As Donald Trump prepares to take the oath of office, many white evangelicals will be celebrating. Yet the fact that “family values” conservatives continue to rally around Trump has bewildered many people, including a number of evangelicals themselves.
Trump, after all, is a man who boasted of his “manhood” on national television, who incited violence at his rallies, and bragged of assaulting women. He is a man who spoke in the chapel of a Christian college in Iowa—my alma mater, no less—and claimed that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose voters.
Certainly, his behavior did little to dissuade the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for him, a constituency that proved key to his victory.
Yes, there were Supreme Court appointments and fears about religious freedom to consider, and a longstanding alliance with the Republican Party to contend with. But even so, how could the self-professed “Moral Majority” embrace a candidate who seemed to flaunt his own cruelty?
The truth is, many evangelicals long ago replaced the suffering servant of Christ with an image that more closely resembles Donald Trump than many would care to admit. They’ve traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates the least of these for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Having replaced the Jesus of the gospels with an idol of machismo, it’s no wonder many have come to think of Trump himself as the nation’s savior.
Indeed, white evangelical support for Trump can be seen as the culmination of a decades-long embrace of militant masculinity, a masculinity that has enshrined patriarchal authority, condoned a callous display of power at home and abroad, and functioned as a linchpin in the political and social worldviews of conservative white evangelicals. In the end, many evangelicals did not vote for Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.
THE ROOTS OF THIS ideology can be traced back to the 1970s, a decade in which evangelicals began to stake a new claim on politics and culture. As they mobilized around “family values” issues, defining masculinity and femininity was central to their task. James Dobson was one of the earliest and most influential proponents of this effort. The psychologist rose to fame with his 1970 book Dare to Discipline, but it was five years later that he began to articulate his gender ideology: men and women differed “biochemically, anatomically, and emotionally.” To wit, men like to “hunt and fish and hike in the wilderness”; women prefer to “stay at home and wait for them.” More significantly, “men derive self-esteem by being respected; women feel worthy when they are loved.”
Writing in 1980, Dobson blamed feminists for calling into question “everything traditionally masculine,” for tampering with the “time-honored roles of protector and protected,” and for denigrating masculine leadership as “macho.” He saw this as a crisis of gender, but also as a threat to national security. For the sake of the nation, a “call to arms” was needed, a reassertion of the “Judeo-Christian concept of masculinity” in the face of feminists’ “concerted attack on ‘maleness.’”
To understand how changing gender roles could imperil the nation, the politicization of evangelical Christianity must be placed in the context of Cold War politics, and against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
Evangelicals staunchly opposed communism, and their reasons for doing so were many: communists were anti-American, anti-God, and they threatened God-given rights and the integrity of the family. A strong military was necessary to ward off the communist peril, and strong men were essential to a strong military.
But the rising generation caused reason for concern. Young men sporting long hair and flowered shirts dodged the draft, shunned authority, and shirked their duty to protect America from the threat of global communism. The Vietnam era would emerge as a pivotal moment in the relationship between American evangelicals and the U.S. military. In the 1940s and 1950s, evangelicals had often looked askance at the military, which they saw as a source of moral corruption for young men. But as Anne Loveland has argued, evangelicals who supported U.S. military action in Vietnam came to hold the military itself in high (and often uncritical) esteem.
In this climate, gender was never a purely domestic issue. Evangelical opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s and early 80s bears this out, according to Donald Mathews and Jane De Hart. To evangelicals, the ERA challenged the very foundation of the conservative Christian worldview: the idea that gender was a sacred, God-given certainty in an uncertain, fluctuating world. Opposition to the ERA quickly emerged as a key plank in their “family values” platform. But the ERA was also an issue of national security. Evangelicals claimed the ERA would destroy women’s femininity by forcing them to be “like men”—competitive and career-driven, sexually promiscuous—and, most alarmingly, by forcing them to take up arms in military combat. The ERA, then, would not only “masculinize” women, but would also remove from men their obligations of provision and protection, rendering American defenses vulnerable.
