Book Review: “Jesus and John Wayne”, by Kristin DuMez


My Christian journey began in 1976 when I was 9: my first stepmother–M–had aligned with the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). At the time, we lived in Albany, GA.

M was a longtime, old-school Reagan supporter while being very supportive of the Civil Rights movement. She was very patriotic, pro-life, pro-“traditional values”. The church circles we frequented for the ensuing three years shared most of those sentiments.

During my un-churched years–January 1979 through September 1985–most of my exposure to Christian preaching was via radio. I remember listening to Jerry Falwell in the early 1980s: I listened to “The Old Time Gospel Hour”. I remember listening to other preachers on those radio networks. They were overwhelmingly conservative. And very patriotic. Especially Falwell.

For a time, I received Falwell’s newsletters.

I was an old-school God-and-country Cold War conservative. Communism was evil. Abortion was evil. Free enterprise was good. Homosexuality–heck, all sex outside of marriage–was evil.

During my college years, I occasionally listened to James Dobson’s radio program. Everyone in my circles did. In my senior year, my Sunday School teacher’s wife recruited me to the front lines of the pro-life cause. I started a pro-life group at my alma mater.

After graduation, I became very involved in pro-life causes: a crisis pregnancy center, a maternity home, and a county Right to Life chapter. I gave money to Concerned Women for America and Eagle Forum. I received monthly newsletters from Beverly LaHaye and Phyllis Schlafly.

I was a hardcore conservative all the way.

I still am. I remain an old-school, gun-totin’, pro-life conservative, although I am less married to the “country” side of “God-and-Country”: while I would maintain that America is the greatest country in world history this side of the era of Joshua in Israel 1.0, I do not see America as “the last great hope on earth”, as Reagan once said of her.

(Any Christian knows the answer to the issue of what is the only hope on earth, and that is Jesus. Everything else will pass away. The Christian longs for the Kingdom of God. And here’s a news flash: it’s not going to be America with Jesus in the White House.)

At the same time, the dynamic that propelled Trump to the front of the pack in 2016–and which stoked a very dysfunctional cult of Trump among many evangelicals–was troubling. Many of us were voting against Hillary–and that’s fair–but a lot of evangelicals were for Trump, and that included no small number of white nationalists. I know this because I remember sparring with them. Heck, I still spar with them.

The issue is what drove that? Was it just the fringes? Or was there something intrinsic to evangelicalism that made for a climate in which Trump was attractive to a wide swath of them?

Enter Kristin DuMez, a professor of history at Calvin College, whose PhD is from Notre Dame.

DuMez has made a bold proposition: evangelical support of Trump is part of the very DNA of evangelicalism, going back well over a century.

Reading the introduction to her book, I wanted to throw it in the trash. I was thinking, “Just what we need: another slash job against conservatives.” But I still wanted to give her a fair shake.

So I kept reading.

Fair disclosures

(1) Reading her book, DuMez and I are not on the same political page. I do not believe she gets the pro-life sentiment that exists at the ground level among the rank-and-file, and that drives much of our voting.

(2) I can attest that there is deep concern at the ground level over the future of gun rights, and this also drives the voting. I live in a “red” state (Kentucky) that has gone from “quite blue” to deep “red” in less than 30 years. It is not because the politics of Kentuckians has changed much; it is because the Democrats are no longer the party of Truman and instead are the party of NARAL and Planned Parenthood, for whom abortion is a sacrament.

As for gun rights, my father’s side of the family is from a country (Iran) where government controls all the guns, and people live in tyranny. Gun rights are a check and balance against (a) a government that can be given to usurping liberties, (b) opportunistic parties that could try to seize power if social order breaks down, and (c) malevolent parties seeking to do harm to others.

(3) Moreover, while her presentation of the conservative reactions to the My Lai Massacre is spot-on--at the time, the heroes who intervened to stop the massacre were largely seen as traitors, with some Congressmen pressing for their Courts Martial–I do believe she fails to mention the other side of the Vietnam war: the Communist threat was a big deal. Vietnamese suffered greatly at the hands of the Communist government. Most of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who fought there, did so with honor and valor, and were fighting a legitimate enemy. The country to which they came home–fractured, divided, at war with itself–is not the country they left when they answered the “Greetings” mail when their draft number came up.

