How Christian Nationalism Corrupted Evangelism's Message of Love: A Conversation with Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez
It is not fear of the outside world that is driving evangelical dogmatism and militancy, it is the other way around
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell, and this is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in his campaigns and presidency. White Christian nationalism was a driving force in efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and many of the worst reactionary movements in the country, powering the growth of the far-right's influence, have their source in evangelical America. This is all, frankly, a little perplexing, given the peaceful, “love-thy-neighbor” core of Jesus' moral teachings. But it's nothing new.
In her fascinating and troubling book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Calvin University’s Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the emergence of the Christian radical right, particularly its patriarchal and toxically masculine forms, from its origins in the middle of the 20th century through to Trump. It's a story that's often appalling, but also helps us to understand much of our contemporary political scene.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the things that I think might be surprising to people who come from a more secular background, or at least not an evangelical background, didn't grow up in evangelical culture and so on, is how much evangelicalism that seems to be the default right now. For a lot of us, we just think of characters like Jerry Falwell as representative of what it simply means to be an evangelical Christian. One of the surprising things about your book is how that brand of evangelicalism is both kind of historically contingent and relatively new. What did evangelicalism look like before the rise of what you call this the John Wayne version?
Kristin Kobes Du Mez: As a historian, you can go back. You can just keep going back in time. Evangelicalism historically was a revival movement. A revival movement, a popular movement that spread beyond any evangelical or any denominational boundaries, a kind of popular/populist movement in many cases. And it was many things. It was this kind of reinvigoration of a personal relationship with God, this very personal faith commitment, not just institutional. And in many cases, it actually, in the 19th century, disrupted social hierarchies. If the Holy Spirit—anybody had access to the Holy Spirit and this kind of rebirth, this conversion experience. Men and women and people of different social classes and races could be empowered by the Spirit.
In the 19th century, you will have evangelical feminism and abolitionism and a number of social outworkings of this transformative faith that really bridged from conservative to what we would call progressive and everywhere in between. Evangelicalism has always been many things. One of the things I trace in my book is how a particular form of evangelicalism that was socially, culturally, politically conservative became the dominant strand in the second half of the 20th century.
“It was many things. It was this kind of reinvigoration of a personal relationship with God, this very personal faith commitment, not just institutional. And in many cases, it actually, in the 19th century, disrupted social hierarchies. If the Holy Spirit—anybody had access to the Holy Spirit and this kind of rebirth, this conversion experience. Men and women and people of different social classes and races could be empowered by the Spirit.”
Aaron: What did gender roles look like, because that's the core argument of your book is this kind of toxic view of gender roles that arose. How did these non “John Wayne style” evangelical movements think about the role of gender?
Kristin: This conservative white evangelicalism has really emphasized the last half century or more, a very patriarchal model of society. The idea that God has ordained male leadership, and not just men should be pastors or elders of churches, but the rulers of the home, that is the call of women to submit to masculine authority. There are varying degrees, historically speaking, many Christians throughout history have certainly embraced various iterations of patriarchal leadership. In the post-war era, this is when we see this idea of masculine leadership, female submission, and gender difference as really moving to the center of evangelical identity and to their understanding of the social order.
What's important to understand the story of Jesus and John Wayne and to understand modern evangelicalism is to understand how these views of gender were linked to Christian nationalism. The idea of God made men to be strong as protectors and providers, but the emphasis is really on protection. In the Cold War, there was a communist threat. It's a military threat, right? It was. What you see is in their writings for Christian living, how to be a Christian man, how to be a Christian woman, how to have sex, right? They love writing about sex.
Infused in these teachings is the idea that you need strong, rugged, masculine, aggressive men to be rulers of the home so that they can also be defenders of the nation, of the Christian nation. All of this gets wrapped up together and at a certain point really becomes unmoored from traditional kind of biblical teachings on war, on peace and a number of others and becomes really its own thing. And very much that's conservative evangelicals against other Americans, being other Americans who don't hold to this particular set of values as not “true Americans,” as undermining Christian America and really as enemies.
