‘Jesus and John Wayne’ book exposes evangelical history

5 out of 5 stars

Saddle up, because this historical recollection of evangelicals in America would have John Wayne himself struggling to keep up.

Written by historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez, “Jesus and John Wayne” builds a timeline from the early 20th century to the election of Donald Trump. As the book’s subtitle describes, it details “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.”

The book, published in 2020, opens with a detailed portrayal of how evangelicals are no longer characterized by their faith, but rather by their consumer culture that sells a variety of Christian-related products. What follows is a timeline of influential evangelicals and sympathizers such as Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, James Dobson and the titular John Wayne.

The author presents a powerful portrayal of how these figures created a consumer culture of Christians, where rugged and militant masculinity was preferred over the literal meaning of the Bible.

Starting with Wayne, Kobes Du Mez exposes the hypocrisy of this new culture in detailing the acceptance of the twice-divorced and thrice-married actor, which would traditionally deny the actor a space on moral ground. Rather, this new movement of evangelicals found it fitting to use Wayne’s rugged masculinity to promote patriarchal ideology in response to growing concerns for the increase in “effeminate” men.

The book shows the increasing power of this evangelical movement in politics through politicians like Reagan who promoted their ideology on a federal level. After Wayne’s death, Reagan offered evangelicals another actor to promote the image of rugged masculinity. Kobes Du Mez details the complete political swing of evangelicals following Reagan’s election, despite being a group with a traditional preference for a candidate that will promote conservative views regardless of their views of Christian ideology.

The rest of the book describes the rise of extremist evangelical groups that portray Christ as a warrior figure that will fight the enemies of the U.S. One of the most detailed portraits of this warrior Christ comes from a pastor in the late 1990s.

“Jesus was a hero, not a loser, ‘an Ultimate Fighter warrior king with a tattoo down his leg who rides into battle against Satan, sin, and death on a trusty horse,’ just like in the Westerns,” writes Kobes Du Mez.

There are dozens of these references, not just from this pastor, but from a variety of evangelical leaders, who use an arbitrary picture of Christ to promote their ideology in times of war. Kobes Du Mez exposes these fallacies, not as a select group of people, but by influential leaders within the movement that often sell millions of paraphernalia furthering their militant messaging.

The author organizes the book in a historical fashion but has an inherent political bias throughout. Whether this was intentional or not, the author portrays Republican politicians in a more negative light, which does weaken the overall argument. Nevertheless, the book largely focuses on citing primary and secondary historical sources, which make up for the political biases.

The messaging in this book creates a damning portrayal of America, not just religious America — an America that allowed political fracturing at the hands of a once peaceful religious group. Evangelicals preferred to deny their religious background for one that fit their conservative ideals, often portraying their God completely contrary to what is presented in the Bible.

Kobes Du Mez exposes the hypocrisy of certain evangelical circles in a book that everyone should read, regardless of their religious or ideological background, because to understand U.S. history is to understand its religious history.

Photo from um-insight.net.