Sadly, with Vietnam, our government failed miserably, and the result was devastating to us, but even more so for the Vietnamese who fell to Communism, and the Cambodians who would suffer in one of the worst proportional genocides in modern history as a result of our failures.

(4) As for race relations, I am not a fan of Critical Race Theory; I also oppose slavery reparations, while conceding that we do have a systemic injustice problem in many sectors of society. OTOH, I do not appreciate the way many Social Justice advocates have used CRT to bash America and take blanket aim at white folks. I contend that one can be patriotic and appreciate our system of ordered liberties, while conceding that our Founders were way short of the glory on race relations while leaving us a system that allowed us to remedy that severe shortcoming.

Still, I also do not see CRT as the greatest threat to Christianity–although Christians need to engage it and critique it, which the conservative seminaries (sadly) are NOT doing1. And as Christians engage CRT, it is on the Christian to provide a more equitable, united framework in the Body, one that is inclusive of all colors and ethnicities. The prayer of the Christian is “thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”, and that behooves the Christian to act compassionately and equitably, welcoming all races and ethnicities. This also includes helping those who have been systemically disadvantaged to participate as the rest of us do.

(I could write an earful about the economic disadvantages between blacks and whites, and the problem is you cannot reparation your way to equity. The problem is one that will take generations to remedy, and that involves preparing Blacks for not just college, but STEM careers and trades that actually pay well. The participations of Blacks in STEM fields is abysmal, and a lot of that is due to schools that fail to prepare them for those college tracks.)

To make a long story short, the current situation is one in which the “woke” crowd is engaging in something akin to a Maoist-style Cultural Revolution, whereas the “anti-woke” crowd is using the “woke” tag to (a) dismiss anyone not completely in their camp, or (b) shut down all efforts to address race-relations issues. If you speak up too loudly, you can lose your job and get blacklisted from many corporations. If you donate to the “wrong” causes, you can even get pushed out of your own company. Ask Brandon Eich. But if you do not bow and kiss the ring of the “anti-woke” elites, then you will also find yourself tribeless.

Back to DuMez

If you think DuMez is just constructing a hit job against modern conservatives, you would be wrong. She takes aim at the longstanding evangelical industrial complex (which I shall call Big Evangelical), which has longstanding roots in racism. In fact, the two forefathers of American evangelicalism–Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield–were each slaveowners, and Whitefield went even farther than that2. When you look at the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, their founders, like Whitefield, made a theological mandate out of slavery, thus casting as good that which was clearly evil. And make no mistake: this atrocity was very much a life issue then as abortion is today. Kidnapping was a death penalty offense in Scripture, and the slave trade was trafficking in kidnapped persons. Do with that what you will.

As you read DuMez, what emerges is a comprehensive, devastating indictment against Big Evangelical, an empire whose objectives and priorities were (and are) often about power and influence, with the result being the preaching of a Jesus that is incongruent with Scripture. This has led us to the current evangelical mess that includes a neo-Arian heresy on the Trinity.

I found myself irritated at some times where DuMez over-generalizes, while conceding that she’s not wrong about many key players, and the toxicity they brought with them.

I remember the newsletters from Falwell and Beverly LaHaye. I also did my share of homework on the evangelical movement and their history in the pro-life cause, as I was always at a loss as to why Blacks–who are generally quite pro-life on the issue–were mostly absent on the front lines of the pro-life cause. As someone who headed up some pro-life groups, I struggled to get Blacks involved. Why was that?

To know the answer, you have to understand the history of evangelicalism on this issue. And DuMez does a splendid job presenting that. The short answer: evangelical leaders didn’t start caring about abortion until government started de-segregating public schools. In fact, in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision, W.A. Criswell–pastor of FBC Dallas, TX, a major conservative leader in the SBC–was supportive of the Roe decision. Here is what he said at the time:

I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person…and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.

