Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, argues in in her latest book, Jesus and John Wayne,that white evangelicals have replaced Jesus with rugged individualists and nationalist icons of politics and popular culture. And in Donald Trump, she says they found one who fulfills those values. Du Mez shows how men of Trump’s ilk have enraptured evangelicals through promises of political influence since the mid-twentieth century.1 In this interview with The Other Journal, Du Mez reflects on the role of pop culture and political strife in evangelicalism, the reactions she has received to her book since its publication, and her future projects.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You have said in past interviews that you were hesitant to work on this book because you believed it might be a fringe project. But you’ve also noted that your early findings were “disturbing” and “depressing.”2 Those are highly personal terms. Could you tell us a little about your personal experience finishing Jesus and John Wayne?
Kristin Kobes Du Mez (KDM): I first began exploring the topic of white evangelical masculinity and militarism more than fifteen years ago, but after a year or so I set the project aside. I was finishing up my first book at the time, and I ended up having three kids in rather quick succession, but I also found the crass, misogynistic, and militaristic teachings of respectable Christian leaders disturbing. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend years of my life immersed in that world. And because what I was encountering seemed really extreme, I wasn’t sure if what I was looking at was just a fringe movement.
The popularity of people like Mark Driscoll or the ideas espoused in John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, which has sold more than 4 million copies, suggested that this movement wasn’t all that marginal, but as a Christian myself, I questioned whether it was a good idea to be shining a bright light on the darkest underbelly of American Christianity. At the time, this seemed like a noble consideration, but it troubles me now. Through my research, I’ve come to see how, over and over again, so-called respectable Christians turned a blind eye to abuses that were right in front of them, often in order to protect the witness of the church. In some ways, I had been one of them.
When I decided to take up the research again in the fall of 2016, I did so with a renewed urgency. What I was reading was still disturbing, but I no longer doubted its relevance. There were certainly some difficult moments in researching and writing the book. The last chapter, “Evangelical Mulligans: A History,” was especially brutal. I hated researching and writing it, and each time I edited the chapter I needed to first brace myself before starting in on it. But I wasn’t alone in this process. I had three incredible student research assistants who worked with me for nearly three years. They were not only amazing researchers, but they were also amazing people. I think that we were a source of encouragement to each other, and we could provide each other with a moral and even spiritual grounding.
Apart from the nature of the subject matter, the writing schedule presented its own challenges. I ended up writing the book, from start to finish, in eighteen months, which required putting in many grueling days. Even so, the writing experience itself often felt cathartic. It felt empowering to put this story into words. It felt almost like a testimony.
TOJ: Perhaps that sense of catharsis or testimony is why the book seems to have attracted such a wide range of readers. It’s interesting that a three-hundred-fifty-page historical work is evoking not just scholarly praise but deeply personal responses on social media. There’s this burgeoning community around the book, especially on your Twitter feed, where people share personal anecdotes and meaningful passages or report new offenses and offenders. That seems fairly remarkable for an academic work of this depth. Did you anticipate this range of responses?
KDM: Writers often aim to bridge the scholarly and popular divide, but few books are able to achieve this successfully. I’d hoped that Jesus and John Wayne would do so, but until a book is published, it’s impossible to know. I was really pleased with how the book came together, though. It said exactly what I wanted it to say and exactly how I wanted to say it. I’d had several scholars read earlier drafts, so I knew its academic standing was solid. Within days of its release, I knew it was also connecting with readers in a deeply personal way.
That first week I started getting poignant letters from readers, and seven months out, the letters keep coming—often several a day. Because Jesus and John Wayne focuses on popular culture, it connects with readers’ own experiences, often viscerally. Looking back, I remember telling my publisher that this was one of the things that set my book apart from other books on similar topics, so maybe I should have expected this deeply personal response. But I can’t say that I anticipated the way the book would be embraced by evangelicals themselves. I am daily astonished and humbled by the way readers are receiving the book. I generally try to avoid the word humbled because it is often tossed around carelessly, but it’s the best way I can describe this experience. I’m incredibly grateful to hear how the book is helping people find clarity and, in many cases, a sense of healing and empowerment. That’s more than I could have hoped for, and I don’t take a single letter for granted. I am moved by each and every one.
TOJ: I can relate to those readers. I especially found your treatment of evangelical consumer culture to be illuminating. You clearly show that the books, book tours, Bible studies, music, Christian bookstores, and publishing industry within evangelicalism played a crucial role in maintaining and distributing evangelical norms and values. Would you connect the dots for us between that consumer culture and the broader world of evangelicalism it helped direct?
KDM: Yes, most scholars like to define evangelicalism according to theological beliefs, but as a cultural historian that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The movement I was observing did not seem to be defined chiefly by its theology. In fact, surveys reveal striking levels of theological illiteracy among evangelicals. So if theology isn’t at the heart of what it means to be an evangelical today, what is?
