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?
This opinion piece has hit the nail squarely on the head. The invention of the so-called muscular Christianity is due to the modern entertainment industry and its quest to destroy traditional moral values.
Just like Billy Graham postered for the press when he left Truman’s office, far too many have compromised their values for a place in the spotlight. They have fallen for the modern entertainment industry’s portrayal of Jesus as a popular celebrity. The idea conveyed is that popularity is what matters.
This in turn has caused many leaders to seek after celebrity status themselves in order to claim they are seeking to be like Jesus. This constant popularity contest leads to abominable behavior.
And the vast hordes of the ignorant masses have accepted this. As they sit around in sweatpants and crocs watching television, they give ratings to preachers who focus on entertainment rather than on spirituality.
When the masses treat these preachers as if they are celebrities, the preachers think they can do no wrong. Instead of following the Spirit, they follow Cardi B and Post Malone as their examples.
So let us join Rich in condemning this behavior. But let us not forget to condemn its origin.
My problem relates to Trumpism. His values and actions are counter to everything that I believe yet a high percentage of Mormons voted for him. How can I be a member of this Church? Isn’t religion about values? I love the rebel Christ preaching social justice. I love diversity in all it’s forms.
For some reason, starting perhaps with Joseph Fielding Smith and amplified by BRM, the Church decided to align itself with Evangelical beliefs and the Republican Party. This unholy alliance doesn’t work for me. I am not anti-immigration, I’m not anti-science, I love life’s diversity, I want a social safety net, I want real equality, I want my granddaughters to have the same opportunities my grandsons have. That is not where the Church is at right now.
I love Christ the rebel, dressed in peasant clothes, and speaking in parables.
JCS: there are so many entertainers you could dis and yet you keep bringing up Post Malone. Are you bent out of shape simply because he lives in Utah now? 😃
The Trump years have showed that if the Antichrist were on the ballot, most Mormons would vote for him. I guess the same goes for Evangelicals. Here in the 2020’s, both groups seem utterly devoid of discernment and anything like a true moral compass. Although they have good political and institutional compasses. They make great Republicans and great Mormons/Evangelicals, just crappy Christians.
Your question re where you start with scriptural interpretation is really interesting.
First, having just finished a book on Bible that argues first that Revelation possibly shouldn’t be canonized and second that it is about the Roman Empire, not some super distant times, I’m puzzled that so much of Christianity puts so much weight on it and believes it’s actually describing a future literal second coming and all the crazy stuff that precedes it. Since I think that “end of the world” attitude in Christianity is really problematic, I think that’s a really unfortunate focus.
Second, I’ll have to think more on how a focus on the BoM shapes Mormonism. In negative ways, you’ve got a lot of violence, nationalism, racism, virtually no women, missionary work, and the whole “secret combination” stuff which all certainly influences Church thought and culture today. In positive ways, it’s not as nuts as the Old Testament and there *is* a lot of good Jesus stuff. But I’ll have to think more on that – honestly I haven’t thought a ton about the ways that Book of Mormon teachings make us different from Evangelicals.
Then there’s the D&C with polygamy, distrust of government, and violence … which I also think continues to influence is today.
Roger Hansen: “Isn’t religion about values? I love the rebel Christ preaching social justice. I love diversity in all it’s forms”
I’m right there with you. But for this strain of evangelicals, it’s about power and control; the ends justify the means. What they desire is their version of a Christian America where they are fully in charge.The scary part is that they’re passionate, focused, uncompromising, and organized. And Trump–and those like him–will help them get what they want.
Elisa:I begin scriptural interpretation with the OT prophets (major and so-called minor ones) who by speaking truth to power prefigured (as opposed to predicted) Jesus Christ. One critique Jim Wallis levied at many mainline Christian churches today is that they appear to leave Jesus in the past as a great teacher rather than a living presence. I’m not sure that’s entirely valid but I understand his point. Jesus’ parables, for the most part, relate to the coming kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. A kingdom, that unlike the kingdoms created by humankind, has justice, peace, and joy at its core. Plus, I’m right there with you regarding all the crazies who can’t get enough of the book of Revelation.
