Since 81% of evangelicals cast their votes for Donald Trump in 2016, everyone has been asking why. If ever there was a man who embodied all the low-down, nasty character traits evangelicals claim to despise, it was Trump. It is probably true that Trump’s obvious lack of a moral compass would have disqualified him in the world of evangelicalism back in the 1950s. That’s when I entered the born-again world, so I can speak with some confidence. But, as Kristen Kobes Du Mez argues in her bestselling Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, evangelicals evolved between 1945 and 2016. A lot.
And, as the January 6th insurrection and its aftermath demonstrate, white evangelical nation continues to evolve. In ever more bizarre and troubling ways.
Kristen contacted me a few years ago. She had come across a Baptist News Global column I wrote in late 2016 called “Jesus and John Wayne: must we choose?” In the piece, I quoted Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist, Dallas:
“I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR,” he once explained, “and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” “I said, ‘Heck no.’ I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.
“Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government told to turn the other cheek. … Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find.”
In other words, Jefress was suggesting that “Jesus can save your soul, but John Wayne will save your ass.”
Kristen said she was looking for a title for her new book and thought “Jesus and John Wayne” had some potential. Could she use it? She really didn’t have to ask, of course, but she is a remarkably considerate and gracious person.
As a church historian, I had a cursory grasp of the white evangelical evolutionary arc, at least in these United States, but was blissfully unaware of more recent developments like the rise of “purity culture” and the testosterone-drenched image of the Christian man that emerged around the turn of the 21st century. I may have been the first to use “Jesus and John Wayne” in print, but, in an extremely creepy way, Du Mez’s book was a real revelation.
I urge you to read Jesus and John Wayne if you haven’t already done so. Unlike most academic studies, Du Mez’s latest book soared to the top of the bestseller lists. It is a singular phenomenon. But, whether or not you have read the book, you will be further enlightened (and entertained) by a series of four hour-long interviews Kristen recently conducted with Skye Jethani over at the Holy Post.
This series of podcasts features original music (believe it or not) and is extremely entertaining. More to the point, you will be exposed to a wealth of critically important information about white American evangelicalism from 1950 to the present hour. You will never think about evangelicals the same way.
Just so you don’t have to go digging through the Holy Post site: here are links to the four episodes:
Recent Friends of Justice posts: