Jesus and John Wayne and Mel Gibson’s William Wallace from the Movie Braveheart

An interview with Kristin Kobes Du Mez

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

There are books out there that are so in your wheelhouse that you resist them. The sort that so many people recommend to you — to you, specifically, because of the way they intersect with your demonstrated interests and obsessions — that you almost develop an aversion to them. It’s a bizarre, illogical thing, and for me, at least, it probably has something to do with 1) resentment that my interests are so incredibly transparent (even though I spend most of my days yelling about them in various digital forms); and 2) fear that it’s going to be really good, like the sort of very good that makes me want to throw the book across the room. Pride makes us do very weird things, including avoiding books we know we will love.

Earlier this month, I got over that pride and read Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, which is indeed so good, and so deeply aligned with my generalized interests, that I wanted to throw it across the room multiple times. Instead of doing that, I asked Kristin if she’d do a Q&A — with particularly focus on the intersection between her work and “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a new podcast about the implosion of one of the most influential evangelical churches (and pastors) of the last two decades and the deeply toxic patriarchal ideology that defined it.

The book is excellent. Like The Season, it is academically rigorous but deeply absorbing. If you grew up in and around Christian churches or in spaces shadowed by evangelical culture, it will connect a whole lot of dots. If you didn’t, it will connect a different set of dots about how white evangelical culture has explicitly and implicitly shaped the dominant ideologies we wade through, no matter our own belief systems, every day. Ideals of masculinity and femininity, of course, but also of purity and nationhood, of power and dominance, of how tailgate decals like the one above became commonplace in so many corners of the United States.

If you want to understand evangelical support of Trump, the roll-back of women’s reproductive rights, the fight over the bogeyman of Critical Race Theory, the general obsession with Braveheart, whatever happened to Promise Keepers, WTF is going on with Hobby Lobby, how whiteness undergirds it all — this book is a skeleton key. You can think of this interview as, like, the first turn in that larger unlocking process. Don’t be like me and spend months resisting it when you could have all that knowledge now.

I know this is a VERY BIG question, but can you define what “evangelicalism,” as a broad and slippery theological category used to mean….and what “evangelical” has come to mean in terms of broader belief? I am particularly struck by the supposition that many Black evangelicals who believe what is theologically evangelical no longer identify as evangelicals….and, conversely, that a whole bunch of people who broadly considered “unchurched” (aka, don’t regularly go to church or necessarily connect their beliefs to specific scripture) consider themselves evangelicals? 

Evangelical leaders like to define evangelicalism according to a theological rubric. They often cite historian David Bebbington, who devised a list of four evangelical “distinctives”: conversionism (being transformed through a “born-again” experience); biblicism (an emphasis on the authority of the Bible); crucicentrism, (an emphasis on the atoning death of Christ); and activism (acting out of one’s faith through evangelism and social reform). But in my research into the last several decades of American evangelicalism, it quickly became clear to me that theology really wasn’t at the heart of what it was to be an evangelical for a large swath of evangelicals.

I was first clued into this by critiques offered by Black Christians. While the majority of Black Protestants could check off all of these boxes, the strong majority of those who can, do not identify as evangelicals. It has been clear to them that there is more to being evangelical than adhering to certain theological beliefs. Beyond that, when you scratch beneath the surface, what Black Protestants mean when they talk about Jesus, when they read the Scriptures, when they engage in faith-based activism, often differs in significant ways from what white evangelicals mean by these things. As Deidra Riggs put it, evangelicalism is a “white religious brand.”

For many white evangelicals, evangelicalism has come to signify a cultural identity more than a theology—one that is Republican in its politics and traditionalist in its values. As I write in my book, “For many conservative white evangelicals, the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to a staunch commitment to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity.”

Increasingly, those who identify as evangelicals are identifying with this operational theology. This God-and-country faith is championed by those who attend church and by those who do not; in this way, it creates affinities across denominational, regional, and socioeconomic differences, even as it divides Americans—and American Christians—into those who embrace these values, and those who do not.

And we’re far from seeing a large-scale departure from evangelicalism among White Americans. Just this week, a Pew survey revealed that significant numbers of Trump supporters who did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 began identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.

Although certain #NeverTrump evangelicals have tried to insist that the majority of Trump supporting evangelicals aren’t “real evangelicals”—maybe they don’t go to church or Sunday school every week or get their doctrine right—I treat evangelicalism as a religious and cultural movement. To understand its influence, we have to understand how this cultural identity is shaped and dispersed through a religious consumer culture.  