W.A. Criswell

In point of fact, the evangelical movement did not start rallying around abortion until the 1980 election cycle. At that point, the leaders used abortion as a unifying issue for their causes. This was great for Christian publishing, Christian radio, the homeschool movement, and many para-church ministries that emerged from this. It was also a major factor that led to the election–and re-election of Ronald Reagan.

(For the record: I liked Reagan and think he was–on balance–a very solid President.)

During the Civil Rights era, evangelicals–with few exceptions–were pro-segregation. Even the revered Billy Graham was very much a segregationist early-on. In the South, the reaction was seen in the many Christian private schools that emerged, as white families often took their kids out of public schools, ostensibly for a “better quality” of education. The Christian homeschool movement was rooted in the Christian Nationalism of Rushdoony, with his influence heavy on most Big Evangelical players: Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, Doug Wilson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, the list goes on3.

When LaHaye and Falwell spoke of de-segregation in their newsletters, they spoke of “forced busing” while speaking nothing regarding the disparities that came with segregation.

(For the record: I went to integrated schools during my time in Dayton, Ohio (1974-76), Albany, Georgia (1976), Orlando, Florida (1977-79), Memphis, and Tennessee (1980-81), and can speak only positively about those experiences. Memphis was the city in which Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and yet the racial tensions in that integrated school were very low. It was a very positive experience. But even during the 1990s, I never heard LaHaye, Schlafly, or Falwell speak positively about de-segregation. The talking point I always read and heard from them was “forced busing”.)

So when DuMez writes about the white nationalist overtones among Big Evangelical leaders, she’s not wrong.

Muscular Christianity and Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

But the other component about which she writes–“Muscular Christianity”–is also controversial, as she writes from the standpoint of an egalitarian. It is easy to read her initial takes and dismiss her as “another feminist seeking to trash all patriarchy”. And being a patriarch myself, I was skeptical of her coming out of the gate.

Sadly, to her credit, she does a great job assembling a damaging historical case against modern complementarianism. Many of us who fought the Boundless crew in another life, were up against exactly what she chronicles. To be fair, the Muscular Christianity trend is not a new one; it was a reaction to the “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” model, which was also problematic. Unfortunately, Muscular Christianity made for a Militant Jesus. And in the era of the Cold War, with a godless Communist enemy, it became easy to marry that Militant Jesus with Peace Through Strength, while presenting America as a beacon of freedom. After all, we did conquer the powers of evil in World War II; we literally saved the world. It was on us to now save the world from Communism.

Against that backdrop, DuMez shows how John Wayne–of all people–became the role model for Americans in general, and a symbol of Christian virtue. All in spite of the fact that John Wayne was a man of dubious moral character whose life did not reflect that of one regenerate in Christ, although he apparently did convert to Catholicism shortly before his death. Oh, and his military record was nil.

None of that stopped him from becoming an icon of American strength, an icon that conservatives would use to promote their causes. John Wayne was the symbol of American strength. And as DuMez points out, evangelical leaders co-opted John Wayne.

While the term “toxic masculinity” is often a code word used by feminists to dismiss any masculinity, we need to be honest here: there is a cult of masculinity in evangelicalism. The players exemplifying it: James Dobson, Doug Wilson, Owen Strachan, John Piper and most of his circle to include his Bible college and seminary, C.J. Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace world to include the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd, Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler, Al Mohler and SBTS (which includes two major proponents of ESS), The Gospel Coalition, the list goes on.

As she presents her historical case, she provides a timeline of the evolution of modern “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”, which would have been impossible without the Christian publishing industry. Marabel Morgan, with The Total Woman, promoted a modern version of that submissive wife paradigm. Her view was, “It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him.”

While the Scriptures definitely teach wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord”–it’s in Ephesians 5–there is no command for wives to worship their husbands. And while her advice for wives to make themselves more sexually available to their husbands is not–on its face–bad advice4, it is not a cure for an abusive marriage either. The problem is that many pastors did exactly that with Ephesians 5: they decided “submit and pray” was the answer for an abused wife to an abusive husband. This, sadly, became standard counsel from many pastors. In the evangelical calculus, there was no divorcing an abused spouse from an abuser5.

