We all know Billy Graham as one of the greatest presidential schmoozers in recent American history. But on his first visit to the White House in 1950 he was kicked to the curb, figuratively if not quite literally. You might think because Graham and Harry Truman shared a Southern Baptist background that would make for common ground. You would be wrong. A good part of the problem, which Graham himself later admitted, was his attire that day: a pistachio-green suit, rust-colored socks, white buck shoes, and a hand-painted tie.

But the more serious problem was how Graham bragged on his successful crusades in Los Angeles and elsewhere before quizzing the President on his religious background and leanings. As author Kristin Kobes Du Mez recounts,

[Graham] told Truman that his Golden Rule Christianity wasn’t sufficient—what he needed was a personal faith in Christ and his death on the cross. The president informed him that his time was up. Graham insisted on closing with prayer, a prayer that extended several minutes past their allotted time. Graham’s more egregious error, however, occurred as he left the Oval Office. Encountering the White House press corps, Graham blithely recounted the entirety of his conversation with the president, before reenacting his prayer by posing on one knee on the White House lawn. Truman never invited Graham back.

p. 34

This little vignette comes from Du Mez’s fascinating, enlightening, and disturbing book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

Those of us outside conservative American Evangelicalism may still be baffled why they are so enthralled with the likes of Donald Trump, someone who seemingly represents everything Christians should not value. In detailing the past 75 years of conservative, white, Christian evangelicalism, Du Mez offers a thorough recounting of the who, what, when, where, and how of the spread of this social tribe/religion. More importantly, she offers the “why” and what it might mean for the future of the United States of America.

At its core, it’s all about white patriarchy, Christian nationalism, right-wing politics, and a rugged, testosterone-driven masculinity that will both conquer secular America and prepare it for the violent Second Coming of Jesus. This is an all-out battle for the soul and power structures of America.

These evangelicals pretty much ignore everything about Jesus in the Gospels, until you get to the later chapters. There a tortured and abused Jesus dies on a cross, so he could be resurrected three days later, making possible a blessed eternal life for true believers. All that really matters to these evangelicals is substitutionary atonement : his sacrifice atoned for the individual sins of all humankind, before and after. The only response needed is to accept this Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Those who don’t will be damned to eternal torment in hell.

Apparently, these folks don’t waste much time with sermons or Sunday school lessons on Jesus’ moral, ethical, and social-justice teachings, including his parables, the Beatitudes,  or, certainly, his discourse in Matthew 25 on the sheep and the goats. That’s left to “pretend Christians”  who’ve made Jesus into a feminized, first-century hippy. Theirs is a muscular Jesus, the epitome of what God created men to be.

What they do study intently is the warrior Jesus who shows up in the book of Revelation on a mighty white horse, wielding a powerful sword against God’s enemies. This uber-masculine Jesus will lead the fight to destroy our evil world and replace it with a new one—where, of course, white American evangelicals will be in charge.

This book could just as easily be titled “Jesus, John Wayne, and Donald Trump.” What America needs is a savior,  a cowboy-soldier at the head of  a white patriarchal order. God created men as highly sexual beings who are aggressive, sometimes violently so, but only because their divine purpose is to protect women (whose purpose is to be submissive and focused on their femininity) and children (who, like their mothers, are dependent on a strong head of the family).

Sex is important to these evangelicals. Men can’t really help themselves when it comes to sexuality; a real man is aggressive, dominant, and virile. It’s a wife’s first responsibility to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs and desires, whenever, wherever, and however he requires it. If she can’t or won’t, then it shouldn’t surprise anyone when her man seeks out another outlet. It’s therefore probably more her fault than his if he strays from the marital bed.

All this, by the way, helps explain why conservative, white evangelicals hate Hillary Clinton so much. She’s a strong, independently minded woman, who in the early years of her marriage to Bill Clinton refused even to take his last name. She had the audacity to lead the fight for health care in Congress herself, rather than leaving that to men. Bill’s sexual escapades in the Oval Office obviously proved he was not getting satisfied sexually within his marriage. Because a woman should never be in a position of power or authority over men, the idea she could become President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces went against divine order. And to top it off, she even wrote a book titled It Takes a Village. No it doesn’t, these evangelicals believe; it only takes a righteous family with a strong male at its head and a submissive, stay-at-home female at his side. By the same token, it’s not hard to understand their opposition to all things related to the LGBTQ+ community.

Sex is a very big deal for these evangelicals (at least within marriage), and it is no surprise that a purity culture is promoted so heavily for girls and women—less so for boys (who are “real men” in training). It explains why abstinence-only education is stressed not only within evangelical culture but often promoted and even legislated outside it when possible.

