The Spiritual Badass

John Wayne once explained the secret to his hypermasculine success. “Talk low and talk slow.” That was it.

Oh, and choose a good stage name. He was Marion Robert Morrison from Iowa, who ended up out here, the kid from Glendale Union High School. He was President of the Latin Society there, and he played football a bit. But his name was still Marion. Then it was football and pre-law at USC and then Hollywood. He had the look. He could talk low and slow too, even in Latin if they wished. They didn’t. Hollywood made him the ultimate man’s man. The director Raoul Walsh decided on his new name. Marion Robert Morrison shrugged. It didn’t matter. He’d be John Wayne now. He was making good money. But of course he was just acting. He hit his marks and delivered his lines, low and slow, and became an icon. That might have surprised him, but he did have that look.

But this icon business has gotten out of hand. The historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez wrote a book last year called Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation – which Marion Robert Morrison probably never intended.

Consider the book’s blurb:

The “paradigm-influencing” book (Christianity Today) that is fundamentally transforming our understanding of white evangelicalism in America.

“Jesus and John Wayne” is a sweeping, revisionist history of the last seventy-five years of white evangelicalism, revealing how evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism – or in the words of one modern chaplain, with “a spiritual badass.”

That’s easy enough to see now:

Evangelical books, films, music, clothing, and merchandise shape the beliefs of millions. And evangelical culture is teeming with muscular heroes – mythical warriors and rugged soldiers, men like Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and the Duck Dynasty clan, who assert white masculine power in defense of “Christian America.” Chief among these evangelical legends is John Wayne, an icon of a lost time when men were uncowed by political correctness, unafraid to tell it like it was, and did what needed to be done.

Or they delivered their lines convincingly. The scripts were good. The screenwriters took care of that. But that’s not the point of this book:

Challenging the commonly held assumption that the “moral majority” backed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 for purely pragmatic reasons, Du Mez reveals that Trump in fact represented the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values: patriarchy, authoritarian rule, aggressive foreign policy, fear of Islam, ambivalence toward #MeToo, and opposition to Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community.

So, forget biblical principles. Modern white evangelicals simply remade their faith. Jesus is now and always has been a spiritual badass. Don’t mess with him. Jesus is locked and loaded. Who knew?

But that’s the word. Politico’s Katelyn Fossett provides context:

Republican lawmakers and hopefuls seem particularly interested in the idea of masculinity lately. In a TV interview earlier this month, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley claimed the left was telling men their “masculinity is inherently problematic.” He also told interviewer Mike Allen he would make masculinity a signature political issue.

Yes, he’ll catch that wave. There is one:

Hawley’s comments sounded similar to those of Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who went viral last month in a video calling on mothers to raise their sons to be “monsters.” Today’s culture, Cawthorn said, is trying to “emasculate” all young men “because they don’t want people who are going to stand up.”

More recently, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance sounded similar themes in a series of tweets in which he defended Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who was acquitted on Friday of all charges in the shootings of three men in the aftermath of demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Vance tweeted that the trial filled him with “indescribable rage.” “We leave our boys without fathers. We let the wolves set fire to their communities,” he continued. “And when human nature tells them to go and defend what no one else is defending, we bring the full weight of the state and the global monopolists against them.”

Vance is actually arguing that Kyle Rittenhouse is one amazingly heroic spiritual badass, when you think about it. And that is how these three men think:

Hawley, Vance and Cawthorn all have deep ties to evangelical Christianity and frequently reference the importance of faith in their lives and, especially for Cawthorn and Hawley, in their political philosophies.

Katelyn Fossett decided it was time to talk with Kristin Kobes Du Mez. Her book dropped last year. Just what did Du Mez think of all this now, a year later? And that would be this:

I’ll start with Hawley. Within conservative evangelical spaces, first of all, there is the idea that masculinity is a God-given thing. When Hawley is talking about an attack on men and saying that the left is attacking manhood and that they hate this country and don’t believe in gender… All of that sounds very familiar. In white evangelicalism, this has been a refrain for decades now. In evangelical spaces, Christian manhood has long been equated, particularly in conservative circles, with a kind of rugged, militant quality.

