How The Duke and The Messiah Met on the Path to Save Souls

Handsome and charismatic, the Rev. Billy Graham (left, in 1970) preached a more muscular and forceful view of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus to millions of followers around the world.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
By Kristin Kobes du Mez
368 pp.

That Christian conservative and evangelicals would vote Republican in a U.S. presidential election is not surprising. More of a shock is just how fervently they have – and do - embrace the current occupant of the White House, one Donald J. Trump.

“How could ‘family values’ conservatives support a man who flouted every value they insisted they held dear?” Kristin Kobes du Mez writes in this book’s introduction. “How could the self-professed ‘Moral Majority’ embrace a candidate who revered in vulgarity? How could evangelicals who turned ‘WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?)’ into a national phenomenon justify their support for a man who seemed to be the very antithesis of the savior they claimed to emulate?

In this fascinating and fervent book, Kobes du Mez doesn’t exactly look at her topic objectively, nor refrain from letting the reader know her thoughts (your first hint might be the subtitle). But as a professor of history at Calvin University whose previous writings have focused on gender, religion, and politics, she sticks to the facts, damning as they are, with the ghost of a certain western movie star acting as a shadow overseer.

Throughout the book, Kobes du Mez parades a cast of real-life, right-wing characters including preachers, pastors, activists, authors, and politicians who all moved into different spheres of the religious world. Names like James Dobson, Anita Bryant, Phyllis Schafly, Oliver North, Tim and Betty Lahayne, and the Holy Trinity of ‘80s sweating, screaming TV evangelists: Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell (with a cameo from Pat Robertson). That many preaching of “family values” would be embroiled in sexual misconduct scandals, well….

But some of the more fascinating people she profiles are lesser known today. Take Marabel Morgan, whose 1973 book The Total Woman was a guide on how good Christian women should be submissive to their husbands, taking care of all of their needs unquestioningly, not to mention “keeping up your curb appeal” in the looks department, and offering advice like “If you’re stingy in bed, he’ll be stingy with you.”

She also resurrects organizations like the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, the Fellowship, and Promise Keepers. All of which eagerly broke the boundaries of being a strictly religious organization to channel their followers to follow them into political and social issues.

And who could forget the movement of teaching teens abstinence and holding “Purity Balls” – the latter a particularly weird event where fathers would “date” their daughters as they proclaimed in front of a large audience of friends, family, and gawkers that they would remain virgins until marriage.

In more recent years, some evangelicals come across as media-made characters. There’s the hirsute Robertson family of the hugely popular “Duck Dynasty” TV show and books who blended faith and firearms (and moved a lot of merchandise via the “Christian consumerism” of faith-based stores and online websites).

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The popular image of John Wayne has long appealed to white evangelicals who have rallied to his name as a take-charge, masculine, moral representative of an previous era in American history. Even if the image didn't fit the reality.
And Mark Driscoll, the hip, rock-star pastor whose sermons on the Song of Solomon and good passionate Christian sex sounded like softcore porn, and who suggested to female followers they use sex as enticement – either giving or withholding — to get their men to come to church.

He also railed against the United States as a “pussified nation,” handing his male followers two stones to signify that God was “giving them their balls back.”

And while gender roles and the political/military pushes of evangelicals are two of the main topics, it’s a third that Kobes du Mez writes about most deftly: the overt masculinity and aggressiveness of the Christian movement since the 1950s.

The post-World War II Jesus to many is not the gentle, thin, peaceful hippie of the Gospels. But a vigorous, dominating warrior who is more apt to get into a scrap to spread the word than a sermon, which is a popular view for many evangelicals in 2020, who also use the Savior to back their thoughts on politics and the military.

That thought is intertwined with the fervent, powerful crusades of Billy Graham, and the near-deification many evangelicals have for John Wayne – or at least the perceived image of John Wayne as the tough, take-no prisoners, macho men who also represented the “good old days” of America and Archie Bunker. An era that Donald Trump gleefully represents to his followers.

“By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humanity and elevates ‘the least of these’ for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses,” Kobes du Mez continues. “Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secures in the knowledge that the end justify the means.”

Jesus and John Wayne is a provocative, but insightful and detailed look at the culture and impact of evangelical Christianity today, where The Duke and The Messiah are riding saddle-by-saddle toward some sort of glory.