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

Review is by Daniel Harrell, who is editor in chief of Christianity Today.


As a recent college graduate in 1983, I sat spellbound with thousands in my southern city civic center, mesmerized by a mousy man projected on a big screen who taught us we must submit to authority in every domain of life. Authority is God-given, Bill Gothard taught, and in his moral universe, any diversion from obedience disturbed the force and ignited interpersonal conflict, along with personal anger and resentment. Gothard’s principles for life’s dilemmas included specific practices based on the Bible. Obedience begets blessings, peace of mind, and confidence in one’s relationship with God.

Specifically, Gothard directed us to seek out those we’d offended and ask forgiveness. Past conflict clogged up one’s conscience. To be released from former transgressions freed us for future treasure, or something like that.

My mind immediately went to a high-school girlfriend I’d heartlessly dumped as I made my way to college four years prior. Gothard offered a script of contrition, so I looked up her phone number, dialed, and read my repentance. Needless to say, she was nonplussed and wondered why in the world I was calling. I told her about the seminar, about obedience and the blessings that awaited us both if she’d obey and forgive me. Moreover, God structured things such that she actually had to forgive me since she was a woman and I was a man. It was how authority in the universe supposedly worked.

Fast forward 20 years to a congregation I served as a minister in Boston. We hosted a special event featuring the popular Reformed evangelical pastor John Piper, who like Gothard stressed the importance of obedience in a hierarchical chain of command starting with God and descending to men over women and children. The Lord established male headship over women as part of creation’s order, Piper taught, for his glory and our joy. The place was packed, mostly with young, male, goateed enthusiasts, wide-eyed in wonder over how good they had it as men in God’s economy.

In her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez situates Gothard and Piper in a long line of white, alpha-male leaders whose devotion to a militant Christian patriarchy and nationalism inevitably led to exuberant support, among large numbers of white evangelicals, for Donald Trump as president—despite his clear deviation from anything evangelical in a spiritual or behavioral sense. As it turned out, Du Mez argues, obedience wasn’t as much about goodness and grace as it was about power and who wielded it.

A ‘Masculinity Problem’

Early in the 20th century, Du Mez writes, “Christians recognized that they had a masculinity problem.” If America was to be truly great and fully Christian, it had to man up. Effeminate features of Victorian piety would no longer do for a nation aspiring to righteous superpower.

The popular idea of America as God’s chosen nation traces back to Puritan leader John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon, which went mainly unnoticed (except by historians) until Ronald Reagan rolled it out amid the latter days of the Cold War. Invoked by successor presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the notion of American exceptionalism became core to the national identity. In the eyes of many Christians, America’s chosenness was linked with its morality, specifically in the areas of sexual ethics, family values, character education, freedom of (Christian) worship, and a potent foreign policy. And safeguarding that morality required various forms of government action.

With the evangelical embrace of morals legislation came a commitment to order and hierarchical authority, starting at the top with God and manifested in strong male leadership in government, business, the military, churches, and families. Masculine power was essential to America fulfilling its calling. Without it, America would allegedly go the way of wusses, weakening as a nation into a soft and too-delicate democracy.

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Source: Christianity Today