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

by John E. Phelan Jr.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Liveright Publishing, 2020

Many religious and secular observers alike were stunned that white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly in the 2016 American presidential election for a man that seemed the antithesis of their moral and spiritual convictions. Donald Trump was a multi-divorced philanderer—a man who even bragged about sexual assaults. He was crude and cruel, given to mocking his opponents and attacking them at the points of their greatest vulnerability. He was ostentatiously wealthy and given to obscenely flaunting that wealth. By his own admission, Trump knew little about the Bible or the Christian faith and when he attempted to cite the scriptures he was likely to make a hash of it. Donald Trump, in other words, was a walking definition of what we would have called “worldly” when I was growing up. And yet white evangelicals loved him—even when there were other Republican candidates much more attuned to their values and experience. What was going on here?

Kristin Du Mez suggests we should not have been surprised. When Jerry Falwell, Jr. said that Trump was evangelicals’ “dream President,” he was only speaking the truth. Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin College, argues that white American evangelicalism developed from a fundamentalist tradition wedded to a “muscular” form of Christianity. The fundamentalists’ earliest leaders from Billy Sunday on were not only aggressive theologically and culturally, they were aggressively male. As the first half of the twentieth century unfolded white evangelicals became virulently anti-Communist and strongly patriotic. Their ideal male leaders were assertive he-men like Theodore Roosevelt rather than the scholarly Woodrow Wilson. In the wake of the Second World War their heroes were the handsome, assertive, young evangelist Billy Graham and movie stars like John Wayne. Wayne’s take-no-prisoners persona, his willingness to use violence to seek revenge against the “bad guys” appealed to many Americans. His war movies were particularly noted for their celebration of redemptive violence. White evangelicals ate it up. Political leaders like General Eisenhower, ruggedly handsome movie stars like Ronald Reagan, and even the ersatz cowboy George Bush the younger were their kind of presidents.

The strong, dominant (white) male leader who was willing to get his hands dirty appealed to the evangelical world. The waffling of liberals, the infernal questioning of academics with their elitist challenges to the American mythologies of innocence and goodness, infuriated the fundamentalist and evangelical mainstream. They were much drawn to the sunny mythmaking of Reagan and the dualistic morality of the younger Bush. They longed for moral clarity. They wanted to know who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were. They seemed completely uninterested in nuance. Men like Reagan and Bush were willing to provide the moral certainty they craved. For Reagan, it was an “evil empire.” For Bush, it was “terrorists.”

Underlying all this was a commitment to patriarchy that was almost complete. The ideal family was made up, especially in the 1950s, of a breadwinning husband, a stay-at-home wife and mother, and a number of well-behaved children. That the husband was the head of the household was not to be questioned. That the domestic duties of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing fell to the wife, went without saying. Dr. James Dobson and his “Focus on the Family” ministry would become an institution within evangelicalism, touting this idealized model and warning about the disorder that came from aggressive wives, wimpy husbands, and disobedient children. The emerging concerns of the 60s and 70s would alarm Dobson et alia. The civil rights movement made it clear that America was not the heaven on earth white evangelicals claimed it was. More women were going to college and entering professional careers. Evangelicals fretted that both husbands and children were being neglected. They were also alarmed by the sexual revolution and the growing number of divorces. And after the Stonewall revolt of 1968 homosexuals increasingly refused to stay in the closet. Most fundamentalists and evangelicals opposed all of this. Clearly professional women, gay and lesbian people, and stay-at-home dads had no place in their patriarchal paradise.

Books, videos, and programs continued to pour off evangelical presses promoting the ideal family. Dobson’s radio broadcast, instructional videos, and conferences were a dominant force. But so too was Bill Gothard and his rigid system of familial accountability. Based on the work of the shadowy R.J. Rushdoony, an advocate for biblical law and one of the architects of the homeschool movements, Gothard’s patriarchy was complete and unyielding. The assumption seemed to be that a well-ordered home, with each person knowing and fulfilling their role was the way to God’s blessing. Unruly wives as well as unruly children should be disciplined and brought into God’s ideal. This same path would be followed in subsequent decades by thousands of pastors and leaders who did not follow the philosophical peculiarities of Rushdoony.

If men were to be the head of the household and to be given instant and unstinting obedience it seemed obvious that it should be the same in the church. Most white evangelicals were opposed to women in pastoral ministry. Du Mez remarks that a Southern Baptist Church that covered up sexual abuse was probably safe. But a Southern Baptist Church that hired a woman pastor was likely to be kicked out. Only male pastors, and preferably aggressive, entrepreneurial male pastors need apply. Such pastors were deemed to be the salvation of the church as such fathers were to be the salvation of the family. A whole spate of young, aggressive Calvinists would emerge, rigidly insisting that a bastardized and Americanized form of the sixteenth century reformer’s theology would be the salvation of not only the church but the culture. With Minneapolis’ John Piper as their guru they sought to turn back the cultural, ecclesial, and theological clock.

So what could go wrong? It turned out that a dominant white male pastor with subservient women and a cowed staff was in the end a recipe for disaster. Hip Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll was accused by current and former staff members of “abusive leadership style, of lacking self-control and discipline, of being arrogant, domineering, quick-tempered, and verbally violent.” He was forced to step down from his post. His friend Doug Wilson tellingly complained that Driscoll’s downfall was “the revenge of the beta males.” Driscoll’s problem was that he was a “tough guy,” an “alpha male” and, evidently for Wilson, not that he violated what it meant to be the leader of a Christian community. Driscoll was only the first of many to fall. C.J. Mahaney of Sovereign Grace Ministries was similarly accused of bullying, pride, deceit, and hypocrisy. Darrin Patrick, author of something called The Dude’s Guide to Manhood, was fired from his megachurch for domineering and manipulative leadership. All were guilty of toxic male leadership and yet all had their defenders. And there were many others.

Tragically, as awful as such examples of toxic male leadership are, the sexual abuse and misconduct was much worse. It is a litany of horrors: former head of National Association of Evangelicals and opponent of same-sex marriage Ted Haggard was accused of paying for gay sex for years; Bill Gothard stepped down after more than thirty women, some minors, accused both him and his brother of sexual molestation and abuse; Doug Philips, married leader of the home school movement stepped down because of an inappropriate relationship with a young woman that began when she was fifteen; prominent fundamentalist pastor Jack Hyles and his son Dave were revealed to be guilty of a variety of sexual offenses against women; Hyles’ successor and son-in-law Jack Schaap would plead guilty in 2012 of crossing state lines to have sex with a sixteen-year-old girl. Such grim stories could be multiplied many times.

The common thread in all these stories is a dominant, aggressive, male that brooks no dissent. Such toxic masculinity, Du Mez argues, is not only a major source of the corruption of evangelical Christianity, it is perhaps the major reason evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Trump seemed to be the ultimate alpha male, the tough guy who would take on the liberals and the Chinese, who would “make America great again.” Trump was exactly what evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, father and son, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and many others were looking for. That he abused women, was unfaithful to his wife, abusive to his staff, and deceptive and cruel, did not disqualify him in the slightest. After all, there were plenty of examples of such behavior in some of the grandest positions of leadership within the evangelical world.