“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted. You should live several lives while reading it.”- William Styron
If William Styron’s definition is correct, then I found Jesus and John Wayne to be one for the ages. Not for its escapism, nor glorious transportation to another place and time. Rather, it lifted a layer of secrecy off of the history I’ve lived through, leaving me feeling as though I’d been punched in the gut and needed a shower. Not exactly a glowing recommendation. It did, however, finally answer a question that’s been dogging me for five years.
Aside from the quest for social and political power, why did Evangelicals betray the teachings of Jesus to endorse Donald Trump for president?
If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I’ve been actively searching for the answer since September of 2019. My book page lists several resources that detail the rise of the Religious Right, far more of a political juggernaut than a movement of the faithful. But at the core of my discontent was my longing to understand the betrayal of our faith. These had been my people. They introduced me to Jesus Christ. Through the Evangelical Church I learned how to love, and I blindly assumed that we all shared a devotion to our Savior as He is revealed in the Gospels. I never found a satisfactory answer. Until now.
The short answer, according to Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, is that a man like Donald Trump is exactly whom they were expecting. Nothing like Jesus. But a lot like John Wayne.
He was the one-and-only Duke. White America’s hero of the silver screen strutted across our collective cinematic consciousness for over forty years. He was larger than life in every way. At 6’4, chiseled and arguably handsome, people wanted him or wanted to be him. Almost every role he played cast him as a champion of our times; Superman versus all of America’s perceived enemies.
And just like the rest of us, he was a mixed bag. Most biographers tend to treat him kindly, giving him the benefit of the doubt since he inevitably played the good guy. He passed away in 1979, long before there was any accountability for his less-than-stellar personal behaviors. His politics were solidly conservative, but taken to public extremes in matters of anti-Communism, white supremacy, aggressive militarism, and utter contempt for non-heterosexual identities.
He also won an absurd number of awards, including (but hardly limited to) the Oscar for Best Actor, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Whether on or off-screen, when the Big Man spoke, American’s enemies were cued to quiver in fear.
So how did this character- part real person, part Hollywood creation- become the blueprint for the Republican candidate for President of the United States? Not to mention the poster boy for the Religious Right’s quest for the throne?
That, my friends, is the sordid story researched and reported by Dr. Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne. At this point, you alone must decide if you want to read the book. My purpose here is not promotion but to share what I have learned and decide what I will do with the information. Far more than a history lesson, Professor Du Mez discovered the design for the Evangelical Church’s patriarchal stranglehold on their members.
I have faith in her process. Kristin Kobes Du Mez received her PhD in History from Notre Dame University and currently serves as a professor at Calvin University. She spent years painstakingly researching and documenting her findings. This well-written book weaves a spell-binding narrative that introduces a seemingly innocent precept: “There’s more to Evangelicalism than theology.” But that ‘more’ sprawls across decades of abuse: of power, money, position, fame, and sexual domination by a staggering number of famous names in modern Christianity. Any connection to Jesus Christ is a very long stretch of the imagination. But finally, we have an explanation for the meteoric rise of Donald Trump.
Evangelical names that you would recognize used John Wayne’s influence and persona, beginning the process of creating a white American male prototype in order to secure and maintain social and political power. It worked for them then, and it’s working for them still.
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Trump wasn’t a long-awaited spiritual savior, as some Evangelicals still believe. He was the fulfillment of their machinations. This excerpt from page 253 of 356 in Jesus and John Wayne captures the essence of their cause:
“But in truth, Evangelical leaders had been perfecting this pitch for nearly fifty years. Evangelicals were looking for a protector, an aggressive, heroic, manly man, someone who wasn’t restrained by political correctness or feminine virtues, someone who would break the rules for the right cause. Try as they might- and they did- no other candidate could stand up to Donald Trump when it comes to flaunting an aggressive, militant masculinity. He became, in the words of religious biographers, “the ultimate fighting champion for evangelicals.”
So for four years the entire planet suffered through the reign of Donald Trump, culminating when he tried everything in his power to throw the election. When that failed, the world watched on January 6, 2021, as Trump’s “aggressive, militant masculinity” resulted in an attempted coup to overthrow the government of the United States.
Thankfully, he failed. But the movement continues. Some Evangelicals still subscribe to the false conspiracy theories that surround him like a razor-wire fortress. Many prominent pastors still straddle that divide, trying to keep one foot on each side of the fence. Sounds painful. And therein lies the sorrow of this entire debacle: Ex-vangelicals like myself face a fork in the road as we decide what to do with this newfound and disturbing information.
A recent Gallup Poll revealed that, for the first time since they started keeping records in 1937, church membership in the United States has fallen below 50% of the population. Further examination of this data reveals several possible causes. But we who walked away from Evangelical Christianity are not at all surprised. At first we were adrift, almost certain we were alone in an isolation compounded by the COVID epidemic. Slowly but surely, however, we are finding each other.
So again I ask the question that comes up on a regular basis: where do we go from here? For me, Jesus and John Wayne only seems to affirm my decision to change my religious affiliation from Christian to Jesus-follower, from Evangelical to Ex-vangelical. Rather than tackling any ecumenical challenges, I’ve chosen to focus on my website and provide resources to those of us who wander in the wilderness. I encourage all of us who call Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior to prayerfully consider how we will use our resources and gifts, whether within the sanctuary walls or without. Despite the heartache this betrayal has brought, we are not here to waste away. In paraphrasing Ephesians 2:10, we are STILL God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Even John Wayne couldn’t do better than that.