It seemed to me that participation in an evangelical culture of consumption was more formative than adherence to certain doctrinal statements: Did you grow up listening to Focus on the Family in your home each and every day? Did you shop at Christian bookstores? Did you listen to Christian music or Christian talk radio? This evangelical consumer culture not only shapes evangelical beliefs and values, but it also fosters a sense of communal identity across regional, denominational, and socioeconomic differences.
Rather than asking who is a real evangelical based on a theological rubric, then, we should instead be examining how deeply immersed individuals are in this evangelical consumer culture. Within this framework, we can understand evangelicalism as a series of alliances and distribution networks. Who is producing and selling the literature consumed by millions of evangelicals? Which ideas are deemed beyond the pale, and which are deemed sufficiently orthodox? As we answer these questions, it likely becomes clear that orthodoxy is frequently defined not in terms of theology but rather social and political allegiances.
TOJ: Speaking of political allegiances, one of the fascinating points that you make regarding Trump and his evangelical support is that evangelicals wanted “someone who would break the rules for the right cause.”3 This is interesting because so many of us who know evangelical life well understand that evangelicalism, contrary to this claim, is absolutely about following the rules! Evangelicals have been all about decorum, rules, and traditional norms. Is Trump the new evangelical litmus test for twenty-first-century politics—who will break the rules for us?
KDM: Yes, conservative evangelicals care a lot about rules and boundaries, about submitting (or requiring others to submit) to God-appointed authorities, and about maintaining a hierarchical social and religious order. But those to whom God has purportedly given authority often face little in the way of accountability. Within the framework of an us-versus-them militancy, breaking the rules for a greater good is easily justified.
This is why the figure of Oliver North was so fascinating to me. In fact, I worried that I was becoming obsessed with him as I was writing, and I worried that my editor would try to rein me in on this! But in revisiting North’s story, I saw how evangelicals readily jettisoned basic moral values, like honesty, to embrace someone who wasn’t afraid to do what they thought needed to be done. It felt eerily prescient. I think the hero-worship of North prefigures many of the loyalties and trade-offs we are observing today.
TOJ: One of those trade-offs is clearly between fact and fiction. I’ve been thinking a good bit about conspiracy theories and what feels like an increased willingness among evangelicals to entertain them. Is there anything in evangelicalism that lends itself to this phenomenon? And if so, did you come across anything in your historical research to suggest that these trends are new? Or, like so many other tendencies that you helpfully trace back to the roots of the evangelical movement, is this nothing new?
KDM: Conspiratorial thinking isn’t new. It has often lurked just beneath the surface of respectable evangelicalism. All of the ingredients for conspiratorial thinking are there in the history of conservative evangelicalism. You have the influence of presuppositionalism, or the idea that all truth is God’s truth and that only those who follow God have access to that truth. You have a growing militancy that thrives on an us-versus-them mentality. You have a longstanding suspicion of so-called mainstream media and efforts to counter its influence through religious alternatives—alternatives that allow religious leaders to control the message while also funneling money into religious broadcasting and publishing. It’s always wise to follow the money! Add to that traditions of prophecy teaching and a tendency to cull the Scriptures for secret clues that can be deciphered by a faithful few, and you’re well on your way to the conspiratorial thinking we’re seeing all around us today.
TOJ: Following the Trump presidency and Capitol siege, where we saw pastors pray over the Proud Boys and the full flowering of so-called Patriot churches, some Christian leaders have advocated that the counter to Christian nationalism is just better church discipleship. In Jesus and John Wayne, you show that many of the problems endemic to white evangelicalism have been due to cultural forces rather than theological commitments. For example, you note that churchgoing Republican voters are just as likely to support Trump as Republican voters who do not attend church.4 Is better theology or discipleship the way out of this moment? Or is something else needed? How can we possibly rehabilitate a church culturally?
KDM: It really comes down to the interplay of theology, cultural identity, and political allegiances. We do need better theology and better discipleship. But we also need to understand the various ways in which evangelicals are being discipled. Discipleship is not just what we hear from the pulpit of our local church or even in our small-group Bible study. For evangelicals, discipleship also occurs through Christian media, talk radio, Fox News and Newsmax, and Facebook and Parler. That means we need religious leadership that isn’t in denial about the power of these other sources in shaping religious beliefs and political loyalties. This is a problem that must be dealt with head-on. But it has been ignored for so long that many pastors and other evangelical leaders are only now realizing the limits of their own authority.
That said, it’s also important not to locate the problem outside evangelicalism and to just blame external influences. This isn’t the story of a pure and lovely religious movement being tragically co-opted by politics or of faithful Christians being duped by Fox News. Evangelical leaders built this religious-political movement from the ground up. It’s essential that evangelicals reckon with their own complicity.
