Interview: Kristin Kobes Du Mez Talks Gendered Racism, White Patriarchy, and ‘Jesus and John Wayne’

Kristin Kobes Du Mez
(Photo: Deborah Hoag)

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. Du Mez holds a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and her research focuses on the intersection of gender, religion, and politics. Her most recent book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

Faithfully Magazine spoke with Du Mez regarding her book, which surveys the history of White Evangelicalism’s idealization of militant white patriarchy. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

I am a professor of history at Calvin University. I’ve been here I think it’s 17 years now. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church in a small town in northwest Iowa. I spent much of my life there. My family moved to Florida for a couple of years and then back to Sioux Center again. I attended Dordt College (now Dordt University) and then I went to study American Religious History at the University of Notre Dame. It was after I finished my degree that I was hired at Calvin. And so that’s kind of been my professional journey.

My research has focused on gender and religion. That was an interest I picked up not as an undergraduate but as a graduate student. I had had almost no introduction to gender studies, women’s history, or anything of the sort as an undergrad. I encountered this in graduate school and immediately changed my course of study to gender and religion. My first book is on the history of Christian feminism, and that I think really gave me eyes to see some of the themes that I explore in Jesus and John Wayne. Simply knowing that historically, “orthodox Christians” had varying views on gender and on patriarchy led me to be more curious about patriarchal constructions of Christianity today and historically, and not to just accept them as a given, as “traditional Christianity.” So then, Jesus and John Wayne is my second book.

What is the backstory to Jesus and John Wayne? When and how did you realize that you needed to write this book?

There are two moments. The first moment that drove me to begin researching this actually was more than 15 years ago. I was a new professor at Calvin and was teaching a course in U.S. history, and I lectured on Teddy Roosevelt because I wanted to introduce my students to what I had learned about gender and how gender operates in history. This was a great example of masculinity as it connects to ideas of foreign policy, to power, to empire, to religion, to all sorts of things.

So, I lectured on Roosevelt, and right after class, a couple of students from the class came up to me and said, “Professor Du Mez, there’s this book you have to read.” And that was John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart [Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul]. Eldredge opens with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, and the whole book is this very militant, militaristic conception of Christian masculinity. It was this massive bestseller that went on to sell more than four million copies. I was really curious, because at that same time, this was the early years of the Iraq War, and we had all this survey data coming out that White Evangelicals more than any other religious demographic were pro-war pro-preemptive war, condoned the use of torture, like all this stuff. And so, as a gender historian, I just asked, might this have to do with this very aggressive conception of “Christian masculinity?”

That was a long time ago, and I ended up setting the research aside. I had to finish my first book, which was my dissertation turned into a book. I had three kids. I also had this question at the time, because what I was uncovering was really disturbing: how much is this really a fringe movement that I’m looking at? People like Mark Driscoll, the rhetoric of somebody like Eldredge, and so many copycat authors by that time. Is this a fringe movement? Do I need to waste my time on this? I just wasn’t sure. So I set it aside, intending to come back to it at some point. Then, the Fall of 2016 is when I dusted off that research in the weeks after the [Trump] Access Hollywood tapes were released. And at that point, it just clicked. I realized that we had seen this before, we had seen these patterns before. All of the commentators were, you know, asking how evangelicals could betray their values to support somebody like Donald Trump. I realized that if you know this history, I don’t think that’s the right way to frame this. This was not a betrayal. This support for Trump is in many ways consistent with many of their values, including what they call “family values” Evangelicalism. So at that point, I decided I needed to write this book.

Jesus and John Wayne specifically traces how white patriarchy and White Evangelicalism became intertwined. Both as an author and as a professor of history, in what ways have you found that White Evangelicals are unaware of their own history?

I did not realize fully when I was writing this book just how almost revolutionary the story would be to White Evangelicals themselves. One of the pleasant surprises with the publication of this book is how White Evangelicals and many conservative White Evangelicals have embraced it. I did not count on that, and my publisher did not either. And so, it’s actually been quite phenomenal to watch this play out.

But what has really struck me was just how ignorant many White Evangelicals were of the history that I present here. I didn’t fully comprehend how much White Evangelicals’ understanding of their past is a very sanitized version. It’s very carefully packaged. They encounter their past through Evangelical media and within the Evangelical subculture for the most part. Even many of the academic histories written about Evangelicals are written by Evangelical historians about Evangelicals.