“Infused in these teachings is the idea that you need strong, rugged, masculine, aggressive men to be rulers of the home so that they can also be defenders of the nation, of the Christian nation.”
Aaron: Was the catalyst then for this new movement the launch, the start of the Cold War?
Kristin: That is a critical kind of catalyzing moment here. You can go back earlier. You can certainly go back to the early 20th century, the 1910s, 1920s, where you see this fundamentalist-modernist division take hold and contemporary evangelicals are kind of heirs to the fundamentalist side for the most part. Although you're not, it's a more complicated story. You can go back there and there is this kind of reactionary movement, anti-modern movement, particularly focused around gender and sexuality, that goes back to the 1910s and 1920s.
Even then, you know, you can have other evangelicals in the early 20th century who were feminists. Many of the women suffragists were evangelicals and they were drawing on their faith. One thing that history does very much is it shows, yes, you can find some continuities if you're looking for them, but you also find a lot of change over time. When you recognize that you can start to say, "Okay, why in this moment did these evangelicals interpret the scriptures in this way?"
What I will say is that's simply what we do as historians, but for evangelicals themselves, there's a lot of resistance to that because evangelicals themselves will root all of their values, their contemporary values in history, in tradition, and in the scriptures. For them, everything they hold to is timeless and biblical. And that's that. Whereas a historian is going to say, "Actually, it didn't always used to be this way. Let's look how it came to be this way." And that's been an incredibly disruptive thing I think that this book has done in evangelical spaces.
Aaron: I found the link between the rise of this sort of patriarchal thinking and anti-communism particularly fascinating. And what I was wondering about is how much, because it seems like for a lot of, not just the evangelical right, but a lot of just the right in America in kind of the time, the '50s and '60s and the height of the red scare and so on, they talked about communism as—communism was kind of this anti-free enterprise and a military threat. That was the rhetorical framing.
It seemed like what they really meant in a lot of cases was we oppose the civil rights movement. We oppose women's liberation, and we oppose workers' rights or those kinds of things. We're going to call those things communists or it's the communists who are talking about race relations and women's rights and so on. I guess the question is like, can we tease that out? Like how much of it was really the fear of communism as like Marxist ideology and the institutions that embodied it versus this is kind of a sublimated critique of the civil rights movement.
Kristin: Yeah. That's a great question. I mean in the '40s, in the '50s, you see evangelicals like Billy Graham, who are really at the forefront of this anti-communist rhetoric, rooting this in American identity and Christianity. And in the late '40s, that becomes very convenient to those interested in mobilizing Americans post-World War II, to resist communism, right? Propaganda is necessary to get most Americans who are like, "Whoo, that war's done, glad that's over, right?" The government has to say, "No, we need you to stay mobilized, to stay vigilant, because now we have a Cold War on our hands."
Evangelicals were very useful in the '50s to somebody like Eisenhower. You see this as kind of mutual affirmation here. It helps evangelicals move into the center of society, but in the center of political power, too, in and out of the White House, right, Billy Graham. What's important to realize is they weren't actually that different from many other Americans in holding some of these core values of anti-communism, pro-traditional values. This is kind of the “Leave It To Beaver” era consensus. And it really is the civil rights movement that starts to sever this notion of consensus.
That really hits conservative white or Southern evangelicals hard. You know, a majority of white southerners happen to be evangelicals. And that's something historiographically, we usually kind of keep these as separate narratives, but they're not, right? These are the same people we're talking about. And so very much as civil rights seems disruptive to the social order and to white evangelicals in the South, particularly idea of what is God ordained, what is true. Civil rights does start to kind of fracture this understanding of who we are as a nation.
It very much fractures evangelicals' idea of who they are. That America is God's special nation, and that Americans are innocent, that they are innocent, and they are righteous, and they are good, right? This is that “us versus them,” how that works. The civil rights movement strikes at the heart of that mythology. There's strong resistance to that. By the '60s, then you can add the feminist movement, and you can add the anti-war movement, also very, very important during this era. I was really surprised when I went back in the sources and saw just how prevalent kind of grappling with Vietnam and its repercussions was inside evangelical spaces. There too, they're holding onto this idea of American goodness, American greatness.