TOJ: On this point, evangelical leaders in the mid-twentieth century seem to have been quite intentional about building a brand that paralleled or incorporated the conservative branding of the nation itself. Both movements embraced Cold War fears, new media, a vision of the traditional family, and status quo economics. Does that dual-track development help us understand the nostalgic view of the mid-twentieth century nation even today? Can the two—white evangelicalism and the national identity—be decoupled from one another in any significant way? In other words, is white evangelicalism just the most American version of Christianity?
KDM: White evangelicalism sees itself as the most American version of Christianity in the sense that America equals God’s chosen nation and that evangelicals are God’s most faithful representatives. This national identity is so deeply embedded in conservative white evangelicalism that it’s hard to know where to begin in order to extricate it. Moreover, this distinctly white American brand of Christianity is packaged and sold simply as orthodox Christianity. That is the power of privilege. This means that many evangelicals who embrace a distinct brand of Christian nationalism are unaware that they are doing so. To them, this is simply faithful Christianity.
The best way to begin to undo this is to break down barriers. Often, white evangelicals worship in segregated spaces or in spaces where white evangelicals dictate the terms of the conversation. By entering into relationship with Christians who are not white, not evangelical, or not American, conservative white evangelicals can begin to understand their own cultural, racial, and religious formation. But this isn’t an easy process to facilitate, and if not done right, it can end up reinforcing existing prejudices and preferences.
TOJ: If we conceive of the nation as the home writ large—of national space as domestic space—then do natural connections emerge between controlling and domesticating bodies and spaces, between the expansion of power in both the home and church? It might seem that the election of President Barack Obama or Vice President Kamala Harris represent a kind of national introspection, barrier breaking, or forced reckoning, where we as a country have been made to consider who are we, how we got here, and what missteps we’ve taken along the way in regard to our neighbors. Do you have any confidence that some evangelical churches or denominations can do the same deep, necessary reflective work?
KDM: I think some churches are ready for this work. For too long, fundamental differences in who Jesus is, what it means to follow Christ, and the relationship between Christianity and power have been papered over within evangelical spaces. I think the events of the last five years, and especially the Capitol Hill insurrection, have made it impossible to ignore these differences. It remains to be seen, however, how deep this introspection will go.
Even those who are horrified at what has been done in the name of evangelicalism need to examine their own complicity in this. To do so will require hard questions about exclusion. Who have evangelicals excluded from their communities and from their conversations? How have they, individually and communally, benefitted from these exclusions, and what does it look like to make amends? What abuses have they tolerated or even condoned? And, finally, who is best equipped to lead this reckoning? Quite possible it’s not those who currently enjoy positions of power within evangelicalism.
TOJ: Along those lines, I was really struck by your choice to end Jesus and John Wayne by paying attention to patterns of abuse (sexual and otherwise) and second chances within evangelical leadership, especially in the context of #MeToo. You push against some ongoing anti-Catholic sentiments in evangelical circles, but it’s also a striking conclusion. If I read you correctly, you seem to be suggesting that these are the logical, practical ends of the kinds of masculinity and militarism that evangelicalism has been fostering and protecting for so long. Can you speak to your choice to conclude in this way and to any connections you see between these patterns of abuse and masculinity?
KDM: When I set aside this research long ago, I didn’t stop paying attention to the proponents of militant Christian masculinity. Over the next decade, I watched as one after another of these men became directly or indirectly implicated in scandals—in abuses of power and sexual abuse. When I picked the research back up in the fall of 2016, in the wake of the release of the Access Hollywood tape and Trump’s election, I knew that this would be part of the story. This was pre-#MeToo, so many of these stories existed only on the blogosphere. One of the first things I did when I returned to the project was to consult a lawyer to ask about liability issues. Then, #MeToo and #ChurchToo brought most of these stories to the attention of the national media. This simplified things for me, but even so, that chapter (and, in fact, the entire manuscript) was thoroughly vetted by my publisher’s lawyer.
I’m not sure whether the teachings on masculinity and militarism directly lead to abuse or whether men prone to abuse are drawn to those teachings. I really can’t say. But I can say that communities who embrace these teachings—God-given male aggression and sexual drive and God-ordained female submission—are ill-equipped to confront abuse when it does happen. The stories are harrowing. For many survivors, the abuses themselves are terrible, but sometimes the responses of their communities are even more traumatizing. There is so much victim-blaming and so many efforts to protect perpetrators for the sake of honoring authority or protecting the witness of the church. I’ve heard from many abuse survivors, including some whose stories are in that final chapter, that this book has offered them some peace of mind by making sense of their stories as part of a larger story.
