In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Kristen Kobes Du Mez about patterns of toxic masculinity in the white Evangelical church as they explore the following questions:
- What led Du Mez to be interested in researching the modern history of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in the church?
- Where is most of the “evidence” for militant Christian masculinity drawn from?
- Why did Du Mez avoid using the term “toxic masculinity” in her book Jesus & John Wayne?
- What cultural moments led people to identify with this kind of militant Christian manhood?
- How did a particularly militant conception of masculinity become combined with Christian nationalism?
- What influence did Billy Graham exert over the connection between Christian nationalism and masculinity?
- What effect did Christian Zionism have on US militarism and the relationship between the US and Israel?
- How has the definition of masculinity changed over time?
- How does John Wayne represent healthy and toxic aspects of masculinity?
- What surprised Du Mez while researching Evangelical views of masculinity ?
- Why were fears actively stoked by religious leaders during the Cold War era?
- What are some steps we can take to wrest Christianity from this ideology, or can we?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Kristin Kobes du Mez you can share.
- “Billy Graham … defines the best of Evangelicalism, and if that’s the best of Evangelicalism, then we kind of have to rethink who we are and what Evangelicalism is as a tradition.” @kkdumez
- “Christ is someone who divests himself of power and that’s not what we see happening in terms of this “biblical manhood” or “Christian masculinity” where it’s about claiming power over others and claiming that that’s God’s will.” @kkdumez
- “I did not set out to write a book about John Wayne, full disclosure, but what I saw, again, is that so much of the inspiration for ideals of Christian manhood were drawn from popular culture, not from deep biblical exegesis.” @kkdumez
- “Always look at power. Who’s wielding power and to what ends?” @kkdumez
- “Men who were not constrained by traditional Christian virtue… were paradoxically the most fit to protect Christianity. That’s why we have to see Trump not as a betrayal of Evangelical values, but as the fulfillment of those values.” @kkdumez
- “How many of us have been complicit through silence, through choosing what is safe, what is least disruptive in institutions and churches and families and friend groups, of not speaking truth because that might come with a cost?” @kkdumez
- “I think what the moment calls for right now is rigorous honesty of our own motivations. What’s needed is courage in this moment – individually and collectively.” @kkdumez
Mentioned in This Episode
- Website: thebiblefornormalpeople.com
- Book: Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation
- Support: patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: Hello folks, welcome to this episode of the podcast and our topic today is “A Modern Church History of Toxic Masculinity,” and our guest is Kristin Kobes du Mez.
Jared: Yes, she is the Professor of History at Calvin University and has written a book called Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, and it was a doozy.
Pete: Yeah, and this is an important book. And you know what? We’re going to get right into the episode here, but if you’re interested in a deeper dive, you know, we have this afterword, we’re going to talk about some of the things that, you know, we came away with from reading the book and from talking with Kristin.
Jared: Right. Again, we often have things that we want to go further with but don’t have the time in the context of this podcast. So, if you want to hear more, we do afterwords from every episode that we have a guest on where Pete and I talk about this. You can just go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople to learn more.[Music begins]
Kristin: So much of the inspiration for ideals of Christian manhood were drawn from popular culture, not from deep biblical exegesis. The fear was real in the hearts of followers, but it was actively stoked by religious leaders, by Evangelical men in almost every case, to consolidate their own power.[Music ends]
Pete: Kristin, welcome to our podcast! It’s great to have you.
Kristin: Oh, thanks for having me.
Pete: Yeah, so, you’ve written about a really not at all controversial topic, which is really, I mean, I’m not making light of it because it’s really quite serious, but I guess white men in Evangelicalism and sort of the patterns of behavior that we’ve maybe seen over the last, I’m going to say, is it right to say, maybe 70 years?
Kristin: Mm hmm.
Pete: Or is it longer than that even? But a good, long time this has been brewing and some of it is just rising to the surface now, so. Which leads to the question, you know, what led you to be interested in researching, you know, really the modern history of patriarchy and toxic masculinity in the American church?
