This book is the story of white American evangelicalism’s love affair with hyper-masculinity and it is highly readable while managing to pack in a lot of history. Its also highly depressing and frustrating. I feel I grew up in the best of white American evangelicalism but as I look around, I fear the worst has won out in the end.
I grew up in American evangelicalism, though I was not conscious of that until I left home for college. My church growing up was certainly evangelical, but most of the focus from the pulpit was on living as a follower of Jesus. I do not recall sermons on the sorts of things this book mentions, though James Dobson’s Focus on the Family’s bulletin inserts showed up each month. My understanding of a wider evangelical culture began near the end of high school as I made friends in other churches, then grew as I attended Christian music festivals and attended other churches while at college.
Thankfully, the seminary I attended, though probably evangelical, did not press these ideas. Sure, most probably voted Republican. But we were more into reading the church fathers or contemporary apologetics than books on how to be real men (perhaps all our reading and studying meant we weren’t hunting and shooting things, so we weren’t “real men”? Hmm…).
I was basically steeped in this evangelical subculture then from about 1998-2004. I read both I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Wild at Heart. Thus, that part of the book was especially intriguing for I recall living through it.
Reading the rest of the book made me thankful I got out of it.
Perhaps that’s not fair. I still work in the evangelical world, as uncomfortable as I am with the term. I suppose some could fault Du Mez for not speaking enough of other aspects of evangelicalism, like the aforementioned apologetics. When I think of “evangelical” I think of William Lane Craig’s arguments for God’s existence. I think of the influence of Ravi Zacharias. So someone might argue that evangelical is wider than how she defines it. Yet, the toxic masculinity even reaches here as the allegations of Zacharias’ abuse of women, which were around prior to his death, have gotten louder.
Further, Du Mez he does address this realm of evangelicalism and she is largely correct in her conclusion – however some of us might like it, the fact is to the majority of people both inside and outside the movement, “evangelical” now means “political, conservative Republican, support of Trump.” There may be an ivory tower of intellectual evangelicals, but these are neither the mainstream nor influential in the movement. And, given the chance, most of those white evangelical intellectuals mostly go along with the masculinity and support of Trump.
The best thing about this book is that by documenting the history of hyper-masculinity and the love of John Wayne type heroes, she manages to show how the overwhelming support for Trump is not hypocrisy by evangelicals but the logical conclusion of decades of work. Back in the 90s it was clear that for many men, Braveheart’s William Wallace was more interesting than the Jesus of the Bible. Jesus might save your soul but John Wayne and William Wallace and Ronald Reagan and Duck Commander and the rest will save your ass.
What amazed me most was the level of deception and fragility throughout this story. I began to notice how often men were considered to possess a “fragile ego” by writers like Dobson. The message seemed to be that men had fragile egos which women had to prop up. I lost track of how many times this idea came up. But it does explain why men in the movement are so resistant to women in leadership – they have fragile egos. The solution they offered for decades, putting the onus on one to submit, is the problem. To be blunt, if you’re a man with a fragile ego and threatened by strong women and you need women to serve you to make you feel better, you’re not a proverbial “real man.”
Along with that, its amazing how easily duped white evangelicals have been. Perhaps we should not be surprised so many are impressed with a president who demonstrates he’s patriotic by waving a flag and demonstrates he’s Christian by doing a photo op with a Bible. It seems white evangelicals have been impressed by blowhards and big talkers for years. Yet, like Trump, most of these men were revealed to be hypocrites or frauds.
That leads to the most depressing part of the story. So many of these men who preached toughness and protection of women turned out to be abusers. Even Ravi Zacharias, lionized at his death a few months ago, was an abusive man (this was known by some at his death but drowned out in the cacophony of praise; more stories have since come out).
White evangelical Christianity has long been steeped in racism (as documented in books such as Robert Jones’ White No More, Whitehead and Perry’s Taking America Back for God, and Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise). Du Mez’s book shows how the movement’s views on men and women grew and influenced not just evangelicalism but the entire nation. These ideas have moved into the military and the highest halls of power.
I will still never understand how white evangelicals have largely chosen to throw away any sort of moral compass or leadership to bow at the alter of a narcissistic madman like Trump. This book helps as it shows a long history of loving strongmen as well as being duped by fake strongmen. Maybe I should understand by now. But growing up in this world, in the best of this world, and seeing the worst of it take over, I am just sad.
Overall, this is a must read book for any who want to understand white American evangelicalism.
Honorable Mention– Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea.
One of the biggest disappointments of my life was seeing so many Christians I admired as a teenager totally betray their principles in supporting Trump in 2016. Those who once said “character matters” when it was Bill Clinton’s sins, turned and said character actually doesn’t matter. The hypocrisy, lust for power and means justifying the ends we’re patently obvious.
Fea, a top notch Christian historian, tells the story of the history of evangelicals in politics. This book is short but covers a lot of ground. It’s a must read for anyone, like me, who wonders how Christians could support Trump.
Note I said “support”, not “vote for.” It’s one thing to hold your nose and reluctantly vote for the lesser of two evils. But this is not what Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr or others have done. They support and defend Trump. I mean, they got their precious judges (in exchange for any sort of witness to an entire generation) so why not cut their losses and support impeachment, with a bonafide evangelical like Pence waiting in the wings? At this point, they’ve hitched their wagon to Trump, revealing their real gods.
As Fea talks about, the goal is changing the Supreme Court at all costs. We must ask though, what’s the cost? They want to make America great again, which begs the question, when was this past time America was great? 1950s? 1790s?
Overall, this book helps understand why so many evangelicals flocked to Trump. For many Christians of a certain age, this is a phenomenon that needs explaining. Fea does a good job as any.