TOJ: That may connect somewhat to your next project, Live, Laugh, Love. In Jesus and John Wayne, you write that “The evangelical cult of masculinity links patriarchal power to masculine aggression and sexual desire; its counterpoint is a submissive femininity.”5 It seems that now, in your next work, you are expanding on this idea of white evangelical femininity. What can you tell us about the project at this stage?
KDM: I devote a chapter in Jesus and John Wayne to evangelical femininity, but it’s relatively early in the book. As I wrote, I was aware that evangelical femininity had morphed over the decades, but this was a book about evangelical masculinity and politics, and so I didn’t have space within the structure of the book to really flesh this out.
Live, Laugh, Love lets me do this in some pretty fascinating ways. I look at inspirational fiction, mommy blogs, CCM, and HGTV, among many other things, and I analyze this broader culture of Christian womanhood in the context of neoliberalism, postfeminism, and white supremacy. There are some sharp edges to this study as well, but I think it’s fair to say that the approach I take is both critical and empathetic. I’m attempting to describe the constraints placed upon white Christian women and the creative ways women are responding to those limitations while also acknowledging the ways in which this culture affects and constrains Christian women themselves, as well as those women who are not white and not Christian.
TOJ: Speaking of women who have likely been constrained by our culture, you were working on a spiritual biography of Hillary Clinton at one point. It seems there’s a bit of energy in the culture now around progressive forms of religious expression—is that a project that you’ll return to?
KDM: Yes, in 2015 and 2016, I was paying very close attention to white evangelicals because I was tracking the various reasons evangelicals disliked—or rather despised—Hillary Clinton. My first book is a history of Christian feminism that focuses on a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Methodist woman. It was clear to me that Clinton stood in a long line of progressive Methodist women, and I wanted to tell the story of her faith formation against the backdrop of twentieth-century religious history.
When Clinton lost the election, I decided the story of Jesus and John Wayne was more urgent. I had intended to return to that next, but when my publisher asked about my next book, I was torn between two projects—the Clinton biography and Live, Laugh, Love. In many ways Live, Laugh, Love is a more logical follow-up to Jesus and John Wayne, and we also decided that it would be good to give a little more time to let the dust settle on Clinton before grappling with her legacy. I can say that what I’ve already uncovered about Clinton is fascinating, and it’s a really important story that needs to be told when the time is right.
TOJ: Given your astute, detailed assessment of the problems that have historically plagued evangelicalism, I’d love to hear where you think evangelicalism should go from here and where you think it will go. If you were given prescriptive powers, what would you call for to address these issues? And, relatedly, do you have any inklings about the future of evangelicalism during a Biden presidency?
KDM: First, a caveat: I’m fairly decent at analyzing the past, but I lose all confidence when it comes to predicting the future. History is filled with twists and turns, and particularly in light of the aberration of the Trump presidency, it’s hard to detect patterns that might apply in this situation.
That said, conservative evangelicalism has tended to consolidate its power and become more radicalized when a Democratic president is in the White House. That doesn’t bode well for the sort of evangelical reckoning many are calling for. But Trump was different from the Republican presidents who came before him. He had a way of granting evangelicals unprecedented power while also stoking their fears and bringing out reactionary elements. Now that he is out of office and appears much less powerful, how will that affect his base? It’s possible that they will continue to radicalize, and certainly this will be true for some. But when he no longer can claim to be winning, when he no longer has power to wield on behalf of his supporters, it’s also possible that he might lose his luster and that the movement formed around his personality may unravel.
The advice that I give evangelicals who are asking for it right now is to engage in rigorous introspection and to examine their own complicity in the direction evangelicalism has taken. I’d also encourage evangelicals to make amends to those they have excluded or exiled. Conversely, it’s also important for evangelicals to think carefully about rushing to reform or rebuild evangelicalism. Where does this impulse come from? Is there perhaps an unexamined assumption that the fate of Christianity rests on evangelicals themselves?
Christianity is flourishing—and has always flourished—outside of white evangelical strongholds. If white evangelicalism appears to be in disarray, perhaps the best thing for white evangelicals to do is to go elsewhere, to be attentive to those they’ve never paid attention to before, to learn from other traditions, and to listen—to listen to those who are not white, not evangelical, not American. Maybe in time they will return to rebuild white evangelicalism. Or maybe they will discover that there is no need to rebuild that edifice. I really don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that the foundations must be sound before rushing to rebuild, and I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet.
- See Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, NY: Liveright, 2020).
- Eric C. Miller, “The Price of White Evangelical Patriarchy,” Religion and Politics, July 7, 2020, https://religionandpolitics.org/2020/07/07/the-price-of-white-evangelical-patriarchy/.
- Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 253.
- See Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 5–6, 266, and 298.
- Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, 278.