Kristin Du Mez: How Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, back to the likely demise of Roe versus Wade which is galvanizing America’s evangelicals. But who are they today? And how do they influence politics? Kristin Du Mez is a professor at Calvin University. And she’s a historian of American Christianity. Her book, “Jesus and John Wayne” takes a look at 75 years of white evangelicalism. And she tells our Michel Martin how the Christian right is undermining democracy and

fracturing the country.


MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Thanks Christiane. Professor Du Mez, thank you so much for talking with us.


MARTIN: It’s a provocative title, “Jesus and John Wayne”. Tell me about that title.

DU MEZ: So “Jesus and John Wayne” refers to the fact that conservative white evangelicals have really remade their understanding of Christianity influenced by secular ideologies. Particularly, a view of rugged masculinity and a kind of ruthless masculinity that transforms their idea of what it is to be a Christian man. But ultimately their idea of what it is to be a Christian and what it means to be Christian in this country. In the book, I look at how various factors in the 20th century led to the emergence of this embrace of a militant Christian manhood and particularly in the Cold War. At that point, communism was seen as a dire threat. And communists were seen as anti-God, anti-American, and anti-family. And the defense against communism was the military one. And so, that’s when you start to hear Evangelists like Billy Graham and others say that we needed strongmen to defend faith, family, and nation.

MARTIN: Even after the Cold War, when there was no longer that threat, like, how did this — why did this take hold and why become so popular — basis?

DU MEZ: Evangelicalism, we really need to think about it, not primarily as a sign of theological beliefs but more as a culture and even a consumer culture. And so, back in the 1940s, when the National Association of Evangelicalism was formed, they had a plan. And they wanted to use popular culture to evangelize and to extend their vision of Christian America. And they talked about radio stations, and they talked about Christian publishing and having bookstores across the country. Christian magazines. And they achieved all of this and more within even just 15 years or so. And so, to grow up evangelical and the last half-century has meant to grow up immersed in this evangelical culture. And through a youth group, through watching Christian movies, Christian radio. I grew up in this culture. I didn’t grow up, ever, listening to what we called secular music or what was played on, kind of, the top 40 radio stations. We were fully immersed in this Christian world which was not just about telling people about Jesus. It was also very much about forming political and cultural values. And that’s really how we have to understand the power of evangelicalism. It is a way of life and it’s a sense of identity and community.

MARTIN: You pointed out a number of fascinating data points. The fact that white male evangelicals are far more likely to own guns than any other member of — anybody else in the population. They’re more likely to have negative news about immigration. And more likely to believe that police violence toward minorities is overblown. But what’s the chicken and what’s the egg? If you think — that people are drawn to this particular brand of evangelicalism because that’s what they believe anyway or do you believe that these religious views or at least what started as religious views are animating the culture? Do you have a sense of that?

DU MEZ: It’s very much both. And as chicken and egg scenarios tend to be. So, we do have, particularly in recent years. We see a number of white Americans in particular who are adopting the evangelical label precisely because it aligns with their political and cultural values that they already hold. So, you do see that happening. But you also have to understand that within evangelical spaces, so many of these political values are just part of the air that they breathe. And it’s not even understood as distinctly political. So, if you ask a white evangelical, chances are they’ll tell you that their church is not political at all. And, yes, I’ll visit these churches and I’ll hear prayers about either thanking God for the anointing of Brett Kavanaugh, or you know prayers against the evils of big government. You know very political but it’s not perceived as political because it is inseparable from their religious formation. Insufferable from what they simply understand it is to be a Christian.

MARTIN: Your book first emerged during the era of President Trump. And it – – I don’t know if this was your intention but it certainly answers a question that a lot of people who don’t identify as evangelical have, which is how can people support somebody who seems so antithetical to their professed values. So vulgar, so disrespectful towards women, multiply married, a record of infidelity, a record of business dishonesty. And so many people look at that who were not even evangelical and say, how can you support this person? Was that part of the agenda for writing a book?

