Why Are White Evangelicals Primed for Trump’s Fear-Mongering?

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Trump as Marionette. Photo credit: Christoph Scholz / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 15 minutes

Why do self-described evangelicals overwhelmingly support an irreligious commander-in-chief?  Why do megachurches demand to stay open in a pandemic, and why is the pro-life act of wearing a mask seen as antithetical to masculinity? 

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Calvin University scholar Kristin Du Mez, who sheds light on how white evangelicals gave America Donald Trump (81 percent voted for him in 2016).  

She explains that we have to first understand how popular culture forms the basis of today’s evangelical world view. And that Trump represents not the betrayer of Christian beliefs (philandering, mendacious, avaricious, ignorant of the most basic knowledge of Christian faith, and worse) — but their fulfillment. 

Du Mez also explains the role of Christian pop culture figures like James Dobson, Dave Ramsey, John Eldredge, and Tim LaHaye who helped shape the evangelical mindset through consumerism that reinforces white patriarchy, traditional gender roles, and militant nationalism.

Du Mez, the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, argues that it is not the intellectual forebearers of Christianity who mobilize the faith today, but muscular, mythical artificial heroes like Mel Gibson or John Wayne, idealized cowboys or soldiers. The toughness and swagger they embody conjures up a nostalgia for a simpler time, a nation unencumbered by activism for racial equality, women’s rights, and same-sex marriage. 

In a post-Vietnam, post-9/11 world, Evangelicals are primed for the fear mongering that leads to calls to “Make America Great Again.” 


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

You all may remember, at the midst of the last high point in the COVID crisis, back in mid-April, Trump wanted everyone back in church by Easter. The crazy part was that there were many churches, particularly evangelical ones, that wanted to obey. Last week in Arizona, the president held a mini rally at an evangelical mega church where the pastors, who clearly had no understanding of science, assured everyone of a magical filtration system that would clear out 99% of the virus. While Trump’s numbers free fall in almost every demographic group, white evangelicals remain the most steadfast.

