Jesus and John Wayne, Kristen Kobes Du Mez. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2020.
Summary: A historical study of how the ideal of rugged masculinity typified by John Wayne influenced the evangelical embrace of authority, gender roles, and conservative, nationalist politics.
This is one of the most intensely discussed books in religious publishing over the past year. Kristen Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University historian, offers a carefully documented account of the development of authoritarian, patriarchal and “muscular” models of masculinity which have invaded evangelical religious subculture and played a vital role in evangelical political engagement.
Her title is drawn from “Jesus and John Wayne,” a 1980’s Christian hit of the Gaither Vocal Band. She traces how Wayne’s muscular and sometimes violent form of masculinity supplanted the Jesus of the gospels as the evangelical model of masculinity. She traces the fascination with the square-jawed, passionate Billy Graham and the youth leader become family guru Bill Gothard as early figures in this trend, teachers like James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, media figures as diverse as Mel Gibson and Duck Dynasty, and military figures like Oliver North.
This is a movement not only about masculinity but patriarchal gender roles, supported oddly enough by women like Elizabeth Eliot, Phyllis Schlafly, and Marabel Morgan (remember The Total Woman?). Kobes Du Mez traces the influence of the Promise Keepers movement, John Eldredge’s books, Pastor Douglas Wilson, Mark Driscoll, and John Piper in upholding militant masculinity and male control of families. More troubling yet are the connections between this culture, purity teaching, and sexual abuse.
The book also traces the exploitation of this vision of masculinity by the conservative political movement from the presidencies of Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. The author challenges the argument advanced by some that only “unchurched” embrace these values. She shows studies that demonstrate high numbers of the most faithful have been equally supportive. She argues that Trump’s rough masculinity appealed to a subculture schooled for seventy years on “John Wayne” models of masculinity and helped explain their willingness to overlook his moral flaws and failings.
This is a deeply troubling account, especially since I’ve witnessed the damage of women abused and not protected by the church, and the thwarting of the gifts of women eager to use them to follow Christ. This is an important but uncomfortable book for men in church leadership to read and wrestle with. Many of us have been troubled by the political allegiance of large swaths of evangelicalism with one political party. What this book connected for me is the connection between these allegiances and flawed masculine and gender role ideals. I also found troubling the complicity of much of the Christian bookselling industry in promoting these views.
If I would have any objection, it is that the narrative does not offer counter-examples, including the Christian institution at which the author holds tenure. We hear of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood but there is no mention of the Council of Biblical Equality. We hear of scholars like Wayne Grudem and John Piper but not of Craig Keener and Aida Besancon Spencer and many others supportive of equal partnership between men and women in marriage and ministry. Nor do we hear of egalitarian churches and ministries, except a passing reference to Beth Moore. Although these movements have not achieved the political influence nor the rank and file embrace of many evangelicals, they offer a counter-narrative that may point the way forward. Many of these operate in what Ross Douthat calls “the evangelical penumbra” and may be increasingly uncomfortable with the identifier “evangelical” for reasons this book makes abundantly clear.
The challenge these groups face, underscored by this book, is to articulate a compelling vision for men and women following Christ, of Christian character and the fruit of the Spirit, lived out in both marriage and ministry partnerships, committed to pursuing the missio dei rather than political influence. Neither the culture of the 1950’s or the 2020’s can help us. Only the real Jesus of the Gospels.