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

For a good chunk of the 90s, I attended a conservative evangelical (Baptist) church, and most of my social circle consisted of other conservative evangelicals. Pretty much everyone in my circle voted Republican and had conservative views on issues like abortion and sexuality. Yet I, like many, have been startled by the violent and hyper-aggressive turn evangelical culture has taken in recent years. I’ve heard people say it was always there, and I’m sure that’s right to some degree. But it was 100% not my experience of that world. I had plenty of complaints about the policing of people’s (especially women’s) behavior and the prioritization of social issues over taking care of people, but I never experienced those who were more conservative than me as being mean. 

This book by Kristin Kobes de Mez helped me see how, yes, that violent strain was there all along, but, yes, it has ebbed and flowed. Turns out, I was in that world during a time when servant leadership was the model men were encouraged to follow. It was the era of the Promise Keepers, when men were told that they were to be leaders in their homes and churches, but that leadership should be one that honored women and where men loved their wives sacrificially, as Christ loved the church. The movement even included a push for racial reconciliation, although it remained largely a white movement. (I’m reminded now that Bush ran for president touting himself as a compassionate conservative.)

When the September 11 attacks happened, the evangelical church, along with much of the rest of the country, took a more war-like stance. The rising leaders in the evangelical church presented a model of manly men, who served their family and country by defending them, with violence if necessary.

The book traces how that aggressive hyper-masculine strand of Christianity took root among evangelicals, under the influence of men who saw the church as a means to an end, a way to gain power and influence. (The chapter on Reagan includes a lot of “win at all costs” rhetoric that is almost exactly what we hear today from conservatives who care less about representing the people than about making sure they get their way.) I was familiar with some of this, particularly when it comes to the conservative takeover of the Baptist church in the 1980s, but it was helpful to see the theological and political strands weaved together as they are here.

For much of the conservative movement, theology was shaped to fit whatever cultural narrative was needed to maintain power at the time. To some degree, I think this is only natural. Scripture can be shaped to mean all sort of things. I’m sure my egalitarian, liberal views inform how I read the Bible, although I always hope to allow God’s spirit to shape me and my reading. But du Mez shows that big theological questions, about the nature of God, of salvation, of scripture, became secondary in recent decades to beliefs about male dominance. And, today, evangelical is as much a political identity as a theological one. And the political identity is toxic, favoring violence over peace and violence over humility. There’s room for plenty of disagreement about what the Bible means and how to live out a Christian faith, but I cannot fathom how anyone would come away from the gospels thinking we should be giving semi-automatic rifles as Christmas gifts. It’s enough, as Anne Lamott says, to make Jesus want to drink gin from the cat dish.

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

  1. Jeanne Dams says:

    Amen and amen! I’ve been an Episcopalian almost all my life, from a time when it was characterized as “the Republican Party at prayer” to its current very liberal stance. In a discussion with my priest the other day, he reminded me that “evangelical” was not always synonymous with “bigoted.” In fact, all Christians were called to evangelize, to spread the Word. I weep at the direction the conservative churches have taken, and cringe at the sight of the Christmas card a legislator’s family sent, a family photo with everyone brandishing a gun and the message “Santa, please bring ammo.” Sent in commemoration of the birth of the Prince of Peace! I can only grit my teeth and pray for help with loving my enemies. Jeanne M. Dams Author of the Dorothy Martin mysteries

  2. Oh, yes! I recognize the theme of that book from the title alone and your remarks are wonderful. I was raised very Lutheran of the liberal Republican variety (Rockefeller). The liberal leaning churches are not growing these days.

    You so hit it when you mentioned 9/11. That event seems to have given the discontents of our country a starting point for venting anger and revenge and that sentiment spread from issue to issue to elections and contesting democracy itself.

    About religion,, I’m not anything organized these days, although if I were it would be some kind of liberal-minded Catholic, I think. The trouble is that I live in a very conservative part of a very conservative state and any church here has to be conservative or there won’t be a congregation. unless it’s in a college town which I’m not.

    That title alone! “Jesus and John Wayne,” that’s exactly what the community was back where I used to live in Central California where they grew oranges and raised cattle. Now I live in northeastern North Dakota and it’s mostly wheat and corn, but it’s really not any different.

    I’m now listening to the Audible version sample of the book. I’ll likely get it – it’s going on my Wish List for sure. Thanks!

  3. I wasn’t raised in a particularly religious family and have only become less religious as an adult, so I’m primarily familiar with the Evangelical world view in its current incarnation. It’s heartening to hear that there used to a be more selfless, less violent version of that faith.

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