Evangelicals like Dobson responded with a clarion call to turn back the tide of impending chaos by reasserting moral absolutes and reestablishing a “Christian civilization.” Defining and defending distinct gender roles was at the heart of this effort, providing conservative evangelicals a clear identity against secularists, feminists, and other liberals.
But by the end of the 1980s their cause seemed to be coming undone. The fall of the Soviet Union and abrupt resolution of the Cold War had upended their presumed place in the world, economic conditions were making it increasingly difficult for men to fulfill their role as providers, and a growing acceptance of feminism in society at large meant that evangelicals experienced the “new world order” as more than a little disorderly.
Identifying a renewed “crisis of masculinity,” evangelicals responded by launching the wildly popular Promise Keepers movement in 1990. Promoted by Dobson, the movement quickly took hold; at its height in 1997, Promise Keepers drew more than 800,000 men to Washington, D.C., for its national rally.
Reflecting the unsettled times, Promise Keepers called for a new Christian masculinity, an alternative both to the “softer,” modern version they found lacking, and to the “macho” version they feared had become outmoded. Their solution: the archetype of the “Tender Warrior.”
Authors like Steve Farrar, Gordon Dalbey, and Stu Weber—all white evangelical men—pioneered this “Tender Warrior” motif. Significantly, all three looked to Vietnam for the source of masculine identity. In Point Man in 1990, Farrar compared a father’s task of protecting his sons from feminization to that of a “point man” leading his troops through the dangers of Vietnam. In Healing the Masculine Soul in 1998, Dalbey, the son of a naval officer, admitted to having neglected the image of the war hero as his blueprint for manhood by joining the Peace Corps and becoming a supporter of feminism, civil rights, and the antiwar movement. Only later did he conclude that manhood “requires the warrior.” And in 1993’s Tender Warrior, Weber—a former Green Beret—opened with a scene depicting the terrors of Vietnam, and explained how God designed men to be providers, protectors, and warriors.
In words that would echo through the movement, Weber insisted that God himself was unmistakably “the Warrior of both testaments.” Forget “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”—Jesus was “the ultimate man.”
BUT WITH DEMOCRATIC President Bill Clinton sending the military on “emasculating” peacekeeping missions, and with debates raging about women in combat and gays in the military, the crisis only deepened. Before long a new slate of books on evangelical masculinity appeared, offering instructions on how to raise properly masculine sons in a “feminized” culture. Abandoning any lip service to “tenderness,” these books championed an unabashedly aggressive, testosterone-driven masculinity.
In Raising a Modern-Day Knight (published in 1997 by Dobson’s Focus on the Family), Robert Lewis offered a detailed guide to help boys attain a “biblically grounded” manhood in a culture where men were “being stripped of their maleness by a modern, secular, feminist culture.” Turning to the “age of knights”—a time rife with powerful symbols of “virile manhood”—Lewis advised staging elaborate manhood ceremonies involving expensive steak dinners and commemorated by symbols of “great value,” such as “a Bible, a shotgun or a plaque.”
In 2001 Dobson himself joined the growing outcry against a “war against boys” in America. In his Bringing up Boys he again he criticized a “small but noisy band of feminists” who attacked “the very essence of masculinity.” He derided “feminists and other social liberals” who wanted to make boys more like girls, and men more like women—“feminized, emasculated, and wimpified.” Bringing up Boys found a receptive audience, quickly selling more than a million copies.
Also in 2001, Douglas Wilson’s Future Men insisted that boys must be raised to be warriors. Central to Wilson’s “definition of masculinity” was the concept of dominion; like Adam, all men were “created to exercise dominion over the earth.” To this end it was “absolutely essential for boys to play with wooden swords and plastic guns,” and “young boys should obviously be trained in the use of real firearms.” Indeed, Wilson called for a “theology of fist fighting.”
Perhaps the most influential evangelical book to appear in 2001 was John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. Amplifying themes articulated by earlier authors, Eldredge insisted that the difference between men and women resided at the level of the soul. And masculinity, according to Eldredge, was thoroughly militaristic. God created men to long for “a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.”
