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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 208–210 

Book Review

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

Kristin Kobes Du Mez. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing of W.W. Norton, 2020. 356 pages.

Reviewed by Brian Froese

In the wake of the 2016 American presidential election, people scrambled to understand how Donald Trump won and to explain why a large majority of evangelicals voted for a man whose private and public life exemplified values so opposite to those they espoused. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s study of white male evangelicals in Jesus and John Wayne argues that while many observers took seriously the argument that conservative religious people held their nose and voted strategically, “evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them” (3). Accordingly, evangelicals were primed over the previous seventy-five years to curry favor with strong, masculine, violent, and misogynist leaders. In those decades evangelicals came to understand male leadership in church and home as inextricably linked to American imperialism, militarism, and strongman masculinity.

Over the course of sixteen chapters Du Mez sketches out the post-war history of American evangelicalism though an examination of leaders, parachurch ministries, and book publishing. We encounter a rogue’s gallery of men pursuing power and essentializing gender at best, or, at worst, engaging in a myriad of carnalities and abuse. Du Mez demonstrates the dysfunction that flows from power-seeking when cast as God’s plan, showing how easy it is for the desires of cultural influence and empire-building to corrupt Christian ministries.

Du Mez primarily deals with a particular stratum of elite personalities, so we meet a host of people representing the seats of power and influence in their respective conservative circles. In politics the list includes Theodore Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. Among the evangelical elite we meet are Billy Graham, James Dobson, Elizabeth Elliot, Catholic {209} crossover Phyllis Schlafly, John Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell, Beverley and Tim LaHaye, Oliver North, and Mark Driscoll. Du Mez uses John Wayne as both a personality and archetype to pull all these people together and explain why evangelicals voted as they did in 2016.

Du Mez issues a serious warning to Christians, churches, schools, and ministries. What is shaping the negotiation of religious faith and life in today’s culture and society? The answer given in Jesus and John Wayne is product placement and power politics. Evangelicalism, argues Du Mez, is a culture largely defined by consumerism: “The products Christians consume shape the faith they inhabit. Today, what it means to be a ‘conservative evangelical’ is as much about culture as it is about theology” (10).

Du Mez expertly demonstrates how conceptions of masculinity have shifted over time. Ideals of manhood were shaped by cultural crisis points that extended beyond Cold War anxiety and the challenges of 1960s counterculture. The post-Cold War 1990s were unsettling too, as a decades-long trauma that had shaped national purpose and personal lives suddenly came to an end. Evangelical ministries began promoting “servant leadership” as a way men could retain a recognizable masculinity in the face of the new social reality. The 1990s evangelical man was urged to keep his promises, help out at home, be an attentive parent, and abstain from pornography. Here Du Mez makes an important, albeit rare, insightful observation: as income dynamics in most households were altered due to wives working outside the home, men were forced to adapt; servant leadership (with emphasis on leadership) gave them a way to save face.

Writing in a casual, at times sarcastic, manner—sometimes even mimicking the evangelical voice with phrases like “the masculinity-challenged Jimmy Carter” (139)—Du Mez does not hide her opinion of conservative evangelicals. She dismisses any defense of traditional values as patriarchal, racist, or ignorant. “[Ben] Carson appealed to evangelicals who claimed, and often sincerely believed, that they held no racist convictions” (252) is one example of her dismissive attitude.

Another pitfall of the book is Du Mez’s tendency to use extremes to represent the whole. She is aware of this but defends the strategy by suggesting that it is difficult to separate these, that extremists on the margins are within “shouting range” of the mainstream (188, 203). Yet the difference between those on the extreme edges and the experiences of people in the moderate middle is surely real and significant.

While this is a book about leaders and elites, there are relevant questions of lay agency that could be explored in more depth. For example, when evangelical support for Trump grew during the {210} primaries, pastors were surprised that they had so little influence over the voting preferences of their congregants. During the sex scandals of the 1980s, evangelicals turned away from the televangelists, and in the 2000s they responded to the grievous behavior of once trusted ministry leaders (most infamously Mark Driscoll) by forcing resignations. Du Mez acknowledges that there were points of resistance but does not explore that dynamic. Perhaps something more than simple consumerism and a desire for strong uncouth male leaders was going on. In the 1940s Billy Graham, a fiery evangelist seemingly recruited from central casting, extolled (as almost everyone did) what we now call “family values” and connected them to the strength of the nation. Even progressive Democrats like Adlai Stevenson, defeated by Eisenhower with Graham’s help, made similar family-values connections to national strength. (See, for example, his 1955 commencement address at Smith College.) Refracting all problems through the explanatory lens of misogyny and sometimes racism ignores such important realties as the class and cultural stratifications that have divided American society into the mostly progressive elite, on the one hand, and the “clingers” and “deplorables” of down-market America, on the other. Attention to realities of this kind would have enriched Du Mez’s treatment of white American evangelicalism.

This book should be read alongside the excellent recent historiography of such scholars as Darren Dochuk, Timothy Gloege, Bethany Moreton, and Matthew Avery Sutton. Their work clearly presents evangelicalism as an American-made faith grounded in free market capitalism, entertainment, Republican politics, and the national exceptionalism that continues to inspire a religious errand. Such fertile soil where religious freedom and the competitive entrepreneurial spirit have long been lionized was also a hothouse for personality cults and power-seeking individuals who in this account exacted a damaging toll on people who trusted them with some of the most intimate aspects of their lives.

Brian Froese
Professor of History
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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