Kristin: Yeah, so, this goes back many years, more than fifteen years, actually, the idea for this project. I was a new faculty member at Calvin University at the time, and I was teaching a US survey course and I wanted to introduce my students to the idea of gender in history and particularly masculinity, how ideas of masculinity change over time, how they’re linked to broader currents like economic shifts and religion and race and foreign policy and the like. So, I planned this little lecture around Teddy Roosevelt, and I showed my students how his particular idea of rugged masculinity was a product of his own time and how it was linked to American empire and American power. At the end of that class, a couple of guys came up to me and said, Professor du Mez, there is this book that you have to read and that book was John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart.
Kristin: So, I took their advice, I went down to Family Christian Bookstore and bought myself a copy. I’d heard of it, everybody was reading it at the time. This was back in 2005, 2006. The book had come out in 2001, it went on to sell more than four million copies –
Kristin: And so, I opened the book up and I saw immediately what they were talking about because Eldridge opens his book with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt and then he goes on to sketch this really militant, militaristic conception of what he calls Christian manhood. So, God is a warrior God and men are made in his image, every man has a battle to fight. And this struck me as not particularly biblical and puzzling and at the same time, this was again, 2005, 2006, it was the early years of the Iraq War and I was seeing all this survey data about how white Evangelicals were far and away more likely than other Americans to support the Iraq war, preemptive war in general, condone the use of torture, embrace aggressive foreign policy, and I just asked the question – what might one of these things have to do with the other?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Kristin: So, I explored this for about a year, did some research, and then ended up setting the project aside for various reasons. One, it was incredibly disturbing what I was uncovering, deeply misogynistic, militaristic writings and I also couldn’t tell is this, is this mainstream Evangelicalism or is this fringe? And if it is fringe, should I be shining a bright light on maybe the darkest underbelly of American Christianity? So, I just kind of bracketed it, set it aside, and it wasn’t until the fall of 2016 in the weeks after the Access Hollywood tape released, actually, that I ended up pulling this research back out because what I was hearing around Evangelical support for Donald Trump reminded me so much of the rhetoric that I had immersed myself in all those years ago in Evangelical writing on Christian manhood.
Jared: Well, can we take a step back and maybe define some terms here? You used, you know, masculinity and toxic masculinity, patriarchy – I think these can be confusing terms because you said it’s not particularly biblical, but I grew up very much in the world in which you are writing this book and you know, for me, it did seem biblical because we had the masculine examples of King David and the way that it was positioned seemed quite biblical. So, maybe let’s define some terms of what we mean by patriarchy or toxic masculinity.
Kristin: Sure. Well, I should say when it didn’t seem all that biblical, what I noticed when I was reading books like Eldridge and then there’s a whole kind of copycat industry around that book because it had been so successful was that most of the “evidence” for this militant Christian masculinity wasn’t drawn from the Bible directly, it was drawn from Hollywood heroes – from Mel Gibson’s William Wallace from the move Braveheart, from movies with John Wayne, mythical warriors, soldiers, and the like with some Bible verses sprinkled here or there.
Kristin: Right? But yes, defining terms. So, patriarchy is pretty simple, it’s really just male power, masculine power, where most power is given to men and restricted from women. So, it can take different shape and different historical periods, and yes, there is certainly a Christian patriarchy and a tradition of Christian patriarchy, and their ways to interpret different Bible verses to support male leadership, male headship in the church, in the home, and in society. And there are ways to interpret those very same Bible verses that really undercut patriarchal leadership, as you well know.
So, there’s that kind of patriarchy. And you mentioned toxic masculinity which is a phrase that I don’t actually use in this book largely because I’m aware that that is a phrase that really resonates with certain people, particularly progressives, liberals, and so on know exactly what we’re talking about and I think it can really put off conservatives. It’s a very loaded term.
Kristin: So instead, I just described things that actually could be described as toxic masculinity and here what we’re talking about more is not just the idea of, you know, maybe more narrowly masculine authority or male headship in Christian circles, but all of the kind of cultural trappings that then get built into those patriarchal systems. So, it’s, you know, what is it, what is a man? How did God make men? In all sort of ways, so, God made them not just to lead but to be kind of militant warrior, leader. God filled men with testosterone, and so they have these impulses that are very hard to restrain and that’s what makes them so aggressive and such good warriors to defend faith, family, and nation. It also, you know, entails ideas about sexuality that men have a hard time restraining their sexual impulses. And so, there’s all these kind of layers that get added onto male leadership attributes that are very quickly turned into, you know, all men are created this way or all men are this way and that God designed men to be this way. And these are things that arguably can cause great harm to men themselves and to women, to children, and really in terms of society and even international relations and so on. So, they can have some really caustic effects.
