Image credit: DF / Public Seminar

When the thrice-divorced, self-proclaimed billionaire, casino entrepreneur, and unfailingly crass Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican nomination, his significant popularity among white evangelical Christian voters surprised political commentators. When their support carried President Trump all the way to the White House, Calvin University historian Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez set out to put this movement in historical context in her 2020 book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020). According to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of evangelicals now identify as conservative.

In her book, Du Mez argues that Donald Trump did not win over white evangelicals in spite of his brash womanizing—but because of it. She connects his bravado to a five-decade long history of church teachings that men are supposed to be decisive, sexually aggressive, militant, and unapologetic patriarchs. Recently, I sat down with Du Mez to discuss the themes of her book, its reception, and whether it is the historian’s responsibility to offer solutions.

Chrisaleen Ciro: Where were you when you knew that Trump was going to win? Were you surprised? Or were you one of those people who always knew?”

Kristin Kobes Du Mez: Oh, I definitely didn’t know: I was in my basement glued to my TV on election night when I realized it.

I had access to the same media sources and polling numbers everybody else did. I knew it was going to be tight, but it wasn’t until that night, sometime in the middle of the night, that I realized what we were looking at.

That said, a few weeks earlier, I started to wonder after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. I had been paying attention for over a decade, and I’d seen one man after another who’d been writing these books on Christian manhood become implicated in abuse scandals, either as perpetrators or defending friends who were accused. So, in the days after the Access Hollywood tape was released, when we saw evangelicals scurry to continue to justify their support for then-candidate Trump, it clicked for me that I’d seen this before. I’d heard exactly this rhetoric before to justify those abusive leaders. So I can’t say, “Oh, I knew that Trump was going to win.” But I did understand that evangelical support was going to be enduring for Trump.

CC: Can you give our readers a brief summary of Jesus and John Wayne in your own words?

KKM: It’s essentially a history of the past half-century of white evangelical masculinity and militarism. One of the key takeaways is that evangelical support for Donald Trump really shouldn’t be seen as a betrayal of evangelical values, but in many ways as their fulfillment, particularly once we situate white patriarchal authority at the center of evangelical “family values” politics.

CC: Can we define militant masculinity and Christian patriarchy? I know theyre linked, but there is a subtle nuance between them, and other terms that emerge in your work, for example, Christian nationalism.

KKM: Sure. In a sense, Jesus and John Wayne shows how notions of Christian patriarchy became combined with Christian nationalism to produce this militant conception of Christian manhood. If you go back to the Cold War era, it makes sense that part of being a Christian man—part of being an American man—is to defend Christian America. You need strength; you need to be on the battlefield. It made sense in that historical moment. But then, what becomes of this conception of masculinity ultimately distorts core Christian teachings about, not just masculinity, but about Christianity itself.

CC: It feels like that historical moment is both distant and extremely relevant. Do you think you could describe the first time that you witnessed militant masculinity?

KKM: I would say it was in the early 2000s. Because I had grown up in conservative Christian spaces, and whether it counts as evangelical or not is going to depend on your definitions. I grew up in a confessional, traditional, Dutch reformed church. So it was evangelical adjacent, depending on who you ask.

Either way, I was familiar with patriarchal theology, but had never really encountered this more militant masculinity in those spaces. Or maybe I just wasn’t looking. Then I went to graduate school, I was studying history, and I wasn’t observing evangelicalism all that closely.

So, it was really when I was a new professor at Calvin in the early 2000s—when I was back in these Christian spaces and teaching evangelical students—that I became aware of works like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart (2006) where he elevates militancy as a model of Christian manhood. In the book, God is a warrior, and men are made in his image. Every man has some battle to fight, and it was Eldredge that really looked to William Wallace, specifically Mel Gibson’s William Wallace, who, like John Wayne, became a symbol of this militant Christian masculinity.

I remember myself and other women not being super keen on this narrative because there wasn’t much place for women in this understanding of Christianity. Our place was a passive one: we were there to be rescued; to be seductive and sweet and to share in a man’s adventure. So, I think that, among intellectuals, professors, and, kind of, my cohort, there was a lot of eye-rolling or shrugging it off.

This was also when we were hearing a lot about Mars Hill church in Seattle, and Mark Driscoll’s deeply misogynistic, crass theology and teachings. But there too, for people in my spaces, I think there was a tendency to roll our eyes. I remember just wondering, “What is this?” It just felt so extreme to me, and I was looking for more Christian men, leaders, and scholars, to offer a clearer, more incisive critique.

CC: In this book, you talk about everything from Oliver North, to kids’ youth programs like Awana, and the Promise Keepers. But John Wayne keeps the book grounded as you track how this figure in popular culture is interpreted and reinterpreted. Im curious how you came to choose him.

KKM: Yeah, I did not set out to write about John Wayne. The title actually came rather late in the game, but one of the key themes of the book is how evangelicalism is shaped by cultural ideals in addition to more traditional theology. I did realize that John Wayne was popping up in a lot of these evangelical books on Christian manhood as the ideal model of masculinity and so in some ways, he was perfect because he gets at this tension between the sacred and the secular.