I think one real crux of the problem is how each Christian demographic views Christ’s Atonement. Many Evangelicals (and political conservatives) view it as a nasty, agonizing substitutionary process (with continual reminders that we are the guilty party) by an innocent Son to an offended Father, a Father who stands ready to torment those who fail, for whatever reason, to acknowledge His supremacy.
The odd thing is that many conservative LDS lean in the direction of a harsh substitutionary atonement, even when there are plenty of scriptural resources and prophetic teachings to suggest a more nuanced and well, “healing” interpretation of the Atonement.
This is anectdotal, but when I have discussed the Atonement with some conservative LDS adults, those with a more generous perspective of the Atonement seem to have a fuller and more nuanced view of conservatism. It is a conservatism based on a fuller and kinder view of God and humanity.
For example, it is unquestionable that Mitt Romney is a political conservative. But his approach and treatment of others (especially recently) demonstrated his differences with 21st century conservatives.
I long ago noticed that my high school students who viewed their fathers as authority figures leaned to the political right, whereas those who viewed there fathers as nurturing caretakers and partners in life leaned to the political left.
I wonder if more extreme conservative political views lead to the adoption of the substitutionary model or if viewing God as a harsh and vengeful father contribute to the development of conservative political views?
If I am correct in my thinking, conservatives (along with the rest of us)need a greater understanding of Christ’s teachings and atonement, and a more applicable definition of Divine Love (No, I am not trying to ignite an “unconditional love” debate).
Old man, I know you are not trying to start an unconditional love debate, but this concept ties in. Those who view that atonement as substitutionary also view God’s love as conditional. Those who take a more healing view of the atonement tend to also view God’s love as Unconditional. The first view wants unrepentant sinners punished and in order to have them burn in hell for eternity, well, God wouldn’t do that to someone he loves, so he obviously stops loving them. Those who view the atonement as I do, as something that changes, heals, and still loves the sinner and also changes, heals, and loves any that are harmed by sin, they really don’t even want sinners punished, just changed.
And I know of two books I am ordering.
I wonder where we— as a church and as individuals—-fall on the spectrum…
“They prided themselves on the strict observance of the law, and on the care with which they avoided contact with things gentile…..The tendency of their teaching was to reduce religion to the multiplicity of ceremonial rules, and to encourage self- sufficiency and spiritual pride. They were a major obstacle to the reception of Christ and the gospel by the Jewish people.
Anna: “And I know of two books I am ordering.”
My efforts here as a book reviewer have been successful! Unfortunately, neither Amazon nor any other bookseller will “recognize” that.
This is terrifying, actually. This evangelical thinking is the reason why appeals to reason and compassion fall on deaf ears. The white evangelicals don’t want society to be fair, just and equal. They need the conflict and the aggressiveness, and look forward to the total destruction of society. I mean … there’s no way to meet in the middle with that mindset.
Janey: You’re right. The word “compromise” is simply not in their vocabulary.
Appropriating and distorting Christian traditions for purposes of gaining political power seems like a pretty decent example of blasphemy. I was taught as a teen that it was saying “God” or “Jesus” in a secular setting but I think this is what blasphemy really is.
Also the Bible Dictionary quote above–so perfect.
That’s a good question to ask ourselves–though I’d broaden the spectrum to include Herodians as well as Pharisees. They were arch enemies–and yet they colluded with each other to destroy the Savior.
I think JCS is right, but perhaps did not go far enough. I was really saddened that President Nelson was quoted far more often in general conference than Jesus Christ was. It really appears to have become a popularity contest in which people are seeking good graces.