Jared: You mentioned, you know, maybe not using the term toxic masculinity, but describing things. What are some of these examples, you know, you’ve thrown out William Wallace and Hollywood, but are these, are there certain cultural moments over the last several decades that you would point out that led people to identifying with this kind of Christianity or this kind of Christian manhood more than others?
Pete: Can I ask too, Jared, just in the context, can we go back before Teddy Roosevelt or do you think that’s sort of like, a real crystalizing moment –
Jared: Starting point. Yeah.
Pete: Practically speaking.
Kristin: Yeah, well definitely. In the book I look back to the 19th century, just very briefly more to disrupt any notion that you know, this kind of more militant rugged masculinity is just default masculinity or default Christian masculinity. Because if you look in the 19th century, you can find ideals of Christian manhood that are not this kind of rugged warrior ideal. Quite the opposite. To be a man is to really master self-restraint, this gentlemanly self-restraint. Right? That’s this kind of Victorian Christian ideal of mature masculinity.
Now, that said, you also have in the American South in particular, a more rugged model of white Christian patriarchy in particular, which is linked to a kind of Southern culture of honor, and to mastery over not just women and children, but also enslaved people. And so, you see that history is complicated – you can find continuity and change and so you can find some kind of precursors, but you can also find patterns that disrupt more recent time. And I thought that was really important that things have not always been the way they are now and then what I do in the book is I show how a particularly militant conception became combined with Christian nationalism, right, with this defense of Christian America and then it’s really, you can see that coming together to a certain extent in the early 20th century, with Teddy Roosevelt and then the First World War, but even then you have liberal Protestants who are as likely to embrace this kind of muscular Christianity and Christian nationalism and you have conservative Protestants accepting Billy Sunday, of course, but many conservative Protestants who resisted, particularly Christian nationalism. And so, it’s not really until the Cold War era that things come together in a way we would recognize today. So, the 1940’s, 1950’s when we see conservative white Evangelicals linking this defense of Christian America to gender traditionalism and the idea that the man must serve as provider and protector. And given the Cold War threat, this role of protector is really important and because it’s a military threat that role has to also be an aggressive military defense and offense is usually the best defense. And so, it’s the Cold War era where this really does start to come together powerfully. You know we have Billy Graham, the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, and that’s the era where thing really come together.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, what really stuck me in reading your wonderfully disturbing book, Jesus and John Wayne, was this Christian nationalism connection to toxic masculinity and just the almost effortless weaving together of those things and, you know, here we are. You mentioned Billy Graham?
Kristin: Mm hmm.
Pete: And again, I think, I’m thinking about people who may want to pick this book up and read it, and I hope they do, and, you know, there are some sacred cows that get tipped over in the book and for very good reason, I might add. Could you, do you mind riffing a little bit on Billy Graham’s influence in this whole merger of Christian nationalism and masculinity?
Kristin: Yeah. Yeah, you know, some responses I’ve gotten to this book is, I’ve heard more than once, you know, “you named names.” And frankly, as a historian, I don’t know how else to write.[Light laughter]
Pete: Well, obviously.[Laughter]
Kristin: But yes, Billy Graham was one who comes under some scrutiny, but really nothing that historians haven’t been saying for a long time, it’s just that white Evangelicals have tended to tell their own histories, their own versions of events, and in that version of events or, you know Billy Graham is this kind of untouchable hero, all that is good in Evangelicalism. And so, I really did set out to disrupt that. One of my favorite pictures in the book is this young Billy Graham, and he’s this dashingly handsome figure, and he rose to fame as an evangelist in the Youth for Christ ministry, and that was during the Second World War. And so, he embraced this defense of America, Christian America and that was really at the center of his ministry. He was extremely patriotic, and then he ends up being the center of this web that is Evangelicalism, this web of institutions and popular media and magazines and radio and he’s really the hub. And he has this access to power, right, with the Eisenhower White House and a line of presidents following. And he’s incredibly ambitious, politically speaking, and he’s also, as I show in the book, an ardent supporter of Cold War militarism, of American militarism, of the war effort in Vietnam, and in so many ways, then, he kind of represents what white Evangelicalism becomes. On Civil rights, too, he has this reputation for taking down the divider between black and white attendees at his crusades, which was true, but that’s about as far as he went and he certainly stepped back from a whole-hearted critique of segregationism and certainly stepped back from a full-throated support of Martin Luther King, Jr.
