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Professor discusses rise of Christian nationalism

Kristin Kobes Du Mez - Photo by Deborah Hoag

By Gary Jewell / Dale Soden

Kristin Kobes Du Mez from Calvin University recently spoke at Whitworth University how the history of militant masculinity relates to the rise of Christian nationalism within the largely white evangelical church.

That's the focus of her book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

Kristin detailed numerous examples featured in her book of the way many evangelicals have gravitated to strong white men and to a message of patriotism supported by a particular reading of the Bible.

Speaking to 200 on April 11, she suggested that many commentators across the country have wondered why so many evangelicals (roughly 80 percent) supported Donald Trump in 2020 when on the face of it his personal life and many of his policies might seem at odds with Christianity.

Kristin contends, however, that evangelicals support Trump because he embodies the core values of the majority of evangelicals. Her assertion of this has made her a frequent commentator in major media circles across the country.

Her journey to something of a celebrity status has been an unlikely one. Born in northwestern Iowa, she grew up in a conservative religious culture shaped by the Christian Reformed Church. Her father was a theology and biblical studies professor at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa, where Kristin attended as an undergraduate.

Her interest in studying American culture arose the year when she studied in Germany as an exchange student. She came back wanting to know more about her own culture, so she decided to major in history.

Kristin remembers how her colleagues at Dordt challenged one another to think critically about their own assumptions and the world around them.

After graduating from Dordt, she went to graduate school at the University of Notre Dame and studied under a leading historian of American religion, George Marsden. Her studies of American history included specialties in women's history and religious history.

In a class on gender history, she shifted her focus. A book by Kathleen Brown introduced her to the significance of gender in history and from that point, Kristin took a keen interest in the intersection of gender, religion and American culture.

After graduate school she spent time at Williams College and the Five College Women's Studies Research Center at Mt. Holyoke, before teaching at Calvin.

Kristin's first book, A New Gospel for Women: Katherine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, centered on the life of Katherine Bushnell, a 19th century Methodist and social activist. The biography, published in 2015, focused on the relationship between Christianity and feminism in American Protestantism.

That project launched Kristin on exploring the history of masculinity in American culture.

After she gave a lecture on Theodore Roosevelt, two students approached her suggesting she read John Eldredge's 2001 book, Wild at Heart. After reading that, she began to explore masculinity in a more contemporary context.

Wild at Heart provided a window into the importance of gendered issues in American evangelical culture.

From her research on the intersection of gender, religion and politics in recent U.S. history, Kristin wrote Jesus and John Wayne in 2020.  It is an analysis of the culture through the lens of Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham, James Dobson, Bill Gothard and Jerry Falwell.

The consequence of much of that history, Kristin said, is the election of Trump who, while not constrained by Christian virtue, was seen to champion certain "muscular Christian values and concerns."

Kristin pointed out that the American understanding of masculinity, prior to the early 20th century, tended to promote virtues of restraint and gentlemanliness. This understanding started to shift with Roosevelt and his projection of manly strength, she said.

After Theodore Roosevelt's influence and the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942, notions of faith, whiteness, militancy and masculinity were given a stronger cultural voice, she said.

The NAE allowed for Christian Bible colleges, bookstores, publishers, programs and magazines to speak with much more consolidated power to the broader culture, Kristin explained.

The cultural fears of communism, the strong assured voice of preachers like Billy Graham, and "manly Christian military officers like Oliver North promoted in Christian bookstores found cultural influence for continuing to define what Christian masculinity was to look like," she added.

About 15 years ago when she started the research, Kristin began to wonder if maybe she was focusing on a fringe issue. She said much of what she was discovering seemed extreme and disturbing. So she put the work aside. In 2016 she took out that research and decided to write the book, because several scandals in evangelical communities led her to realize that it wasn't "fringe." She published it in 2020.

After her Spokane lecture, she responded to several questions.

When asked how her book has been ​received by the evangelical community, Kristin reported that there are always critics, but by far the vast majority—99 percent of those who reach out to her—are grateful, saying, "You are describing the story of my life."  

When she has received criticisms, it has often been to the effect, "You should be kinder"—meaning less critical of powerful evangelical leaders.

Her reaction as a Christian and as an academic historian is "to first get the history right. It is the Christian historian's job to be loving toward her subject, but this kindness extends to victims as well."

After the publication of Jesus and John Wayne, one reviewer suggested there was a lack of "robust economic examination" in this book. This was a point she would have wanted to explore, had there been the time and space. 

One questioner, noting that Kristin's work is a thorough, factual examination on "masculinity" of a conservative interpretation of a particular group—white evangelicals—in a particular historical time, asked, "What is the biblical view of masculinity?"

Her response was, "Perhaps we should look at the "fruits of the Spirit as described in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness and self-control."

Another asked if she had hope after writing the book, she paused for a moment and replied, "I have more hope now than when I finished the book, given the response to it among so many evangelicals. I see change happening at the individual level, but not so much on the institutional level."

A final note in her book, Jesus and John Wayne, reminds the reader that "What was once done, can be undone."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2022