The shift that took place among white southern Evangelicals to go from being staunch unbendable voters for the Democratic Party (Civil War to 1965) to the Republican Party is one that absolutely fascinates me. You mention Carter and Reagan. It is almost as if white southern voters voted for Carter in 1976 just on the assumption that he was one of them. Back then, the 24/7 hype and fanfare about politics didn’t exist. Most voters probably knew very little about Carter other than the fact that he was a good ol’ white Southern boy. And then he turned out to be a routine supporter of civil rights, and that soured white evangelicals towards him by 1980. Carter, of course, had incredibly bad luck during his presidency too, with the Iranian Revolution happening in 1978, driving up oil prices and causing inflation to spike, along with the Iranian hostage crisis (which Carter solved diplomatically before Reagan took office, but never gets credit for). Reagan comes along, pulls a little Nixonian Southern Strategy, and makes his first campaign stop after winning the Republican nomination to none other than the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi just a few miles from Philadelphia, MS where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964 for attempting to register blacks to vote (the state of Mississippi wouldn’t even prosecute suspects until 2005, the US federal government managed to convict seven people in 1967, who were given light sentences), and makes a speech talking about none other than states’ rights, a topic that Reagan hadn’t even touched on in previous speeches as governor of California (contrary to what delusional Reagan apologists try to tell us). The dog whistle couldn’t have been clearer. Southern white racists angry that the civil rights tide that had reshaped their environment knew that Reagan was their man. Dog-whistling played a huge role in elevating Reagan to the presidency. While there he just got lucky, over and over. The Soviet Union’s fateful invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, before the Reagan presidency, precipitated the gradual unraveling of the USSR during the Reagan presidency. And of course, Reagan took every ounce of credit for something that wasn’t even his doing.
Attitudes toward racial equality changed drastically between 1980 and 2016. But Trump’s employment of dog-whistle tactics (well, he used a bullhorn) about immigrants and Muslims helped elevate him to the presidency and endear him to evangelicals. And Trump is anything but religious. It goes to show that southern white evangelicals are willing to reject their own if they do not talk the talk and fully embrace someone who isn’t their own, but preaches to their racial resentment and fear.
For several generations now Church leaders have de-emphasized critical thinking skills in favor of “prophetic authority” and right-wing dogma – so that when a demagogue like Trump shows up the general membership is uniquely vulnerable. In this dire scenario the leadership is literally responsible for warning members away so they are not deceived. Yet they were deceived, and this in spite of the glaring fact that Trump had lived his life in violation of every significant tenant of the gospel. Well, live with it, Brethren, and contemplate the damage you have done! The new generation is fleeing your ship of fools and will not return. It appears you have tossed out the babies with the bathwater.
Great post and so many great comments. There are a couple of things at play here, I think:
1. Both political parties in this country have fallen victim to the idea of ideological purity. The left may have slightly more nuanced than the right, but I think the perfect is often the enemy of the good in both political parties. And the Religious Right in this country has, over the past fifty years or so, been much better at harnessing that desire for ideological purity and has successfully conflated religion and politics to such a degree that a substantial percentage of Trump supporters actually believed he was God’s anointed. And many supporters of other conservative candidates believe the same thing. That makes them eminently manipulable, especially by clever sociopaths who have nothing but contempt for their own followers. All of that is a preface to my answer to your question about how to combat racism, misogyny and patriarchy in a religious context. If we are talking about conservative Mormons or white evangelicals, sadly the answer is that they cannot be combated. There is so much discrimination built into modern American Christianity (and Mormonism) that as soon as you try to make some sort of religious argument against prejudice, bigotry, etc., the person you’re arguing with will misapply a scripture or quote a recent conference talk in order to justify their bigotry. One simply cannot argue with religious zealots. It doesn’t work.
2. There is a staggering amount of evidence in our own church that bigotry, exclusion and hatred still exist and are couched in terms of God’s will. Look at all of the talk lately (much of it mentioned in excellent posts and comments on this blog) from our leaders about God’s conditional love, sad heaven, LGBTQ people will be happier in the afterlife once they’re made cis, hetero, etc. All of this is presented under the umbrella of “God’s love” and of the importance of obedience first. There is such a hatred of women and other marginalized groups so completely baked into Mormonism that many Mormons don’t even see it. And Mormonism, too, teaches a Second Coming that is violent and retributive. And that’s part of the problem as well; if one believes, even on a limited basis that violence is ever justified, even in the context of Christ and judgement, then one is already opposed to the fundamental teachings of Christ.
