Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, is speaking at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on Feb. 23. Du Mez is a historian of religion, gender, and politics and a professor of history at Michigan’s Calvin University. Her book, Jesus and John Wayne, charts the rise and influence of evangelical Christianity and the history of white evangelical masculinity as it is intertwined with militarism.
Recently, the concept of Christian nationalism has received national media scrutiny during reporting on issues like the Jan. 6 insurrection, disputes in school districts over LGBTQ content, and abortion. Du Mez spoke with CTR about her work and the current political influence of evangelical Christianity.
Colorado Times Recorder: Could you describe what role Colorado Springs plays in the broader Christian evangelical movement and if it’s still playing that role now today?
Kristin Kobes Du Muz: I could have written a whole book on Colorado Springs. Honestly, I think the conservative Christian stronghold goes back all the way to the 19th century there, but really, in the post-World War II era, you see a number of evangelical organizations and what evangelicals call ‘parachurch ministries,’ meaning not actual churches, but just organizations. All sorts of them started settling in Colorado Springs. The most prominent of all was Dobson’s Focus on the Family. It’s really hard for people outside of the evangelical orbit to understand just how influential James Dobson was from the 70s really up to the present. What he did is he developed his ‘ministry’ really as a way of — initially it didn’t seem political at all. He was just helping people, giving advice on how to raise kids. As a historian, as I was is reading, I saw immediately that it was, in fact, very political. He was writing against hippies and the counterculture of the 1960s, and he was trying to restore traditional values and he was teaching these traditionalist ideas of what it was to be a man and a woman. Gender difference was at the very heart of his teachings, and by difference he meant opposite, so patriarchal authority and female submission. Men as protector and provider and the woman as wife and mom. He over time developed this incredibly loyal following because he would, through his radio ministry in particular, and then through — he essentially had a publishing arm — and influenced just thousands, tens of thousands, of pastors in this country with his family values, which very quickly turned explicitly political. By the 1990s and certainly the 2000s, he is one of the most powerful evangelical voices shaping national politics. He takes this more explicitly political turn. He already has millions of loyal followers, listeners to his radio show who take his words as God’s truth, and so through his organization, he communicates directly with evangelicals across the country and increasingly around the world, tells them how they should think about political issues, how they should vote on specific issues, and really defines more than anybody else what counts as ‘family values politics’ for the last half century or so.
Colorado Times Recorder: This focus on Christian nationalist nationalism has become increasingly relevant within the last couple of years. As your book illustrates, it goes back to the 1970s and 80s in the Reagan administration. Has the secular world just been sleeping on this?
Kristin Kobes Du Muz: It’s a little strange, honestly, as a historian, to see all of the attention around Christian nationalism in just the last couple of years. I mean, on one hand, it’s understandable if you’ve got those like [U.S. Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-GA] out there, proudly saying, ‘I’m a Christian nationalist and you should be, too,’ but you’re right, it is nothing new. Especially in conservative evangelical spaces, the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation, that America is God’s special nation and that it needs to be defended as such — and that’s my layperson’s definition that I use in the book. What that entails kind of shifts over time, but central to this idea of Christian nationalism is that America ought to be distinctively Christian and that something has gone wrong, something has been lost, and so it needs to be restored. With that, you can see how language like ‘Make America Great Again’ would resonate with people who have been steeped in Christian nationalist values that the nation does have to be restored to a former state of goodness and greatness, and they go hand in hand because the idea is that to restore Christian America, America needs to be more Christian, and then the country will secure God’s blessings and it will have the strength to defend itself. Christian nationalism is nothing new. It has been promoted by evangelical pastors. There are just all sorts of books on Christian nationalism, pseudo-historians like David Barton are very popular in evangelical spaces, and this has been going on for decades. Actual historians, including many evangelicals who are professional historians, have also for decades been pointing out the errors of this mythology and pointing to the original founders and to American history. Theologians have questioned, what does it mean to be a Christian nation? Can you decimate Native American populations and still be called Christian? Can you enslave Africans and still be called Christian? There is a long tradition of dissent, but that has done little really to shake the power of this mythology in evangelical spaces. You listen to Christian radio today, watch any Christian televangelism, pick up a book at a Christian bookstore. Chances are it’s going to be promoting — If it’s talking at all about this country — it’s going to be not just promoting, but assuming this Christian nationalist motif.
