John Wayne, Jesus, and the Struggle to Define the Christian Man
Would the Son of God slide into home with his cleats up?
I remember the first time I was exposed to Christian insecurity about masculinity. I was a teenager, and a Christian coach was talking to a group of young Christian athletes. I’ve never forgotten his quote. “If Jesus played baseball,” he shouted, “he’d slide home hard, with his cleats up!”
The message was clear. If Jesus played sports, He’d be tough.
I mainly remember being confused. I really wasn’t all that curious about how Jesus would play sports. I did not wonder if Jesus was tough. He was Lord. But one thing became clear to me that day—and it was clear to me year after year in the decades that followed—that lots and lots of folks were very intent on tying Jesus to the vision of manhood they loved the most.
Earlier this year, I read a book that’s ignited an enormous amount of argument and debate across the length and breadth of the Christian intelligentsia. It’s called Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Calvin University history professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez. It’s a genius title, and it makes a compelling and challenging argument, especially after we watched a gang of mainly Christian insurrectionists storm the Capitol to save the presidency of Donald Trump.
At the risk of oversimplifying her book, I’d summarize her argument as follows:
First, culture (including political culture) is at least as important in defining Evangelicals as theology.
On this point, I think she’s spot-on. Of course this isn’t an exclusively Evangelical phenomenon—culture is at least as powerful as theology in shaping a number of groups of Americans. But Evangelicals are kidding themselves if they think their culture is always the result of their theology rather than their theology often following their culture.
Second, Evangelical culture has had an unhealthy attachment to a particularly aggressive vision of masculinity, one that is modeled less on Christ than on secular warrior-figures who are deemed singularly effective at confronting and defeating enemies of the nation and the church. This is the John Wayne archetype—the man of strength and action.
Here Du Mez is correctly describing a strong strand of Evangelical culture. The desire to defend the nation in the Cold War, the desire to defend the country post 9/11, and the desire to defend masculinity itself from radical leftist and/or feminist attack combined to create (in some quarters) an obsession with an almost caricatured version masculine strength.
Third, when Evangelical cultural attachment to aggressive warrior-protector masculinity is combined with patriarchal strands of Christian theology, the result can be oppression and abuse. Du Mez takes particular aim at complementarianism, briefly defined as the belief that “God created men and women equal in worth and dignity but with different roles in the home and in the church.” (Full disclosure: I’d define myself as a complementarian.)
Add all of these things together, and Du Mez argues that Evangelical support for Donald Trump isn’t a hold-your-nose aberration in the face of a binary choice. Rather, it’s consistent with the perceived need for a dominant male protector, even when that protector is so often an abusive aggressor. Here’s Du Mez:
Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.
Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.
This is hard stuff. Yet Du Mez meticulously documents how—time and again—Christian institutions have indulged and often valorized aggressive hyper-masculine male leaders who proved to be corrupt, exploitive, and abusive. They weren’t protectors. They were predators. Yet so long as they were perceived to be powerful and effective in their ministries, colleagues and allies would enable their predation. Mostly-male peers proved too weak to stand against the “great man.” There were Christian mini-Trumps long before there was Trump.
If you—like me—looked at the awful misconduct the #MeToo movement exposed in Hollywood and the mainstream media and thought, “This is a clear sign of a cultural crisis,” I defy you to read page after page of horrific Christian abuses—including in many of the most powerful institutions in Christendom—and think, “Those are just a few bad apples in a healthy church.”
Here is the key insight Evangelicals can and should take from the book. If you simply add a dose of Christian seasoning and language to an aggressive, secular conception of masculinity—and then marry that aggressive, secular masculinity to religious doctrines of male leadership—the result is disaster. Obsession with male power (rinsed through scriptures misused to manipulate and subjugate not just women, but every person subject to the male leader) manufactures abuse.
At the same time, however, I think Du Mez paints with too broad a brush. She aims at almost all of white Evangelicalism. I fear that she’s taken aim at individuals—including people I know—who differ from her theologically but do their best to keep their eyes focused on Jesus, not John Wayne. One does not have to agree entirely with John Piper, for example, to know that he has paid a steep price for opposing some of the very trends that Du Mez identifies in her book.
It’s also important to note that there is a desperate need for Christians to focus on defining biblical manhood. As Du Mez notes in the book, cultural, technological, and political changes have created real challenges for men. As we see from emerging achievement gaps in education and skyrocketing deaths of despair, many millions of men are in crisis, and cultural attacks on the very idea of traditional masculinity are wrongly teaching boys that something is inherently wrong with powerful, innate, and often biologically-driven characteristics that render them different from many (though not all) of the girls they know.
It can be fashionable to mock desires to raise young men to be warriors, but we should not scorn the Evangelical church for its steadfast opposition to the darkness and oppression of Soviet communism. No one doubts there were excesses in the long struggle to contain the Soviet Union, but there was a need for Christian young men to man the tanks standing guard in the Fulda Gap.
I served with heroic Christian men in Iraq. They stood side-by-side with brothers of all faiths and turned the tide against a truly evil enemy. One need not obsess over male strength to understand that virtuous male courage is a cultural necessity. Think of a grainy, terrible video many of us watched—in horror—as a man attacked and brutally beat an elderly Asian woman just a few feet away from two men who did nothing to protect her.
You don’t have to believe that Jesus would slide into home with his cleats up to know that He would not stand by and let that woman bleed.
At the end of the day, the truth is simple to assert, but difficult to live. The goal of Christian masculinity isn’t John Wayne and Jesus. It’s just Jesus. There is no need to hype the “manliness” of the Christian man. There is a need to foster his obedience—an obedience in which he may sometimes find himself a warrior and protector. Sadly enough, however, as Du Mez ably describes, he may need to defend the vulnerable from the John Waynes in the church itself.
One more thing …
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve given the people what they want—more We The Kingdom. This video just popped up on their YouTube channel. They played it at church on Easter, and I love it. Enjoy: