Exploring America’s Love of a Steely Savior in Jesus and John Wayne
If, tomorrow, Hollywood handed you the keys to a major motion picture about the life of Jesus, who would you cast as the lead?
Someone like Oscar Isaac, brimming with hangdog charisma? No doubt Adam Driver could navigate the many moods of Jesus—from holy sarcasm to matchless compassion—in a few easy moves. Sifting risks and rewards, you might pluck your savior from the ranks of the unknown, a face audiences don’t recognize, without form or majesty.
In a new book, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez contends that, over the last 100 years, most white evangelicals would cast a John Wayne type. A ten-foot-tall Jesus who swaggers through every scene, speaking softly and carrying hot steel. Showing no interest in turning the other cheek, he leaves a red right-hand print across his enemy’s face. Prospective disciples need not apply—this Jesus is forming a posse.Jesus and John Wayne is history as confession, history as lament, a type of history that hopes in a God who never puts us to shame, even as hope in America does.
Jesus and John Wayne isn’t about the cowboy icon, not really. Wayne pops up throughout the book as an avatar for another sort of “pilgrim’s” progress, a reckless snowball rolling downhill to form an antagonistic culture driven by white men, bearing little resemblance to the way of Jesus.
Du Mez keeps company with Christians who ask why Donald Trump speaks at their alma maters, screams through their parents’ television sets, and steals the allegiance of their pastors. Rather than take cheap shots, Du Mez does the work. In remarkably thorough fashion, she fleshes out a truth oft-stated yet rarely unpacked: the president is a symptom, not an illness unto himself.
“By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates ‘the least of these’ for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses,” she writes.
Du Mez traces Trump’s ascendance to Wayne, then even further back, displaying evangelicals’ enthusiasm for typecasting. The Duke represents “one of many rugged and even ruthless icons of masculinity that evangelicals imbued with religious significance,” she writes.
Each painful truth and trenchant observation Du Mez articulates might be summed in her quotation of scholar Alan Bean: “The unspoken mantra of post-war evangelicalism was simple: Jesus can save your soul; but John Wayne will save your ass.”
Du Mez carefully handles the catalytic chemicals which reacted in history and spilled into our moment. Among the causes she identifies, the need of some early 20th-century Christians to respond to the perceived “‘feminization’ of Victorian Christianity, which privileged gentility, restraint, and an emotive response to the gospel message.”
The new New World required fighters, not lovers; men who would reclaim a rugged faith and expand its territory. What better way to make manly men than to baptize them?
Evangelism and empire, discipleship and Manifest Destiny twine through the decades. Du Mez methodically exhibits how the muddy waters of American civic religion wash through the work of everyone from James Dobson and Jerry Falwell to John Eldredge and Sarah Palin. Even our politically “neutral” figures like Billy Graham fail to resist this particular pull.
Du Mez’s most fascinating—and, frankly, dispiriting—analysis connects the dots between Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Trump. This is no game of “six degrees of separation”; we’re working with one or two degrees, at most.
Each figure performed a style of masculinity from the highest stages and biggest screens. Both Wayne and Reagan “played the war hero, and among admirers this fiction was often confused for fact.” Like Trump, Wayne served as a stand-in for something like traditional values, despite a pockmarked history with marriage and women.
All three men donned white hats as they expressed concern for America’s soul, naming their enemies and tying might, manhood, and morality into a single knot. Du Mez underlines this connection in more ways than one. Responding to conventional wisdom which claims 21st-century evangelicals sold their birthright for a bowl of Trumpian stew, she writes:
“Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity. He was the reincarnation of John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle, a man who wasn’t afraid to resort to violence to bring order, who protected those deemed worthy of protection, who wouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of saying what had to be said or the norms of democratic society keep him from doing what needed to be done.”
If the point wasn’t clear enough, Du Mez includes a photograph worth at least another four or five hundred words: Trump kissing Wayne’s daughter at a 2016 campaign stop at the actor’s Iowa museum. A statue of the Duke stands behind them, an approving grin quite literally plastered across his face.
Du Mez diagnoses in order to heal, thoughtfully examining the wounds evangelicals inflict upon themselves when they line up behind domineering men. Men rob themselves of the chance to live authentic and free, swallowing the lie that only certain activities and cultural expressions are biblical and manly, casting everything else aside with pernicious judgement.
This sort of Christianity afflicts women in countless ways, too often laying the burden of maintaining their husbands’ manhood at their feet—then chiding them to keep up their femininity by having those feet manicured.
The church foregoes beholding the beauty of Christ when our faith leaves little room for softness or splendor. We sacrifice our prophetic witness in favor of a patriotic posture that rejects any and all critique.
And we all lose sight of the Beatitudes, Du Mez ultimately argues, when we surrender to an expression of faith that gives no quarter to meekness; that flexes its muscle, not its mercy; and covers itself in the cloak of persecution without understanding a thing about peacemaking.
Jesus and John Wayne is history as confession, history as lament, a type of history that hopes in a God who never puts us to shame, even as hope in America does. Du Mez leaves us with both good and bad news. The bad news first: “the story” we are living through “does not begin with Donald Trump. Nor will it end with him.” This means the work of uprooting, of putting on and putting off, will extend well beyond this November, no matter its results.
The good news echoes Chesterton’s assertion that the “Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” Early in the book, Du Mez calls our attention to the oft-obscured reality that white American evangelicalism is not “the only possible interpretation of the historic Christian faith; the history of American Christianity itself is filled with voices of resistance and signs of paths not taken.”
Reading between Du Mez’s lines means believing a more generous, balanced American Christianity is possible. A collective expression of faith that rejects patriarchy and shows of force has been left untried by too many white evangelicals. They have either been content to swim in this stream or felt afraid of what leaving the water might mean.
Let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear understand what Du Mez—and our moment—tells us. The church will tell and live a better story when we move strongmen out of the frame to focus on the man of sorrows.