Jeff Schechtman: Many wonder how foundational Christianity, based on the social justice teachings of Jesus, has morphed into a culture that is more interested in testosterone than in tithing, more interested in a crude masculinity than in compassion. We’re going to try and understand this today with my guest Kristin Du Mez. She’s a professor of history at Calvin University, the author of the previous book, The New Gospel for Women. She’s written for The Washington Post, Christianity Today, in Religion and Politics. Her latest book is Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. And it is my pleasure to welcome Kristin Du Mez here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Kristin Du Mez, thanks so much for joining us.
Kristin Du Mez: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.
Jeff Schechtman: How did testosterone, Christianity, and Trump, all get conflated.
Kristin Du Mez: Well, to understand that you have to go back in time. I’m a historian and it’s hard to know where to start with a story, but I think that the 1960s and 1970s are a really critical moment. That’s when we have folks like James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, coming into prominence and Dobson was really worried about the state of masculinity. He was worried about American families and he was worried about American manhood. And this is in the context of the rise of feminism, but also the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War. And there was this anxiety about white masculinity and white masculine leadership. It really seemed under attack.
Kristin Du Mez: And so evangelicals like Dobson started to write about family values of evangelicalism. And these family values were really centered on shoring up the authority of the patriarch, of the father. Children must be disciplined, so that they respect that authority. And feminism to them was a huge threat because in their opinion feminism was trying to erase God-given differences between men and women. And testosterone was key to that.
Kristin Du Mez: The difference that God filled men with testosterone, so that they could be strong and aggressive, so that they could protect their wives and children. They could protect Christianity. They could protect Christian America. So, it was important to protect the nation on the battlefields in Vietnam against the perils of communism, but also to lead and to guide the family and the church. And so it all came together. And what we see is this aggressive, almost warrior masculinity move to the center of a conservative evangelicalism and that persists. It takes some interesting twists and turns, but up to the present.
Jeff Schechtman: How did people like Dobson square this with traditional social justice Christianity? Because it really has nothing at all to do with that fundamental aspect of Christianity.
Kristin Du Mez: No. No, it doesn’t. But what we see happening in the 1960s and the 1970s is the growing divide between progressive evangelicalism or the social justice Christianity. And so you do have some white evangelicals who would become affiliated with sojourners, the evangelical left, who are preaching a very different Christianity, a very different evangelicalism at this time. They are antiwar. They have huge problems with what the American Government is doing, the US military is doing in Vietnam, so they’re advocating for pacifism and for women’s rights and for civil rights.
Kristin Du Mez: But within the conservative stream, you see this real doubling down on what comes to be the religious right, conservative politics. And they’re very concerned with properly structuring authority. This is where we have the anti-civil rights movement, the opposition to civil rights and this movement coalesces in a way that they understand this to be God’s will.
Kristin Du Mez: God wants a well-ordered society, a well-structured society, and this really feeds into a different movement. And so, what I’m talking about in the book, that fracturing of the nation, white evangelicals are our first fractured as a movement. And then they come to define their particular set of values as God given, as righteous and as traditionally American. And there’s a real separation between the social justice tradition and what becomes conservative white evangelicalism.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting, the way they try to base it in traditionalism, because it seems that there’s a fundamental flaw in that argument, in that, in a traditional sense, those that practiced that in the past didn’t know any better. There really wasn’t an alternative. It was the way things had evolved. Once there was an alternative, then it wasn’t traditional anymore. There was an artificiality to it. A political agenda to it, that was very different than what we might find in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Kristin Du Mez: Conservative evangelicals talk a lot about tradition, right? Traditional masculinity, traditional femininity, but they do so with no awareness of the very recent invention of this “traditional masculinity.” So, as a historian, if you look back in time, if you look back through Christian history, if you look back through American history, you can see that there were many different and contradictory understandings of how to be a Christian, how to be a Christian man. I mean, if you wanted to use the word traditional, traditionally through much of American history, the idea of Christian manhood entailed ideas of self-restraint, right? This gentlemanly ideal that you needed to be mature and control your impulses.
Kristin Du Mez: And that begins to shift in the late 19th century, early 20th century, for a variety of reasons. There are economic changes that are redefining what men do. They’re not working with their hands anymore. They’re not living out this rugged ideal. And so they start to question their masculinity, and then churches respond. And as Americans accept this more rugged masculinity, American Christians too embrace that.
Kristin Du Mez: But there was an earlier precedent for this and that you can find in the American South. In the American South you have the development of this white patriarchy that embraces codominance and power that is required, the exertion of power in order to control threats. And in the South, that was a white patriarchy that was meant to control women, children, and African Americans.
Kristin Du Mez: And that strand does continue through American evangelicalism, because American evangelicalism was very strong in the American South, and by mid-century, you see a lot of southerners moving out to the West Coast, to Southern California and Arizona. And that actually becomes the seed bed for the rise of the religious right.
Kristin Du Mez: So in American history, you have different constructions of masculinity and Christian manhood, but you can also find the origins of this more militant, patriarchal view. And we have to understand the role that race plays in that as well.
Jeff Schechtman: Which is the other thing that’s really a key part of this, is race. Talk about that.