What John Wayne does is to root this understanding of masculinity historically, taking it back into the Cold War era. But then, Wayne’s masculinity itself becomes a kind of religious ideal. So, it’s a literary device in some ways: if you can explain the title of the book, you’re pretty far into explaining its thesis.

CC: That’s a little bit like what you were saying about the reciprocal relationship between culture and theology. Could you say more about how theology is formed, created, and enacted from culture?

KKM: Oh, there’s so much to be said, because evangelicalism is not just theology. We need to think about it as a form of consumer culture, and then ultimately as an identity, right? Evangelicism is a religious identity, a cultural identity, and a political identity. In Jesus and John Wayne, I emphasize the significance of popular culture, but evangelicalism is not just popular culture: increasingly, it’s a populist movement. Maybe it always was.

CC: This also connects to the book you are working on now about Christian white womanhood.

KKM: Yes! It’s called Live, Laugh, Love, and what I’m exploring is this: if popular culture is important in shaping religious and political ideals for evangelicals generally, it’s especially so for women. These are women who don’t have access, in many cases, to official positions of leadership in evangelical churches. Many don’t go to seminary and perhaps aren’t theologically sophisticated. So. for women in particular, I would push back against any notion that defining what it is to be an evangelical is going to be primarily a theological construct.

Instead, we really need to look at the culture that these women consume day in and day out: the music they’re listening to–the devotionals they’re using, the blogs they’re reading–to understand what their faith means to them. In Live, Laugh, Love, I start in evangelical space, because evangelicals are some of the leading producers of this gendered religious culture in the 1970s and 1980s. But then I trace how a more distinctly evangelical ideal femininity morphs into a more generic white Christian womanhood, and how that ends up shaping “secular ideals of femininity” as well. The question of what is religious, and what is secular, is a prominent theme of the book.

CC: Has the positive response to Jesus and John Wayne been surprising? Because it feels like my Twitter feed is filled with evangelicals, or people who were raised evangelical, celebrating it. They send you pictures of decor or signs theyve come across with iconography of Jesus with a gun and a cowboy hat like John Wayne, or defend you when an inane review from the Gospel Coalition comes out.

KKM: I had no idea that would happen. I did have a sense that I was onto something, and I did hope the book would be read by evangelicals. But I did not foresee a wildly enthusiastic response among evangelical readers, or how many would embrace it and essentially become proselytizers for it. This continues today. They’re bringing the book to their pastors, to their small groups, and insisting that others engage it., which has been phenomenal to observe.

CC: But youve also seen a lot of criticism from the conservative evangelical establishment, including the allegation that your work is Marxist. In response, youve pointed out that your book actually doesn’t have a ton of class analysis.

KKM: A total weakness!

CC: What would class analysis have added?

KKM: First, I tried! I tried to get my publisher to give me more space, but that went nowhere. They were right: it’s not about saying everything that needs to be said but packaging it so that readers can grasp it. But I think the lack of class analysis is by far the most legitimate critique, and only one reviewer has mentioned it in passing. When I saw that review, I wrote to him and said, “You are so right.”

I was braiding together so many different strands and trying not to drop any of them, but this one would’ve required me to really back up the narrative to the missing decade in this book, the 1930s.

That would have allowed me to give more attention to the anti-New Deal activism within conservative Protestantism in the 1930s, which then set us up for the Cold War era. I do nod towards some class dynamics within fundamentalism and evangelicalism, since we see a lot of evangelicals—like many white Americans—moving into the middle class in the 1960s and the 1970s. But then, de-industrialization makes that precarious by undermining male breadwinner status. I could have done more with that.

At the same time, I don’t want to feed the misperception that the average evangelical is working-class or lower-income because those aren’t the evangelicals I’m writing about. They’re middle class, many live in suburbia and attend megachurches, but their identity is still linked to working-class culture. That’s where we get an identity based on anti-elitism, which Donald Trump was able to tap into. Evangelicals are identifying with the working class, even if in terms of economics, that’s not who they are.

CC: One of the other main criticisms of your book particularly from this kind of evangelical establishment is that your work is short on solutions or alternatives to this kind of militant masculinity. Do you think it is the role of a historian to provide solutions?

KKM: It could be, I guess, but it’s definitely not a mandatory role for a historian. I will say this much: if I had fabulous solutions, maybe I would offer some. Very early on, I think maybe I harbored some notion of, “I can change this, right?” Within a couple of months of digging into the research, I realized, “Yeah, this is not going to change.”

It never occurred to me to offer a kind of glib takeaway, like, “Here are the three things you need to do to change this.” Honestly, the solution going to look different for everyone, but the change has to come from these communities. For some people, it’s going to be walking away from evangelicalism. For others, it’s going to be using the power and authority that they have to try to change things.

Similarly, for folks on the outside, it’s going to be building bridges to evangelicals to see if they can find common ground or opposing the political strength of evangelicals at every turn, right? For others, it’s going to be burn it all down.

I would also say this, the need to offer solutions is a very evangelical tendency. I didn’t write a sermon. I don’t owe you a clear takeaway.

Chrisaleen Ciro is a freelance journalist, writer, and MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a historian, writer, and speaker. She is the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright, 2020).