The Cowboy Way

The Toronto Star, Mar. 5, 2006

A scene from "High Noon"

Throughout the long lead-up to tonight’s Academy Awards, the Christian right’s response to Brokeback Mountain has been relatively subdued. There have been no large-scale protests, no calls for a boycott from any major organizations, not a single burnt car. There has, however, been plenty of writing.

In a Renew America column with the pithy headline “You can’t fight Islamism with gay cowboys,” Andrew Longman argued that the “homosexualization” of one of America’s folk heroes of masculinity is not only immoral but, at a time when American values and culture are under attack, tantamount to treason.

Talking to, Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute of Concerned Women of America, worried about the damage the film would do to the Western genre: “I think this shows that Hollywood can pervert anything. Part of the enduring appeal of Westerns is the display of brotherhood, unhindered by sexualization.”

And David Kupelian, an editor at World Net Daily, accused the film of “raping the Marlboro Man.” The sympathetic portrayal of two cowboys’ tryst in the Wyoming mountains, he argued, is an attempt to sweep aside “the Judeo-Christian moral values that formed the very foundation and substance of western culture.”

What’s noteworthy here isn’t that Christian conservatives see homosexuality as depraved, but that they see the Western hero as a symbol of morality. It’s the fact that the lovers in Brokeback Mountain are cowboys and not, say, NYU theatre majors that Christian conservatives seem to find particularly offensive. Cowboys have become, in Longman’s words, “national icons of Missionary zeal and righteous machismo.” As Knight says, “The Western was a morality tale, so to make immorality the heart of this Western is to violate the code of Westerns.”

One can’t help but feel that if Knight and company were to take a harder look at the “code of the Westerns,” they’d be unpleasantly surprised. It’s true that Westerns have always exemplified certain myths of the American frontier, but they have rarely been anything but dismissive of traditional Christian conceptions of morality. In the hundred-odd years that writers and filmmakers have been churning them out, Westerns have endorsed a number of decidedly unchristian acts, including, among others, the killing of intolerant religious fanatics. Yes, the Western has always been a morality tale, but its morality has never been synonymous with fervent Christianity. In fact, it has generally been in direct opposition.

In West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, Jane Tompkins’ excellent 1992 study of the Western, Tompkins argues that the genre was created in response to the Christian sentimental novels popular in the late 19th century. She points to best-selling works like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Maria Cummins’ The Lamplighter (1854) — books written for women by women that dealt with domestic problems and the struggle to live up to Christian ideals — as examples of the kind of novels Western writers were trying to counter.

In the Western, the values of these sentimental novels are completely rejected. Women are almost entirely absent, the action happens outdoors away from the domestic sphere, and Christian ideals of meekness and charity are discarded in favour of action and violence. The message of the Western is clear: Doing unto others and turning the other cheek may work for a housewife back East, but in the lawless, shoot-’em-up West, Christian mercy and piety are only signs of weakness. Why wait for villains to be punished in the hereafter when you can round up a posse and teach them a lesson right now? Instead of sitting around praying and worrying about his soul, a real man will saddle his horse, load his gun and see for himself that justice is served.

Zane Grey’s 1912 novel Riders of the Purple Sage isn’t the first work in the genre, but it may be the archetypal Western story. In the novel, which remains the best-selling Western today, Grey develops many of the conventions and characteristics that have come to define the genre: the extended descriptions of the frontier landscape; the noble horses with names like “Black Star” and “Night”; the honest cowpunchers riding with stampeding cattle; and the hero himself — the slow-talking, quick-drawing stranger who rides into town armed with a six-shooter and the will to use it. Riders of the Purple Sage also contains some of the most memorable villains in any Western: the cruel and intolerant Mormons.

The novel tells the story of a notoriously violent gunman named Lassiter, who rides down from the mountains to protect the pious heroine Jane Withersteen from a community of Mormon Elders determined to run her off her land. Throughout the novel, the Elders are presented as the ultimate evil: hypocritical, violent and, worst of all, wholly convinced that God is on their side. The Elder Tull speaks with “the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not be brooked,” and his smile is “more than inhuman” yet seems to “give out of its darkness a gleam of righteousness.” In the novel’s opening scene, as Tull and his brethren prepare to whip an innocent cowboy because he’s a gentile, Grey describes the mixture of fervour and cruelty in the Elder’s face: “As his religious mood was fanatical and inexorable, so would his physical hate be merciless.”

Throughout Grey’s work there are skirmishes, standoffs and, of course, a final confrontation between Lassiter and the Mormons, but the real conflict is between Lassiter and Jane Withersteen. The religious woman is determined to help the sinning gunman, to teach him to renounce violence and turn the other cheek. Instead, it’s Jane who changes.

The novel essentially reverses the classic conversion narrative: The epiphany doesn’t come when the sinner finds God, but when the devout Christian removes “the scales from her eyes” and rejects her faith.