“Civil rights does start to kind of fracture this understanding of who we are as a nation. It very much fractures evangelicals' idea of who they are. That America is God's special nation, and that Americans are innocent, that they are innocent, and they are righteous, and they are good, right? This is that “us versus them,” how that works. The civil rights movement strikes at the heart of that mythology. There's strong resistance to that. By the '60s, then you can add the feminist movement, and you can add the anti-war movement.”
Vietnam just kind of blows that up for many Americans. That's when evangelicals double down and become strongly pro-military. That too is a very recent switch. In World War II, many evangelicals were very skeptical of the military. Into the 1950s, that was the case. All this comes together, and evangelicals then hold to these values as, and yes, it's all under this kind of anti-communist, pro-America kind of umbrella. There are many other issues that start driving it, certainly. But yes, this idea that feminists are Marxists, and civil rights activists are Marxists. And you're hearing that now in the anti-CRT rhetoric. I've been called a Marxist frequently in these spaces. As a historian, you could just laugh and say, "There's nothing new under the sun."
Aaron: This connection to nationalism is really interesting because it seems to run—Jesus wasn't an American.
Kristin: (laughs) Be careful with that!
Aaron: Christianity was this global, is this global thing and everyone is created by God in his image. It seems to be, and then the militarism—I'm a Buddhist, but I have read the Bible and Christ doesn't come across to me as a Chuck Norris figure. How does that connection to specifically American nationalism arise, given how kind of orthogonal it seems to be to basic Christian principles?
Kristin: If you go back to the early 20th century, a lot of conservative Protestants were pacifists in the First World War. This is something that I sketched out very briefly in the book just to set up that things haven't always looked like they do now. Again, for those who claim that all their values are eternal, timeless, God ordained, that's controversial to even say that. This nationalism, many conservative Protestants rejected Christian nationalism in the early 20th century, because look around you, does this look like a Christian nation to you? Or what is it to be a Christian? It's to have your soul saved. A nation doesn't have a soul. What are you even talking about, right?
This is the kind of rhetoric you would hear often in the early 20th century in these conservative Protestant spaces. That starts to shift over the course of the First World War. At that time, actually, it was as likely for liberal Protestants to be Christian nationalists, to think America had a special role to make the world “safe for democracy” and so on. Liberal Protestants embraced militarism. They came out at the end of the First World War chastened, whereas many conservatives ended up emboldened and embraced militarism and also were feeling that they were being increasingly displaced from their churches—fundamentalists hadn't seized control of the churches, they felt marginalized.
By the 1940s, by kind of taking on this militaristic posture, this patriotic posture, Christian nationalism gave them a way to situate themselves once again at the center of American society. The late '40s and early '50s was just the perfect time for that. It's really remarkable to see just how marginalized they perceive themselves to be in the 1930s, compared to just 15 years later, how they are seeing themselves, how they are appearing by the 1950s. It's this really dramatic change. Christian nationalism was key to that, which is why then with the civil rights movement, with the anti-war movement, with Americans questioning this nationalism and militarism is a threat to their power. It's many things, but it is also a threat to their power, which is why they react with such force against that.
Yeah, Christian nationalism really is key to understanding evangelicals. And it's getting all this attention today, right? The media has discovered it and Marjorie Taylor Greene is claiming that. What I will say is that historians, we've used this kind of term for a long time to just explain a posture that is not at all new in evangelical spaces. One important thing that it does is because they believe that America was founded as a Christian nation, and they believe that their version of Christianity was at the center. They kind of anachronistically read back contemporary evangelicalism into the founding fathers.
But because of that, there is this burden that they feel to make sure that all of the nation's laws reflect God's laws—and their interpretation of God's laws in such a way that the nation will be blessed. If they don't bring the laws in alignment with God's laws, the idea is that the nation will be cursed, it will not have God's blessing. What they—this is not a “live and let live” kind of philosophy at all. It is, "We know what's better for all of you Americans. If you're not with us, you're against us. But we will use coercion so that we can bring our country in line with what it was always meant to be. And in the long run, it's going to be good for you, too."
