Uncivil Religion: January 6, 2021

Braveheart: President Donald J. Trump

The sign is homemade, bright yellow and hand-painted on what appears to be cardboard. With his telltale orange skin and distinctively coiffed blond hair, the figure at the center is President Trump clad as William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish warrior depicted in the movie Braveheart

The word “BRAVEHEART” emblazoned on the sign makes this connection clear, as does the speech bubble with the word “Freedom!” printed in Germanic font. In his right hand, Trump-as-William-Wallace holds a sword, in the other hand, the severed head of Karl Marx.

At first glance, there is nothing that clearly marks this artifact as particularly “religious.” Only when one understands the role that the movie Braveheart has played in fashioning conservative white evangelical ideals of masculinity can it be appreciated how this sign taps into a particular strand of militant white evangelicalism.  

When Braveheart arrived in theaters in 1995, its epic story of the legendary warrior thrilled audiences. For conservative white evangelicals, however, the film was not merely a great action flick. It quickly came to inspire a renewed sense of cultural and political militancy.

Despite the film’s graphic portrayals of violence, and also the presence of “six obscenities…and two obscene acts,” Ted Baehr, the chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission, gave the film his stamp of approval. Baehr saw it as “a rallying cry for the supremacy of God’s law” over the authority of leaders who had flouted that law. With Bill Clinton in the White House at the time, this was an inspirational message.

Mel Gibson, who directed and starred in the film, is a traditionalist Catholic, and his version of William Wallace resonated with conservative Protestants. The film was riddled with historical inaccuracies, a point Gibson readily conceded: “I’m in the business of cinema. I’m not an (expletive) historian.” Yet it was precisely these inaccuracies that appealed to many conservative evangelicals. In Gibson’s hands, Wallace is a Christian freedom fighter; Wallace’s nemesis, King Edward, is depicted as a pagan ruler. (He was in fact Christian.) It is Wallace’s (historically dubious) attempt to defend his wife’s purity and avenge her death that provokes him to embark on a campaign of unquenchable violence. Wallace’s infamous cry of “Freedom!” appears in the film, not in the historical record. 

The film was released at the height of the evangelical men’s movement, the year before 800,000 “Promise Keepers” descended on the nation’s capital. These Christian men came not to storm the Capitol building, but to “stand in the gap”—to rededicate themselves to leading and protecting their families. Promise Keepers was a patriarchal movement, but it was largely characterized by a “soft patriarchy,” a kinder, gentler assertion of masculine authority. Some evangelicals, however, believed this softness was going too far. With its portrayal of warrior masculinity and no-holds-barred freedom-fighting heroism, Braveheart offered a refreshingly rugged, even ruthless alternative.       

It’s hard to overstate the popularity of Braveheart in evangelical circles. In 2001, John Eldredge’s bestselling Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, encouraged Christian men to model their lives after Gibson’s William Wallace. According to Eldredge, God was a warrior god and men were made in his image —“In your life you are William Wallace”—and every man had a battle to fight and a beauty to rescue.      

Only months after the book was released, terrorists struck the United States. The metaphorical battle Eldredge described was now real. Wild at Heart would go on to sell more than four million copies, becoming a staple of men’s Bible studies and finding a place on the shelves of Christian bookstores and church libraries across the country. Pastors played clips of the film in Sunday sermons, Christian men attended weekend Wild at Heart Boot Camps, churches organized homegrown “Braveheart Games,” and one Christian college boasted a Braveheart dorm (the film was the only R-rated film permitted).  

The film also became a staple in the culture-wars liturgies of the Religious Right. In 1992, Pat Buchanan had announced the existence of a war “for the soul of America.” When Buchanan ran for president in 1996, supporters heralded him with shouts of “Braveheart!” In 2000, Mark Driscoll, pugnacious pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, spewed misogynistic and militant rhetoric on his church’s online discussion board under the pseudonym “William Wallace II”: “I love to fight…Fighting is what we used to do before we all became pussified,” before America became a “pussified nation.” In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch drove from his North Carolina home to Washington, D.C., where he opened fire at a pizzeria he erroneously believed housed a child-sex ring. After the incident, he told The New York Times that his favorite book was Wild at Heart. When Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk founded a think-tank “for faith and liberty” housed at Liberty University, they named it the Falkirk Center, a play on their own names and the name of a battle featured in Braveheart. When Ted Cruz sought to take up Trump’s mantle at the 2021 CPAC convention, he did so by closing his speech with “the immortal words of William Wallace,” channeling Gibson’s cry for “Freedom!”

The severed head of Karl Marx may seem like an odd choice, but for more than a century, conservative Christians have identified Marxism and socialism as threats not just to America, but to Christian America. This was evident in anti-Bolshevism and in conservative opposition to the New Deal, and also in the strident anti-communism of the Cold War era. 

Within Christian nationalist circles, “socialist” has now become a “catch-all for anything leftist…without naming the target,” according to sociologist Samuel Perry. Essentially, “socialists” have become “the ultimate out-group for the right because it sounds like you’re talking economics, when it’s also ‘dog whistle’ for unAmerican identity politics & atheism.” Anti-socialist and anti-Marxist rhetoric has long been wielded to combat civil rights activism, progressive taxation, health care reform, and strengthening the social safety net. More recently it has been deployed against “Critical Race Theory.” 

The lack of explicitly religious symbolism on this sign obscures the fact that it communicates values that resonate in powerful ways with many American Christians: the heroic defense of faith, family, and nation, when all appear to be under siege. And, perhaps more pointedly, the necessity of violence in pursuit of righteousness. These values do not only appeal to conservative Christians; rather, they are part of a God-and-country belief system that finds a home both inside Christian churches and outside traditional Christian spaces, unifying Christian and secular conservatives around a cultural and political identity that trumps traditional theological affinities and divisions. This alliance constitutes a critical base of Trump’s support. It has also transformed the modern Republican party, and American evangelicalism itself. For many, evangelicalism has ceased to be about the Jesus of the Gospels. Instead, it signifies a cultural and political identity, one that is “not entirely about politics or religion but power.” And as the nation observed on January 6, 2021, this shared ideology can fuel a violent insurrection in the name of “taking back” the country.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is Professor of History at Calvin University and the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

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