Since the 1960s, conservative evangelicals have elevated a more militant ideal of masculinity, one that is both provider and protector. And they have argued that God has created man to fulfill these roles: He’s filled men with testosterone to give them strength, and that testosterone makes them aggressive and they need to channel that aggression for good. That is their God-given duty as men. And so when I heard Hawley talk about courage and independence and assertiveness, that is very similar to how masculinity is discussed in evangelical spaces.

And this was a long time coming:

This is a kind of reactionary masculinity that emerges in the 1960s and 1970s in conservative evangelical spaces and more broadly in American conservatism. And the context here is important. Coming out of the postwar era, there was the baby boom, and traditional family values were all the rage, at least among the white middle class. Then you have this disruptive moment in the 1960s. You have the civil rights movement, which is particularly disruptive in the American South to the status quo. And you have the early feminist wave and second-wave feminism in the 1960s – full-swing in the 1970s – and very importantly, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement.

Yes, blame the sixties. Blame the long-haired hippie-people. The fifties were fine. And then they were ruined. Everything was ruined:

All of these things are seen to destabilize the social order, and conservatives are particularly concerned. And in all three of these cases, it’s the assertion of white, patriarchal authority or power that can restore order. They believed feminism was threatening to emasculate American men, which was leaving the nation weak and unable to defend itself against communism. The anti-war movement – all those hippies, men with long hair, “make love, not war” – was leaving the nation imperiled. The civil rights movement, as well, was seen as a threat. In the American South, particularly to white families, the integration of schools was seen as a threat to white children.

Against that backdrop, this kind of restoration of a rugged American manhood becomes not just popular, but politicized in a very partisan way.

And then came Donald Trump:

There’s a lot of history, particularly of Republicans, unfavorably comparing Democratic men and masculinity against a stronger, more rugged American manhood. It kind of had a resurgence during the Obama presidency. It was very popular for Republicans to impugn his masculinity and to question his manhood and his strength. Both men and women did this; Sarah Palin went after him in this respect. It certainly isn’t something entirely new.

But I think that Trump definitely intensified it, because when you look back to the 2016 Republican primary season, Trump appeared on the stage and nobody really knew what to do with him, but he was able to play into this idea of rugged masculinity, this warrior masculinity, more effectively than any of the other candidates. Most Democrats thought it was laughable.

But they should have been worried:

Trump was reckless. He was uncivil. He was crass. He was not going to be cowed by political correctness. He was a bully on a debate stage against other Republicans. And it worked for him. It made him look strong, and it made his opponents look weak. And so you saw them trying to gain the upper hand and try to play that game, but none of them could play it as well as he could because he was completely unrestrained. And I think that because that worked so well, it seems to me that’s the playbook, certainly for anybody who wants to take up Trump’s mantle.

And then you have J.D. Vance’s comments about the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. I think one thing that’s important to note is that this rugged masculinity and this conservative vision of American manhood, historically, have been closely linked to Christian nationalism. “We need a strong man who can step up and defend America,” and in terms of Christian nationalism, “defend Christian America.”

God sent Kyle Rittenhouse to defend Christian America? God approves of everything he did? The sermons are already being written. And then there’s Madison Cawthorn. Du Mez sees this:

In that speech, he called on mothers to raise their young men to be monsters. It’s so similar to Hawley’s message; he was arguing that culture was trying to “demasculate” our young men, and it – presumably the left – is doing that because it didn’t want young men to stand up to it. This resonates with what Hawley was saying, too; he accused the left of sort of trying to make men tolerant and compliant.

Tolerance, of course, is the ultimate evil. We’ll have none of that:

It’s really important to situate this call for a rugged militant masculinity within a political context, which is the fight against the left. Both Hawley and Cawthorn have participated in calls to “Stop the Steal,” and Cawthorn actually gave one of the addresses on January 6th, just before the Capitol insurrection. He’s also gone on record talking about how bloodshed will be inevitable if our elections continue to be rigged. So it’s a call to action for young men to have the “backbone,” as he puts it in that speech, to stand up and to fight back to defend our liberty at all costs. And he even goes on to say: “There’s nothing I would dread more than picking up arms against a fellow American.”

But essentially, that’s where things are headed, he’s saying.

And then there’s his source:

What is also relevant here is that both Cawthorn and Hawley appear to be drawing on the work of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and YouTube personality. I think that “monster” quote from Cawthorn is drawing on Peterson in particular. Peterson is sending the same message to young men that they need to be responsible; they need to be assertive; they need to be aggressive. As he puts it, “If you’re harmless, you are not virtuous.”

