Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and ...
May 24, 2022 3:52 PM - Subscribe

"How did a libertine who lacks even the most basic knowledge of the Christian faith win 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016? And why have white evangelicals become a presidential reprobate’s staunchest supporters? These are among the questions acclaimed historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez asks in Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, which delves beyond facile headlines to explain how white evangelicals have brought us to our fractured political moment."

"A scholar of American Christianity presents a seventy-five-year history of evangelicalism that identifies the forces that have turned Donald Trump into a hero of the Religious Right....Challenging the commonly held assumption that the “moral majority” backed Donald Trump for purely pragmatic reasons, Du Mez reveals that Donald Trump in fact represents the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values."

Jesus and John Wayne and Mel Gibson’s William Wallace from the Movie Braveheart: An interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study)
posted by MonkeyToes (12 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I've had a bunch of people recommend this to me lately. It's also a fairly heavily-used source in the three-part series on Behind the Bastards about how John Wayne was not a very good person.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:10 PM on May 24, 2022 [1 favorite]

I recently finished this book. It was quite good, and eye-opening. I started out underlining and making notes in the margins, but after about three chapters I ended up just bracketing paragraphs and writing "Daddy issues" on the side.

To sum up, the entire worldview of white evangelicals is made up of fetishization of fetuses, flags, and firearms. There is nothing else.

Everyone who wants to know why the USA is turning into the incestuous love child of Galt's Gulch and The Republic of Gilead should read this book.
posted by JohnFromGR at 6:44 AM on May 25, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've recommended this book to people, but haven't yet read it myself. It seems like it'll be right up my alley.
posted by clawsoon at 7:54 AM on May 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

I rushed through a borrowed copy, and knew it deserved better than that from me. New copy should be arriving soon, and I am looking forward to giving it more of my attention. I hope that you will read it too, clawsoon!
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:43 PM on May 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is such a great book, and I just want to particularly call out how much effort she puts into explaining literally exactly the "John Wayne" part. Muscular Christianity pops up periodically through Christian history, but never to this level of toxicity and exclusion of all other forms of masculinity, and it is so deeply bizarre that these dudes look at Jesus and Paul and the radical non-violence and servanthood and love they espoused, and they assign all that shit to women and femininity and claim the name of Jesus while choosing EVERYTHING JESUS EXPLICITY REJECTED. I mean, if you're reading this book, you at least know the general outlines of how we ended up here, but it's SO GOOD to see this deeply bizarre construction of Christian masculinity laid out so clearly.

If you want to start a fight with the John Wayne Christians, btw, just inform them Christians can't own guns, and if you own a gun, you're not a Christian. Radical nonviolence (and turning the other cheek) is like the most obvious fucking takeaway from the Gospels, and these guys get rabid AF about how they HAVE to own guns because Jesus. You can watch the ignorance and dissonance in spittle-flecked action as they scream at you in a Christ-like fashion.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:46 PM on May 29, 2022 [4 favorites]

Eyebrows McGee: just inform them Christians can't own guns, and if you own a gun, you're not a Christian. Radical nonviolence (and turning the other cheek) is like the most obvious fucking takeaway from the Gospels

Part of my heritage (the Mennonite part) is a group which (in theory, at least) took that takeaway as seriously as anyone. Some of them did have guns, though, at least for hunting, which became part of the conversation when some rich Mennonites decided to form "self-defense" (Selbstschutz) forces during the Russian Revolution:
My refusal to take part in the Selbstschutz - here God is my witness - did not spring from cowardice or fear of death but was based on my position of faith with regard to nonresistance and the teachings of Jesus in the ups and downs of life. So we had been taught, and thus we understood Scriptures; because of this our forefathers had suffered bloody persecution, and because of this belief the principle of nonresistance was included in the Privilegium granted to us by the government. And now?


When I got home that day, I hitched two fresh horses to the wagon and drove to Gnadenfeld (about 18 versts away) to see [Sergeant] Sonntag, one of the men at the headquarters of the Selbstschutz, about the same matter. I told him also about my mental distress. But this German military man showed absolutely no understanding for my attitude toward nonresistance. In the end I requested of him something in writing which would allow me to become a medical orderly, but my request was not granted.

