Back in 2005, history professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez lectured on gender and how gender works in history. After class, a few male students told her she needed to read the book Wild at Heart by John Eldridge. So she did. The best-selling book encouraged Christian men to be warriors.

This idea intrigued Du Mez, and she continued to dig deeper into the history of gender in the evangelical tradition. The result is her recently released book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. The book is a comprehensive history of masculinity in white evangelical culture. From a historical perspective, Du Mez examines the anti-communist crusade of the 1960s to the evangelical support of President Donald Trump.

“If we’re not actually understanding what has happened and perhaps where things have gone wrong, we will not be properly equipped to participate in the renewal of all things. This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it opens up a conversation,” said Du Mez. The book has received national and international media attention, and Du Mez has been interviewed by NPR and BBC Radio, among others.

Spark: What can someone expect to find in this book?

Du Mez: I described this as my book on white evangelical masculinity and militarism. … It is a work of Christian scholarship, and I am writing as a person of faith. [The subtitle “corrupted a faith”] is not actually a historical claim. It’s a kind of theological one.

I’m talking about how this embrace of a militant masculinity ends up transforming the faith itself. There are explicit cases where biblical passages, core teachings of the Bible—like love your neighbors as yourself, love your enemies, turn the other cheek—are explicitly rejected and thrown out. [When you believe the militant masculinity narrative,] you can’t teach a boy to be a man by teaching him to turn the other cheek. The Jesus of the gospels is literally transformed into a militant warrior Christ who has tattoos up and down his legs and rides on a horse, wielding a sword into battle to slay all his enemies … that’s the corruption that I’m talking about.

Why is it important to understand the histories of the cultures we are part of and acknowledge the unpleasant aspects of those histories?

Book cover for Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Du Mez.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

As a Calvinist, I think that if we are just looking at the positive aspects of our tradition, that could be dangerous because we know that we are all fallen and that our institutions and our traditions also reflect our limitations. If we are not willing to investigate that and kind of excavate, we are going to be blind to the ways in which our traditions have caused harm in the past, have perpetuated perhaps abusive systems, have perpetuated injustices.

Once you define yourself as the good guys and whoever you’re opposed to as the bad guys, that’s when things get really dangerous, because then, almost by definition, whatever you do is righteous and whatever you do can be justified. The ends will justify the means because God is on your side. And this is exactly the language that we hear. And so, it becomes a very us-versus-them mentality. It’s not love your neighbor as yourself, or extending your hand to the other, the outsider, the stranger. It is seeing anybody on the outside as potential enemies, potential threats. Because if every man needs a battle to fight, well, you can’t fight a battle if you don’t have enemies.

What’s the response been to this book and to the provocative subtitle?

I was bracing myself. We live in a very polarized moment. One of the early reviews called [Jesus and John Wayne] an urgent and sharp-elbowed book. And I love that description. That was my intent. I’m not throwing punches at all, but there are some sharp elbows. And that was important to me, because through this research, I came to see how often a kind of culture of deference had facilitated abuses of power in churches, in organizations, in families.

The reception of the book has been enormously positive. I agree, I think it’s a provocative title. I’ve had conservative Christians thank me for that, because it says there is a Christian faith that is not this. That this is a corruption that we’re talking about and that there is redemption to be made. There’s a reformation. We can reform this, and that’s what we should be trying to do. And I love that that’s the way it’s landing with many readers.