And men need to be monsters. That’s his word; the hero has to be a monster. He needs to be a controlled monster. But you need to have that danger – that capacity for danger – and then you learn how to control that. Otherwise, you will be too weak to stand up to the oppressors.

And Vance’s comment about Rittenhouse now makes more sense:

He’s saying: This was a young white man who stepped in when others failed, and when the government failed, and acted to use violence to assert order. And that absolutely fits in with this call to action to defend our liberty at all costs. And like Hawley said, it might require bloodshed.

Jesus said so, somewhere or other. And the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin sees this:

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, Never Trumpers (now largely ex-Republicans) warned that he would corrupt the party in every way imaginable. His misogyny would morph in the party’s toxic masculinity and degradation of women, they cautioned. His infatuation with brutality and violence (boasting he would kill terrorists’ families, exhorting his supporters to slug protesters) would metastasize to the party as a whole.

They were right about that:

You only have to look at the vicious imagery showing the murder of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) deployed by Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), the verbal attack on her from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) last year – and Republicans’ defense of both – to understand that their refusal to dump Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape came to light was merely the prelude to an era of normalizing violence (especially against women), culminating in the Jan. 6 violent insurrection, which many Republicans, including Trump, tried to paint as nonviolent.

Threats and portrayals of violence against women have turned into a badge of honor for a party in which traditional notions about gender (back to the 1950s!) have become a key predictor of Republican support. Casting men (even a Supreme Court nominee) as victims of aggressive, “nasty” or unhinged women accusing them of wrongdoing has become standard fare in the Trump party.

Somehow, women became fair game:

Trump’s ability to fan the flames of racism is well known, but equal to his party’s racist appeal is the reassertion of male power. Whether it is in setting up bounties to rat out women who seek abortions or constant denigration of women, misogyny has become as central to the GOP’s tone and tenor as xenophobia. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) accused feminists of taking away men’s masculinity, driving them to seek refuge in pornography.

That’s coming from a sitting United States senator, an Ivy League law school graduate. He fans resentment toward women just as assiduously as Trump channels White grievance.

And then one thing leads to another:

Toxic masculinity now increasingly manifests in an infatuation with violence against both men and women. “From congressional offices to community meeting rooms, threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party,” the New York Times reported this month. “Ten months after rioters attacked the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and after four years of a president who often spoke in violent terms about his adversaries, right-wing Republicans are talking more openly and frequently about the use of force as justifiable in opposition to those who dislodged him from power.”

It is not enough for GOP congressional candidates to champion Second Amendment rights. They have to hold guns and destroy things in their ads. House members vaguely (or not so vaguely) hint at violence if things do not go their way. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) thought it amusing to talk about how difficult he may find it hard to resist hitting the speaker with her own gavel.

Should he bash her brains in with her own gavel? Better ask Jesus about that. Jesus might recommend that McCarthy just slit her throat and be done with it.

And then there’s Kyle Rittenhouse:

While the teenager was unaffiliated with any particular extremist group, he received support from all corners of the right-wing extremist landscape, from anti-government extremists to white supremacists. Right-wing groups – from Oath Keepers to neo-Nazis – surely were in a celebratory mood.

But you don’t have to look to the Proud Boys to see high-fives for Rittenhouse’s acquittal. Three of the most unhinged MAGA congressmen were so impressed (With his lack of judgment in traveling to a riot? His irresponsible use of a firearm?) they were ready to offer him internships on the Hill. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) sounded ecstatic on Twitter. Trump – who’s taken his side from the start – sent his congratulations.

Why not say it again? No good will come of this:

We saw on Jan. 6 how MAGA fanatics took calls to “stop the steal” literally, launching a violent assault on the electoral vote-counting process. In short, if anyone thinks casual, incessant talk of violence and overt misogyny will not impact the rabid Trump base, think again. Recall that in the wake of Trump mocking the “Asian flu” or “China flu,” we saw a spate of violent attacks on Asian Americans…

And even if no one acts upon Republicans’ incendiary language, the specter of a violent mob, of street justice, injures our democracy, which depends on the peaceful resolution of differences and the rule of law.

Well, that’s over, or it’s ending. People just took John Wayne too seriously.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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