“There is this burden that they feel to make sure that all of the nation's laws reflect God's laws—and their interpretation of God's laws in such a way that the nation will be blessed. If they don't bring the laws in alignment with God's laws, the idea is that the nation will be cursed, it will not have God's blessing.”
Aaron: That's a really interesting framing of it, because you know, one of the core arguments for political freedom, political liberalism, is we—as long as people aren't hurting you in their behaviors, they should be free to live their lives. This is like a way to route around that argument by basically saying you might not be physically hurting me. You're not punching me. You're not—”Your sinful lifestyle is going to do grave harm because you're upsetting God and he's going to punish all of us.” That seems to be a real problem for arguing for political liberty because you can't—you have to basically, if you want to say, “No, I should be free to live my life as I want to,” you have to defeat their metaphysical priors.
Kristin: Yes. You see that now in, you know, I watch these conversations quite closely, people who are self-identifying as Christian nationalists. I should say the vast majority of people who might fit that category don't self-identify as Christian nationalists. They simply see their values and their political posture as just Christian. It's just what Christians do and ought to do, right? There are some who are self-identifying as Christian nationalists. And you can see this rhetoric very clearly that, no, everybody's behavior has to be brought in line here.
When I first started researching this book, which was actually almost 15 years ago, I had started and then set it aside. I first was just looking at these ideas of very militant Christian manhood and where those were coming from. I was seeing they were coming from popular culture. I was intrigued with how that lined up with evangelical foreign policy and militarism, right? That's kind of where it started. But very quickly, I was surprised by just how anti-democratic these teachings actually were. I don't know why I was surprised. I kind of grew up not quite evangelical, but evangelical adjacent.
I was somewhat familiar with some of these people, these teachings, but when I went back and looked at the sources as a historian, it was jarring. The idea of social hierarchy, the idea of authority, of women must obey men, right? Wives to their husbands must submit to that authority, children to their parents, people to their pastors, and then to the God-ordained authorities in their lives. That's a really important adjective there, the “God-ordained” authorities. If they can say that "No, this lawmaker, this President, right, is not God-ordained, then you don't need to submit to their authority." If they're claiming that it is, that this is your proper authority, your husband, right, even if he's abusive, you have to submit, that is your call. To obey the authorities God has placed above you is to obey God. This is how that thinking works, right? You take that then and you look at democracy, you look at a pluralistic society, it does not fit.
Aaron: On the subject of abuse, that's one of the other really shocking strains throughout this is. I mean there were very public, the various televangelist sex scandals, which I remember as a kid in the '80s, I remember hearing these various things, about these things. There was that high profile thing, but another strain of this is just how much domestic abuse runs through at kind of every level and how it shows up in the later portions of the book and conversations about really not being too upset about Trump's behavior. Reading it, I just was like, I understand why evangelical men can be on board with an ideology that says they should be at the top, they should have all this power, their wives owe them sex and support and submission and all of that. Like that's—
Kristin: It's the deal.
Aaron: —you can see kind of the, yeah. Why, what do the evangelical women think about this?
Kristin: Yeah, it's a good question. There are many ways to approach this. I just have really one chapter in Jesus and John Wayne that focuses on women, and it doesn't kind of bring that up to the present. My next book that I'm writing right now is kind of the flip side and it's looking at evangelical femininity and it's called Live, Laugh, Love. And so, kind of how that side works to prop up this kind of militant patriarchy. First, it's important to realize that generations of women and girls now have been taught, this is simply how you are a faithful Christian.
I think it's important to keep that in mind that there are many women and girls who love Jesus, who believe the Bible is true and then they are taught over and over again by their pastors, by their parents, by their schools, their homeschools. This is simply how you're Christian. It's this “us versus them,” and everybody else is a false teacher. Everybody else is dangerous. It’s don't even go out there. Don't even listen to other people. It's so dangerous out there. There are a lot of people, thousands and thousands of people, right? Tens of thousands of people who just, this is what they've been taught.
