If Jesus were alive today, would he run for president? Which political party would he support? Would he favor Americans over everybody else? Is the entire joining of religion and politics a huge mistake and damaging to both? I've wondered at how the loudest and most strident religious voices have become more and more political throughout my life, and how politicians have pandered to these voices to get elected. It begs a lot of questions, like what is the purpose of religion? To become a better person, or to join with others in a tribe and gain power?
Jesus and John Wayne is a new book by a religious scholar that pulls no punches in its 75 year history of the evangelical movement and its flirtation with politics and patriarchy. Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a history and gender studies professor at Calvin University as well as a best-selling author. She is familiar with the world of evangelical Christianity and takes it to task for its twisting of the words of God to fit its own narrow visions.
Both Jesus and John Wayne have been adopted by evangelicals to serve as role models, but only as cartoon fanboy versions of the real people. John Wayne was a womanizer, drinker, actor and movie star who starred in a number of Westerns and war movies during the 1940's to the 1960's. His rough, macho persona was idolized by many, even though in real life he got a deferment and never served in the military himself. His personal views were racist and sexist, and he nearly assaulted a Native American woman at the 1973 Oscar ceremony. Not a particularly religious man, he became a useful tool for a brand of evangelical Christianity in the post-war years that wanted to recast Jesus as a tough, masculine warrior.
Jesus was a complicated person about whom much will never be known. But his own words, as put down in the bible, often conflict with the stated goals of today's evangelicals.
The Sermon on the Mount alone is a huge contradiction- a call to peace and brotherhood, where the meek, peacekeepers, poor, and merciful are all blessed. Jesus goes out of his way to preach against excessive possessions and greed, while prosperity preachers in the evangelical world now preach that wealth means God is happy with you.
The evangelical world, then is propped up by a convenient fiction, as told by this book, but it's a story that's managed to propel its leaders into wealthy and powerful positions all over the world.
The author goes back to the beginnings of evangelicalism in the 1940's with Billy Graham. Graham capitalized on a new existential threat- when Russia developed its own nuclear bomb. A big part of evangelical teaching depends on fear and threats from the outside. For 40 years its big enemy was Godless communism, and it worked like a charm to scare the crap out of people.
Because there was this existential danger, evangelical Christianity became almost like a protection racket. God was the big guy, and he designated various preachers to be His chosen representatives on Earth. Stay in their good graces and you'd be safe from the bad guys out there. These preachers then went around the country doing revivals and spreading fear and urgency, which local preachers gladly took up to complete the racket. And then in the saddest part of this chain, men were designated as the protectors of the house and told to take absolute power over their families, while women were to submit to them 100%.
This rigid gender system became known as complementarianism, and it rules many Christian homes still today. While there have always been gender roles in most society, evangelicals codified it into religious dogma by decreeing that men had absolute authority and women had none. Men were to be manly, masculine, tough and aggressive like John Wayne. Women were to be submissive, soft, feminine, and nonthreatening. Gay people were an abomination. Married women were to devote themselves to pleasing their men sexually and bearing them many children, while single women were to be invisible and avoid tempting men until they got married.
The author goes through a litany of evangelical celebrities like James Dobson, Bill Gothard, Oliver North, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Tim Lahay, and many more I'd never heard of. Their world is mostly hidden to non-evangelicals such as myself, with Christian book publishers, Christian movies, shows, and publications, Christian pop music and large gatherings in stadiums all over the world. All of these "Christian" pursuits start off as religious, but most have political aims as well, and unsurprisingly they are way on the conservative side of the political spectrum.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, evangelicals lost a big Satanic threat that they had been wielding to scare people with. For ten years, some tested the waters of "soft" Christianity with groups like the Promise Keepers, a men-only group that met for large revivals to figure out how to improve their stewardship over the world and maybe soften their image. This group toyed with racial reconciliation (Evangelicals are very segregated, and most of the ones described in this book are the more powerful white evangelicals.)
There are plenty of things to fear in this world, and to replace the Russians, evangelicals found two convenient foils. As gay and lesbian people gained more acceptance in the 90's and beyond, the culture wars began. Straight, white Christians were under siege by deviants who threatened the institutions of marriage and parenthood, and this was a battle taken to every home. The other foil was much more racist. After the attacks of 9/11, Muslims became convenient targets and hate was brewed up in the evangelical world against all Islamic countries. (Later on Mexicans and Hispanics were added as threats from the border.) The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were widely supported, and questionable "ex-Muslims" started making the rounds in evangelical circles telling horrible tales about how evil their homelands were.
The author devotes an entire chapter to the numerous sex scandals in the world of Christianity. The misogynistic way that women are treated inevitably led to terrible abuses by preachers and church leaders, many of which were covered up. Most of the time the women were blamed for their victim hood. It reminded me a lot of the Catholic church scandals that have plagued that church. These are the same "family values" holier-than-thou types who went after Bill Clinton and any other womanizer they didn't like for their sexual scandals. Bottom line- when men are given unregulated power over women they will abuse it and the women.
The main part I wanted to see in this book came near the end. How could any person of faith support Donald Trump, a shameless liar, cheat, and womanizer who rarely ever went to church? Evangelicals loved Donald Trump's toughness, manliness, and willingness to break the rules, mainly because they believed that the liberals, gays, Mexicans, and Muslims posed a much bigger threat than he did. They wanted a John Wayne type to come in and wipe out all the Obama nonsense and put uppity Hillary Clinton back in her place, and it worked. According to this book, it was the church members who first fell in love with Trump, and the church leaders who eventually fell in line or risked being fired. Never mind that Trump was barely a Christian, having no regular church nor many moral standards of any kind. White evangelicals believed he was on their side, and as a besieged, victimized group they felt entitled to stretch the ethical rules to get what they wanted.
In a lot of ways this is a depressing read. The author meticulously tells a 75 year history of how white evangelicals twisted the words of the religion that they profess, and in her words "Corrupted a faith and fractured a nation." The money, power, and success that this group has enjoyed this entire time leaves little room for soul searching or reflection, though the emergence of this book as a best seller may change that.
The white, evangelical Christian church is not as dominant as it was 30 years ago, but it's still dominant in many corners of the country. Church attendance may be down, and more people identify as unaffiliated, but conservative politicians still court this group and their declining influence has made them more desperate. I think that there's still some hope that a kinder, gentler Christianity could re-emerge from the fear-mongering that this book presents. Christian authors like John Pavlolovitz have raked these people over the coals, and younger Americans are not falling for their bullshit.
In the days of the Russians as the ultimate enemy, it was easier to scare people. Nuclear war was legitimately existential. Now many of our existential threats- pandemics, climate change, economic transitions, and racial tension- are diffuse and complicated, and most churches are staying away from any helpful guidance on them. They still prefer to pick on abortion, immigrants, and trans-sexuals as the threats to fight against. As for the other stuff, they hide behind the second coming of Jesus to sort things out.
If Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, or any other enlightened soul were here now, I'd think they'd be pretty disappointed in what a mess we've made of things. Hopefully as the 21st century proceeds we'll stop basing our religions on fear alone and include a healthy dose of love, mercy, and kindness instead.