In 2008, the Gaither Vocal Band released a song called “Jesus and John Wayne,” about a young man’s struggle to live a godly life. Though striving after the soft purity of Jesus as exemplified by his mother, the man often finds himself living like a rough and rugged John Wayne as modeled by his father. He resigns himself to a compromise lifestyle somewhere between “a cowboy and a saint.” When Kristin Kobes Du Mez set to work on her study of white evangelical masculinity in 2016, the Gaither song offered her a title. And yet, as readers of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation will quickly discover, Du Mez is not describing a movement in search of a happy medium. For the past 80 years, she argues, white evangelical speakers, writers, and media figures have been idealizing a form of manliness that is at once all Jesus and all John Wayne, calling their audiences to hyper-masculinity as an orienting center. Men are pushed to be extra-manly, wives to be sexy and supportive, and children to mind authority as they grow into their own designated gender tracks. Along the way, this model of Christian patriarchy seeks to govern the home, the school, the church, and ultimately, the nation.
A professor of history at Calvin University and the author, previously, of A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, Du Mez’s new book pledges to explain the current state of white evangelicalism—from family dynamics to voting preferences—with help from gender analysis.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Du Mez about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: What is the relationship between evangelicalism and masculinity, and what prompted you to write about it?
Kristin Kobes Du Mez: Evangelicalism isn’t just about theological doctrines, and “family values” evangelicalism isn’t just a set of political commitments. Evangelicalism is a way of life. For over half a century, evangelicals have been “focusing on the family,” and distinct gender roles have been at the heart of this. Evangelicals have bought and read millions of books about how to raise boys and girls, how to be a man, and how to be a woman. To understand American evangelicalism, we have to take gender seriously, to understand how gender connects to theology and politics, and how it is at the heart of the evangelical worldview. To be clear, there isn’t just one evangelical masculinity, and individual women and men respond to prescriptive advice in all sorts of ways. But in Jesus and John Wayne, I trace the history of a particularly militant strand of evangelical masculinity that has been a defining feature of conservative white evangelicalism.
It was my students who first brought this to my attention, back in about 2006. I was doing a unit on Teddy Roosevelt, focusing on the relationship between gender and foreign policy and things like that. Some of my students brought in this book, Wild at Heart by John Eldredge, and told me that I had to read it because of the way it fashioned a manly Christianity. So I looked into it and found that it was practically ubiquitous. At that time it was hard to find a church anywhere that wasn’t holding a Wild at Heart study for men and a Captivating study for women. (Ed: Captivating was co-written by Eldredge’s wife, Stasi.) My home church was doing them. I started paying attention to this popular literature, coming to it through the lens of gender analysis, and reading it against history. This was all happening at the same time as the Iraq War, so as I was having these conversations with my students, I was also paying attention to the surveys showing that white evangelical Christians supported the war at much higher rates than other Americans, supported torture at much higher rates, and I started drawing some connections.
R&P: This book grew out of a piece that you wrote for Religion & Politics, correct?
KKD: Yes! Since about 2010, I had been giving talks on evangelicalism and masculinity and had been approached by publishers, but there were two things at that point that made me a little hesitant to dive into a book project. For one, the things that I was uncovering were very depressing. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live with that for the years that I knew it would take to write a book. For another, I wasn’t sure at first how mainstream it all was. As a Christian myself, I wanted to be careful about shining a bright light on this dark underbelly of American Christianity if it was merely a fringe phenomenon. Around this time I finished my first book, began another on the religious history of Hillary Clinton, and committed myself to that project through 2016. However, just before the election, things clicked for me. The Access Hollywood tape came out, white evangelical elites continued to defend Trump, his support among white evangelical voters remained strong, and I thought, “Ugh, I think I know what’s going to happen and I think I know why.” That’s when I pulled some of that old research and wrote “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity.”
R&P: You distinguish evangelical theology from evangelical culture, and place this idealized hyper-manliness squarely in the cultural camp. Can you explain that distinction?
KKD: Well, there is an important difference between the pure theology that is investigated by scholars and the popular version that trickles down to the average person in the pew. My students, many of whom are nondenominational or evangelical, often seem to know very little formal theology and have a hard time articulating theological concepts in detail, but they have been immersed in evangelical popular culture. They’ve grown up in families in which James Dobson’s radio show was on all the time, they’ve read popular books on masculinity, on femininity, on dating, and these cultural influences have been at the center of their religious practice. So rather than focusing only on the finer points of doctrine, I want to look at the faith that evangelicals really inhabit.