DU MEZ: You know, I started researching evangelical masculinity and militarism more than 15 years ago. And then I set the research aside for around a decade. And then it was in the fall of 2016, the days after the release of the Access Hollywood Tape that I realized the language I was hearing evangelicals use to defend their support for candidate Trump in that moment was exactly what I had read all of those years ago. That God fills men with testosterone so they can be strong, ruthless even so that they can protect Christianity. And in some ways, traditional Christian virtue actually worked against that and Trump was so perfect because — precisely because he was crass and he was ruthless. And so, I knew in the fall of 2016 that what we were looking at was not the betrayal of evangelical values. We simply didn’t fully understand what those values were. And if we put the assertion of white patriarchal authority at the center of family values evangelicalism, then a lot of things start to fall into place.

MARTIN: You talked about somebody like, for example, Pastor Russell Moore who had had a very prominent position within the Southern Baptist Convention but he has now left the organization, as have a number of people, the few who criticized the former president. Either as a candidate or during his conduct in office. And you point out it’s because it was volatility (ph), it was the congregations who would not tolerate leaders who didn’t agree with them. How do you understand that?

DU MEZ: I mean, this is a populist movement. And in August of 2015 already, we could see signs of evangelical support for Trump at the grassroots. And it’s important to focus on that date, August 2015. Very early in the primary season. So, this is not, you know, what could evangelicals do, Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. Evangelicals helped to secure Trump denomination if you look at the data over time. And this was grassroots. It did not come from the top down. You had leaders like Russell Moore in august 2015 saying, yes, we don’t buy this, right. I don’t know any pastors who are supporting Trump. And I will say he was engaged in a kind of grand protection, right. He was trying to say, no we are not radicals. White evangelicals are very respectable people. We are good people and we wouldn’t fall for a guy like this. And he got it wrong. But I will say that for a number of leaders like Russell Moore who have and pushed out, edged out, or have been essentially felt that they can no longer hold these positions of authority because they had no leadership. Part of what’s going on is the influence of talk radio, of Fox News, of News Max, and so on really cultivating the values within their congregations. But there’s another thing also, and that is the complicity of powerful white evangelical leaders as well who, for a long time, gave cover to some of the more radical elements. Thinking that they could control those. Thinking that they, you know, were all on the same side. In the end and what we see now, is that those — many of these respectable evangelical leaders have lost power, have absolutely lost control, if they ever had it of what is essentially a populist movement.

MARTIN: Like the Republican Party.

DU MEZ: Very much like what we see in the Republican Party. And it’s no coincidence, right? White evangelicals make up a significant portion of the Republican Party. They’ve helped define the agenda since the late 70s at least. And we see some of the same, kind of, purity tests happening there. And very much the lack of power of the respectable leaders and in the populist insurgency.

MARTIN: And in the church, I think that one of those points that you make in the church is the abuse of women. I mean, the sexual abuse of women and girls, you know, it has to be said. You know, how many of these prominent figures have been found to be extremely abusive in their relationships with young people, particularly young women but also, it has to be said, some young men. And so, one would think that that would be a wake-up call but it doesn’t seem to be.

DU MEZ: Stories are devastating. So many stories of abuse in evangelical churches, organizations, and homes. And you’re exactly right. This is not just a story of, you know, occasional perpetrators who are doing terrible things. We have that everywhere. But what was really striking is the patterns that emerged over decades of good people, you know, Christian churchgoers, bystanders, even family members who would end up defending perpetrators and blaming the women. Even blaming young girls. And this was just shocking for me as a researcher. But when I went back to the historical teachings from the 1960s and 1970s on sexuality and how to be a good Christian woman, it all became clear. Because evangelical teachings on sacks are just filled with this idea of gender difference. And God created man in one way and men have an aggressive sexual drive and that’s just the way they’re made. And so, it’s up to women who do not have that aggressive sexual drive to protect purity. So, they should not tempt men who are not their husbands. And wives, then, when they are married, have to fulfill their husband’s every sexual need. So, any case of sexual misconduct, there is a woman to blame. So, a young girl could have seduced her dad, which seems absolutely — it is absolutely absurd. But often the wife is blamed as well for not meeting her husband’s sexual needs. And then you have the purity culture that emerges that is very much based on a sexual double standard. And this is exactly what you see played out in these horrific stories of abuse.

