For White Evangelicals, The Identity Is About More Than Religious Faith : The NPR Politics Podcast In the latest installment of the Politics Podcast book club, NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben interviews Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez about Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

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For White Evangelicals, The Identity Is About More Than Religious Faith

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture. And today, another installment in our regular book club series, where we on the podcast and you listeners read a book together and discuss it in our podcast Facebook group.

This time, we are talking to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of "Jesus And John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith And Fractured A Nation." It's a genuinely fascinating book. It looks at the history of American white evangelicalism, both theologically and politically, and particularly through the lens of masculinity. It traces that history from the early 20th century through the election of Donald Trump and then some.

So for this special episode, we are taking that on for our book club. It's a chance for our listeners to connect over books about politics, and people connected in the Facebook group. You asked some great questions. I'm so excited. So let's get to it.

Kristin is professor of history at Calvin University. Kristin, hello.

KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: So for our listeners who might not have read it yet, let's just start very simply. Tell us, how would you describe to an outsider to American politics the role, the importance that white evangelicals play in American politics?

DU MEZ: Sure. First of all, depending on how we define evangelicals, evangelicals do make up a pretty large percent of the American population, somewhere between, like, 12, 13%, all the way up to 25, 26%. So it's a significant demographic. But politically, even, I think it's fair to say that white evangelicals punch above their weight because evangelicals have been extremely mobilized politically and have particularly been mobilized within the Republican Party and to support Republican politics. And this has been really since the 1960s, particularly 1970s and crystallized in the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

And so what we see is conservative Republican values have absolutely served to shape the Republican Party platform for several decades now, and Republicans know that well and cater to a conservative Republican value system. And also, of course, in terms of the election of Donald Trump, white evangelicals were his most stalwart supporters, both in 2016, in 2020 and throughout his entire presidency.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, we should get into definitions there. You talk about sort of two ideas of evangelicalism. One is theologically, and one is culturally. And we're talking white evangelicalism here. So let's talk - differentiate those two definitions we're talking about. What are the theological tenets of evangelicalism, leaving aside the cultural part for now?

DU MEZ: Well, if you ask an evangelical leader, they will point you to a set of beliefs or doctrines that evangelicals uphold. And so they will point you to the authority of the Scriptures, to conversionism, the centrality of the born-again experience. And they will also point you to this kind of activism, acting out of this set of beliefs and evangelism.

You know, I originally just planned to use the standard definition that everybody seems to use when talking about evangelicals. But very quickly, I realized it wasn't really getting at what I was seeing and what I was talking about. So the majority of Black Protestants in the United States can check off those boxes. The vast majority of Black Protestants who can check off those boxes do not identify as evangelical.

And so I really wanted to take evangelicalism as a cultural movement seriously and take evangelical self-identification seriously. So people who say, yes, I'm an evangelical; this is who I am - what do they really mean by that? And when you look at studies, you very quickly see that many evangelicals have high levels of theological illiteracy. They don't know their theology all that well. And so for me as a historian, that leads me to ask, should we really be using theology to define a movement when that's maybe not the most important thing to many people who are identifying with that movement? So is an evangelical - is that about what you believe with respect to some doctrine? Or does it mean you maybe grew up in a home listening to James Dobson's Focus on the Family radio? You listen to Christian music. You read, you know, Christian devotionals from evangelical publishers. And so that's really where I'm shifting the focus.

KURTZLEBEN: We haven't even gotten into the masculinity part of this, (laughter) which is, of course, at the center of your book. What are the hallmarks of this white evangelical masculinity? What makes white evangelical masculinity what it is?

DU MEZ: Well, first, I'll say that there are, you know, a variety of evangelical masculinities that you could point to.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

DU MEZ: There's a kinder, gentler version of, you know, kind of self-restraint, and there's a longer history to that. But I started to pay attention back more than 15 years ago, actually, to a more militant conception of Christian manhood that was really gaining in popularity in evangelical spaces in the early 2000s. This, too, went back decades. You can find it kind of popping up in different guises. In the book, I kind of root it particularly in Cold War America and then in the 1960s, 1970s rise of the religious right. But it kind of ebbed and flowed.

But by the early 2000s, that's when my attention was really drawn to this very militant conception of Christian masculinity. Particularly, the popularity of John Eldredge's book "Wild At Heart" caught my attention. Everybody was reading it in evangelical spaces in the early 2000s. My own church was hosting book clubs. My college students were the ones who brought the book to my attention. And in this book, you know, God is a warrior god, and men are made in his image. Every man has a battle to fight and a beauty to rescue. And so it's this very militant conception of what it is to be a Christian man, and it requires constant battles.

And back in that time - this was in 2005, 2006. The book, by the way, sold more than 4 million copies. It was a big deal, still is in many circles. But this is during the early years of the Iraq War. And we saw all this survey data coming out that white evangelicals were far and away more likely to support that war, to support preemptive war in general, condone the use of torture. And so I really did just start asking the question, what might one of these things have to do with the other?

KURTZLEBEN: Masculinity is not just a value of white evangelicals. It's a value of lots and lots of people in American culture. So is it that masculinity took over the white evangelical movement, and then they both affected the GOP and then the broader culture? Or is it that masculinity kind of affected changes in both white evangelicalism and the Republican Party at the same time? How do you see this sort of chicken-egg thing working?