The last words we exchanged went something like this. He: "Young man, you've shot a rabbit, haven't you?" I: "Yes, of course - so?" He: "Well, so what's the difference?" I: "But a man has a soul!" Leaning far back in his armchair, the man facing me laughed and laughed, repeating my words over and over again: "Man a soul! Man a soul!"
However, your point about nonviolence in general is well-taken. My impression is that Christians mostly refused to become soldiers in the Roman empire up until Constantine started to make Christianity a tool of empire. Is that more-or-less correct, or is it more complicated than that?
posted by clawsoon at 2:35 PM on May 30, 2022 [2 favorites]

It's also a fairly heavily-used source in the three-part series on Behind the Bastards about how John Wayne was not a very good person

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Gaither Vocal Band - Jesus and John Wayne [Live]
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:13 PM on May 30, 2022

Someone could write a thesis on that Gaither Vocal Band song. It is such a perfect mess of gender roles, theology, and nationalist imagery.
posted by clawsoon at 3:29 PM on May 30, 2022

"My impression is that Christians mostly refused to become soldiers in the Roman empire up until Constantine started to make Christianity a tool of empire. Is that more-or-less correct, or is it more complicated than that?"

This is an excellent line of inquiry and way of structuring discussions of Christian violence that a lot of smart people have done a lot of work on -- but I'm not one of them. I'm a liturgist, and I'd tell you to follow the development of the sacrament of Penance (/Confession) to understand the development of Christian violence.

James 5:16 says to confess your sins to each other, and in the first couple of centuries of the church, this develops into confessing, repenting, and being granted readmittance to the community by a priest or bishop. It was only used for very serious sins -- murder, adultery, and apostasy generally. (Lots of big dustups in those first couple of centuries about whether apostasy was repentable and, if so, which kinds.) This was well-established before the fourth century (Constantine is early 4th C), and official penance was a public action done before the entire community. (The confessing part moves in and out of being public, but the repenting part was extremely public.)

Penance was originally a one-time-only sacrament, like baptism and marriage. Baptism washed your sins away, but once you were baptized, you had ONE chance for penance (that might not be granted!). Once you had your that one penance done, you had to NEVER COMMIT A SERIOUS SIN AGAIN, as long as you lived. This meant that a lot of people postponed baptism until they were elderly, and penance until they were on their deathbed. They lived as Christians for 30 years or 50 years or 70 years, but didn't get baptized until they were too old to get up to anything serious. This was super especially fucking important if you were a soldier, because you were killing people, and that was a very serious sin. There were Christian Roman soldiers even before Constantine, but both before and after Constantine, the key religious thing they did was NOT GET BAPTIZED until their service as soldiers was done. It was almost unheard of for Christian Roman soldiers to be baptized until they were done soldiering. Tons of Christians, basically none of them baptized. If Roman soldiers got baptized, they quit, often in very dramatic and theatrical (and probably fictional) ways that got them into hagiographical collections.

There's a bunch of back-and-forthing, lots of theological debate, but for our purposes this is basically how penance stands for hundreds of years. Confessing might be private (or might be public), but penance was public, and penance was a one-time sacrament that was most often sought on one's deathbed. There were strict (very early! very interesting!) canonical rules around seeking penance and performing it. Baptism was delayed by many people (Augustine: "Lord, make me a saint ... but not yet."), but soldiers almost always put it off until they were done soldiering.
Side note, put in a blockquote, Augustine was baptized at St. Thecla in Milan (the octogonal baptismal font (the octogonal shape being liturgically/historically important!) dates to 335). It was partially destroyed by fire in the 1000s, and rebuilt beginning in 1386 as the Duomo (Cathedral) of Milan, my absolute favorite cathedral in the entire world, which suffered repeatedly from war-related setbacks FOR SIX CENTURIES, and the last stained-glass window was officially put in in 1986, 600 years after construction began. (It was really done in 1965 but they held off on the last window for a nice round number.) ANYWAY, the point of this side note is, when they were digging the subway in the late 50s/early 60s, they accidentally stumbled upon the remains of the Basilica of St. Thecla right dang under the Duomo, which is exactly where you'd expect them to be, since medieval cathedrals were often constructed literally over top of existing smaller churches, the smaller church used until enough cathedral roof was up to take it down, but St. Thecla was assumed quite destroyed and gone. In the 90s they opened the archaeological site of St. Thecla to visitors, so if you visit the Duomo in Milan, not only can you see the creepy dead preserved body of Charles Borromeo (he counter-reformed some shit), and go up on the unusually flat roof for a Gothic cathedral and see the statuary and also the Italian alps if the weather is good, but you can ALSO go right down under the cathedral into the remains of St. Thecla, including the octogonal baptistry where St. Augustine was baptized, and it is a baller archaeological site -- you can see the friggin' water inlets and outlets. It's so liturgically amazing, y'all! Okay, enough Duomo digression.
So the key point about penance for our purposes is, there are Christian churches in the British Isles. They appear in England probably in the 200s, in Ireland definitely by 430. Then the Romans start collapsing left and right and withdraw from the Isles and the Vikings are all "FUCK YEAH!" and the upshot of this is that the Celtic church (and this is more pronounced on the island of Ireland than the island of Britain) is cut off from mainstream Roman Christianity for literally centuries. So mainline Christianity is settling on "penance once forever" but Celtic Christianity, being isolated, is still tinkering with penance, and Celtic civil law basically allows a fine to be substituted for any other penalty, which is obviously appealing if you're Doing A Heresy by accident. They develop the first lists of sins (big and small) with required official penances (six Hail Marys, quick!) but also develop the ideas that a) penance can happen more than once and b) especially for smaller sins, penance can be personal and not public. (Which are a byproduct of the idea that c) we all sin all the time and should constantly be confessing and seeking penance, especially when we live in monastic communities where our singing so annoys our neighbor that he wants to murder us on the regular.) There's a lot you can get into here about indulgences, purgatory, etc., but the important thing here is that penance becomes repeatable. Bunch of shit happens, Thomas Aquinas (Little Tommy Quine-Quine) thinks the Celtic formula is the ancient formula, the Celtic model of penance gets exported to mainland Europe and mainline Christianity, just in time for the Crusades, where it becomes incredibly important that people marching off to do some murders for Jesus be able to a) get repeatedly forgiven for it or b) have their sins pre-emptively commuted if the Pope (and/or an important enough bishop) told them to go kill people for Jesus. THIS IS WHERE INDULGENCES START, and why they become valuable and then corrupt and then something Martin Luther is pissed about. (And like, he's not wrong that indulgences are dead-ass weird in mainline Roman Christian history; it's a strange Celtic innovation spurred by them being isolated for centuries that was semi-accidentally adopted.)