What I learned is that there are things acceptable to say, and then there are lines that you just don’t cross. There’s a tendency to give Evangelicalism the benefit of the doubt, to take Evangelicalism at their word, in terms of what is the essence of their movement. Where I challenge that a little bit is if you ask Evangelical leaders, “What is an Evangelical?” they will give you a theological definition and privilege that. For me as a cultural historian, that wasn’t really working for me and I examine Evangelicalism as a cultural and historical movement. Those sorts of things led to this history being very different from previous histories, in that it wasn’t afraid to tell the truth about figures who loomed large in Evangelical history. At the same time, it’s history of popular culture. So it’s a history that almost every reader who has spent any time in White Evangelical circles has multiple points of connection with. They read these books, they listen to this radio. So it’s very intimately familiar on the one hand, and yet the framework and how all of these things connect together is like startlingly new to them. That’s the reaction I keep running up against among readers that, “Yes, this is a story of my life, but I never saw how all these pieces fit together.” So there’s this real introspection in terms of understanding this is their story and understanding that they are actually complicit in this and reckoning with that, even as they are grateful to finally understand and be able to say, “Okay, so what comes next? How do we undo some of this?”

You specifically talk in the book about how this militant masculinity is closely identified with Christian nationalism and a White racial identity, and this even connects to the complementarian movement. Can you talk about gendered racism within complementarianism and how Christians of color factored in these discussions about manhood and conservatism?

On the one hand, you’re going to find within complementarian communities a welcome on the part of White Evangelicals towards Christians of color who endorse conservative gender roles or complementarian gender roles. So I want to acknowledge that. On the other hand, if you trace back historically, it’s clear that the ideals of patriarchal authority that really come to the fore in the 1960s and ’70s and move to the center of Evangelical identity are very much ideals of white patriarchy.

The first thing that tipped me off to this actually was just reading books of the of more recent vintage, like Eldredge and others, and paying careful attention to their heroes, because these books are obsessed with heroes, right? “We need masculine heroes,” “We need role models.” Well, who are these heroes? Invariably, they were White men. Invariably, more often than not, they were also White men who proved their heroism by subduing non-White men and women.

Teddy Roosevelt is a great example; he was a favorite hero. Well, what do we know about Teddy Roosevelt? He was this rough rider and the Spanish American War and American empire now on the Wild West — that’s where he proved his masculinity by subduing the Native Americans. He’s just one example. They love cowboys generally. The title of my book, Jesus and John Wayne. John Wayne becomes the symbol of iconic American manhood and Christian manhood. Well, who is John Wayne? And we can talk about his actual politics, which were really quite racist and white supremacist, but on screen, he was again, this cowboy hero subduing Native [American] populations. And then he was World War II hero, subduing the Japanese, and then in Vietnam he’s also this great American soldier subduing the North Vietnamese. So here, again, you just see this repeated pattern. And I think we have to understand that. It is a heroic, white masculinity that is championed, and the heroism involves the necessity of using violence to achieve order. But this is really the privilege and duty of a White man to use violence to achieve order.

When I saw in these more recent publications and asked, “Where do non-White men factor in here?” They’re primarily seen as threats. Islamic men are going to be a huge threat that “we need to defend against.” When you look at survey data on things like Black Lives Matter and White law enforcement, you see these pretty stark patterns. If you just look at symbols and in conceptions of heroism, it’s a very racial ideal.

Then going back historically, this real emphasis on gender difference did emerge in the crucible of the Cold War era and against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement as well. When you look at rhetoric around things like the authority of parents in family values Evangelicalism — which was a really big deal, they’re very concerned about who wields authority, and that society must be structured around God-given hierarchies of authority. Then, we see there too, that in many cases, this was the presumed authority of White parents. And the really important backdrop here is desegregationism. Other scholars like Randall Balmer have pointed out that the Religious Right really did mobilize initially not around abortion, but around the right of White Christian parents to send their kids to private White academies and to protect that right. But it was rarely framed in explicitly racial terms, and increasingly. It was simply the “authority of parents over their children.” But it wasn’t acknowledged that Black parents might have authority to make choices for their children as well! And anytime you see the “authority of parents,” this is always taking place within a patriarchal home, and so it really is the authority of the White father here. So again, just going back historically and when you hear these words and you encounter these values that appear to be racially neutral, when you situate them historically, you can see that there is actually a pretty explicit racial subtext here that we need to appreciate. That can help us make sense of a lot of the politics that we see emerging out of this movement over the course of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and really up to the present.

You say in Jesus and John Wayne that “family value politics were deeply intertwined with racial politics, and both were connected to evangelicals’ understanding of the nation and its role on the global stage.” Can you explain why it’s important to recognize that this is both-and, not just one or the other?

This is a book about White Evangelical masculinity and militarism. Multiple times, as I was writing, I was thinking, “This could just as well be a book about Evangelical racism, right? And then gender could be added to it to see how it finds expression, right?” These are facets of the same thing and they really can’t be separated out historically. Then, just as an ideology, they fit together very nicely. So race is a constant theme throughout Jesus and John Wayne.