But Marabel Morgan wasn’t the only culprit6. Tim and Beverly LaHaye (The Act of Marriage), James Dobson (Love Must Be Tough), Jay Adams (the Godfather of “Nouthetic Counseling”), each reinforced the harder delineation of gender roles.

In the process, however, the evangelical world failed on multiple fronts, using a model of manhood which was incongruent with Jesus, presenting a militant Christianity that was out of touch with Jesus, promoting a government paradigm that lacked compassion while championing the pro-life cause, and promoting a military in which the ends justified the means.

DuMez chronicles this in great detail, highlighting inconsistencies in evangelical support of torturing terrorist suspects, the elevation of Oliver North to hero status, and the promotion of a Warrior model for the Christian pastor. Her description of the issues surrounding the toxic evangelical culture at the Air Force Academy is as comprehensive as it is damning. Her historical presentation of controversies surrounding Lt. Col. Oliver North (USMC) and LTG Jerry Boykin (USA) are spot-on.

(And for the record: I find many likeable qualities in both North and Boykin, as each are complex figures who are neither all good nor all bad.)

As proof of her fairness, DuMez provided what I thought was the most balanced take on Promise Keepers that I have read. I went to many of their events: 1992 (Boulder), 1994 and 1995 (Indianapolis), 1996 (Memphis), and 1997 (Cincinnati). Her coverage of PK was very consistent with my own experience of the movement. In their early days, PK was (with some exceptions) pretty solid, while–over time–embracing leaders (Stu Weber) who promoted a more hardcore militaristic model.

Throughout her book, she does a fine job highlighting how many conservatives and evangelical leaders latched onto John Wayne as a role model, hence the title of her book. I also noted much irony in that–like John Wayne–many of the evangelical leaders never served in the military (some of them even had draft deferments during Vietnam), and yet they purported to speak authoritatively about a warrior model of manhood.

To me, the worst irony, however, is that these Warrior Manhood types–after talking a great talk–have copped out like utter cowards given the revelation of rampant sexual abuse by many conservative pastors and apologists in their ranks.

It would have been a game-changer if one of these high-flyers had told Ravi Zacharias, “Go to Hell and take your money with you!” Perhaps he would have repented.

Or perhaps we would have had a different outcome with Bill Hybels and C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris, had key leaders called out Bill Hybels and Willow Creek for his abuses and their coverups of those abuses, or C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris at Sovereign Grace Ministries for their culture and coverups of sexual abuse. Or if Mohler or Keller had confronted John Piper’s toxicity on marriage and divorce. The problem is less about JP’s view on the permanence of marriage–although I support divorce in the case of abuse–but rather the failure to take substantive action against the abusers.

If patriarchy is supposed to be protective of women and children–and it ought to be–then inaction in the face of abuses is inexcusable. If you’re going to talk a big talk about Manhood, then you’d better show up when it’s time to kick ass for Jesus. Otherwise you need to shut up and go home.

With the issue of Trump, while DuMez provides a controversial take, I cannnot totally dismiss her assessment. In my discussions with DuMez, I pointed out how Kentuckians reluctantly got behind Trump–he did not carry a majority in the 2016 Kentucky caucus–once the nominations were complete. And most Trump voters I knew were voting not so much for Trump but rather against Hillary. And Hillary did more to galvanize Trump’s base than Trump ever did. Just as he lost on the margins in 2020, he won on the margins in 2016.

At the same time, DuMez’s description of the problem almost certainly fits for the 2020 election cycle. The three preceding years set the perfect backdrop: #metoo, #churchtoo, the Charlottesville riots, the Black Lives Matter riots, the Defund The Police riots, reactions to police shootings. On top of that, there were sectors in the Church–conservative ones–that had embraced a NeoConfederate, “Lost Cause” ideology that minimized slavery and even Jim Crow. And that sector was solidly in the Trump camp.