Kristin Du Mez: Yes. So evangelicals, when you hear them talk about family values, when you hear them talk about Christian manhood, you will not hear much explicit talk of race. But I argue that it’s implicitly, it just saturates their understanding of masculinity and of authority. And one of the first clues where I began to realize this, was the heroes that the evangelicals like to celebrate.
Kristin Du Mez: Evangelicals love their heroes, when it comes to understanding Christian manhood. And this really struck me when I first started reading their books on manhood. And they have published and sold millions of copies of these advice manuals on how to be a Christian man. And what struck me was, for all their talk of being Bible-believing Christians, they didn’t actually reference the Bible very much in these books. There would be a Bible verse sprinkled here or there, but they loved to hold up heroes. Heroic, often mythical men, who could inspire them and that they argued, offered the blueprint for Christian masculinity.
Kristin Du Mez: These were warriors, soldiers, cowboys were their favorite and Hollywood movies were really helpful for this mythology. For constructing it. And their favorites are Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. They love William Wallace, and John Wayne. That’s where the book gets its title. And all of these heroes, I realized, ended up being white men. Again, they weren’t saying this explicitly, but often, and here’s John Wayne coming in as well, white men who would bring order through violence. Order, threat of violence. And usually by subduing non-white populations.
Kristin Du Mez: So you’ve got the cowboy. The good guys versus the bad guys. Subduing native Americans or in the case of Vietnam, the Green Berets, subduing Asian populations, and you can just see this model of white masculinity, where the white man has the God-given role to be the protector. And to do that, he has to be tough and he has to resort to violence for the greater good. And then the ends will justify the means.
Kristin Du Mez: So these heroes are unfailingly white men. And then when I went back to history, I started to understand in the 1960s and 1970s, evangelicals were deeply concerned with what they understood to be the erosion of the social order. And for many of these Southern evangelicals and for some Northern evangelicals as well, the civil rights movement was really threatening their understanding of a proper social order.
Kristin Du Mez: Desegregation of schools was deeply concerning, and that’s why you see a lot of conservative evangelicals starting up Christian schools at the time, because they were essentially segregated academies. And so, race is there, and then once you start looking for it, you can see how it persists in their understanding of authority and masculinity.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about how it morphed into a political agenda. And we can even see how race has had a direct impact, as we look at the reaction of this community to a Black president.
Kristin Du Mez: Oh, yes. Yes. The presidency of Barack Obama was very disturbing to many conservative white evangelicals. In part, because they saw in his election, the defection of some of their younger white evangelicals. They were deeply concerned that some younger white evangelicals had crossed over and voted for the democratic candidate, for Barack Obama. And so you see there’s real backlash emerging after the 2008 election, and they’re very explicit about that. They just doubled down, they’re writing books, they’re preaching sermons, there’s no justification. You cannot defect. And the animosity towards Barack Obama is really strong during this time. And you can see where that then feeds into the support for Donald Trump eight years later.
Kristin Du Mez: But it’s not just a personal thing against President Obama. Really, so many of their policies, if you look at polling data, consistently white evangelicals will be suspicious of systemic racism and its effect on the American nation. They are much less likely to believe, for example, today that African Americans are subject to police brutality at greater rates than other Americans.
Kristin Du Mez: Conservative evangelicals tend to think that they are the most persecuted demographic in the American nation. And law enforcement too, in terms of Black Lives Matter. Very strong support for law enforcement, for border control, these things because their whole ideology has grown out of the celebration of the assertion again of white masculine power that can enforce order.
Kristin Du Mez: What was really interesting as I was reading was just how intimately connected these political stances are. On border control, on gun control, on race. With more intimate details, more intimate commitments. With the idea of what is a proper family and how very explicit about connecting these. You need to shore up the father’s authority in the home, the husband’s authority over his wife, in order that men can have this strong leadership and a powerful ego, so that they can do all these other things on the national stage and international stage.
Jeff Schechtman: And then how do women justify being part of this group?
Kristin Du Mez: Yes. So this is not just white evangelical men who are advancing this cause. Not at all. Women have a place in this. It’s a subservient place. They are to be protected by the militant masculine protector. And so, their job is to prop up the egos of their husbands and to satisfy them often sexually. That’s a key theme in a lot of writing on evangelical family issues. That men have aggressive sexual needs, and those need to be contained within heterosexual marriage.
Kristin Du Mez: And so, while women need to be very pure before they’re married and be absolutely sure not to tempt men, that they are not married to, as soon as they do get married, then it’s their job to meet their husband’s sexual needs so that he is not tempted.
Kristin Du Mez: So what does this do for women you may ask, because we really see in the 1960s and ‘70s when this ideology starts to really come together, that women are often the ones who are leading this effort. Women like Phyllis Schlafly was a Catholic, but she was a critical thinker in this and helped frame these ideas for evangelicals as well. Beverly LaHaye is another example, Maribel Morgan. They were writing advice books to women, for how God called women to be supportive wives. To be obedient. And women have this critical role, the supportive role in order to bolster masculine leadership.
Kristin Du Mez: And many, many women understood this to be God’s will for their lives. They played an essential role, not just holding families together by supporting their husbands, but they’re… Again these women writing advice manuals for other Christian women were very explicit that this was a critical role for the American nation that Christian women had to support their husbands, support their egos, so that men could be fearless and aggressive and strong and defend America.
