reform society accordingly.” There is no mention of watching Fox News or voting Republican straight ticket, carrying guns, supporting the patriarchy or proselytizing the military. But those facets have taken over evangelicalism. The rest of the requirements have pretty much dropped away.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez hails from this environment, so she is intimately familiar with it and how it operates. She has written an exhaustive study of the evolution of American evangelicalism, with emphasis on its political effects. She has assembled all the top personalities and all the turning points in a fast-moving, if stomach-churning history that ultimately explains how America adopted Donald Trump. It is less than pretty.

Putting John Wayne and Jesus Christ in the same box takes a little work (for the uninitiated, like me). Wayne was a philanderer, married three times in an era when divorce was shameful. He was hard-smoking and swearing. He was a racist who claimed the Indians got what they deserved because whites needed more land and Indians were selfishly occupying it. For all his patriotic ballyhoo, he avoided the draft and never served. You might not see how this would be the ideal role model for evangelical Christians. But then, millions would say the same of Donald Trump. And that is the point.

Wayne was a swashbuckler onscreen. He took no guff from anyone. He was his own man; everyone else be damned. That is what evangelicals aspire to. They demand it of their president. And they also attribute all these qualities to Jesus Christ.

Throughout the last hundred years, evangelicals have glommed on to very flawed, most un-Christian characters as their heroes. Du Mez examines the histories of numerous televangelists who bilked millions from their viewers, only to be humiliated out of business by sex scandals. Two-faced politician-hypocrites are nothing new, and whoring Hollywood stars are the kinds of people evangelicals want everyone to look up to. Trump is not a difficult case to rationalize; he fits the cast perfectly.

Evangelicals believe in the patriarchy. Men rule, women are submissive. Men need to be serviced, women are only there to serve and support. Men are wild conquerors, saving and protecting the family. Women prefer it this way, needing to be swept off their feet by a bold knight in shining armor, rather than a pretty Prince Charming. There is stability and order in the patriarchy; equality means chaos.

Evangelicals are against anything that dilutes the power of men. They are against abortion (women having control over anything), women dressing like men, working outside the home or in politics. They are against (most) immigration and any form of foreign government they object to. This means constant war, the main thing they seem devoted to.

Two things can be drawn from this: 1) America can never be seen as wimpy. It must strike fear in the hearts of all other nations, and go to war to prove it, repeatedly. And stay until it wins completely. 2) America’s leader must be a warrior-king: loud, bold, unafraid, hard-nosed and direct. Evangelicals will vote against anyone who doesn’t fit that description. So Jimmy Carter, despite being an evangelical himself, had to go. So did George H.W. Bush. Trump over Clinton was an easy choice. And when they vote, it is en bloc, like north of 80% of them voting for this caricature of a president.

The other thing all their requirements spell out is White Supremacy. Guns are for all whites (44% of evangelicals have one), but not for blacks. Immigration is for white Europeans, not Central Americans. John Wayne cleared those people out of his path, and so must evangelicals – and their presidents. And they insist Jesus was like that too.

Evangelicals have twisted Christianity to fit their needs. For them, Jesus was a warrior, more Rambo than Mister Rogers. Fearsome, not loving. As Jerry Falwell said in 2004 – “God is Pro-War.” And millions took that to heart.  At several points in the book, evangelicals refer to Jesus as a “badass”. This aggressive interpretation has led evangelicals to the US military. Not to serve, but to convert. They get onto military bases, give lectures, show Christian films (Mel Gibson is the new John Wayne), and actively work on individual soldiers. Today, 40% of active duty servicemen consider themselves evangelicals, fighting for Jesus, the patriarchy and White Supremacy.

This is also closely tied to the rape culture so prominent in the military. Women are there for the taking, and not for active duty service. Victims are hounded out of the service. A favorite strategy is to blame the victim for being there at all. With evangelists, there is always a woman to blame. In one of the numerous sex scandals among celebrity evangelists, blame was assigned to the preacher’s wife, who clearly hadn’t satisfied her husband sufficiently to keep his eye from wandering. He was clearly innocent.

Which brings out another of the many distasteful aspects of evangelicals: sexual hypocrisy. While busy telling the faithful how to have sex, they themselves are total pigs. Du Mez examines numerous scandals around numerous evangelists. They blame the victim, they deny, they ignore, they get away with it (though they often have to resign – for a while). It is astonishing how low quality so many evangelists are. As inspirations and moral models, they are total failures.

What they are good at is profit. The God business is booming. All the celebrity evangelists have built massive multimedia empires that funnel cash back to the center. They write Christian books by the thousands. (They love to write highly instructive sex manuals for men and women, the juicier and more explicit the better). They have theme parks, museums and tours like rockstars. As a friend of mine told me just yesterday – any shepherd will tell you, the flock must be fleeced as often as possible.

Evangelicals maintain they are conservatives. They abhor government participation in anything they do. Unless it involves free money, like federal funds for the sexual abstinence for teens effort. They lobby government, cozy up to politicians, and press a religious agenda. In this, they are obviously and blatantly hypocritical and totally un-Christian. The rights of no one else count worth a damn.

They venerate the Bible, but are most selective in what they follow. Turning the other cheek is out, as is never coveting another man’s wife. The Golden Rule is ignored in favor of violent deaths. Bearing false witness? Please. Love thy neighbor? Only if they’re white evangelical Republican Americans.

There is a ton of irony throughout the book. My own favorite is from Phyllis Schlafly (one of the very few women evangelicals respected). She said of Bill Clinton’s impeachment that if he got away with lying, “Americans can look forward to a succession of TV charlatans and professional liars occupying the White House.” She was correct. In another bout of irony, 77% of evangelical leaders believe Islam is “dedicated to world domination.” Takes one to know one, I’ve heard say.

The “family values” evangelicals propound are just a cover for patriarchy, submissive women and masculine power, Du Mez says. In the “always a woman to blame” mode, not satisfying husband’s sexual needs led him to abuse children. He is innocent. She is the guilty party. Evangelicals pressure women to restore violent and abusive husbands and fathers to the family. They knowingly allow child abusers and rapists to marry in the church and are surprised when there is trouble later. Counseling will be needed – from the church. They have created a mountain of abuse cases by themselves. In this Me Too era, 700 victims came forward in the Southern Baptist Conference alone.

All in all, Jesus and John Wayne makes Christian evangelicals look like a very ugly cult. Unlike so many others that bloom, fester and disappear, this one has staying power. It is successful, and it is a shame.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.