Lassiter’s speech at the end of the novel epitomizes the Western’s contemptuous attitude toward religion: “I’d like you to see jest how hard an’ cruel this border life is. It’s bloody. You’d think churches an’ churchmen would make it better. They make it worse. You give names to things — bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism, duty, faith, glory. You dream — or you’re driven mad. I’m a man, an’ I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves, ranchers, rustlers, riders.”

Riders of the Purple Sage is perhaps the most explicitly anti-Christian Western, but the films and novels that follow it aren’t much more sympathetic to Christianity.

In High Noon, Grace Kelly entreats Gary Cooper not to confront the Frank Miller gang because, as a Quaker, she doesn’t believe in violence. Cooper ignores her and goes out to fight the outlaws alone. In the end, as in Riders of the Purple Sage, it’s the Christian woman who converts, not the cowboy: During the final shootout, Kelly picks up a gun and kills a man.

In the same film, Cooper goes to the church to find men to help him fight the outlaws. The preacher tells him that he simply can’t ask his congregation to fight, even if it is the right thing to do. The preacher’s Christian pacifism isn’t admirable here — it’s a moral deficiency.

Prayer and rituals of death are either perfunctory or absent in the Western. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, only the women know the words to the hymn. In Red River, John Wayne mutters a disdainful “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” as he buries each of the men he has just killed. In the 1958 film Cowboy, Tompkins points out, prayer is even more succinct. As Glenn Ford is about to bury a man he asks, “Does anybody know the proper words?” No one does.

Each of these films constructs a moral framework that has nothing to do with the values and beliefs of organized Christianity. Traditional Christian values of charity and mercy are replaced by an emphasis on honour and a belief in the redeeming power of violence. As Peter A. French writes in Cowboy Metaphysics: Ethics and Death in Westerns: “In most Westerns, the Judeo-Christian conceptions on which much of our traditional ethical understandings are based are portrayed as impotent, useless, something belonging `back East.'”

Or, as Con Vallian in Louis L’Amour’s The Quick and the Dead so memorably puts it: “The meek ain’t gonna inherit nothin’ west of Chicago.”

Vallian is right — the meek just don’t make it in the West — but recently a new kind of Christian, one not afraid to kill or be killed, has found its way to the frontier. Evangelical Westerns are becoming an increasingly popular genre, as Christian authors look to the West hoping to stake a claim in the burgeoning multi-billion dollar evangelical literature market. And the heroes of these books, gunmen who preach the Good Book when they aren’t shooting outlaws on Main Street, are far from meek.

Al Lacy is the best-selling author of more than 100 such Westerns. His popular Journeys of the Stranger series follows the wanderings of the preacher John Stranger, a mysterious loner who rides into town with a Colt .45 in one hand and a Bible in the other. In Legacy, Lacy’s first novel in the series, Stranger bursts in on the Turk Dunphy gang after they’ve just robbed a bank and taken a woman hostage. He single-handedly captures the outlaws, ties them up, and then rolls up his sleeves to teach Turk a lesson.

After a couple of staggering haymakers, the bleeding outlaw is cowering on the ground. Stranger hoists him to his feet, gives him a few open-handed blows to the face, and asks if he’s ready to listen. Then he starts quoting scripture: “Proverbs 13:15. The way of transgressors is hard. You said you don’t believe any of that sissy Bible stuff, Turk. You’re a transgressor of the law, aren’t you?” The terrified outlaw agrees. “Good boy! Now it’s time to put you and these other transgressors in the grave.”

Stranger doesn’t actually kill the Turk Dunphy gang here — he picks them off one by one toward the end of the novel — but you could still be forgiven for thinking that Stranger’s actions seem a little unchristian. To some, the emphasis on violence and vigilante justice so characteristic of the Western might seem to be about as far away from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as you can get.

Not so, according to Lacy. As the back of the novel matter-of-factly states, John Stranger is a hero who fights evil with “both gently spoken biblical wisdom and unequalled gun-fighting skill.” The implication is that cold-blooded murder and biblical study are not only compatible, but are essentially two sides of the same righteous coin.

The distance between the politically progressive evangelical novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the violent evangelical Westerns is a reminder of just how far to the right evangelical Christianity has shifted. Belief in the redeeming power of violence, always a feature of the Western, seems to have found its way into Christian discourse.

The best example of this, of course, is George W. Bush, the born-again President who is able to begin a speech with cowboy vows to “smoke ’em out” and “get ’em on the run” and conclude with “God bless America” without any discernable sense of irony. By co-opting the rhetoric of the Western, Bush is invoking an entire narrative structure and set of values. He is setting himself up as the lone gunslinger who has to ignore the pleas of those around him and “do what he’s gotta do.” As we know from the Western, what a man’s gotta do generally involves violence.

Given the Western’s complete rejection of the values of 19th-century Christianity, the Christian right’s appropriation of elements of the genre is somewhat ironic. It’s also entirely fitting.

The simplistic good versus evil dichotomy of the Western is almost ideally suited to the Manichean attitude of the Christian right today. Both deal in moral absolutes: You’re either righteous or evil, with us or against us. In the Western, you can always tell the good guys by the colour of their hats.