And so, I just tell the story that is a familiar story to professional historians but I, frankly, wasn’t quite prepared for how shocking some of this history would be to white Evangelical readers who really had to think again about this figure that they’d really held in such high esteem and that they thought, you know, he defines the best of Evangelicalism, and if that’s the best of Evangelicalism, then we kind of have to rethink who we are and what Evangelicalism is as a tradition.
Jared: I wanted to back up, we don’t have to get too far into this, but I think it’s important to note, again, for my upbringing I’ve been trying to rack my brain on this connection of nationalism and Christianity, and for me, the theological connection, which was interesting, was both, we held both of these things very sacred and very true, that Israel continued to be God’s chosen people, and we as a nation, had to continue to defend Israel lest bad things happen to us as a nation, AND we had sort of taken on Israel’s identity –
Jared: Where there was this mix of, you know, going to Liberty where Jerry Falwell would quote Chronicles and basically, “if you are my people, you call me by my name,” like you know, this healing of the nation. Like, there was this interesting relationship with Israel, I think is what I’m trying to point out that allowed for this theological connection so that when I read my Bible and I see Israel having as a country, as a nation, this special relationship with God, I’m able to substitute America.
Jared: And that was really important for my identity growing up, and I, is that something that you’ve uncovered as well in this?
Kristin: Yeah, you know, I talk about Christian Zionism just a couple of times in this book, but I certainly could’ve done much more, because you’re right, there’s this idea of supporting Israel and that’s a defensive of US militarism as well. Anything in defense of Israel, and at the same time, this kind of slippage into America as a new Israel that is certainly present and again, America has this special role in the world, in world history. And what that looks like, then, is so, in the 1950’s, Evangelical values, you know, Christian America, and a defense of Christian America and also defense of the traditional family as the kind of foundation of the American social order, all of that was central to Evangelical identity, but it was actually central to American identity in many ways, right? It didn’t really set Evangelicals apart from any other Americans, especially white middle class Americans. This was the baby boom. You know?
Kristin: This was Cold War consensus. When the rupture happens, this is the 1960’s, and that’s when these values that Evangelicals held dear were abandoned by many other Americans. They start to doubt American goodness and greatness when they see what’s happening on the battlefields of Vietnam. The Civil Rights movement challenges ideals of American greatness and goodness on the home front. The feminist movement is challenging these “traditional roles” of women and men and that’s when just as many other Americans are questioning these values, that’s when conservative Evangelicals really doubled down. And they feel a sense of loss because in the 50’s, they were at the center of things, they were moving into the center of things, access to power. And all of a sudden, they find themselves once again on the margins and they feel like they are a faithful remnant, so God has charged them with keeping America Christian, which was looking hard with all the hippies and anti-war activists and so on, right? And keeping America strong at the same time. And so, it was this sense of, you know, if not us, who will do this? And so, that is also part of this. This sense of loss –
Pete: Yeah, and keeping America strong is keeping the church strong. It’s keeping the Christian faith, right?
Kristin: Exactly. Keeping the faith strong and raising your boys to be strong men.
Jared: Well, and going back to that then, maybe can you say a little bit of the difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity? And maybe we can even, not to pick on John Wayne, but he’s in the title of your book.
Pete: There’s probably a reason for that.
Jared: How does John Wayne represent, you know, a healthy masculinity and a toxic, I just think it’d be a helpful distinction.
Pete: Yeah, concrete.