MARTIN: So, we are in a moment now when the fulfillment of a long-term conservative evangelical project is at hand. As we are speaking now, a leaked draft — a draft copy of a Supreme Court opinion which would overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide under certain circumstances is now at hand.

DU MEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: There is a hyper conservative Supreme Court majority which seems poised to do, seem willing to do that, seems intentional about doing that. But what effect, do you think, it’ll have more broadly about this movement?

DU MEZ: Oh, it’s — if anything, in the short term, I think it will further radicalize the evangelical movement. I’m already seeing, as — already last night on social media a talk from evangelicals, a kind of gleeful celebration and chiding any evangelicals who raised questions about Donald Trump. See the ends to justify the means played out exactly what we wanted in this, kind of, ruthless display of power whether it’s through Trump in his person. Whether it’s through Supreme Court appointments. Whether it’s through, you know, subverting Democratic norms. All of this pays off because we got what we wanted. And so, I see that in the short term. The longer term is a little bit more difficult to discern because the truth is many Christian women, and in fact, evangelical women do procure abortions. And throughout Christian history and throughout evangelical history, you can see that pre-Roe V. Wade and actually pre-970s, late ’70s, and early ’80s, there was more — there were mixed views on abortion in conservative evangelical communities. Very few evangelicals would celebrate abortion. They certainly weren’t going to shout your abortion camp. But there was much more nuanced. And so, in 1968, Christianity today had a special issue on abortion. And the gist of it was it’s really complicated. And it’s not a good thing but it is sometimes a necessary thing in the case of race — rape, in the case of incest, in the case of — for the health of the mother even. And the Southern Baptist Convention, up until 1976, endorsed a pro-choice platform. So, there is a history of seeing abortion as a complex moral issue and sometimes the lesser of two evils. With the politicization of abortion by the late 1970s, the rise of the Moral Majority, folks like Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich, helped make abortion, kind of, the primary mobilizing issue for the Christian right. And so, from that point on, this complicated moral territory receded. And I certainly grew up in an — kind of, evangelical culture where life began at conception. There was no debate. And pro-life is the Christian response. Antiabortion is the only acceptable view. But that, kind of, hard lined on abortion is of relatively recent origin.

MARTIN: Well, Professor Du Mez, you’ve — you know, you’ve laid out a very complex and also, frankly, disturbing picture here for us. And I just wonder, how you think about that as a person who — you dedicated both your life and your work to understanding religious communities and their influence in society. Where does this leave you, if I may ask that?

DU MEZ: Right. So, I’m a Christian. I teach at a Christian university and I’m a historian of American Christianity. And, honestly, when I first started the research that became “Jesus and John Wayne”, I had the idea that I can expose this and maybe change things. And then a few months into the research, I kind of abandoned that plan because I saw just how deeply embedded these values were. And I thought this is not going to change. Then my task really was, I need to document this. I need to explain this. I need to testify to this. I think that, frankly, what we’re going to be experiencing in the next few years is going to be a very difficult time for American Christians. But particularly for all Americans and for our democratic system.

MARTIN: And why is that?

DU MEZ: I think that — so, the subtitle of my book is “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation”. And the “Corrupted a Faith” is not a historical claim that, kind of speaking to evangelicals on their own terms. Bible-believing evangelicals and showing how they have in fact abandoned many biblical teachings about loving one’s neighbor, and about loving one’s enemies, and so forth. But the “Fractured a Nation” part, I think, is particularly relevant for this moment that we find ourselves in. Because when you think that you have God’s truth, and that only you have access to God’s truth, and that you have a special role to play to defend Christian America, which means defending against external enemies in terms of foreign policy. But it also means protecting against internal enemies and really finding the culture wars. That creates a culture where there is no room for compromise. And it holds up these purity standards. And a culture where democracy is absolutely not the highest ideal but carrying out God’s will. And I think that’s where we find ourselves, and that makes our current moment very difficult because there is a solid group of American citizens right now who are not interested in compromise, and not interested in even a fair play or in reaching across the aisle.

MARTIN: Professor Kristin Du Mez, thank you so much for talking with us today. So much to talk about. I do hope we’ll talk again.

DU MEZ: Thank you for having me.

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