How could the vast majority of white evangelicals support Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020? To understand it as Dr. Kristin Kolbes Du Mez tells it, there’s a clear, direct line to trace between the muscular revivalism of Billy Sunday, the virile energy of Billy Graham crusades, the Religious Right’s embrace of the American military in the 1980s, and the eventual election of the 45th president.
In Jesus and John Wayne, Dr. Du Mez (a professor of history at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) details American evangelicalism’s attraction to the rugged manliness epitomized by the actor of classic westerns and the corresponding clearly delineated male and female gender roles. Whether manifest in Phyllis Schlafly’s fight against the ERA, the ascendancy of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, the religious right’s embrace of Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North, or the later “Biblical manhood” emphasis of John Eldridge and Mark Driscoll, a common emphasis on manly men and submissive women threaded through it all.
Dr. Du Mez traces through politics, theology, and also education. While men like Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips are less well known outside of conservative evangelical circles than, say, Jerry Falwell or Tim LaHaye, Du Mez makes a case for their estimable influence. This embrace of patriarchy then makes its way to popular TV like Duck Dynasty and the Duggar family’s 19 Kids and Counting.
I grew up in evangelicalism. The picture Dr. Du Mez paints of the late 1980s and 1990s is very familiar to me. The details she fills in provided some “aha” moments, too. The devastating penultimate chapter details how so many of these champions of Christian manhood and patriarchal gender roles ended up in personal disgrace. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker. Ted Haggard. Paige Patterson. Mark Driscoll. C. J. Mahaney. Bill Gothard. Jack Hyles. Jack Schaap. Doug Phillips. Whether it’s fair or not, it seems almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that the message these men taught about manhood and gender was frequently cover for deep, unaddressed sin.
Where evangelicals go from here is an open question. Just this week pastor Andy Stanley said in an interview with The Atlantic that the Trump era of evangelical history will all fade “into a bad dream” within “a year or two”. After reading Jesus and John Wayne, I’m skeptical. The plant that sprouted Trump’s presidency has hundred-year-old roots. It’ll take more than a year or two of faded memories to banish it, if American evangelicals even take up the task. I’m thankful, though, for historians like Dr. Du Mez who at least tell the story.