Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jesus and John Wayne:
How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

by kristin kobes du mez
liveright, 384 pages, $18.95

Pour la canaille, il faut la mitraille: For the rabble use the grapeshot, the Duke reportedly said of an Irish mob. No, not John Wayne (“The Duke”), but the Duke of Wellington. In America today, we often hear of two mobs, antifa and the deplorables. One mob is praised and encouraged by America’s power-elite; the other, America’s true canaille, is given the rhetorical grapeshot. Academia, the institution that forms and enforces upper-class opinion, supplies the ammunition.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, argues that far from betraying their principles, the 80 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump were acting in accord with a “militant masculinity” that has always been central to the movement. She blames James ­Dobson, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Billy Graham for promoting a form of family values that links the gospel to forms of “patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism,” which in turn are “intertwined with white racial identity.”

Du Mez singles out John Wayne as the embodiment of this heresy. The Duke was not a particularly religious man, so he may seem an odd avatar of conservative piety. But Du Mez sees his rugged individualism, unapologetic political incorrectness, and loyalty to home and country as instinctive expressions of a “corrupted” faith that “enshrines ­patriarchal authority and condones the ­callous display of power at home and abroad.”

Evangelical has always been a vague and over-capacious term. It encompasses many things that even a Protestant like myself would be inclined to disavow. But if asked whether I support what is generally, if not very helpfully, called “militant masculinity,” “family values,” and “Christian nationalism,” I’d answer yes. And in doing so, I’d join the collective witness of the Christian tradition through the centuries. Paul could be charged with promoting militant masculinity when he exhorted the Ephesians to put on the armor of God. So could Heinrich Bullinger, the magisterial reformer, when he preached against “dainty fools and effeminate hearts [that] will not hazard the loss of a limb for their religion, magistrates, wives, children, and all their possessions.” He understood that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. Grace urges men not to abandon their manhood, but to be men for Christ.

Principles of exclusion, such as the distinction between citizen and foreigner, are everywhere in Christian political thought. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that “we ought to love in a higher degree and more intensely those who are more like us and more closely united to us.” Augustine says something very similar in his De Doctrina Christiana, and the principle is often found in classical Protestant ethics.

Various forms of Christian nationalism have been conditionally affirmed throughout Christian history. Wherever there have been nations, Christians have called on them to submit to Christ. Much of what Du Mez describes (and denounces) is, in substance, standard Christian doctrine and practice.

Du Mez is aware of this. She writes that Christian history presents

ample precedent for sexism, racism, xenophobia, violence, and imperial designs. But there are also expressions of the Christian faith . . . that have disrupted the status quo and challenged systems of privilege and power.

Du Mez’s own form of Christianity conveniently coheres with today’s upper-class cultural pieties. Despite her awareness that white evangelicalism takes shape in a distinct cultural milieu, she seems oblivious to the fact that the same is true of her own form of faith. She purports to oppose “privilege and power,” but her beliefs conform to the class-culture markers of the most privileged and powerful people in American society.

Every issue discussed by Du Mez—immigration, gay rights, “family values,” criminality—divides Wall Street and Main Street. Du Mez repeatedly takes Wall Street’s side. She bemoans the “patriarchy” inherent in evangelical “family values,” which prevents women from entering the labor market. She supports the free flow of labor across national borders. She pushes the same view of gay rights championed by corporate HR departments. There is no ­discussion or even acknowledgement of economic class. Instead, everything (yes, everything) is treated in terms of gender or race. She repeatedly blames white men for society’s ills.

Du Mez appears unconscious of the way her ideology serves the interests of the upper class. From the comfort of a premier Christian academic institution, she can present lower- or middle-class white men—whose children have diminishing prospects—in the worst possible light. She receives praise for “speaking truth to power,” when in truth she speaks for the powerful.

Today’s elite institutions have an ironclad rule: White, male, heterosexual, conservative evangelicals need not apply, unless they are willing to make a career of denouncing their brethren. As avatars of an American tradition that retains wide appeal, they threaten the regime. Christian leaders who claim to resist prejudice are silent on this form of contempt. So long as conservative, white evangelicals are beyond the pale, there will be border guards like Kristin Kobes Du Mez, volunteering to police the bounds of ­respectability. 

Stephen Wolfe received his PhD in politics from Louisiana State ­University.

Image by Kate Gabrielle via Creative Commons. Image cropped.