Jesus and John Wayne: Review

Start: November 2, 2021

Finish: December 27, 2021

Synopsis: Jesus and John Wayne is a sweeping account that reveals how American evangelicals have worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism–or, in the words of one modern chaplain, with a “spiritual badass.” As Kristin Kobes Du Mez explains, the key to understanding this transformation is to recognize the role of culture in modern American evangelicalism. Evangelical books, films, music, clothing, and merchandise influence the beliefs of millions, and evangelical popular culture is teeming with muscular heroes–mythical warriors and rugged soldiers, men like John Wayne, Mel Gibson, Donald Trump, and the Duck Dynasty clan, who assert white masculine power in defense of “Christian America.” The values at the heart of white evangelicalism today–patriarchy, authoritarian rule, aggressive foreign policy, fear of Islam, ambivalence toward #MeToo, and opposition to Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community–have transformed the faith, with enduring consequences for all Americans.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Jesus and John Wayne is a terrifying historical examination of American evangelicalism, the major players who benefit, primarily financially, from twisting scripture to fit their worldview and the ways in which evangelicals crafted a culture that influenced elections and the social/political landscape in America.

It’s hard rating this book. I can’t quite say reading this was enjoyable. The information inside paints a horrific picture of a well-funded, politically engaged, closed-minded minority in America who cries out against outside forces influencing and damaging the country, while also pushing their own limited image of what ‘true Americans’ are like. Having grown up as a Christian, but not in the evangelical sphere, I was shocked to learn how some of that culture seeped into my own religious upbringing. I remember going with my parents to shop at LifeWay book stores and wandering off to browse the kid’s section while my parents searched for what they needed. I also received talks that featured purity culture talking points like the importance of ‘saving’ myself for marriage and being mindful of how I present myself while in the presence of men. I never watched 19 Kids and Counting or Duck Dynasty, but I recall when those shows aired and how a few friends swore those were shows that would interest me. Evangelicalism is a major part of our current cultural climate and the people within the culture have used their power to influence political leaders. I think it’s important to understand what evangelicals believe and how they arrived at their positions.

This book is packed with a lot of information. There are plenty of reoccurring names and organizations. The author ventures into the past and closely follows the rise and fall of different evangelical leaders and groups, taking careful note of how the tides easily change to fit the ideals of faith and being a ‘good Christian’ that were carefully constructed. While there was a lot of historical figures and names in here, Du Mez slowly laid everything out piece by piece so that the information wasn’t overwhelming. This is an accessible book and one that may ring a bit familiar to anyone who grew up in a Christian household, even if there were no deep connections to the evangelical culture.

The book opens and closes with evangelical support for Donald Trump and how they were led to support a racist, misogynistic man. While many people in America and around the world were shocked at the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Du Mez explained how his bravado, arrogance and toxic masculinity played right into the evangelical narrative of a powerful, patriarchal leader that America needed.

But evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, now was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.

Jesus and John Wayne; page 3

This is essentially the thesis of the book. Trace the gradual rise of evangelicalism, the different sub-movements within the culture and use it to explain the overwhelming evangelical support for Donald Trump. There are countless shocking moments and the more you read, the clearer it becomes that this isn’t an unorganized band of people, but rather a significant minority that is calculating and thoughtful in their approach and how they share their beliefs.

While the subject matter can be difficult to read at times, I think it’s important for many people to pick up Jesus and John Wayne so they can have a clear understanding of how we arrived here as a nation and how we can move forward. Du Mez notes in her conclusion:

Although the evangelical cult of masculinity stretches back decades, its emergence was never inevitable….Yet, understanding the catalyzing role militant Christian masculinity has played over the past half century is critical to understanding American evangelicalism today, and the nation’s fractured political landscape. Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it. What was once done might also be undone.

Jesus and John Wayne, page 304

Jesus and John Wayne is a difficult book to read, yet if you’re interested in pushing back against the influence evangelicals try to wield in this country and abroad, it’s a necessary read.


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