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. 

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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.

More:

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. 

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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:

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Kanakuk Kamps Tried to Punish a Victim's Family for Refusing to Sign a Non-Disparagement Agreement

When a young victim wanted to be free to tell his story, the camp played hardball.

On Sunday, March 28, my wife and I published a comprehensive report providing new details about what we called “the worst Christian sex abuse scandal you’ve never heard of.” It was the story of a superpredator (Pete Newman) who sexually abused boys for a decade or more at one of the largest Christian camps in the nation, Kanakuk Kamps. Our report detailed what the superpredator did, and it also described what the camp knew and how it responded to multiple reports of misconduct before his arrest.

We spent months working on the report. We combed through court records, we interviewed witnesses, and we interviewed victim’s families and victims. We also obtained and published, for the first time, deposition transcripts, deposition videos, and internal camp documents directly related to the case. 

During our investigation, a troubling pattern emerged. Victims and their families expressed fear of the camp. They told stories of hardball litigation tactics, deceptive communications with camp officials, and unwanted contact with the camp’s CEO, Joe White. In fact, one victim’s family even filed a motion for restraining order to stop White from contacting their son.

Why bring this up? Because I read with real interest Kanakuk’s letter to families in response to our recent reporting. In addition to calling our narrative “inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading” (more on that later), it contained the following paragraph about nondisclosure agreements. Here’s Kanakuk:

Recent articles have accused Kanakuk of using Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to hide details of abuse and silence victims. This is simply not the case. The awful details of what transpired is part of the public record. The criminal component was equally public and local television stations and newspapers covered this for many months. Kanakuk’s focus is on supporting victims’ privacy and healing. The overwhelming majority of confidentiality agreements were established in cooperation with the victim to protect their privacy.

There was a reason why Kanakuk used the phrase “overwhelming majority” to describe the alleged amount of cooperation with victims. The cooperation wasn’t universal. In at least one case Kanakuk tried to force a victim and his family to sign an agreement against their will, and they sought to punish the family with thousands of dollars in fines when they refused to agree to Kanakuk’s terms. We’ve obtained documents that illustrate the very “hardball” the victims warned us against.

The story, drawn from the documentary record, interviews with the victim’s family, and Kanakuk’s own court filings, is relatively simple. During a mediation in the case, the camp, the victim, and his family allegedly reached a mediation agreement that included the phrase: “Final settlement agreement will contain a mutual non-disparagement clause, in mutually agreeable form.” A non-disparagement agreement is a form of nondisclosure agreement that prohibits signatories from publicly sharing derogatory information about their counterparts.

The parties could not, however, reach mutual agreement on the language of the clause. The victim and his family refused to sign the agreement Kanakuk proposed. Yet Kanakuk pressed on and tried to force the victim to sign anyway. It treated the “agreement to agree” as a final agreement and wrote a letter that contained the following threat:

When the victim and his family did not respond to the camp’s satisfaction, Kanakuk then filed two motions that not only sought to force the family to sign a non-disparagement clause, but also sought to sanction the victim’s family for speaking to the media and for failing to sign the agreement. The second sanctions motion sought more than $26,000 in attorneys’ fees as punishment for the family’s refusal to sign.

The judge dismissed the case and denied both of Kanakuk’s attempts to force the victim and his family to sign a non-disparagement agreement. The judge also denied the family’s attempt to force Kanakuk to sign a settlement agreement that omitted a non-disparagement clause. The parties were apparently left with an agreement to agree that never came to fruition. The victim’s family, through counsel, promptly informed the camp that “there is not a non-disparagement provision to which the parties have agreed.”

The fight over the non-disparagement agreement was no mere lawyer’s battle. The victim’s mother told us that Kanakuk “beat us down emotionally, mentally, and spiritually with intense pressure to sign the NDA.” The camp’s efforts, she said, “left us crippled by fear and pure exhaustion.”

In addition to neglecting the story above, Kanakuk’s response to our reporting about nondisclosure agreements misses a key point. Kanakuk can still pledge to maintain victim confidentiality while it releases the victims from their vows of silence. In other words, protect the victims’ privacy and let them speak if they want to speak. Some may choose to remain silent and keep that chapter of their lives closed. Some may want to break their silence. It should be their decision to make.

But that’s not the only defect in Kanakuk’s letter to its families. Here is one of its core contentions:

Unfortunately, several articles were recently published that misrepresent Kanakuk, its mission, and its reaction to events that transpired over a decade ago. I want to communicate with you in a transparent and forthright manner the truth about these claims. These articles would like you to believe that Kanakuk is not who we say we are. These articles believe they have the “facts.” They do not. The sad reality is their narrative is incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading. You can read our response here

As you are probably aware—twelve years ago, one of our full-time staff members was convicted of abusing Kampers. Kamp is still devastated by this behavior and the damage caused. Any act of abuse is absolutely deplorable and stands counter to Kamp’s core mission and beliefs. This individual’s behavior sent shock waves throughout the Kamp community. It left an indelible mark and shook us to the core. It still hurts. But accusations that Kanakuk—or any of its leadership—knew of the abuse and covered it up are categorically false, misguided, and self-serving. At no time was anyone at Kanakuk charged with knowingly allowing abuse or failing to report suspected abuse. 

The camp is moving the goalposts. We did not claim that Kanakuk “knew of the abuse” (the specific alleged crimes). We claimed that Kanakuk received multiple warnings that Newman had engaged in nude activities and other problematic behavior with campers. Kanakuk cannot contest this. Why? Because you can see the evidence yourself.

For example, here’s Joe White testifying that he knew about “nude four-wheeling” and chose not to fire Newman:

You don’t have to believe me that White knew about nude activities. Believe White, under oath.

Similarly, here are images of anguished emails sent to White after Newman’s crimes were uncovered. Each email is from a person who says they told the camp of Newman’s inappropriate conduct, including nude conduct, up to a decade before Newman was fired:

And:

And:

In addition, our report linked to a corrective action memorandum Newman’s supervisors wrote Newman in October 2003—roughly six years before his arrest. The memorandum began with a series of written questions to Newman and includes his handwritten answers. Here are the first four questions the camp asked, with Newman’s answers:

When you read those questions, isn’t it blindingly obvious that the camp was concerned about Newman’s sexual conduct? Also, look at this message from White to his secretary. It describes White as “laughing” that Newman said in a speech that “there wasn’t a night of the week there wasn’t someone in the hot tub to minister to.” This message was dated October 6, 2008, the year before Newman’s arrest. 

This evidence clearly indicates that Kanakuk not only knew that Newman had engaged in inappropriate conduct, including nude conduct, it specifically identified concerns with sexual abuse in its communications with Newman.

Since Nancy and I published our report, a number of people have written and asked what Kanakuk (or any ministry) should do when sexual abuse occurs or when credible allegations of sexual abuse are made. At a minimum, the camp should release victims from their NDAs, commission an independent investigation of the event, release the results of the investigation publicly, and hold accountable those people inside the organization (including at the highest levels) whose negligence and/or recklessness failed the children in their care. 

It is difficult to report on events that have long been shrouded in secrecy. We are happy to respond to specific allegations of inaccuracy and supplement the record with new evidence. But Kanakuk has not produced any evidence that our report is inaccurate, nor has it provided meaningful new evidence that alters the substance of our story. We invite you to read our original report, read the documents we link, and read Kanakuk’s full rejoinder. The facts speak for themselves. 

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