In 1997, twenty-one-year old Josh Harris, himself the son of parents who helped establish the vast Christian homeschooling movement, published his own book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Harris introduced a generation of young Christians to ‘biblical courtship,’ the idea that fathers were charged with ensuring their daughters’ purity until their wedding day, at which point they handed unsullied daughters over to husbands who assumed the burden of protection, provision, and supervision. The book became the bible of the purity movement, selling more than one million copies.

p. 171

At least 80 percent of these evangelicals homeschool their children, using texts written and published by their own community.  Du Mez points out that one of the more egregious passages in the most widely used homeschooling history text explains that African slaves on antebellum Southern plantations were almost always treated kindly and given plenty of food, housing, and medical care. They needed the oversight of Southern whites because they lacked the ability to do so themselves. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that these white evangelicals often harbor subtle—and not-so-subtle—racist attitudes toward all people of color as well as immigrants, legal or undocumented.

Another pillar of this evangelical movement is the military, which for them became a major mission field ripe for harvest. Organizations like the Navigators, the Officers Christian Fellowship, the Overseas Christian Servicemen’s Centers, and the Christian Military Fellowship were used to address the moral shortcomings of America’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

Before long the central hub to the now-sprawling evangelical network of parachurch groups became Colorado Springs, Colorado: home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, three air force bases, an army fort, and the North American Air Defense Command. That city’s residents are overwhelmingly military, both active and retired. Their conservative voting patterns serve as a balance to the much more liberal cities of Denver and Boulder to the north. James Dobson, a child psychologist who became increasingly active in conservative Republican politics, bought 47 acres of land adjacent to the academy for the new headquarters of his Focus on the Family.

All this attention on the military and sexual aggression eventually took an unfortunate turn, of course, as numerous scandals at the Air Force Academy, West Point, and Annapolis proved. Plus, more than a few prominent evangelical leaders and pastors became ensnared in sexual scandals of their own. Du Mez covers all those. There isn’t space here to recount all the names, organizations, and intrigue going on within the constantly growing web of white evangelical culture. There are names well-known to the public at large and others who were just as important, perhaps, but known only within evangelicalism. They support one another through conferences, speaking engagements, books, videos, and an array of multi-million-dollar merchandising efforts.

One last note, this time regarding Ronald Reagan: hero, patron saint, and demi-god to these folks. In 1976 a majority of white evangelicals had voted for Jimmy Carter, well-known as a Southern Baptist from Georgia. Four years later they overwhelmingly decided they didn’t want a Sunday School teacher as president; instead, they voted for an outspoken, optimistic, non-church-going cowboy-warrior (well, he’d played that sometimes in the movies, just like his good friend John Wayne had) to be Commander in Chief to lead Christian America against the evil and atheistic Soviet Union.

I count it a stroke of serendipity that Du Mez’s book arrived at my home library the same day as another, polar-opposite book became available from my wish list.  Jim Wallis is also an American evangelical but decidedly not within the same community as the one Du Mez described. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided was first published in 2013. 

A long-time president of the progressive social-justice organization, Sojourners, and editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, Wallis proclaims a Christianity based on the teachings and parables of Jesus, with particular emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount and Beatitudes in Matthew 5-6 and the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. For this strain of evangelicalism, the saving power of Jesus relates not to a substitutionary atonement which frees individuals from punishment for their personal sins and shortcomings. Instead, it’s about the collective sins of humankind and the overturning of the kingdoms, principalities, and powers of this world through the establishment of the emerging “kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”

Wallis’s prophetic voice stands in marked contrast to the shrill judgmentalism and exclusiveness of evangelicals on the far right.

Many people in America feel politically homeless in the raging battles between ideological extremes. But the common good is a vision drawn from the heart of our religious traditions that allows us to make our faith public but not narrowly partisan. It’s time for a different direction: don’t go right, don’t go left—go deeper.

p. xi

If nothing else, Wallis’s book shows the fallacy in lumping together various strains of a particular branch of Christianity. There’s good, bad, and everything in-between in most religious groups. Some evangelicals promote a progressive, egalitarian agenda; others strive to create a rigid, white, patriarchal order committed to a narrow interpretation of scripture. The danger is in assuming both are equal. That’s worth remembering when examining any Christian denomination or world religion.

  • Where you start with scriptural interpretation determines to a great extent what you value most and what your end goals are. How does that play out in your own faith community?
  • Patriarchy, misogyny, and racism often go together. How do you see them being expressed outside of conservative, white evangelicalism? What are good ways to counter them within a religious context?