I would LOVE to hear more about how the Christian media industry has played in this movement — I’ve always thought that part of the reason that evangelical ideas creeped into my very Protestant mainline church groups was because of the Young Life-ification of youth group. [For those unfamiliar with Young Life: it’s a cool kids, soft-on-theology, just hanging out kinda in proximity to Jesus youth group, usually run through/around schools — here’s more (hilarious) explanatory responses from Twitter].

Your book has convinced me that the mix of mass culture Christian music, books, Sunday School materials, etc. effectively homogenized much of Christian culture, which also made it possible for these ideological understandings of what Christianity is — and the culture that should surround it — take hold. Can you talk more about that?

If you want to understand white evangelicalism today, I don’t think you start with theological treatises. Instead, look to what evangelicals consume, day in, day out. Chances are, they’re listening to Christian radio, reading Christian books, watching Fox News, and filling their homes with Christian-themed wall décor. As I write in the book: “Most evangelicals who would be hard pressed to articulate even the most basic tenets of evangelical theology have nonetheless been immersed in this evangelical popular culture. They’ve raised children with the help of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family radio programs or grown up watching VeggieTales cartoons. They rocked out to Amy Grant or the Newsboys or DC Talk. They learned about purity before they learned about sex, and they have a silver ring to prove it. They watched The Passion of the Christ, Soul Surfer, or the latest Kirk Cameron film with their youth group. They attended Promise Keepers with guys from church and read Wild at Heart in small groups. They’ve learned more from Pat Robertson, John Piper, Joyce Meyer, and The Gospel Coalition than they have from their pastor’s Sunday sermons.”

This is why evangelical culture extends far beyond formal evangelical spaces. You don’t have to attend an evangelical church to be immersed in this culture. Members of mainline churches may well be listening to the same Christian radio and reading the same popular Christian books as their evangelical counterparts, and their own churches may be using evangelical songs in worship and curricula in Vacation Bible School. It’s worth noting that conservative white evangelicalism hasn’t just crossed denominational boundaries, it’s also crossed international borders. I’ve heard from Christians in Canada, the UK, Australia, China, the Netherlands, Germany, Kenya, and Brazil about how the cultural evangelicalism I trace in Jesus and John Wayne has been exported globally.

It only makes sense to take this popular culture seriously if we want to understand the religious, cultural, and political values that evangelicals embrace. 

The book does such a fantastic job of tracing the ways in which this ‘brand’ of white evangelism absorbed and then amplified understandings of (again, white) masculinity under threat. I feel like it’s a sort a shadow history of the mainstream, public school history of the U.S., focused on how each major event or shift was met with a response from the evangelical movement. I guess I just described “reactionary,” right? Like, see something taking hold (Women’s rights! Sexual revolution! Gay rights! Social justice!) and response not just in kind, but with force. The shadow doesn’t just over-shadow, it devours. In some ways, the last seventy years are a story of women and people of color gaining rights and voice — in and outside of the church — and various forces within American religion and evangelism in particular over-responding to those developments. 

I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the weird construct of John Wayne’s image and its ideological purpose, but I’d love to hear you spell out how you think it functions within the sphere of white evangelism — particularly since Wayne, much like Reagan (and, later, Trump) wasn’t much of a Christian at all. (This is ultimately a long way of saying that I think our understanding of white masculinity has actually inflated itself repeatedly over the course of these incursions, and the white masculine John Wayne Jesus is now more virile and hostile and even *white* than John Wayne ever was? The image has lost sight of the referent. Is that also how we can think of white evangelism as well?)

I really like where you’re going with this. First, about John Wayne. Truth be told, this book could just as well have been titled Jesus and Mel Gibson’s William Wallace from the Movie Braveheart, but it didn’t roll off the tongue in quite the same way. But I think the title works, because if you can explain what John Wayne has to do with this, you can explain the book.

John Wayne wasn’t evangelical, but he came to embody a sort of retrograde white masculinity that stood tall against liberalism and feminism and communism and all of the things that evangelicals believed to be existential threats. He was a man who would do what needed to be done. He was also racist; onscreen and off, he embodied and promoted the ideal of the heroic white man who brings order through violence—usually violence against non-white peoples. (Onscreen this included Native Americans, Mexicans, Japanese, and Vietnamese, and offscreen this included his advocacy of law and order politics and sentiments such as those expressed in the now infamous 1971 Playboy interview.) He was thrice-married, twice-divorced, and hardly the poster boy of “family values.” Except in some ways he was, if we recognize that the assertion of white patriarchal authority was always at the heart of evangelical family values.