It can be excruciating to kind of walk away from that because you're not just walking away from those teachings, which is very hard because you're told that your very soul is at stake. You leave this church, you leave this community, right? You reject these teachings, you will spend eternity in hell. There's the fact that this is your whole world. This is your whole community. These are your people. These are the people you love. These are the people you know. In many cases, evangelicalism becomes this world for people that you don't just attend church, although you do often, you're a member of church, then you're a member of a small group in that church.
You're meeting every week with this close group of families. Your kids are going to Sunday school and to youth group. It's really designed to be your social world, your primary social world. When you start to reject this then, the costs are extremely high. In many cases, it severs you from your own family. So there's that, but I think that we have to understand that many people genuinely believe this is what it means to be faithful. When you look at the Bible studies, the devotionals, the Christian radio, that's a whole popular culture that really cultivates people's values. These teachings run deep—that you submit, that you put others in front of yourselves, particularly if you're a woman, and it's compelling to some women. Then again, the costs are so high if you decide to walk away.
Aaron: On the culture thing, another really interesting aspect of the rise of this is the, I don't know how to, the kind of shifting away from the church and like official doctrine as the center of faith to the broader, it's not non-denominational, but like the broader culture and then all of the marketing that goes along with it, all of the product stuff, the rise of Christian booksellers and so on. It just, it seems like there's this really interesting overlay of commerce. In a lot of cases, just like outright grift, that feels very different from the way that we often think about the religion and how one relates to, you're kind of relating to it the same way that Disney fans relate to Disney, as opposed to the way that typically the member of a church would relate to their church hierarchy.
Kristin: Yeah, one of the things that this book does, the kind of intervention in this scholarship on evangelicalism, is that for a long time, historians, scholars of evangelicalism defined evangelicals according to their theology. They uphold the authority of the scriptures, they're conversionist, this born-again experience, they're biblicists, and so on. What I assumed that's what I was going to do. When I actually started to look at the evidence in front of me, I thought, this is not actually what we're talking about here. I don't actually offer a crisp definition of evangelicalism, I describe it.
I describe it as a series of networks and alliances and largely, as a consumer culture. What is evangelicalism? You need to look at Christian radio, look at Christian publishing. These kind of distribution networks reach millions of, hundreds of millions of Americans, and then we can talk also around the world. You can see the development of this over the course of the 20th century, where what is to be Christian kind of shifts from to attend a church, to be a part of a denomination, to adhere to a kind of theology. Increasingly, it becomes market driven.
“What is evangelicalism? You need to look at Christian radio, look at Christian publishing. These kind of distribution networks reach millions of, hundreds of millions of Americans, and then we can talk also around the world. You can see the development of this over the course of the 20th century, where what is to be Christian shifts from to attend a church, to be a part of a denomination, to adhere to a kind of theology. Increasingly, it becomes market driven.”
People who are selling these books, who are building these networks, who were coming together, the Christian Booksellers Association, building Christian bookstores, they are doing that all in the name of evangelism, right? If you hear them, but they're also making a ton of money and it conveniently goes hand-in-hand. This is how evangelicalism has operated. Much of this is not, we're not talking nonprofits in many cases. These are for-profit industries and highly profitable precisely because inside this ideology is the idea that everything on the outside is dangerous, right?
Secularism, secular humanism, secular psychology, secular generals, all of that is dangerous, the secular media. You have to consume distinctively Christian everything, which means there's a really great and lucrative market there for, particularly for conservative Christian products, right? You can just see this develop through the Christian Booksellers Association, this web of Christian bookstores, Christian music industry. This is massive. When I was writing Jesus and John Wayne, my editor, who comes from completely outside this world, more than once flagged things as, "These sales figures can't be accurate, right? Where did you get these publication numbers for this book?" He's like, you have to understand publishers are always inflating their numbers. We need to vet this. I said, "Oh, I got it in The New York Times, and he's like, "Oh, nevermind. Then it's vetted." Had no idea that we are talking tens of millions of sales of these books.
