Like a seemingly large number of white people with conservative, Christian backgrounds, I recently read the book Jesus and John Wayne by Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez. It traces the development of conceptions of masculinity in the white evangelical world from just after World War II to the present. Du Mez describes leader after leader — movement after movement — preaching a militant manliness of hunting, fighting, protecting weak, witless women from danger, rescuing American freedom from liberals or foreigners, and earning the rewards of power as well as obedient and sexually submissive wives.
The widespread appeal of the book among white Christians is easy to identify. It explains the origin of the gender norms we grew up with, which were for many confusing or outright damaging. In articulating that origin, Du Mez demystifies and undermines the authority of those norms. The book is researched, written well, and should be right up this disaffected evangelical history major’s alley. So why did I spend so much of this book uninterested and struggling to pay attention?
For about half the book, this was a hard question for me to answer. But then one afternoon, the persistent, distracted feeling I had while reading erupted into a series of memories: youth pastors, men’s Bible study leaders, conference speakers, all talking about what it means to be a Christian man, and my mind in a haze while I stare at the floor.
Why did I never pay attention to these authority figures? The background is that I am blind, and have been since I was very young. I was never going to be a soldier, police officer, cowboy, or any of it. You don’t want me in your hunting party. I’ve told my wife more than once that if anyone ever attacks us, I sincerely wish her the best of luck.
Very fortunately for me, my emotional response to the fact that I will never be a Christian caricature of a man has been, even from a young age, a healthy dismissal. I never questioned whether I or any other disabled male was inherently deficient. I just thought, “Well, I’m a man, so those people must be wrong.” Jesus and John Wayne was subconsciously taking me back to those talks about manhood, and my brain, without missing a beat, started wondering what was for dinner.
Du Mez argues that the picture of manliness adopted by white, Christian America has more to do with maintaining the political and cultural power of the American church than what God or scripture says. In other words, she calls out an idol. Any idolatry of power must create a group over whom the powerful can rule. It is exclusionary by nature, which is ultimately a weakness. The weakness is equal to the power of the people it excludes. And there are a whole lot of people like me out there, most people in fact, who have some very specific reason they cannot be a John Wayne. They weren’t listening in youth group either, and they aren’t listening now. It is not hard to see how in the end this ideal of masculine humanity loses out to the radical grace and acceptance of Jesus.
But in the meantime, it is doing a whole lot of damage. Du Mez guides readers on a trail of devastating political blunders, ministers covering up sexual harassment and assault, Christians advocating violence overseas, generations living under oppressive social norms, and much more, all in the name of white, Christian patriarchy. She emphasizes how much the evangelical church has excused bad behavior of men so long as they “say what needs to be said” and “do the dirty work” to defend Christian America. By the time she gets to 2015, it’s clear that no Republican primary candidate ever stood much of a chance against Donald Trump. America was becoming a fragile, liberal china shop, and white Christians wanted a bull.
Thus, though Du Mez doesn’t put it this way, the book is a long examination of an evil; a careful study of a cancer to excise. I have to get past the part of me that zones out in response to Wayne-y guys because this is important. So I am working through how my dismissal of the manly men was also a coping mechanism. I was right, and they were wrong, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t sad about their opinions, or the way they used their platforms to implicitly question my value. It’s time to really dust off those memories and sort through them because I need to be ready for the work that we all have to do.
This piece first appeared at ktfpress.com.