The fact that evangelicals were drawn to pop culture warriors like John Wayne and William Wallace is significant because evangelicals like to insist that their values are based on the Bible. They self-identify as “Bible-believing” Christians and they define themselves over against other Christians as the ones who “take the Bible seriously.” Yet when it comes to their ideals of Christian manhood—and ultimately, I argue, of Christianity itself—they are deeply shaped by extra-biblical influences. In this case, by secular warrior heroes.

This makes sense, because it turns out that men formed through traditional Christian virtue—men who model their lives on a suffering servant, who exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control—tend not to embody the ruggedness or ruthlessness that conservative evangelicals insist this moment requires. And by “this moment,” I mean whatever particular moment they find themselves in. So they find models of rugged masculinity and then baptize them as Christian warriors — as models of Christian masculinity.

When I first started this project, I was working with the unexamined assumption that the militancy evangelicals exhibited was largely in response to fear—that’s certainly how they presented things. Fear of communists, secular humanists, feminists, Muslims, Democrats, fear of demographic decline, losing their religious liberty. But when I looked at the history, more often than not I saw that the militancy came first. Leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Mark Driscoll actively stoked fear in the hearts of their followers in order to consolidate their own power. This was true in churches, and it was especially true in political organizations. It was a tried and true method for raising funds and enhancing the power of evangelical leaders. 

You have a chapter that drills down on the hyper-masculine hyper-militarized churches and ideological evangelical currents that emerge in the wake of 9/11, including Mark Driscoll, who’s at the center of the recent podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. For readers who haven’t listened to the podcast or attended Mars Hill (as I did, for two services, at the urging of a housemate back in 2005), can you describe who Driscoll was and, more importantly, why he matters? 

I’m envious. I never attended Mars Hill, but I heard a lot about him during his heyday. Driscoll was the hip young pastor who was shaking things up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He wore jeans and t-shirts and founded Mars Hill church in Seattle. His genius, such as it was, was in combining conservative evangelical theology with modern cultural trappings—tattoos and local craft beer. He also was a pioneering force in adapting evangelism to the digital age. For a time, he was the boy wonder of conservative evangelicalism; for a movement that loved power and success, he had both. He was also deeply misogynistic and frequently shockingly crude, but that didn’t stop other evangelical leaders from trying to emulate him. For some, his crassness was part of his appeal. There was nothing “soft” about him. He, too, was the kind of guy who would say what needed to be said, and do what needed to be done.

Given how much he talked about sex from the pulpit, it always surprises me that it wasn’t a sex scandal that brought him down. Instead, it was a combination of plagiarism and buying his way onto the New York Times bestseller list that first got him into trouble. Once he no longer seemed invulnerable to critique, a group of pastors from his own church accused him of abusive behavior. Ultimately, this led to his downfall. Except not long ago he started up a new church in Arizona and he appears to be resorting to many of the same tactics in that setting.

In short, Driscoll stands as an extreme embodiment of toxic evangelical masculinity. But he shouldn’t be mistaken for an outlier. One of the themes I address throughout the book is the relationship between fringe and mainstream. When you look at someone like Driscoll—whose rhetoric and behavior qualifies as extreme, by any measure—it’s important to also recognize that despite his extreme rhetoric and behavior, or perhaps because of it, he’s embraced by many mainstream evangelical powerbrokers. When push comes to shove, their support of patriarchal authority and female submission—and their understanding of sexuality through the lens of masculine power and female submission—aren’t that far off from Driscoll’s. That’s why he was so popular and so influential. 

I’m pretty fascinated by The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill as a piece of reporting. It’s produced by Christianity Today, which means that 1) it has really good production values; and 2) it’s still invested in upholding the larger institution of ‘evangelism,’ which means it shies or is at least partially blinded to some of the larger critiques that feel, frankly, unavoidable to anyone who’s read your book. At the same time, I understand that having the podcast emanate from CT — and be hosted by a white guy! — might allow it to actually reach audiences that would otherwise be resistant to its message. 

You’re part of one of the early episodes of the podcast, and it’s better for it. Same for the guy who very overtly says that Mars Hill was cultivating a rape culture atmosphere. But I was still struck by an overarching reticence to engage with the larger harms of this culture, not just on the part of people who were part of Mars Hill, but churches like Mars Hill — because there are tens of thousands of them. It’s almost like a Harvey Weinstein situation, where people think that if abuse isn’t as “bad” or overt or severe as what Harvey Weinstein did during his tenure, then it’s not really abuse. 