Kristin Du Mez: And it was really shocking to see that, but many women found meaning in that. They found purpose in that. And at a time when the feminist movement was shaking things up for women and saying, “Hey, you should be doing other things. You shouldn’t just be in the home. The world is your oyster. Go achieve.” Many women, maybe middle-aged women who didn’t have much of an education, had been raising children, that really wasn’t much of an option, and so they felt devalued by that. Is my life not enough. And this conservative ideology really gave meaning and purpose to women who by choice, or not at all by their choice, had ended up as housewives.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent have millennials and Gen Z bought into this?
Kristin Du Mez: Less so than earlier generations, I think. It’s really tricky to know though, because you’ll often see, in surveys on evangelical politics, you will often see less commitment among younger evangelicals. But then those younger evangelicals sometimes grow up into older evangelicals and so, you always have to be careful at your foretelling the end of an ideology or the end of these political commitments.
Kristin Du Mez: But I think certainly among the younger generation right now, I think that there is less of a hold on those folks. And partly because in the book I talk about how evangelical culture is the primary vehicle through which these values are perpetuated. So through popular books, through Christian movies, Christian radio, and this has been enormously significant in shaping white evangelical identity for the past half century.
Kristin Du Mez: People outside of this culture, probably have no clue, but anybody who’s been part of the evangelical subculture, as it’s often referred to, know what I’m talking about here. You can be fully immersed in this.
Kristin Du Mez: I think that’s changing now for younger evangelicals. With the internet, with social media. It’s much harder to be growing up in a bubble, an evangelical bubble, where really, almost all of your sources of information and cultural formation are being filtered through this evangelical culture.
Kristin Du Mez: For many people my age – I’m in my forties and people older – it was very possible to grow up almost completely isolated in this evangelical world. So for that reason, I think that it just doesn’t have a strong hold on younger evangelicals today who are exposed to more ideas, who are connected to different people who don’t share these values. And so, I think that it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 5 or 10 years.
Jeff Schechtman: Is it fair to say that this Trump period that we’ve been in, is in some ways the apogee of this culture and that it’s all downhill from here, given the changing demographics?
Kristin Du Mez: As a historian, I’m terrible at predicting the future. So I want to be very careful, but it does feel like, where can it go from here except down? It’s really hard to know. That said, what I can say from looking back in time is that the death of conservative evangelicalism or the religious right, has been foretold multiple times. And it’s been celebrated by liberals multiple times, but because this whole ideology is premised on a warfare model, very us versus them. And the stakes are always incredibly high, cosmic. Then, the more embattled evangelicals feel, the more violently and aggressively they’re willing to fight. And the more money they’re willing to contribute to these organizations that will fight for them.
Kristin Du Mez: And time and again, you see from the 1990s, the power of these evangelical or conservative coalition seems to be eroding. The cold war is over and Clinton’s in the White House, but with Clinton in the White House, you can see them really start to mobilize because of their hatred for the Clintons and all that they seem to stand for. I see this over and over again, that when they feel most embattled, that’s when they’re at their strongest.
Kristin Du Mez: So what’s interesting with the Trump presidency, is they’ve got their guy in the White House now. So normally, that’s where you would expect some of that energy to start to dissipate. With George W. Bush we saw that too. Because there’s not as much fighting that they need to do, but I think Trump is different, because he keeps up that militant rhetoric and through his anger and through his talk of being under attack and he’s going to protect them, he just continues to fuel that. And so, even though they hold a lot of power right now, and have access to a great amount of power, this perception of being besieged, of being persecuted, continues to fuel the movement.
Kristin Du Mez: So it’s really hard to predict what will happen. If this is just going to fizzle out, but historically speaking, there’s very little precedent for that. That when they feel weak or embattled, that’s when they’re really going to come together and fight, and they’ve done so successfully time and again.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet right now, at this inflection point because of the Coronavirus, something seems to be different.
Kristin Du Mez: It’s very curious how evangelicals have responded because they’ve talked a lot about the need to protect their families, to protect their nation. And often the threats were external. We have to protect from communism, or they were an imagined threat of feminism, secular humanism. Not that there aren’t feminists, there weren’t “secular humanists”, but the threat that was constructed was really disproportional.
Kristin Du Mez: Now we have a very legitimate threat to American lives in the form of a virus. And yet their behavior is not, let’s fight this virus and let’s protect. It’s following a very different script, which is still this militancy and rallying around the leader and not trusting science, not trusting the media. And there’s a long history of this within the movement. That said, I think you’re asking how long can this mentality persist, when the reality is going to be impossible to ignore.
Kristin Du Mez: And initially with the virus that it really affected blue states or blue cities more and we’re right at the moment where we’re starting to see it really take off in red states, in more conservative areas in rural America. And so that’s going to be a real question of how they process this reality. Is it going to shake the hold of their ideological lens or are they going to continue to see what is happening through the framework of this ideology? And again, I can’t emphasize enough how much this conservative subculture, this evangelical subculture has their own sources of information, their own media. And some of that is explicitly Christian, Christian radio, Christian magazine, but much of it is also “secular” Fox News and Talk radio.
Kristin Du Mez: And so, it’s a really interesting moment to see how they’re going to be defining their reality, and who’s going to be shaping that in the next weeks and months.
Jeff Schechtman: Kristin Du Mez. Her most recent book is Jesus and John Wayne. Kristin, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Kristin Du Mez: Thank you very much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast? I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Jeff Schechtman: If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

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