Recently, I was teaching a class in which I had students read the first three chapters of Genesis. Afterward, in the course of our discussion, one of my students raised her hand and said that she just realized she had never read these chapters before. She thought she had, but now it occurred to her that her knowledge of their content had been drawn primarily from the Veggie Tales videos. One by one, other students raised their hands and said, “Me too.” So that’s one of my operative questions: What has really formed the faith of most evangelicals? Is it the Scriptures? Is it formal theology? Or is it something else?
Theology does play a role here, but theology is shaped by culture as much as it gives shape to culture. In my research, I came across fascinating instances where commitments to certain gender roles ended up altering traditional theological beliefs. So it’s the interplay between theology and culture that’s key.
R&P: Of all the cultural icons to draw on for the title, why choose John Wayne?
KKD: Well, I was surveying dozens of books on Christian masculinity. Some of them are huge bestsellers—they’ve sold numbers that would absolutely put us to shame as academic writers—and I noticed that John Wayne was this touchstone that kept popping up again and again as the model of Christian manhood. I also saw that this was important in terms of understanding what was going on culturally in the United States during the 1960s and 70s. It signaled a merger between militant masculinity and Christian nationalism that was taking hold at the heart of this new, partisan evangelical identity. John Wayne is a great example of that cultural politics that was taking shape against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. That said, I could have just as well titled the book, Jesus and William Wallace, or Teddy Roosevelt, or soldiers, or cowboys—but John Wayne embodies all of these.
R&P: How has this preoccupation with masculinity affected family life? In what ways have evangelical men tried to “man up” as husbands and fathers?
KKD: They’ve done so in different ways at different times in different families. Some of the best work parsing this out has focused on the 1990s with the Promise Keepers, which was actually a step back from militant masculinity and defined by a softer sort of patriarchy. But even if you look at that example, you can see that individual men and women respond to this ideology in different ways. It’s not simply a mold that produces identical subjects. All sorts of evangelical men, especially those now in their 30s and 40s, will have run up against this in some way. Whether they have embraced and tried to live it, or rejected it, or never felt entirely at home in a church because of it, they will be familiar with it. Many of the men I’ve talked to report that it made them feel inferior—as though they were never as masculine as they should be. For all the talk of adventure and action, they still have normal jobs and middle-class lifestyles. You have all these men reading Wild at Heart, doing these macho Bible studies, going to these boot camps, but when you see pictures of them, they’re wearing khakis and polo shirts, or something like that. In some ways, it shapes their ideology more easily than it shapes their daily lives. There are lots of other factors that affect how you live. What is your wife like, for instance? What is she going to put up with? This ideology is about evangelical men, but it’s also very much about the evangelical women who live with them.
R&P: How have the women responded?
KKD: For evangelical women, especially in conservative communities, there are very high expectations for submission to their husbands. In some cases, they can find this empowering, or at least that’s what they claim. But to be in the home, to lift up your husband, to help him be the leader he is being told he needs to be—all of these things come at a certain psychological cost. One of the more disturbing things that I came across concerns sexuality. While emphasizing the importance of women’s purity, evangelical masculinity also stresses that wives must satisfy all of a husband’s sexual needs within heterosexual marriage. Though purity culture forecloses sexual behavior before marriage, the wedding marks a transition after which men are supposed to be rewarded for waiting, if in fact they did. Evangelical masculinity insists that men are driven by testosterone, with voracious sex drives, which is what makes them dangerous and threatening and empowered for leadership. It’s up to women to meet those sexual needs. When I started reading up on evangelical sex advice, I was struck by how much of this domestic, marital advice was directly connected to the nation state. It was so important for a wife to meet her husband’s sexual needs so that his confidence will be bolstered so that he can be an effective leader—not just of the family, but of the nation. This is a refrain that I kept encountering throughout my research.
R&P: Many of the figures that you consider have been heavily invested in militaristic rhetoric and in lionizing the military. Do they enjoy a special relationship with the armed services?
KKD: In recent decades white evangelicals have cultivated a very close relationship with the military. You could see that during World War II and the Korean War, but Vietnam was really the pivotal moment when white evangelicals embraced the military, supported the war effort, defended American soldiers, and so opened avenues to national power. Keep in mind that, at this time, the Protestant mainline was either backing away from or actively opposing the war. Evangelicals were inclined to defend the war in part because they had been evangelizing the military since the 1940s. They saw the military as their mission field, they’d been telling missionary stories about rough and tough soldiers who come to Christ. This, of course, dovetailed with their politics of anticommunism and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy at the very moment when other Americans were becoming more skeptical. It was a critical turning point. I’m struck by just how many books on Christian manhood that were published in subsequent decades refer back to Vietnam. They often open with Vietnam War stories about masculinity being proven on the battlefield. The implication is that, if you aren’t embracing the military in general, even and especially in cases like Vietnam, then you are not living up to the expectations that God has placed upon your manliness. This helps explain why, by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, white evangelicals had effectively baptized the military and the military was welcoming evangelical figures and ideas with open arms.
R&P: Evangelical masculinity is closely tied to conservative politics, and routinely pitched as the “tough guy” antidote to liberal wussiness. And yet you seem to sense a mix of fear and opportunism at work.
KKD: The standard narrative of evangelical political activity in the last decade or so states that white evangelicals are afraid. They’re under siege, they’re threatened by demographic changes, liberals are out to get them, they’d been bullied by Barack Obama, etc. They felt they were losing their place in this country and essentially forfeiting their right to exist, which is why they’ve pivoted toward a more aggressive politics. As a historian, though, I was interested in uncovering the origin of this fear. And I found that, rather than a situational response to the politics of the Obama years, this evangelical fear dates back many decades, and has usually been stirred by white evangelical elites. You see this on a national stage with someone like Jerry Falwell, but it’s been just as prevalent locally, coming from pastors issuing dire warnings to their congregations about the cultural and political forces that are out to get them. Someone like Mark Driscoll is a wonderful example as well. From the beginning, members of Mars Hill were taught to fear, not just the world, but anything that was not Mars Hill—other churches were filled with false teachers, for example. This culture of fear was stoked by these leaders themselves, so that they could then offer the antidote. They could protect their congregations from whatever threat they had conjured. It was a strategic effort to enhance their own power and cultivate the loyalty of their congregations. Once that clicked for me, I began to see the larger pattern. I think the best contemporary example may be the pervasive Islamophobia. Aside from evangelical pastors preaching the threat of “Sharia Law,” Christian bookstores have been stocked with titles by supposed—but generally fraudulent—former Muslim extremists warning of all the horrible things that Muslims plan to do to American Christians, especially American evangelicals, because they have been the most faithful. There is perhaps no better “other” to bind congregants more closely to their pastors and to conservative politicians.
R&P: By the end, the book has recounted about 80 years of white evangelical insecurity and over-compensation. Does this explain the devotion to Donald Trump?
KKD: I think it does. A lot of the explanations offered by journalists and scholars and evangelicals themselves have centered on the question of whether they’re hypocrites, whether the vote was transactional, whether they were “holding their noses,” and so on. They voted for him, we’re told, because of the Supreme Court or abortion or religious liberty. But what I saw was that this model of militant masculinity, this us-versus-them mentality, was really at the heart of conservative white evangelicalism, and that there were some obvious and profound similarities between that faith and Donald Trump. Which isn’t to say that all evangelicals loved Trump, but the affinities were there. I think the decision was much easier than most outsiders might think. You hear terms like “family values” and “moral majority” and then you look at Trump and think, “How could you?!” But if you think about what “family values” means in practice, and how “morality” is employed, then the distance suddenly seems not so great.
R&P: Your final chapter, on “evangelical mulligans,” revisits many of the influential figures discussed earlier in the text, only to report on their subsequent indiscretions, disgraces, and downfalls. What is the moral of these stories?
KKD: Over the course of my research, I watched as one man after another who had made a name for himself by promoting this militant masculinity became implicated, directly or indirectly, in sexual abuse scandals. It was hard not to see connections between an ideology that embraces power and aggression and “toughness,” and reserves all power for men, with abuses of that power. Under this system, women and children are assigned subservient roles and told that subservience is obedience or godliness. There were so many heartbreaking stories where women felt they had no recourse, and where faith communities covered for abusers, because they thought they were protecting the church’s witness. I think that the version of patriarchal power conservative evangelicals have been promoting has left women and children especially vulnerable. It has caused a lot of harm inside their communities, and also at the national and even international level.