If you were making, say, five more episodes of this podcast, what would you focus on? Who would you want to interview?

It’s been such an interesting experience, watching the evangelical world (at least as represented on Twitter) respond to this podcast. When Mike Cosper first asked me to give an interview, nearly a year ago, I admit I was somewhat skeptical. Christianity Today’s review of my book wasn’t exactly glowing, and what was particularly disappointing to me was their inability to take seriously the claims I make about the complicity of Christianity Today and other respectable evangelical organizations, institutions, and leaders in propping up the authority of incredibly harmful teachings, of covering up abuses, and of trying to control the narrative, always putting the best face forward in order to “protect the witness” of the church.

In my conversations with Cosper, I found him receptive to this critique, and open to the harder edges of my arguments. But the podcast itself is hard to assess. To be honest, I haven’t yet listened to all of the episodes. (I’m trying to listen to Gangster Capitalism and Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and it’s a bit much. When I have spare time I don’t always want to tune in and hear myself talk, and I especially don’t want to be thinking about Jerry Falwell Jr. and Mark Driscoll any more than I have to.) But I’ve listened to several episodes, out of order, and it strikes me that Cosper is acutely aware of his audience, and trying particularly not to alienate conservative evangelical listeners while still opening them up to a more critical understanding of what happened, and what they themselves may have been a part of. This is a fine line to walk.

He also seems to be a pastor at heart, and this shapes the larger purpose of the work. It’s not, ultimately, to expose the truth for the sake of truth. Ultimately, I think his goal is an evangelistic one—to grapple with this truth while still calling people to Christ—in a deeply evangelical sort of way. This is exactly what one should expect from Christianity Today, and it doesn’t negate the value of the podcast. But it is certainly fair to critique what this purpose allows him to do well, and what it keeps him from doing well.

For the next several episodes? One critique leveled against the podcast a number of times is the lack of people of color weighing in. In the episodes I’ve listened to, there is very little analysis of the whiteness of white evangelicalism here. He could also adjust the balance between explaining what good things people experienced in Driscoll’s church by bringing on more individuals who experienced the brunt of his teachings, including survivors who have harrowing stories to tell. Personally, I would like to hear some of “the good guys” answer tough questions about how and why they supported Driscoll at the time, and what they’ve done since to address that damage. Far too many are dodging their own complicity in propping up figures like Driscoll and promoting many of the same teachings that men like Mark Driscoll and Doug Wilson merely took to logical conclusions. And I really want to hear representatives of Christianity Today, past and present, reflect on their own role in promoting and protecting some of these abusive teachings and teachers. This is the reckoning that I haven’t seen happening, and this is the reckoning that has to happen if evangelicalism is going to find a healthier way forward. Right now, to me, that’s a big if.

Your book makes the very compelling case that the beliefs of the White Evangelical brand are not necessarily rooted in scripture — which is part of why all of the Twitter dunks asking “where did it say in the bible that you should grab women by the p****y” miss the point.

As you put it: “Evangelicals may self-identify as ‘Bible-believing Christians,’ but evangelicalism itself entails a broader set of deeply held values communicated through symbol, ritual, and political allegiances,” and right now those alliganges include guns, Trumpism, Hobby Lobby, and anti-masking. (Truly, I would read 5000 words from you on Hobby Lobby). 

You end the book by suggesting that without understanding how this transformation occurred, you cannot even begin to think about how to dismantle it — and, with some hope, that “what was once done might also be undone.”  What gives you hope that that’s possible — and how do you see it happening, or beginning to happen, in the spaces you occupy? 

OK, confession time: First of all, yes, I admit to being rather obsessed with Hobby Lobby. It’s such a perfect laboratory—or display case, really—for examining the value system of white evangelicalism at any given moment. I’ve written about this at Patheos and the Daily Beast, and I’ll be returning to this topic—and so much more—in my next book, Live Laugh Love, a cultural history of white Christian womanhood.