Brother Sky: “If we are talking about conservative Mormons or white evangelicals, sadly the answer is that they cannot be combated. There is so much discrimination built into modern American Christianity (and Mormonism) that as soon as you try to make some sort of religious argument against prejudice, bigotry, etc., the person you’re arguing with will misapply a scripture or quote a recent conference talk in order to justify their bigotry. One simply cannot argue with religious zealots. It doesn’t work.”
Somewhat like the way OT prophets and Jesus spoke truth to power, what you’re saying here is, most likely, “speaking truth to contemporary reality.” Still, I have hope, so just call me another fool for Christ.
Rich Brown: Yes about speaking truth to contemporary reality, but recognizing that the contemporary “reality” as constructed by many Mormons and evangelicals is, indeed, a constructed reality, not what we would call “true” reality. One of the things about swallowing any ideology hook, line, and sinker is that it warps your sense of things, thus making you impossible to be reasoned with. So to me, the question is less about “winning” an argument or changing minds; the question is: how well can I cleave to Christ’s injunctions to love and forgive people that have done so much damage to public discourse and the political landscape?
The way religion is infusing politics is Exhibit A for why church and state must be kept separate. Of course, I only think that because I disagree with the conservative Christian religious values that are taking center stage in the political debate. The political right is undoubtedly relieved to see God’s truth finally prevailing.
After 9/11, I read some books and articles about Islam and how Islamic fundamentalism differs from the Islam practiced by most Muslims. I was confused at how moderate, peaceful Muslims could allow Islamic fundamentalists so much power, and (quite honestly) judgmental that the moderate Muslims hadn’t stopped their extremist fringe from doing so much harm. Now I’m in the position of a ‘moderate Christian’ (meaning I think Christ’s teachings about compassion and helping the poor are much more important than the 2nd Coming ideas about war and cleansing the earth from wickedness), and I do feel powerless to combat the religious extremism that’s taking over American politics. I vote, but with the gerrymandered districts in Utah, there’s no chance that anyone I vote for will be elected. I write my political representatives, and get back polite form letters but my emails/calls don’t change anything.
Honestly, the whole thing has turned me off from a couple ideas that are foundational in Christianity, Mormonism and Islam.
First idea: Missionary work sucks – don’t push your beliefs on anyone else. People can come to you if they want to know more. Missionary religions don’t obey boundaries and feel entitled to shove their beliefs (through laws and even violence) onto everyone.
Second idea: Get religion out of sexual issues. Sexuality should be discussed on a spectrum of healthy to unhealthy, and not sin or righteousness. Sex is just something that bodies do, and it should be neither demonized nor made sacred. Criminalize sexual violence and exploitation and let everything else be a discussion about health, consent, commitment and respect.
This was a really useful post in helping me connect some dots to understand better how some folks who profess to be Christian can behave so unchristian.
Also a really discouraging thing to realize.
Chistianity, at its core, depends on the threats of eternal torture, willful ignorance, and hating the ‘other”. The very few decent parts can be found without all of the genocide (see Numbers 31), child killing (see David’s son), and approval of slavery (1 Peter 2). It can be kicked to the curb like any other cult..
Me, too, @MDearest.
I’ve been thinking that that our LDS connection to evangelicals is related to our shared racist past.
It enables much conservative rhetoric. And is an obstacle to recognizing the shortcomings.
Rich Brown’s OP, book reviews, commentary, along with some good comments fleshes it out very well.
For the record, a large swath of Christians also don’t get this weird faith as described in Jesus and John Wayne. I certainly don’t. Jim Wallis is much more my speed.