Kristin: Sure. So, masculinity is a really quite generic. It’s whatever people in any given time think ascribes to, you know, being a man. Whatever goes along with being a man. So, it’s a very fluid concept that changes quite a bit over time. Here again, you can find some continuities if you’re looking for them, but there’s a lot of change over time as well. But it’s essentially at any given moment what anybody deems masculine, right? Whatever goes along with being a man.
And so, it’s kind of this empty container into which you can put things in and remove things. So, some of these things can be very good things like honor and honesty and courage and you can put a lot of virtues, or as I said before, self-restraint. Now, when things move in the more toxic direction, I think that’s when these attributes start getting defined in a sense in opposition to as opposite from whatever gets in the femininity box, right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Kristin: And that’s when things get really dicey. And that’s exactly what we see happening in the Christian literature here. Folks like James Dobson back in the 70’s already will say that men and women are different in every cell of their bodies, which, you know, biologically you can make that case, but then the kind of cultural layers that get added to that, what that ends up looking like is attributes are considered masculine are opposite of those considered feminine. So, let’s take for example, the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control – I mean, you know where this is going. These are all the feminine traits, these are great for the ladies.
Pete: That’s only in the women’s Bible.
Kristin: Exactly, the one with pink flowers on it.
Kristin: Right, and so then men, what is it to be a man? Testosterone is key, so testosterone is God’s gift to men and to society through men and the fruit of that is aggression and violence which can be channeled, must be channeled for this greater good. But violence is key to masculinity, to being a man, and it’s about power and it’s about claiming power and grasping power and holding power. And so, I, you know, this is as I said before, I didn’t, when I first was reading this didn’t feel particularly biblical because as I read the scriptures and look at the model of Christ, it seems like, you know, to me Christ is someone who divests himself of power and that’s not what we see happening in terms of this “biblical manhood” or “Christian masculinity” where it’s about claiming power over others and claiming that that’s God’s will.
Jared: Well, even mundane things such as, I just remember my parents going to counseling and one of the main takeaways was the reason your marriage is struggling is because my mom, who had been a banker for 20 years, does the finances.
Jared: That’s why. Well, if my dad would just take, my dad, who’s been a truck driver for 20 years would just take over the finances, you’d be better!
Jared: And it’s like seemingly so mundane and it was such a train wreck.
Kristin: Exactly, there are so much within this cultural baggage that gets, you know, kind of baptized as, you know, biblical manhood or biblical womanhood and it affects sexuality and sexual morality and power dynamics. But you asked about John Wayne, right? So, I did not set out to write a book about John Wayne, full disclosure, but what I saw, again, is that so much of the inspiration for ideals of Christian manhood were drawn from popular culture.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Kristin: And not from deep biblical exegesis.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Kristin: So, we take somebody like John Wayne – you can find some good attributes if you look at certain John Wayne movies perhaps, but what really elevated him to cult status in American history so that for decades up until very recently he was America’s number one most favorite actor until just a few years ago. And if you look at his heroism, this is where I started to notice that we had to talk not just about Christian masculinity, but about white Christian masculinity, because I notice that all of the heroes that these Christian writers were holding up were white men. Some of them Confederate generals, even. And then John Wayne is a great case in point where all of his kind of greatest hits on screen, he was the heroic white man who would use violence as necessary to subdue, in most cases, non-white populations. So, the wild west, you know, the cowboy hero subduing Native Americans, or else defeating Mexicans, you know, at the Alamo or trying to. Or, you know, on the sands of Iwo Jima against Japanese or the Green Berets, Vietnamese. And so, it’s this white masculine power, the need to use violence as necessary to pursue righteousness and achieve order and that fits very closely, maps very closely onto both the kind of social and political implications of this Christian militant masculinity that I was tracing in the popular literature.
Pete: Mm hmm. Yeah, so, you know you’ve been living with this topic now for maybe two decades? Is that fair to say?
Kristen: Just about. Off and on, yes.
Pete: Yeah. So, in all, I mean, in your research, is there anything that’s just surprised you? I mean just like – I can’t believe I’m reading this.
Kristin: [Light laughter]
Pete: Or maybe something that really irked you, you know, and going through these things and just looking at this relatively recent history in American culture.
Kristen: Yeah, um, many things honestly.
Kristen: I did not know what I was embarking on.