But also, yes, that last sentence. It was a really late addition to the book, and it came at my editor’s prompting. The book was in its final frantic stages when my editor told me it was a really depressing book. Too depressing, and I couldn’t leave my readers there. This was a problem, because I couldn’t find anything uplifting way to wrap things up. It was a depressing history. I hadn’t been prepared for how deeply entrenched these toxic patterns were in American evangelicalism, nor had I been prepared for how anti-democratic these tendencies would end up being, but that’s where my story ended up. I told him as much, and he said he respected that, and I thought we were good to go. A couple days later he wrote again, and pretty much said “just give us something…anything.” That’s where that last sentence came from. Honestly, at the time it felt far too feeble. But it was all I had, and he said he’d take it.

But there is truth in that statement. To an unusual degree, conservative white evangelicals tend to be oblivious to their own history. They tend to speak in terms of timeless truth, of things being “God-ordained,” so if you can show how things came to be over time, how things haven’t always been as they are now, that can be incredibly disruptive, and that’s what Jesus and John Wayne does.

For many of my readers who have spent time in evangelical circles, the book is at once intimately familiar and also incredibly clarifying. “I’ve bumped up against so many of these trees, but I never saw the forest,” said one reader. For those immersed in this culture, it was hard to see it for what it was. To them, it was just Christianity, just truth. But history shows how extra-biblical teachings came to substitute for more traditional Christian doctrines. How a warrior masculinity distorted understandings of the Jesus of the Gospels, how an ends-justify-the-means mentality replaced loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving our enemies, and turning the other cheek. And how much things that were done in the name of Christ were done to shore up the power of the few.

To be honest, I still don’t have a lot of hope right now. The hope that I do have comes in large part from the remarkable response to the book in conservative evangelical spaces. I’ve heard from hundreds and hundreds of readers who share with me, often in exquisite detail, how their own stories map onto the narrative I tell in Jesus and John Wayne. I’ve heard from sexual and spiritual abuse survivors who feel validated to see their stories placed at the center of our narratives, not covered up or sidelined. I’ve heard from people who tried and failed to live up to the ideals of purity culture, and from people who shaped their marriages around patriarchal authority and female submission, often with devastating consequences. I’ve also heard from a number of evangelicals who have held varying degrees of leadership who are now deeply convicted in their own complicity in propping up these abusive systems. These are the conversations that give me hope. The individual reckoning is real, and I’ve seen many conservative evangelicals risk jobs, friendships, and family relationships to call for change.

The problem is that only very rarely do they end up changing the system. The power dynamics aren’t in their favor. Interests are entrenched, powerful donors hold incredible sway, patterns of deference are so well established, and nine times out of ten, what happens is that those challenging the system end up being pushed out. This is what we saw with Russell Moore and Beth Moore leaving the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention), but I’ve seen it countless times at the grassroots level—in local Christian schools, churches, and organizations.

This is a burden that I feel when people read the book and come to the last sentence and are inspired to work for change. What I know is that most are probably going to fail to achieve any meaningful change beyond their own personal situation. I was struck by this sense at one of the few in-person events I attended since the book came out — a joint event at a Waco, TX bookstore with Beth Allison Barr, author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood. The room was filled with evangelical women eager to forge a new path and asking for advice in that endeavor. As much as I wanted to cheer them on, in that moment I instead issued a bit of a warning: “People in power known how to wield their power in order to protect their power.”

In so many ways, that’s the story of much of the last half century or more of conservative white evangelicalism. Chances are, would-be reformers are going to run up against more opposition than they realize. Most will fail, and it won’t be their fault. Sometimes, the only answer is to walk away. Still, that’s an individual solution, and it leaves evangelical spaces more homogenous, and potentially more radicalized than before.

Ultimately, what is needed is for these spiritual refugees to find new communities, new organizations and institutions that will strengthen them and their collective voice. Sometimes this might mean building from scratch. Sometimes it might mean looking outside their immediate contexts. I think white evangelicals have often told themselves that they are the faithful remnant, the truest Christians, and thus they’ve been largely oblivious to the ways in which Christianity is flourishing in other spaces that are not predominantly white or evangelical, and to the ways in which work for justice and for the common good is happening outside of Christian spaces. So maybe for some, the answer is found in joining communities that are already there. 

You can buy Jesus and John Wayne here — and follow Kristin on Twitter here.

Our next interview will be with Samira Rajabi on the role of online exercise spaces, particularly those related to Crossfit and Peloton, and trauma recovery. You can find past interviews in the archives, including ones on what got left out of the LuLaRich documentary, what white people are freaking out about right now, the effects of de facto preschool segregation, on tshuvah, and an incredible look at Fixer Upper through the lenses of religious studies and postcolonialism. If you have suggestions for future interview subjects, just email me.


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