RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
What does it mean to be a Christian man? The scholar Kristin Kobes Du Mez says the answer matters a lot. It influences how millions of Americans shape their lives and their politics. It even affects why so many white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Du Mez talked with our co-host Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Her book exploring the past and present of Christian manhood takes its title from a Christian song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS AND JOHN WAYNE")
GAITHER VOCAL BAND: (Singing) Daddy was a cowboy, hard as a rock. Mama, she was quiet as a prayer.
INSKEEP: The song by the Gaither Vocal Band is called "Jesus And John Wayne." The narrator recalls trying to please both his gentle, Christian mother and his tough-guy father.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS AND JOHN WAYNE")
GAITHER VOCAL BAND: (Singing) Somewhere between Jesus and John Wayne, cowboy and a saint, crossing the open range.
INSKEEP: The son feels the conflicting demands to be forgiving and combative, gentle and strong. Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a history professor at Calvin University, which is a Christian college in Michigan. When researching her book "Jesus And John Wayne," she concluded that among many evangelicals, the John Wayne side of the argument has been winning.
KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ: There are millions of copies of books that have been sold within evangelical circles on what does it mean to be a Christian man. And when I started reading these books, what struck me was there were only a few Bible verses kind of sprinkled here and there. But when they were looking for models of Christian manhood, they really looked to kind of secular heroes or mythical heroes - so warriors or soldiers or cowboys.
INSKEEP: Also movie heroes, like Mel Gibson in "Braveheart" or John Wayne in just about anything.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SANDS OF IWO JIMA")
JOHN WAYNE: (As John M. Stryker) If I can't teach you one way, I'll teach you another. But I'm going to get the job done.
INSKEEP: He was a star in the Cold War whose real-life politics leaned hard right.
DU MEZ: Well, it's the man and the myth, really, with John Wayne. I think mostly his onscreen persona. So he is this rugged man who can bring order through violence, really. So whether he's, you know, on the frontiers of the Wild West or in the second world war or on the battlefields of Vietnam, he can bring order through violence. And he can defend Christian America, really, and that's what really appeals to many evangelicals, how he becomes this icon - and not just to evangelicals but to secular conservatives, as well.
But also, the man himself in his own life, he was really critical to the rise of right-wing conservatism in the 1960s, 1970s. And he would be speaking at events hosted by white evangelicals in Southern California, and he endorsed Ronald Reagan. And so he's very much a part of the political movement, and he's this - becomes this kind of icon of what true American and true Christian masculinity really looks like.
INSKEEP: I've watched a lot of his movies over the years. And I'm thinking about how he may do terrible things but often in the protection of the society or the advancement of the greater good or the protection of women. He'll be living in some wilderness location which he says is no place for a woman. This is a common theme in John Wayne movies.
DU MEZ: It is. And it's a very common theme in white evangelical writing on masculinity from the 1960s really to the present - that you need to have very tough, rugged men who can protect women and children, who can protect Christianity and who can protect the American nation. And for the sake of protecting these vulnerable things, these precious things, really, the ends will justify the means.
INSKEEP: Why do you begin this book with an anecdote about Donald Trump?
DU MEZ: I think that the last four years have been clarifying for many evangelicals, for many observers of evangelicalism. When Donald Trump was elected, white evangelicals were absolutely critical to his victory. And for a lot of observers and for some evangelicals themselves, this seemed contradictory. It seemed like evangelicals had betrayed their values. But if you look at this longer history of evangelical masculinity and militarism, then you see that this wasn't a betrayal. This isn't just hypocrisy that we're seeing; this is consistent with the sort of values that evangelicals have have long held to.
INSKEEP: Are you arguing that white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump because they imagined him to be a John Wayne figure who would go out and do terrible things and that was the point - someone needed to do terrible things so that other people could be good?
DU MEZ: Yes. So they will actually say that in about as many words. Not all evangelicals will say that. But there is this strong kind of justification for their vote for Donald Trump in terms of, he is a strongman. He is going to protect Christianity precisely because he is not constrained by traditional Christian virtues.
INSKEEP: I suppose you would like your John Wayne, whoever it is - even if he's awful - to be competent, to be capable. And this is a president who, just in the last few months, his side lost a Supreme Court case on immigration because his administration didn't fill out the proper paperwork. It is arguable that many thousands of extra people have died in the pandemic because the administration did not coordinate a proper response and did not bring tests forward and did not make proper preparations. When you talk with evangelicals who believe they need a John Wayne, do they still believe this president is someone who is capable and competent and doing things that are appropriate?
DU MEZ: So there's a bit of wavering right now in the margins. And I think that people are unsettled in light of the pandemic. And at the same time, I think it's also important to realize that many evangelicals aren't necessarily listening to the same news reports as other Americans are. And so their news is being filtered in particular ways through Christian radio, also, you know, through Fox News and talk radio.
And so I think that this acknowledgement of incompetence isn't all that pronounced. And at the same time, this model of rugged and even reckless masculinity means that a lot of that kind of incompetence can actually be forgiven - right? - because you need aggressiveness to be a good leader and God gave men testosterone precisely for this reason. And yeah, there are going to be certain side effects.
INSKEEP: The book by Kristin Kobes Du Mez is "Jesus And John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith And Fractured A Nation."
Thanks so much.
DU MEZ: Thank you.
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