Pete: Is this part two of our podcast? We need more time.
Kristen: Right, right. You know, one of the things that shocked me – well, first let me step back and say you know, I set this research aside for more than a decade, but I didn’t stop paying attention. I kind of kept tabs on some of the leading proponents of this militant Christian manhood and what I saw was one after another, in the course of a decade, became implicated in scandals.
Kristin: Abuse of power and often sexual abuse, either directly or indirectly supporting friends who are perpetrators. And so, I paid attention to that and when I went back into the history, I was shocked at how we should have expected this, at how these ideals of masculinity and femininity mapped onto sex advice. I read a lot of Christian sex advise manuals from the 60’s and 70’s up to the present.[Light laughter]
Jared: As we all do.[Laughter]
Kristen: [Continued laughter]
As we all should not do. And what I found there was incredibly disturbing. Really that blamed women for abuse, it’s a woman’s fault if, because men, again testosterone, you can’t really expect them to restrain themselves, not very much at least. So, if you’re an unmarried woman, you absolutely cannot tempt a man and if you are a married woman, it is absolutely your obligation to fulfill your husband’s every sexual need. And so, if he ends up being an abuser, even of a child, clearly you aren’t meeting his needs. It was that blatant and that shocking, over and over again. That would be one of the things.
Pete: All in the interest of keeping the system intact.
Kristen: Yes, yes. Right
Kristen: So, always look at power, right? Who’s wielding power and to what ends? And then the other thing I was not prepared for that I kept bumping up against in this research that is I think relevant in where we are today was the question of authority. Just how important authority or, if you will, power was. Going back to the 60s, the 70s, the sense of we need to reassert authority over culture, over young people, over children, over women. And as I was reading this, it kept striking me that this is really, um, leaning towards authoritarianism. This is deeply anti-democratic and I wasn’t sure what to do with that. But I just wrote it into the history, wrote it into the narrative I was telling and really only in recent years have I had to kind of grapple with the implications of this in terms of the resiliency of American democracy, our democratic institutions and norms.
Jared: I mean, I don’t want to go down this tangent, I think there is some important –
Pete: You clearly do.
Jared: I do. I do. When I said I don’t, I mean I really do.
Jared: But, I can’t help but think though, if we’re taking, what do we do with the Bible in the midst of all this? Because I think there’s some challenges within that. Just you bringing up democracy, I’m like well, the Bible doesn’t have democracy in it.
Jared: There isn’t a lot of democracy being advocated for here in a lot of ways. And so, you know, I guess I’m trying to figure out, what went wrong over the last fifty to seventy years that we had this Bible that Christians for a long time have sort of staked their faith on and said this is really important, it’s central to our faith, and yet you mentioned there’s something particular in the last fifty to seventy years, a hundred years, that went awry. It wasn’t, you know, I’m speculating because I’m genuinely just processing out loud, but is there something about having this consciousness of war and there’s a lot of fear now around it? Um, we have, we now have video, we have pictures you know, Vietnam War where we could see it on our nightly tv screens. Is there a fear that had led to this over-compensation where we have to somehow justify violence so that we don’t feel so afraid? I’m just trying to figure out where this came from.
Kristen: I love this question. So, did fear kind of lead to this violence? That was absolutely my operating theory when I started this research and that was honestly if you look at conversations around the 2016 election and explaining white Evangelical support for Trump, it’s really the narrative that Evangelicals were largely holding their noses and they were just desperate, they were just so afraid to protect their religious liberty to kind of protect their very existence, and so any extreme actions were the response of fear. That was my kind of working theory.
And then when I went back into the history, I realized at a certain point that we needed to flip that script.
Kristen: If you go back to the Cold War Era, you know, sure, you can see that there was a lot of fear. But then one of the questions I started asking was who is stoking that fear? And what I saw is over and over again, which isn’t to say there weren’t legitimate fears during the era of the Cold War, but there is an active stoking of that fear both by the government and by religious leaders in the early Cold War era, throughout the Cold War. And then I started looking at specific examples, I started looking at things like Jerry Falwell, Sr.’s ministry and Mark Driscoll’s church and even these crazy stories of the fraudulent ex-Muslim terrorists that were all the rage after September 11.