This entire world is almost invisible to anybody outside of it because The New York Times doesn't include these books on their bestseller list. They know their readers aren't interested, right? It's a curated list. It remains hidden from other Americans that this whole world exists, but there are tens of millions of us in this country who have been immersed in these spaces, right? I think that's just really important to recognize.
It is a space where over time you can see particular theological distinctions. In many cases, doctrinal distinctions have receded in significance, and social and political and cultural values have increasingly come to define what is orthodox and what is acceptable and what is out of bounds.
Aaron: How much then are the leaders in this, I guess, genuine versus salesmen, hucksters, so on? I'm thinking of people like Falwell or Robertson or LaHaye or Dobson. How much are they seeing this, they're like, "I'm going to do this because it makes me a ton of money and gives me power and prestige and whatever," versus "I am like a true believer?"
Kristin: I have never been able to successfully tease that out on the part of leaders. I have not, because I think we could bring in some psychologists here to have a better sense, but at a certain point you convince yourself that what you're doing is righteous. There's this whole kind of mentality that if you are successful, that means God's blessing you. That affirms what it is that you're doing. We all want to think that what works out well for us is also a good thing. It's righteous. I think that there's a lot of that going on. There are certainly also the grifters.
And it can be really hard to tell the two apart. But more than leaders, we have to look just beneath that level, of those who are actively participating in propping up these leaders. That honestly was the most shocking thing to me when, particularly around the area of exposing abuse. You know, you're, yes, you're always going to have the bad guys. You're always going to have abusers in your midst. You have them outside of evangelicalism too. What I kept seeing when I would look at these cases of abusive pastors, abusive fathers, leaders in these evangelical spaces was how the communities responded and over and over again, the same patterns, which is to defend the abuser.
These are people who, again, like their whole core teachings were on sexual morality and men are supposed to be protectors and purity and all of this. And yet none of that mattered when it came to propping up the authority of their leader, of the predator, and protecting the brand. Right? And this wasn't just one-off. It's over and over again. You can see how people get brought into these spaces and absolutely become convinced that they are doing God's will and they are doing God's will in propping up the authority of their leader.
The people at the top, I think there's a mix, but many of the participants, the vast majority are true believers. In participating in these systems, they also know that these pastors, lesser significant pastors in these networks and coalitions, they know that by showing deference to those with more power in these spaces is an avenue for themselves to also get more power, to have those book deals, to get that slot on the main stage at the big preachers conference. Right? But they do this all by telling themselves that they're doing God's work and patting each other on the back and calling each other brother in Christ.
Aaron: That role of—I guess call it outside criticism galvanizing certainty that what we're doing is right, picks up on a theme that's come up in a number of the things you've said so far in our conversation. Which is this “us versus them” and persecution mentality. It comes out as this kind of bizarre tension of claiming both strength and weakness, that we are like manly men, we are God's chosen people. This is God's country, Jesus is this warrior in our cause and we're warriors in his cause. It's this like, "We're tough guys."
At the same time, we are constantly under threat from everybody and it's not—I mean there's military threats but there's also just like we're threatened by like this gay couple down the block, like this very—Like what looks like real weakness, or it shows up in gender roles are—Traditional gender roles are both natural and ordained by God. At the same time, unless they are constantly reinforced, they will fall apart. It's just odd. It looks very odd from the outside and I'm wondering how much that tension is recognized internally and how it's wrestled with.
Kristin: This is really getting to the heart of things and this tension is very real. And initially, I kind of saw it framed from outsiders as and insiders—evangelicals were just so afraid. This is kind of the pundits of 2016. Evangelicals were afraid. We have demographic change. We have sea change on LGBTQ in Obergefell. We had African American Democratic President Barack Hussein Obama, all these things. What choice did they have but to run into the arms of Donald Trump? It's kind of one of the media narratives out there. In my research, one of the chapters in the book, it's kind of a weird chapter, and it's about post-9-11 where you have these ex-Muslim terrorists who take the speaking circuit by storm, evangelical speaking circuit.
