Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Updated: Oct 13
The week of the 2016 election, I noticed an alarming statistic. Exit polling indicated that over 80% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump. How could the vast majority of white Evangelicals turn out for a candidate with a documented history of marital infidelity, divorce, and misogyny?
As Kristin Kobes Du Mez explains in her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020), the results of the 2016 election were readily predictable. Du Mez argues convincingly that America's Christian Right has long compromised its values and integrity in seeking to achieve and consolidate power. Trump's electoral win was simply the latest milestone in the Christian Right's decades-long quest for cultural power.
But this is not a book about the 2016 election, or Donald Trump. To Du Mez, these are symptoms, not causes. Du Mez's narrative traces the origins of the Christian Right all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt. But the book largely deals with Vietnam and the Cold War, and how they gave rise to a patriarchal, militant, and hardline conservative American Christian movement. The resentment that captured the White House for Trump largely emerged in response to the military defeats and cultural compromises of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
The scope of the narrative is impressive. Du Mez addresses over 100 years of American political and religious history, tracing compromises and clashes that formed the political juggernaut that the Christian Right has become. At the core of the narrative are detailed profiles of key figures who may be unfamiliar to those who have not explicitly studied this history: Phyllis Schlafly, Tim LaHaye, and Pat Robertson, among many others.
Stylistically, the book is likely to appeal to progressive Christians, while repelling white Evangelicals who most need to understand this history. Du Mez's frequent use of quotation marks, though perhaps grammatically accurate, implies a tone of condescension towards evangelical "leaders," "churches," and "movements." While the author's critiques are directed towards the leaders of the conservative Christian movement, the book at times reads like a polemic, with little empathy towards individuals and families compelled or coerced by political opportunists like Jerry Fallwell Jr.
The book makes clear that America's Christian history could have traveled a different path. The 1990s saw the emergence of movements like Promise Keepers, organizations that countered the Right's militant political tendencies with a call to approach relationships with compassion and even tenderness. Pivoting away from militarism, Promise Keepers adopted athletics as the prime metaphor for faithful Christian living. In the 1990s, then, white Evangelicals could have chosen for its values family, faith, and football instead of militant masculinity. Regrettably, hardline conservative pastors like Mark Driscoll emerged to push the objectives of the movement back towards growth, power, and cultural influence.
Nevertheless, these examples remind us that there is nothing inevitable about the trajectory of Christianity in America. While 2016 and 2020 represent a nadir in our nation's religious history, we have the choice to travel a different way. The expansion of Trumpism and Christian Nationalism may be predictable, but its victory is hardly inevitable.
If we are to choose a different way, we need to know our history. Progressives and conservatives alike would do well to carefully read "Jesus and John Wayne," to know the facts and to study the ideas of the movement's leaders. It is only by doing so that we might become more capable at differentiating the call of God from the unvarnished pursuit of relevance.