To answer your question more specifically, if we just take the concept, for example, of Christian nationalism, which was a kind of unifying value for conservative White Evangelicals coming out of World War II, this idea that America was created as a Christian nation at its origins and that it was uniquely blessed by God, but then things started to go wrong at a certain point, and exactly where things started to go wrong is open for consideration. But often, it’s the 1960s that is agreed upon. Things were going great until the 1960s. Christian nationalism has this idea that we’re trying to recover Christian America, the values that once made this country great, and we need to recover those in order to make America great again. That’s the narrative of Christian nationalism, Evangelicals as the most faithful Christians have a really critical role to play, both in keeping American Christianity pure and in keeping America strong. Now, it’s worth noting, again, this is presented in racially neutral language. It’s just “Christian America.” It’s “Christianity.” It’s “Keeping America strong.” But this whole narrative only makes sense if you’re a White Christian. “Things were really great until the 1960s…” that really makes no sense if you are anybody who’s not White, if you are a Black American and a black Christian. So oftentimes within White Evangelicalism, the racial subtext is invisible to White Evangelicals themselves. It is so fundamental to their values, and one of the things I tried to do in Jesus and John Wayne is to just make that more visible.

I’d love to hear your reflections about White Evangelicalism in a post-Trump era. From your research of history, when the political figureheads that support the “Jesus and John Wayne” ideals are no longer in power, does this seem to die down or do people seem to dig their heels in even deeper?

This is the question of the hour. When we just look at recent decades of Evangelical political power, they tend to kind of lose momentum when one of their own is in the White House. So during the Reagan years, almost counterintuitively — but it makes sense when you actually think about it — you see a lot of organizations of the Religious Right losing members and losing their strength because it was really hard to rile up supporters. When the Clintons move in, then suddenly, you can raise the money, you could grow those mailing lists. We saw the same thing with the George W. Bush presidency. The movement start to peter out by the end of the George W. Bush administration in a bit of disarray, and then Barack Obama wins the election, and that really jump-starts the movement again and they’re able to consolidate their strength and we see a return to more radicalization. That has been the pattern which would suggest that we should be very concerned right now, because it traditionally has been when they are out of power that White evangelicals are able to radicalize to consolidate their power.

With that said, I want to get to your question about a figurehead. I think that Trump might change this equation because I think he already changed the equation. During his four years, he was able both to give Evangelicals more disproportionate power even as he stoked fear and resentment in Evangelicals. He was able to do it all, and that was, in some ways, his genius, I think, because he was unlike any leader who had come before him. In so many ways, I think we’re in uncharted territory.

I think that on the one hand, you could see especially with the conspiracy theories, the fake news, further echo chambers polarization, people have moved off Facebook onto Parler and so on, we now have News Max and not just Fox… there’s definitely the potential for more radicalization and for kind of a festering, and we’ll see where that pops up next. However, so much of the movement did seem to coalesce around the person of Donald Trump over the last four years. Trump just doesn’t wield the power anymore. He doesn’t look powerful. He doesn’t have his Twitter platform, but he also he doesn’t command. He’s not the “leader of the free world.” White Christians were really attracted to him because of his power and the power that he promised them. So that actually gives me more hope, in terms of his declining influence, simply because his power is so greatly diminished.

All of which is to say, I don’t know what we can expect. Those are the two kinds of lessons from history that I’m drawing, and they’re kind of contradictory. But I’m hopeful even in the last few weeks since the events of January 6, I’m a little more hopeful that we might see more of a dissolution of the movement, rather than increasing radicalization, but it’s way too early to tell.

You spend some time in Jesus and John Wayne talking about sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement. Can you talk about how this patriarchal masculinity seemingly went hand-in-hand with the revelation of sexual abuse at the hands of some of the most outspoken evangelical figures?

I mentioned that I had initially started this research more than 15 years ago, then I set it aside for a variety of reasons, but I didn’t stop paying attention. And so, I watched over the next decade, as one after another of the men that I’ve been tracking became either directly or indirectly implicated in sexual abuse scandals, or more broadly, abuse of power. I was taking notes. That’s how I was able to also see the connections in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” moment that we’ve seen this before. We’ve specifically seen Evangelicals rally around abusive leaders. It was a pattern. When I looked at the history, I saw, almost shockingly so, that conservative White Evangelical teachings on sexuality really did provide the framework for these abusive scenarios. The idea of gender difference was just so foundational, and what that meant was that God had filled men with testosterone so they could be strong and aggressive and lead, and that applied in the bedroom as well. Men are the initiators, men have an aggressive sex drive, and that is just the way that God made them.