Kirsten: And what I saw in each case is that the fears were real. The fears of ordinary Evangelicals were very real. So, somebody like Falwell would really incite fear in the members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church. Those who followed his ministry that, you know, we have the truth here and you cannot trust those on the outside. If they’re not with us, they’re against us. This kind of militant worldview, us versus them.
Jared: Which is kind of like a cult leader’s M.O., right?
Kristen: It is and it’s also like, it’s war. It’s war, right? In war, if you’re not with us, you’re against us.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: And desperate times call for desperate measures. This is even clearer in Mark Driscoll’s case where he used this kind of war motif that explicitly militaristic conception of his ministry to demand absolute loyalty of his followers because in war you demand loyalty. Otherwise, you’re a traitor.
Kirsten: Right? And so, he stoked fear, actively. He was flanked by security guards in the sanctuary as he was preaching –
Pete: [Light laughter]
Kristen: To build this sense of, and you don’t go to that church down the road because you’re going to get false teaching and the consequences of this are eternal damnation. And so, again, the fear was real in the hearts of followers, but it was actively stoked by religious leaders by Evangelical men. For what purposes? In almost every case, to consolidate their own power and that’s how this worked. And so, I was able to both hold fears are legitimate and they are also manufactured.
Pete: Yeah, right. Yeah, I mean capitalizing on fear, which many people have described the Donald Trump era that way too.
Pete: There’s some fears that people have, but these fears are being stoked. I think, you know, for me one of the big takeaways, Kristen, is along with Christian nationalism is the – simple observation. You’re asking a question that people have asked. How could Evangelicals vote for Donald Trump? Well, here’s why.
Pete: I mean, because this is a very old problem, I mean not hundreds of years old, but it’s decades in the making and it’s not that this is something that the Evangelical system, that’s aligned with politics, this is something they’ve created, right?
Kristen: Um hmm. Right.
Pete: That’s a scary thought to me. Not scary. It’s just disturbing and infuriating and even maddening.
Pete: That this has happened and people just don’t see it and I just don’t know why, I don’t know, what am I talking about? I mean, why don’t people see anything? It just, it seems rather obvious to me that you can’t, it’s really hard to mix the Gospel with this kind of Christian Nationalism.
Pete: And you said, you know, they might appeal to Bible verses taken out of context, whatever, but you know, the ethic of Jesus is such and such, but they take care of that too. They have posters of Jesus, who is ripped, carrying an AK-47 in like, a bandana, you know? And Jesus wants you to fight and kill people.
Kristen: Exactly. Exactly. This is the “corrupted the faith” part of my subtitle, right? It’s what I noticed is in the case of Donald Trump and the case of John Wayne, the heroes that they looked to, the warriors that would lead the charge were, not coincidentally, men who were not actually formed by Christian virtue, right? Because they could come in and they could do what needed to be done. They would not be constrained by traditional Christian virtue at all, so they were paradoxically the most fit to protect Christianity, and again, the best defense is an aggressive offense and that’s why we have to see Trump in many ways not as a betrayal of Evangelical values, but as the fulfillment of those values.
Pete: Right. That answers a very basic question people have asked again, how, look at all the stuff that Donald Trump has done, how can Christians support him? Again, here is the answer, because he’s an outsider who can get away with stuff.
Kristin: And yet they have to change Jesus then, right? Because if we’re supposed to be followers of Christ, who is your Jesus? And so, they do transform Jesus into this, you know, a warrior leading, you know, wielding a bloody sword, charging into battle on horseback with tattoos down his leg. That’s Driscoll’s Jesus.
Pete: Yeah, it is.
Jared: It just reminds me, and I’m trying to look up the quote, I think Jerry Falwell, Jr., toward the end of Trump’s presidency basically kind of made that point of you know, well yeah, sure, maybe we, it’s not, but I’m not voting for him because he’s a Christian. Like, I’m voting for him for these other reasons. I’m supporting him for these other reasons.
Pete: And then you have this Cyrus thing. You know, here we have this secular messiah essentially, you know? From Isaiah.