These are men who had been Islamic terrorists, so they said, and had persecuted Christians and wanted to kill Christians, and then had these miraculous conversion experiences, became evangelical Christians themselves, and then they traveled around to churches and through evangelical media and college campuses to tell their story about how dangerous and radical Islam was. They made a lot of money doing this. Well, one of these guys came to my college back in the day.
I teach at a Christian university, Calvin University, and my colleague, who's an expert in Ottoman history, immediately could say, "This guy's making stuff up. This is just not accurate." He reached out to the guy's sponsor, who was Focus on the Family. Talked to the president of Focus on the Family, found out they knew he was a fraud. All of these guys, complete frauds, completely made up their histories.
They were not terrorists. Some were not even Muslim for the most part, grew up with his mom, who was a Swedish Lutheran, so completely made up these stories. The important thing is, even though they were known frauds, they were still put out there, and some of them are still working today, telling the same stories. That's when it clicked for me. I realized that this relationship between fear and militancy, what comes first? Is it that militancy is a response to fear, or is it that the militancy comes first, and that leaders actively stoke fear in the hearts of their followers to consolidate their own power? And once that clicked into place, I could see it in Falwell Senior's Thomas Road Baptist Church, absolutely. In Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church.
I mean, Mark Driscoll liked to preach. When he preached, he was flanked by security guards. Always this notion of danger, danger. When you can sell that, then you can demand absolute loyalty from your followers, and then all of your behavior, your pugnacious behavior, your crassness, your un-Christ-likeness, that's all okay because this is war. In the time of war, if you're not with us, you're against us, you're a traitor, and give all your money, give all your loyalty, and do not criticize the leader. Once I saw that, I realized we just have to flip the script. In so many cases, the militancy comes first, and that generates, then, the fear in order to sustain its power.
“Always this notion of danger, danger. When you can sell that, then you can demand absolute loyalty from your followers, and then all of your behavior, your pugnacious behavior, your crassness, your un-Christ-likeness, that's all okay because this is war. In the time of war, if you're not with us, you're against us, you're a traitor, and give all your money, give all your loyalty, and do not criticize the leader.”
Aaron: Yeah, I can't remember who it is, but you quote someone talking about as kind of bad as Trump is, we need someone like that because at least he's going to punch the people we don't like.
Kristin: Oh, yeah, so many. You know, Robert Jeffress, “He's the meanest, toughest son of a you-know-what, and that's exactly who we need.” Or he's our “ultimate fighting champion,” so evangelicals were saying. There was something really cathartic that within that framework, you do want the “toughest, meanest son of a you-know-what” because traditional Christian values, virtues—kindness, gentleness, love, self-control, this is what the scriptures say it means to be Christian. This is what Christians should look like.
That isn't going to get you where you want to go. Trump was actually, it wasn't that so many were holding their noses to vote for Trump. Among a not insignificant fraction of conservative evangelicals, he was exactly what they wanted. He was better than any actual practicing Christian because he was unconstrained by these virtues, unconstrained by civility, and that's exactly what they wanted. He said he would fight to protect them, and that's what he did, and not just protect, but privilege them.
“It wasn't that so many were holding their noses to vote for Trump. Among a not insignificant fraction of conservative evangelicals, he was exactly what they wanted. He was better than any actual practicing Christian because he was unconstrained by these virtues, unconstrained by civility, and that's exactly what they wanted. He said he would fight to protect them, and that's what he did, and not just protect, but privilege them.”
Aaron: What do we do about this? The outward negative effects of this culture have been pretty damaging, and as we see the rise of white Christian nationalism and the explicit versions of it in Congress and its ties to what often look like proto-fascist movements in American politics—this is fairly scary stuff for those of us committed to robust liberalism in our politics and culture. You have a community that has, as you said, the militancy has then been used to teach them to basically fear everyone, to see—they constantly see criticism as a sign that they're doing something right.
