When Chloé Zhao took home the awards for Best Picture and Best Director for her movie Nomadland at this year’s Academy Awards, she made history. The film was only the second best-picture winner directed by a woman, and the first by a woman of color. In her acceptance speech, she thanked those she had “met on the road” who had taught “us the power of resilience and hope and for reminding us what true kindness looks like.”
Twenty-five years ago, the Best Director and Best Picture awards went to a strikingly different feature film. That year, Mel Gibson captured both for his epic film Braveheart. Gibson also starred in the film as the freedom-loving, kilt-wearing William Wallace. Based on the legendary 13th-century Scottish warrior, the film was less about kindness and hope and more about unquenchable violence avenging evil and injustice. In a very different way, Gibson’s film, too, would make history.
Gibson was a conservative Catholic, but it was white evangelicals who would become the film’s most fervent fans. With William Wallace their hero and “Freedom!” their battle cry, American evangelicals assigned the film a prominent place in their culture-wars liturgies.
When the film was released, in 1995, evangelicals were in a time of transition. Their political and cultural values had been forged during the Cold War era, but by the 1990s the Cold War had come to an end, “traditional” gender roles were in retreat, and with the Clintons in the White House, the Religious Right seemed in disarray. All of this made for confusing times, and an evangelical men’s movement emerged in force to address this confusion.
Seeking a path between an outmoded machismo and the emasculating impulses of modern life, organizations like Promise Keepers promoted a “soft patriarchy,” a kinder, gentler model of masculine authority. Across the nation, millions of men sang and prayed together at rallies where they promised to lead their families and their nation.
To some evangelicals, this softer patriarchy felt a bit too soft. Appearing at the height of the evangelical men’s movement, Braveheart offered a more vigorous model of Christian manhood, one that would better equip men to fight the ascendant culture wars.
Braveheart wasn’t the most obvious choice for an inspirational Christian film. In an era predating computer-generated imagery, the film depicted violence on an unprecedented scale; many of the more than 1,800 extras ending up dismembered, impaled, or otherwise succumbing to a bloody onscreen end. Despite such graphic violence, and also despite the inclusion of “six obscenities… and two obscene acts,” the film met with the approval of Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission. Baehr saw the movie as “a rallying cry for the supremacy of God’s law” over the authority of officials who had flouted that law, a timely reminder with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.
The film was also riddled with historical inaccuracies, yet it was precisely these inaccuracies that endeared Braveheart to evangelicals. In order to frame the conflict as a religious one, the film depicts Wallace’s nemesis King Edward as a pagan ruler (he was Christian) and the Scottish rebels as earnest Christians. In another fictitious plot point, Wallace marries his childhood friend in secret to spare her from the horrors of primae noctis, or the historically dubious “right of first night,” and then rescues her from attempted rape only to have her killed by English soldiers in her attempt to escape, setting him off on a path of unquenchable violence. In another contrived plot twist, Wallace has an affair with Princess Isabella, who is drawn to Wallace’s inexorable masculinity that contrasts starkly with her own husband’s effeminacy.
When confronted with the film’s many inaccuracies, Gibson was unapologetic: “I’m in the business of cinema. I’m not an (expletive) historian.” But evangelicals loved the film for its righteous warrior motif, for its portrayal of rugged masculinity, feminine purity, and for its call to heroic action. Offering evangelicals a fantasy that resonated with their own values and desires, Braveheart became a touchstone for a generation of American evangelicals.
At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan acknowledged that the Cold War had ended but insisted that a new war had begun, “a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself”—a war “for the soul of America.” This war, too, required warriors. When he ran for president in 1996, religious supporters heralded him with shouts of “Braveheart!”
In 2000, Mark Driscoll, the notoriously militant (and misogynistic) pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, adopted the pseudonym “William Wallace II” to goad members on his church’s online discussion board: “I love to fight… Fighting is what we used to do before we all became pussified,” before America became a “pussified nation.”
The next year, John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul secured Braveheart’s place within evangelical popular culture. Inspired by Gibson’s William Wallace, Eldredge’s God was a warrior god and men were made in his image. His Jesus, too, was more akin to the Scottish warrior than to Mister Rogers, and men were to follow his example. “In your life you are William Wallace,” he asserted; every man had a battle to fight and a beauty to rescue.
Only months after Wild at Heart debuted, terrorists struck the United States. A very real “battle to fight” had suddenly materialized for American men, and Eldredge’s call for heroic warrior masculinity took hold within and beyond American evangelicalism. Wild at Heart would sell more than four million copies, becoming ubiquitous in evangelical churches, colleges, small-group Bible studies, and Christian bookstores. Christian men retreated to the wilderness to participate in Wild at Heart Boot Camps. Churches fashioned their own events featuring homegrown “Braveheart Games,” with activities ranging from changing tires on a car to throwing axes and chasing greased pigs. Evangelical pastors showed clips of the film in Sunday sermons while men’s ministries held Braveheart viewing nights. One Christian college boasted a Braveheart dorm (the film was the only R-rated film allowed to be shown). Meanwhile, copycat books with titles like No More Christian Nice Guy abounded.
The election of Barack Obama only heightened evangelical militancy and the need for a Christian warrior masculinity. In 2013, Ted Cruz pointed to Braveheart as “the key to understanding Washington,” and he liked to envision himself a modern-day William Wallace. In 2016, however, Ted Cruz would not be leading the charge.
Many observers were baffled by evangelical support for Donald Trump, a man who seemed the very antithesis of family-values evangelicalism. In fact, Trump embodied the rugged warrior masculinity that many evangelicals had come to expect in their political leaders, in terms of ruthlessness if not actual physical form.
According to his evangelical biographers, Trump was evangelicals’ “ultimate fighting champion,” and although they conceded that evidence was sketchy, his biographers noted that according to “family history” Trump’s ancestors included “an incredible soldier who fought the English at the Battle of Bannockburn”—the battle depicted in Braveheart’s closing scene.
The man best suited to lead “Christian America” wasn’t a man formed by traditional Christian virtue; it was a man who would do what needed to be done to protect faith, family, and nation. For the next four years, conservative white evangelicals remained loyal to their warrior leader.
Braveheart continues to inspire. In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch shot up a Washington, D.C. pizzeria in order to break up a non-existent child-sex ring; after his arrest, he told The New York Times that his favorite book was Wild at Heart. When Jerry Falwell Jr. and Charlie Kirk founded their think-tank “for faith and liberty,” they called it the Falkirk Center, a clever play on their own names and also the name of a battle featured in Braveheart. At the Jan. 6 rally-turned-insurrection, a man could be seen carrying a Braveheart sign featuring an image of Trump as William Wallace, sword in hand. This past February, when Ted Cruz sought to position himself as Trump’s successor at CPAC, he struck a belligerent tone and closed his speech with “the immortal words of William Wallace,” shouting “Freedom!” with as much gusto as he could muster.
More significant than any individual act, however, the legacy of Braveheart can be glimpsed in a generation of evangelicals who have chosen fear over hope and militancy over kindness, and who have transformed the Jesus of the Gospels into a ruthless warrior king who leads them into the battles of their own choosing.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez is the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.