Pete: And all these things, you know, you can find biblical support, of course, for anything. You can find biblical support but there they have it, you know? And I just, you know, what’s stoking that? What’s the motivation? You know, I’m asking rhetorically now. It’s just a very complicated issue and getting out of it is going to be even harder.
Jared: Well, let’s go there because I think, I want to make sure we have time to talk a little about this, the saying, “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.” So, you’ve done the historical research-
Pete: Yeah, fix this Kristen.
Pete: What do we do?
Jared: How do we not repeat it? Like, what are some steps we can take to wrest Christianity from this ideology, or can we? I mean, we’re always, in some ways we go from one system to the next. We can’t delude ourselves into thinking we can be systemless, but are there steps we can take here?
Kristen: So, early on when I started writing this book in earnest, I thought I can change things. I’m going to hold this up and it’s going to change things and it’s going to reform Christianity and then just a few months into the research, I gave that up. I saw just how deeply embedded this all was. And then I just decided, I’m going to testify to this. That’s all I can do. And then I got to the end of the manuscript, preparing it for publication and at a certain point late in the game, my editor emailed me and said, “So, this is a really depressing book, Kristen, and you can’t leave your readers here. You need to give them something.” And so, I gave it some real thought and I responded to him, “I’ve got nothing. I feel as depressed as you do.”
Pete: Jesus is coming back real soon. Maybe that’s-
Kristen: It’s not looking good.[Laughter]
And then he said, “Okay, I respect that.” And then about two days later I get another email, “Kristen, just give us something.” And so, that’s when I went back and I gave them the last sentence of the book, which is –
Pete: Fine! Fine!
Kristen: Exactly! What was it? It was like, “What was once done may also be undone.” And honestly, I felt so sheepish sending that to him. Like it is not enough, and he was like, “Fine, I’ll take it.” And the book went into publication, right? And then honestly, in a sense the book has been out, it’s been out almost a year now and I’m holding to that because so many readers are holding to that phrase. There’s so many readers who, I mean, I received so many hundreds of letters from Evangelicals themselves, several a day, still to this day, saying this is the story of my life and I had no idea. And I think that history can help explain how their own personal stories are part of this larger story and how they have in fact, wittingly or unwittingly, been complicit in bringing us to where we are now. And so, I’m hearing a lot of energy around this question, what do we do next? How do we undo this?
First, ultra-important step is to see where we are and how we got here. Right? Because if we see that things have not always been this way then we can figure out, okay, who made these choices? Because choices were made and to what ends? And again, it’s usually to enhance somebody’s own power and then we can start to say – is this where we want to be as a church? Is this where we want to be as God’s people? And that’s a critical first step. So, I’m a huge fan of history, what it can do to open up these questions.
But then beyond that, this is where things get a little sketchier for me because my expertise is as a historian, not advising church leaders, but I think that one of the lessons that I learned from this research is how many of us have been complicit through silence, through choosing what is safe, what is least disruptive in institutions and churches and families and friend groups, of not speaking truth because that might come with a cost.
Kristin: And millions of those choices over decades of time really have brought us to where we are now. So, I think what the moment calls for right now is rigorous honesty of our own motivations. For white Christians in particular, what is needed is to listen to the voices of non-white Christians, to listen to those who have been excluded from their company, from you know, their conceptions of truth and their communities and I think that’s a really good place to start. There are, you know, vibrant traditions of prophetic Christianity on which we can all draw. So, I think that’s a critical step and really what’s needed is courage in this moment. Individually, and collectively.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: I think that’s a great word for us to end on.
Pete: Yeah, absolutely.
Jared: And really appreciate you spelling this out, not just here in the podcast, but again in the book where you go into more detail and completely describe my childhood. So, appreciated that, in some ways, and also hated you for it.
Pete: There are pictures too; there are pictures too.
Jared: Which is, yeah, I don’t read books without pictures, so it worked out.
Jared: Well, thank you so much, Kristin, for coming on.
Kristin: Oh, thank you. It was a joy.[Music begins]
Megan: All right, everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show, we hope you enjoyed this episode. We want to give a big shout out to our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They’re the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Thanks as always to our team: Producer, Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Community Champion, Ashley Ward; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People Team, thanks for listening.[End of recorded material]