Women are the complete opposite, different in every cell of their bodies. And so, they are the receptor, the receiver. They are to be modest. All sexual restraint really is placed on their shoulders because the men are filled with testosterone, and that comes with a lot of side effects. That’s just, again, the way God made them, so it’s up to women to protect virtue. And they do that by, if they’re not married, being incredibly modest so as not to seduce or tempt men who are not their husbands. This applies even to the young girls. Then when they do get married, then it is their obligation to meet their husband’s every sexual need. Again, they are many. This is taught over and over again to women and to men in all these Evangelical sex manuals. Once I realized that, you can just see the seeds are there for some really toxic relationships.

The question then is, does this kind of conservative Evangelical gender ideal and with all that it entails in terms of sexuality, does this cause Evangelical men to be abusive? I actually don’t know I. I’m a historian — I can’t really draw that causal connection, or if men are drawn to this because they tend to be more abusive. I can’t make that assertion. But what I can say is that these teachings certainly do inhibit the response of Evangelicals to address, to identify, to deal with sexual abuse in their midst. This is certainly the case for survivors, that they are struggling with, what does it mean to submit to a man who is abusive? What does it mean to submit to this masculine authority? There is so much victim-blaming and often self-blaming in terms of “Did I seduce him? Did I say something wrong? Was I dressed somehow wrong?” Then there is this victim-blaming that absolutely extends to the community, where time and again, we see in cases when sexual abuse comes to light, the community often turns on the survivor and ends up circling their wagons around the perpetrator, protecting the man and the witness of the organization or of the church. It really is horrifying to see this. This is a repeated pattern. And that ends up being almost abusive a second time over to victims as they struggle to come to terms with not just what happened to them, but then how they are the ones who end up being ostracized from their communities. So, I do think that these teachings directly impact how communities respond to abuse in their midst.

One thing that comes up again and again is the policing of women, especially their “tone,” and yet a seeming laissez-faire attitude to the way men are allowed to speak. There is an entire set of rules and expectations set upon women for the way they are to speak, while men are given lots of leeway, even when they are crass and harsh. Was this something that you reflected on as you wrote Jesus and John Wayne — especially the ways in which Evangelicals may read your book?

Yes. I love this question. So, I’ll just talk about the tone of the book. It is not a gentle book. The subtitle I think, truth in advertising, right? “How White Evangelicalism corrupted a faith and fractured a nation.” So the gloves are off. And then the chapter titles are kind of your next clue. “Holy balls” is the favorite crowd-pleaser. “Why we want to kill you,” “John Wayne will save your ass,” I could go on. And yes, the tone was very intentional. I mean, it wasn’t kind of scheming; this is simply the way the words came onto the page. This was the book I had to write and it came out exactly as I intended. But I did consider tone, because it is very different from the books that Evangelicals write for themselves.

I was very intentional about going outside of Christian publishing to write this book. I have a wonderful publisher, Norton’s Liveright imprint. They’re known for kind of their edgy political writings. Evangelicals are a primary audience, but not the primary audience for this book. This is a work of history. So my whole publishing team was kind of outside Evangelical worlds. So it was a real discipline for me to have to rewrite and communicate outside of the insider-speak. The tone was intentionally disruptive as a woman writing, because I had seen through my research, time and again, how deference was shown to those who wielded power, undue deference, in my opinion. I saw so many cases where really harsh and damaging teachings and actions were either condoned or just dismissed, treated lightly, and you could still pat the guy on the back and call him “brother in Christ.” I saw that so many times. That phrase started to be triggering to me, “brother in Christ.” There’s so much power that that conveys, and it’s exclusive. Who gets to be counted as a brother in Christ and what privileges go along with that? I mean, I will never get called that as a woman. I’m not going to get that “Hey, brother in Christ.”

I watched how undue deference ended up facilitating abuses, theological abuses, sexual abuses, and really seemed to constrain the White Evangelical community writ large. People who have known better have decided not to speak out boldly against abuses of all sorts. There has been so much kind of quietism in the name of self-protection, in the name of protecting donations and subscribers and not wanting to risk and not wanting to offend. So it was a very intentional decision on my part to not play that game, to not participate in that deference, and to make it very clear from the front cover all the way through the book, that this was something different. I was just going to speak as powerfully as I could and tell the truth, whether Evangelicals would pick up the book or not. Because, frankly, with a subtitle, there’s a real question if they would. At the same time, they are reading it and they’re reading in great numbers. So that is a source of huge encouragement to me. And I think that’s what makes this book so different. It is unflinching, in terms of, let’s talk about this. Let’s really talk about it. And I’m not going to sugarcoat anything, because it really this is not the time for sugarcoating.

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Written by Timothy I. Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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