A historian looks at how evangelical religion, “traditional” masculinity, and right-wing politics became so hopelessly intertwined
Most people paid to think and write for a living overstate both the correspondence between words and actions and the value others put on internal consistency. So journalists, pundits, politicians, and not a few evangelical ministers felt surprised when evangelicals supported Trump in the 2016 Republican primary as passionately and nearly-unanimously as they did. This happened despite Trump’s transparent ungodliness and the presence of several candidates—Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz—with impeccable evangelical bona fides. Many evangelical ministers registered shock at this, but few of them did anything meaningful to stop it. Trump continued to maintain the loyalty of most white evangelical Americans throughout his term in office.
It increasingly looks like common sense: of course (white, or anyway non-Black) evangelicals support Trump, of course they either turn a blind-eye to his behavior and support him all the more fervently the more most other demographics in the country grow disgusted with him. It seems like—arguably is—a continuation of evangelical support for George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater. But we shouldn’t deny that it was a surprise in 2016 when it happened.
Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez places gender politics, and specifically the embrace of a militant, authoritarian masculinity, at the center of the story of white evangelical politics and culture in the era of its ascendancy between the end of the Second World War and the election of Donald Trump. It wasn’t so much that white evangelicals chose John Wayne over Jesus during that time- they simply came to identify the two so thoroughly there was barely daylight between them by 2016. Jesus and John Wayne, first published in 2020 and now out in paperback, tells us about the culture that created this strange situation.
Hard though it may be to believe today, in the early twentieth century, evangelical Protestantism was not a notably organized force in American politics. Perhaps even harder to process is what Du Mez tells us about American evangelicalism’s relationship to masculinity circa the turn of the twentieth century. Many of our models of what is and isn’t masculine come from a period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the upper classes of Europe and North America became fixated on the idea of decline and degeneration, and came to believe that only aggressive masculinity (and a rededication to white supremacy) could prevent disaster. The career and public persona of Theodore Roosevelt exemplifies the sort of man who could supposedly turn the situation around: belligerent, hyperactive, violent, unsubtle. Among the last people to adopt this new idea of masculinity were evangelical Christians, who, after all, were supposed to be the great (and literal-minded) adherents of a prince of peace, and whose loyalties transcended those of race and nation. They weren’t feminists, by any stretch of the imagination, but had other concerns.
How this turned around and evangelicalism became a great force for the right is one of the great quandaries of American history. It’s a hard thing to document. Du Mez does not provide a definitive answer for the gender piece of it, arguably the most fundamental shift of all. The closest to a turning point she can find is the American mobilization effort in the First World War. Evangelicals only tepidly supported the war, and faced a barrage of criticism from a mainstream society swept away by war fever and not shy about assailing the masculinity of anyone less enthusiastic for the trenches. From that point on, in Du Mez’s narrative, evangelical culture got more and more invested in masculinity until we reached our current pass.
Most of Jesus and John Wayne is made up of Du Mez’s recounting of evangelical cultural history from the end of the First World War to the present. She illuminates a few patterns in evangelicalism that helped shape it into the force for toxic masculinity it is today. Preachers, from relative moderates like Billy Graham to more extreme figures like Bob Wells, competed for attention and loyalty, and found that rugged masculinity and gender “traditionalism” attracted followers. Many of these preachers, in turn, engaged in the odd sort of pas-de-deux dance with extremist ideologues that we’ve seen in so many areas on the right. Writers like R.J. Rushdoony, godfather of “dominionism,” which holds that a biblical commonwealth, complete with slavery, the stoning of gays and witches, and the legal disenfranchisement and subjugation of women, is necessary to bring about the second coming, never had a mass following. What they had was influence on preachers and other evangelical intellectuals, who could test out which of the ideas of these hackle-raising extremists would play with mainstream audiences and launder them into normalcy.
Jesus and John Wayne works well as a narrative history that familiarizes the reader with a wide variety of evangelical beliefs surrounding gender, and the people who promulgated them. Du Mez admirably refuses the notion of an ahistorical blob of believers that always believed and acted the same way throughout American history. But there are limits to how much she can explain in the ambit of this book. Her first priority is making clear exactly how embedded toxic masculinity is in white American evangelical culture. She proceeds like a prosecutor, making her case, and does so with verve.
As perhaps a necessary concomitant, the “why” or “how” questions the situation evokes get short shrift, and not just the question of origins. Where did this great mass of people waiting for someone like Billy Graham to memetically link Jesus and John Wayne—and Du Mez makes clear that evangelicals all-but worship John Wayne, it’s not just a symbol for the title of her book—come from? Why was there such a big audience for the sort of self-help material that emphasized “traditional” gender roles? Were people really that lost, at the height of America’s prestige and power in the mid-twentieth century? How did evangelicals get so invested in the Vietnam War, in a bizarre inverse of their attitude towards the First World War?
Even accepting the usual answer—alienation and a quest for meaning in religiosity—to these questions which Du Mez doesn’t do much to explore, we don’t get an answer to the ur question: why do they embrace obvious hypocrites, ranging from numerous corrupt, lecherous evangelists to the often-divorced, hard-drinking, non-churchgoing John Wayne to Donald Trump? The closest Du Mez comes to answering this is path-dependency: once evangelicals accepted that a certain set of gender norms that included the necessary leadership of macho men was as important as following the Bible, they were stuck with the leaders and role models that fit those norms- questioning leadership isn’t exactly part of the “traditional” worldview. One possibility is that there’s a continuity in patterns of thought. Evangelicals, presented with the complexities of modernity, made a choice to embrace a certain set of gender norms with the same fervency they embrace the Bible, a global all-or-nothing acceptance conditioned by generations of treating a cobbled-together set of ancient texts translated out of a half-dozen languages a long time ago as literal truth. It’s hard to say. As it stands, Jesus and John Wayne serves as an admirable introduction to the questions, if not all the answers, of this force with which we are obligated to share a planet.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation W.W. Norton 2020 384 pp $18.95
Peter Berard is a writer and organizer who lives in Watertown, MA. For more of his work, check out peterberard.substack.com.