DU MEZ: Yeah, I really avoid any language of hijacking evangelicalism, whether it's, you know, masculinity or whether it's, you know, politics hijacking the movement. That's not what we're talking about here. We're looking at something much more grassroots, much more authentic. You know, this isn't a story of brainwashing at all. This is a story of values held in common, emerging values that then unite people across religious differences, across theological differences so that conservative evangelicals find they have much more in common with conservative Catholics culturally and politically, and with secular conservatives, right? By the 1970s, we see this alliance developing because they have these shared cultural values - right? - the shared cultural identity of gender traditionalism, of, you know, white patriarchal authority.

And this particular masculinity, as we see it evolve over the last half-century or more, is closely linked to Christian nationalism - right? - to this idea that America is God's nation and this mythical notion, and we have to somehow return it to this mythical greatness and to this mythical goodness. And so Christian men and strong men and white men have this special role to play to keep America strong. And you do that by keeping it Christian. You keep it moral, according to, you know, their understanding of morality. And you keep it strong in terms of a very strong military defense. And these things come together, and then they're going to unite conservative evangelicals with conservative Catholics with secular conservatives.

KURTZLEBEN: All right, we are going to take a quick break, and we will be back with more with Kristin Kobes Du Mez in just a second.

And we're back. And we are talking to Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of 'Jesus And John Wayne."

And there are these cycles that seem to repeat themselves throughout your book. And one of those is sort of the pendulum swing of backlash and then gaining power. And you write about the 2008 election, saying that militant evangelicalism was always at its strongest with a clear enemy to fight. The '60s and '70s, it seemed like the clear enemy then was, you know, long-haired hippies...

(LAUGHTER)

DU MEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...To put too fine a point on it, but then that Barack Obama might have also strengthened the evangelical right in that way. So one thing I'm wondering is, do you see something similar happening with Joe Biden now? Is he a clear enemy for the evangelical right to fight? Or is it - is there anything different about him?

DU MEZ: There is something different, I think. It's harder to make Joe Biden into the enemy. You know, Barack Obama - absolutely. He came at the right moment, not just as the first African American president. And white evangelicals have always had a fraught relationship with the civil rights movement. But also, he comes in the wake of the upsurge in Islamophobia in white evangelical circles as well as in America more broadly after September 11, 2001. So, you know, it's no coincidence that many conservative evangelicals like to refer to him by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama. And so he really was kind of easy to hold up as this enormous threat.

Now, somebody like Joe Biden, he's a little trickier because he is an older white man. He seems a little more harmless, frankly. So I don't think they've been able to mobilize in quite the same way around Biden as an individual. Instead, their focus is more on COVID measures and on the election - you know, the steal - and still keeping the focus on somebody like President Trump and how he could really stoke that anger, that resentment and that fear. So it doesn't seem to be focused quite as much on Joe Biden, or at least not so effectively.

KURTZLEBEN: Got you. Well, I want to get to some of our listener questions because we had a great discussion in the Facebook group. And I want to make sure that our listeners, in addition to the people in the group, get to hear some of these. So let's start with a question from a listener named Kate (ph). She asked, I know the book ended where it did for the obvious reason of that's when it published, but I'm wondering if Kristin thinks that is the peak fulfillment of the trends she notes or just a step along the way. And if it's just a step, what does the ultimate fulfillment look like, and are we headed there?

So assuming she's talking about the Trump era here in terms of fulfillment and where the book ends, how would you answer that?

DU MEZ: I don't know that my research as an evangelical historian or historian of evangelicals situates me well to answer this, except these are deeply embedded patterns. It will take a lot to shift these patterns. Right now, we're in a heightened era of polarization, and white evangelicals are playing a critical role in that. This, like, us versus them; if you aren't with us, you're against us - there are longstanding patterns there. All of which is to say I have no real reasons for optimism.

I was very curious to see what would happen with Trump out of the White House because Trump had become such a larger-than-life figure in this whole story. And evangelicals loved him in many ways because he was a winner. He was their protector. He promised to protect Christianity. He was ruthless. He was not in any way constrained by traditional Christian virtue, so he could go and, you know, let their enemies have it. And he really came through on that front. And so I wondered what's going to happen with him out of the White House because he doesn't have that power anymore. He's a loser in terms of he lost the election. And, you know, obviously that's been contested in these circles. But he just doesn't embody that power anymore. So I thought, if anything, that's going to be what shifts the conversation here.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to end on one more question from the Facebook group from Stephen Shelton (ph). Would you say the futures and the fates of American evangelicalism and American Republicanism are inextricably tied together? And I'm going to use my host's prerogative here and maybe ask another version of that as well. How does the GOP shift as America gets more secular, as people move further away from going to church? Or is it that this cultural evangelicalism you've been talking about is divorced enough from theology that it doesn't matter, that it's already baked in?

DU MEZ: Yes, yes. That's the answer there, really. You know, this value system really is conveyed through the popular culture, through Christian radio and through, you know, secular talk radio, through books that you can buy on the shelves at Walmart, you know, and anything you can find on Amazon, through "Duck Dynasty," through reality TV. It's really everywhere. I mean, Hallmark movies is something I'm looking at for my next book. You know, that these cultural values are kind of embedded now.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, we could go on for many more hours, but I think we're going to have to leave it there. Kristin, this has been a fantastic conversation. Thank you for the book, and thank you for taking so much time to talk to us.

DU MEZ: Oh, thank you. And thank you to all the readers who've been engaging it in the Facebook group. And thank you, too, for hosting this. It's been a treat.

KURTZLEBEN: All right, so the book, again, is "Jesus And John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith And Fractured A Nation." Thank you so much to all of our Facebook group participants who asked questions. If you want to join that Facebook group, go to n.pr/politicsgroup and request admission. We will let you in. And then stay tuned for when we announce our next book club book. That will be coming any day now.

Thank you so much. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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