They are really convinced that they are being persecuted in this odd—my friend, the historian Paul Matzko, historian of the American right, has remarked to me that he thinks white Christian evangelicals in America are probably the least persecuted religious minority in history, but are just wildly convinced—there's this siege mentality. And then all of this is bound up in the—"If we don't do this, if we don't make America Christian in the way that we think of Christianity, God will punish all of us, like very bad things will happen to all of us.” That seems like it would be hard to design an ideology that would be more difficult to kind of talk people out of than that. What do we—how do we address it? Is there like any hope in kind of rolling back, given that it was—this wasn't the way things always were. This is a relatively recent development. Is there a possibility of kind of bringing things back to a more, I guess, palatable and compatible with a liberal society direction?
Kristin: First, I agree with your pessimism here. When I got to the end of this book before it went into production, just at the last minute, I got an email from my editor saying, "You know, Kristen, this is a really depressing book." And I said, "Yeah, it is." He wrote back and said, "No, actually, that's a problem. You actually can't do this to your readers. You've got to give us something." I spent the afternoon kind of looking through the manuscript, and then I wrote back and said, "I've got nothing. This is not a good story." He said, "Okay, I respect that." He wrote back the next day and said, "Just give us anything." I reworked the last, the very last part of the book and gave him that last sentence. "What was once done might also be undone."
And it felt so feeble at the time, and it probably is, but it meant something to a lot of readers. But what I will say is that when this book was published, which is three years ago now, I expected some real pushback from conservative white evangelicals, and I have gotten some. What I did not expect was the incredibly enthusiastic response to the book and to the critique from white evangelicals themselves. I have received probably over 2,000 messages and letters from evangelical readers saying, "This is the story of my life, and thank you for helping me to see."
I find some encouragement there. But what do we do? This is where things get tricky, because I think there was a tension between the diagnosis and the cure. I'm good at diagnosis, right? There's not a lot of hope here but let me tell you all of the ways that—how this works and why it's so dangerous. That's the diagnosis. But what's the cure? I think the cure is reaching those folks on the inside, the moderates, those who did not fully understand what they were a part of, but now have a little openness to see. In the broader context, if you want to look at histories of fascism, for example, what we're talking about are in-group moderates, and we know that fascism works by brutally attacking. Isolating and attacking in-group moderates.
“I expected some real pushback from conservative white evangelicals… What I did not expect was the incredibly enthusiastic response to the book and to the critique from white evangelicals themselves. I have received probably over 2,000 messages and letters from evangelical readers saying, "This is the story of my life, and thank you for helping me to see … I think the cure is reaching those folks on the inside, the [in-group] moderates, those who did not fully understand what they were a part of, but now have a little openness to see.”
You see that happening in evangelical spaces. Just look at the hate David French gets, Russell Moore, Beth Moore, these folks. Me to a certain extent, although I've never really been one of them, but as a Christian, I'll get my share. And that is very intentional. It sends a message to all the others on the inside that, "We will destroy you. We will destroy you if you cross us." On what? On not supporting Trump, on calling out abuse, on questioning this patriarchal order, any of that. LGBTQ, absolutely, we will crush you. The costs will be high.
What should the rest of Americans do? This is something I've been talking to a lot of people about, but I would say at least understand that dynamic and understand what's happening inside these evangelical spaces. If in fact, you know, the histories are correct, that it's the disappearance of the center-right, that is the kind of key facilitator of an authoritarian regime taking hold. What are ways that the left can de-escalate and reach folks there, bolster them, strengthen them, and invite them into this broader pro-democracy coalition? That's what I'm looking at right now.
That's going to take, you know, some work on the part of folks from outside these spaces too, to keep in mind that, yes, there are extremists here and yes, there are many who are complicit in propping up that extremism. How do you reach those folks with a liberal pro-democracy kind of vision?
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you enjoy the show, please take a moment to rate and review it on Apple podcast. You can also join our Discord listener community and book club by following the link in the show notes. ReImagining Liberty is a project for The UnPopulist and is produced by Landry Ayres.
The UnPopulist invites interesting thinkers from across the political spectrum to foster a wide-ranging and thoughtful conversation to advance liberal values, including thinkers it may—or may not—agree with.
© The UnPopulist 2023