On Evangelical Masculinities (Review)Historians in the News
tags: masculinity, Christianity, books, popular culture, evangelicals
White evangelicals in the United States fell in love with a foul-mouthed man who never had a born-again experience of faith. Far from being an emblem of “family values,” this man, who cemented his myth and persona by his on-screen acting, had married three times, divorced twice, carried on several high-profile affairs, and helped circulate racist stereotypes to the masses. I’m not talking about Donald Trump but John Wayne. And lest I appear to be committing plagiarism, let me be clear that I didn’t come up with this observation myself but got it from the historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Her latest book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, argues that white evangelicals’ embrace of Trump is the manifestation of a militant masculine ideal that’s been more than 50 years in the making.
When a majority of white evangelicals aligned themselves with Trump in 2016, many people sought to explain the bizarre union with different theories. These are not genuine evangelicals, some protested. Others pointed to economic motivations or to the notion that most evangelicals simply held their nose to choose the lesser of two evils. Some people simply threw their hands up and charged evangelicals with rank hypocrisy. Yet none of these theories hold up strongly upon closer scrutiny. Before facing Hillary Clinton, Trump was able to beat out other Republicans in the primaries who seemed more favorable to evangelicals, like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Du Mez thinks the theories miss something: “. . . for many evangelicals, Donald Trump did not represent the betrayal of many of the values they had come to hold dear. His testosterone-fueled masculinity aligned remarkably well with that long championed by conservative evangelicals.”
In order to make this case, Jesus and John Wayne provides an expansive account of how conservative white evangelicals embraced a rugged and violent form of masculinity since the middle of the 20th century. The book looks at places like Colorado Springs, a hotbed of literal militancy where believers built organizational juggernauts and aggressively made inroads with the military. It covers the who’s who of patriarchal evangelicalism, including figures like Albert Mohler, Eric Metaxas, Oliver North, James Dobson, and the movement’s greatest hits like Wild at Heart and Left Behind. But it also features women like Phyllis Schlafly, who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and Sarah Palin, who embodied a conservative feminine ideal that pleased evangelical men. Most importantly, the book sets all of these developments against a longer historical backdrop. In the western expansion of the United States, a new masculinity was forged predicated on a white armed protector bringing law and order to savagery. Here, John Wayne (1907–1979), the prolific actor who often played a cowboy fighting Native Americans in Westerns, towers above all.
Even though John Wayne wasn’t an evangelical, they fervently embraced him. Wayne came “to symbolize a different set of virtues — nostalgic yearning for a mythical ‘Christian America,’ a return to ‘traditional’ gender roles, and the reassertion of (white) patriarchal authority.” Du Mez’s emphasis on Wayne is apt. His name and persona come up over and over again among the evangelical men attempting to define “biblical” manhood. And Wayne proves how white evangelicals were willing to embrace an outsider to their faith, a politically incorrect strongman who could defend their values and vanquish their enemies, well before Trump.
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