DuMez often points to the White Nationalism element. And while I thought that was overgeneralized, I cannot dismiss the effects that that element had on the margins. I saw that at the ground level in Kentucky. I have seen churches divided over it. I’ve seen the blowback even in my own otherwise very conservative, Acts 29 SBC church. I witnessed the SBC leadership all but fellate Trump. I’ve seen otherwise conservative leaders in the SBC get run out of town for bucking the string of leaders who jumped onto the Trump Train.

OTOH, DuMez minimizes the effect of the Clinton sex scandal and the dismissal of it by the powers that were at the time. It is my contention that THAT is what paved the way for Trump.

In 1998, it was obvious that Clinton had flouted the powers of his office, ingratiated himself sexually with Monica Lewinsky, and went to great lengths to cover it up. At the end of the day, he lied to the Grand Jury and committed impeachable offenses. And the Senate refused to remove him.

At the time, I remember every argument that the liberals–and their water-carriers in the media–made in defense of Clinton:

  • “It was only about sex.”
  • “This does not rise to the level of impeachment.”
  • “It wasn’t even sex. It was just [oral sex].”
  • One reporter, Nina Burleigh, famously said, “I’d give [Clinton] [oral sex] just for keeping abortion legal.”

By failing to take action against a President who got busted doing these things–in office–they paved the way for Trump. When Trump, a thrice-married philanderer who has bragged about his conquests, came along, it’s not like our political class had any room to contest him on that. After all, (a) neither party was serious about taking on Clinton when they had the chance, and (b) many others had their own baggages. So there we were with Trump, in no small part because we let Clinton skate in 1998.

Still, as I said, her take on the White Nationalist element of the right has merits in the dynamics leading up to the 2020 election.

David French, in assessing Jesus and John Wayne, said the following:

At the end of the day, the truth is simple to assert, but difficult to live. The goal of Christian masculinity isn’t John Wayne and Jesus. It’s just Jesus. There is no need to hype the “manliness” of the Christian man. There is a need to foster his obedience—an obedience in which he may sometimes find himself a warrior and protector. Sadly enough, however, as Du Mez ably describes, he may need to defend the vulnerable from the John Waynes in the church itself.

That last sentence sums up my sentiments. I do not share DuMez’ egalitarianism, although her critique of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is valid. Complementarians and patriarchs need to soberly re-assess their model and the way they execute it.

Women and children are not being protected in those circles, and in fact the leaders in those circles have covered for abusive parties at almost every major turn. It’s long past time to destroy the good-old-boys network and start cleaning out the ranks–and that includes repudiating (even anathematizing) the proponents of ESS/EFS/ERAS–or else we are going to face a much worse crisis that lurks.

If the Church does not protect the weak from abusive parties–the “John Waynes in the church”–then how can they reasonably claim to speak authoritatively over any crisis in the world today?

Overall: 4 stars out of 5.

1What I mean by “engaging and critiquing” CRT: they need to research it and write scholarly presentations to critique it. This is what contemporary theology professors and ethics professors at seminaries need to be doing. They are NOT doing this. Writing essays about what others are doing with CRT is not the same as writing peer-reviewed papers challenging CRT. Christian ethics professors also have a duty to promote a counter-culture framework that both confronts abuses of power–individually and systemically–and promotes Body unity.

2And Whitefield was instrumental in getting slavery legalized in Georgia: in doing so, he made slavery a theological mandate! In other words, he “sanctified” what was–in reality– a human trafficking operation that represents a 250-year blight on our heritage.

3I know a little about this, because I went to one of those schools: many of the teachers were Bob Jones grads. And in that school, the presentation of Tennessee history glossed over the factors that led to the Civil War.

4I would suggest that husbands and wives ought to foster a relationship in which they are generally deferential to each other. And that also means husbands ought to seek their wives’ sexual experiences pleasurable. It also means that men need to make themselves available for their wives. The caveat: if the relationship, however, is abusive, riding him like a Derby horse is not going to transform him into a caring, Christian husband who emulates Jesus. You are not going to sex your way out of an abusive marriage.

5And yes, wives can be abusive, too.