"Jesus and John Wayne" by Kristin Kobes Du Mez


Humbling, convicting, and downright scandalous. Over the past few years, I and other white male Christians of the U.S. have learned about the sins of our forefathers. We saw this un-romanticized history of "God and country" in recent books such as The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby and Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. The seeming reality that this history is being told for the first time to many white Christians for the first time (myself included) shows a grossly incomplete education at best, and bad complacency and/or underlying racism or exceptionalism at worst.


Added to this necessary and new unofficial genre of books is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Professor of History at Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI). That's a challenging title. As I'm under 40 years old, this book hit closer to home than the other two aforementioned books as Du Mez details scandalous history of names I grew up with, studied, and sometimes even respected. Also, being under 40, I assumed that John Wayne was chosen as a token tough celebrity for the theme and title of the book. I had no idea that John Wayne's relationship with white evangelicalism went much deeper.


Du Mez opens the book with the story of Donald Trump, then candidate for president, claiming he could "shoot someone on 5th Ave and not lose any voters" while speaking at Dordt College in Sioux Center, IA, her hometown and alma mater. Donald Trump's presidency is a product of a more than a century of the Christian faith being molded by cultural American masculinity. Each chapter is named with a phrase you would hear in a Western or military movie, and it explains the relationship between the Church and American masculinity, from Teddy Roosevelt to the modern day. And, sadly, as she notes in her introduction, this cultural movement hasn't ended.


While the chapter names are not indicative of the years discussed within, the book is chronologically structured. There are a few PG-13 rated words and a few quoted lines that inquire in graphic detail how a man can "please" his wife (as this was a topic in one of Tim LaHaye's books on American Christian masculinity). Reading through this book slowly is arguably an option, since there are a few names to learn and, as I've repeatedly mentioned, most-to-all of the history therein is humbling and convicting, but it makes a lot of sense.


I still want more people to read this book. Unlike other readers of this book, I grew up on the outskirts of the American Christian masculinity movement (e.g. my childhood church was part of the Churches for Gender Equality). I resisted the Neo-Reformed bandwagon in my ministry training, and I've never served a complementarian denomination. (The more I have learned about the New Testament Church and its writings, the more I have been Spirit-empowered to discern away from harmful extrabiblical ideas in the Church). Yet still, I've witnessed how the movement has plagued the message and work of the Church. And despite its countless number of financial scandals, moral and ministerial failures, the challenge of #MeToo, other reckonings and even the end of President Trump's term, the American Christian masculinity movement lives on. And that's sad.

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