So, being a tool of Empire is a really important analytical tool for thinking about Christianity in opposition to Rome, in comfortable alliance with Rome, and then fully co-opted by Rome, and then moving forward into the Middle Ages (and Renaissance, and Age of Sail, and modern colonialism) as a political structure that could wield violence as well as other forms of oppression and forced conformity. And you should definitely read books about this! But the thing I personally would highlight, as a liturgist, is how Christian soldiers dodged baptism because they knew violence was impermissible, and how penance had to become a repeatable sacrament with far lesser (/more achievable) penalties before Christian armies became a real possibility during the Crusades.

I think that's a big reason that American Evangelicals don't talk about themselves as Roman soldiers, but as Crusaders -- Roman soldiers who were Christians had to remain only tangentially attached to the Church until they retired, because the violence was impermissible for a baptized Christian. Whereas for a Crusader, the violence is REQUIRED in Jesus's name, and errors can be forgiven. For a Crusader, baptism basically inducts you into required violence for Jesus. For a Roman soldier, baptism renders you unable to participate in violence. So they can't reference the early church (that they claim to be reconstructing); they have to reference the medieval Catholic Church, because they need advance permission to be super-violent FOR JESUS. (And this is where the deliberate ignorance that Du Mez talks about becomes really important -- American evangelicals are wildly ignorant of their own history, and of Christianity's history, and they have to be to keep up the pretense of their current theology. They hate Catholics, by official belief and declaration, but they replicate Catholic crusade theology, not early Biblical theology. So they MUST justify that by deliberately ignoring history.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:03 PM on May 30, 2022 [7 favorites]

That's really interesting, Eyebrows, thanks! It makes me think once again of the Anabaptists, who of course moved baptism back to adulthood and many of whom eschewed violence. But it also makes me think of the Cathars, who claimed to have an independent, non-Catholic line of baptism going back to the ancient church... and I seem to recall that they had some rite (baptism? penance?) where, once an average person had taken it, they were expected to basically starve themselves to death in order to avoid committing any more sins before they died.
posted by clawsoon at 4:19 AM on May 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

That's an amazing post, Eyebrows! Do you have any book recommendations for further study?
posted by JohnFromGR at 6:25 PM on June 1, 2022

Late to the party, but I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. I was wondering if anyone else listened to the audiobook version. The performance gave me the impression that the reader actively hated the book, and and it is a testament to the strengths of the book that I managed to stay the course for twelve hours.

I will say that I think this comment sells the book short:

To sum up, the entire worldview of white evangelicals is made up of fetishization of fetuses, flags, and firearms. There is nothing else.

I went in thinking the narrative would be something like this, but the book covers a lot of interesting territory.
posted by mustard seeds at 8:29 PM on June 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

« Older Better Call Saul: Plan and Exe...   |  Barry: all the sauces... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments