Kristin Kobes Du Mez is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University. In her new book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Du Mez documents about eighty years of white evangelical gender discourse, tracing the various ways that a strong emphasis on masculinity has shaped the beliefs, lifestyles, and politics coming out of white evangelical pulpits, publications, and practices.
ECM: What is the relationship between evangelicalism and masculinity, and what prompted you to write about it?
KKD: 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. 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.
ECM: 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.”
ECM: 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.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.