Women’s role was a passive one: women yearned to be fought for. They possessed something “wild at heart,” but it was “feminine to the core, more seductive than fierce.”
But society offered confusing messages to men, according to Eldredge: “Having spent the last thirty years redefining masculinity into something more sensitive, safe, manageable and, well, feminine, it now berates men for not being men.” A “crisis in masculinity” pervaded both church and society because a “warrior culture”—“a place for men to learn to fight like men”—no longer existed.
“If we believe that man is made in the image of God,” Eldredge wrote, then we must remember that “the Lord is a warrior.” Aggression was “part of the masculine design”; men were “hardwired for it.” Attempts to pacify men only emasculated them: “If you want a safer, quieter animal, there’s an easy solution: castrate him.” Yes, “a man is a dangerous thing,” he wrote, but the very strength that made men dangerous also made them heroes.
ONLY MONTHS AFTER Wild at Heart debuted, terrorists struck the United States. Almost overnight Eldredge’s call for “manly” heroes developed a deep and widespread cultural resonance.
The moral certitudes of the “War on Terror”—framed by evangelical president George W. Bush—abruptly replaced the post-Cold War malaise. Once again America needed strong, heroic men to defend the country, at home and abroad.
Evangelicals, many of whom had never strayed from Cold War gender constructions, stood at the ready to address these new conditions. “When those two planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, what we suddenly needed were masculine men,” Farrar wrote in his 2005 book King Me. “Feminized men don’t walk into burning buildings. But masculine men do. That’s why God created men to be masculine.” In no uncertain terms he repudiated the earlier “Tender Warrior” motif: “The trend today is to major on the ‘tender’ and minor on the ‘warrior,’” but “in the trenches you don’t want tenderness.”
It is not difficult to imagine how evangelicals, steeped in literature claiming that men were created in the image of a warrior God, might be receptive to sentiments like those expressed by the late Jerry Falwell, in his 2004 sermon “God is Pro-War.” In fact, surveys demonstrate that traditionalist evangelicals are more likely than other Americans to approve of U.S. engagement in a preemptive war, support military action against terrorism, and condone the use of torture.
This brand of militant masculinity also helps explain the lack of outrage on the part of many evangelicals when it comes to Trump’s character issues. Dobson himself, one of Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, urged fellow Christians “to cut him some slack.”* More tellingly, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and stalwart Trump supporter, explained his endorsement of the unconventional candidate in this way: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”
Ominously, though, there is a fine line between merely speaking of brute force and enacting violence. Less than a month after the election, a 28-year-old white man shot up a D.C. pizzeria with a military-style assault rifle. He said he was in search of a child sex slave ring linked to Hillary Clinton, which turned out to be a hoax generated by fake news reports. Chillingly, he cited one of his favorite books, Wild at Heart, in a post-arrest interview with The New York Times.
On the role of gender in the 2016 election, most observers have scrutinized Clinton’s appeal—or lack thereof. But more revealing is Trump’s testosterone-fueled masculinity, which aligns remarkably well with that long championed by evangelicals. What makes a strong leader? A virile (white) man. And what of his vulgarity? Infidelity? Bombast? Even sexual assault? Well, boys will be boys.
In retrospect, drawing attention to these perceived negatives may have been a fatal error on the part of the Clinton campaign, for among those who embrace this sort of militant masculinity, such character traits paradoxically testify to Trump’s fitness for the job.
Trump appeared at a moment when evangelicals feel increasingly beleaguered, even persecuted. Issues related to gender—from the cultural sea change on gay marriage to transgender bathroom laws to the Hyde Amendment and the contraceptive mandate—are at the center of their perceived victimization. The threat of terrorism looms large, American power isn’t what it used to be, and nearly two-thirds of white evangelicals harbor fears that a once-powerful nation has become “too soft and feminine.”
In Donald Trump, they have found the leader they have been looking for.
Kristin Du Mez is chair of the history department at Calvin College. She is author of A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, and is currently writing a religious history of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
*Correction: This sentence has been updated; James Dobson was one of Donald Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, but he was not one of his earliest evangelical supporters.