Colorado Times Recorder: Can you talk a little bit about the parallel economy and parallel media ecosystem? When I’ve reported on these things and guys like David Barton or Eric Metaxas, who has this interesting take on [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer, it’s just like we’re not experiencing the same reality. Is that accurate?
Kristin Kobes Du Muz: Absolutely, 100%. So here’s a little story. When I was working on this manuscript, my editor, in one of the rounds of feedback, flagged some of the publication or sales figures that I had for some of these bestselling evangelical books. He just said, ‘You know, these can’t be accurate, Kristin. You need to know that publishers always inflate sales. We just can’t go with this.’ He said, ‘Where did you get this info?’ and I said, ‘It’s in The New York Times. But I guess if it can’t be trusted —’, he’s like, ‘Oh, no, no.’ He had no idea, coming from this kind of secular publishing world, how big the Christian publishing industry was, because these books are not making the New York Times bestseller list — with few exceptions— because that’s a curated list. Otherwise, the list would be filled with these prophecy books week after week, because it is a massive industry that is almost invisible to people outside of these spaces. In recent years we’ve seen the closing of Christian bookstores, but for a long time, that’s where these books were sold. I had one bookstore in my small town growing up. It was a Christian bookstore, so the only books available. In Bigger cities, if you just don’t go in the doors of a Christian bookstore, you’re oblivious to this whole world. Now, with online sales, and now it’s on the shelves of Hobby Lobby stores, and Walmart, and other spaces, it really is this massive industry, but largely invisible.
Also, it’s worth noting that evangelicals love to read. Evangelicals buy books. They do so because of religious practices, and especially this tradition of small group study. This is kind of evangelical lingo, but a lot of evangelical churches, especially mega-churches, they have what’s called small groups. Usually, men and women are in separate groups, and sometimes family units aren’t together, but they come together outside of the church, once a week or once every other week, and what do they do? They usually do a book study. There is this massive market and constant demand for books. Books are given as graduation presents and given on Mother’s Day. Books are just everywhere, and these Christian conferences also are selling books. This is a part of how you are faithful and how you practice your faith. Then these books are read in the community and they are often read as this is God’s word to you, so there is a massive market for Christian books, for books like John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. It would be hard to go back in time to find an evangelical man in the early 2000s who hasn’t at least been invited to join a book study on John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. It was everywhere. There’s just no equivalent of this outside of the evangelical subculture that I’m aware of. It really drives publishing book sales. There’s a lot of money involved here. If you sell 4 million copies of a book, there’s a lot of royalties there. It’s an industry, and successful books produce copycat books. This ends up really defining Christian culture and defining what counts as Christian, ultimately.
Colorado Times Recorder: I feel like a lot of people in the secular world, they’re familiar with the Catholic Church or the Methodist Church or these churches that have a specific hierarchy, and that doesn’t appear to be the case with a lot of evangelical churches. They’re independent pastors, or they’re part of Pentecostal denominations. A lot of people have raised concerns recently about the New Apostolic Reformation and the Seven Mountain mandate and the dominionist movement. Can you talk about what the denominations are when people say ‘evangelical?’ What are we really talking about?
Kristin Kobes Du Muz: I think evangelicalism has never been contained within denominational structures. Historically, ‘evangelical’ was an adjective, not a noun. It was a style of conversionism, of revivalism, of a more personalized version of Christian spirituality. It was anti-institutional from its origins. Today we do have some evangelical denominations, some have evangelical in their name, but the SBC [Southern Baptist Convention] really is the largest, most influential Protestant denomination in the country and is essentially evangelical. They run their own publishing house and they are a really big powerhouse in the evangelical world. Because evangelicalism is really a movement, and in many ways a cultural identity, and because this consumer culture is so powerful — and this was the plan, by the way. In the book I talk about in the 1940s, in ‘42, when the National Association of Evangelicals was formed. Right up front, they had a plan to spread their teachings and they wanted to organize and draw together scattered churches and colleges, Christian colleges, Bible schools. They wanted Christian publishing and Christian bookstores in all of the small towns across the country, and they wanted magazines for subscribers in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. They had this plan and they did it. They accomplished this all in just 15 years. That was really remarkable. What that means is that evangelical teachings just spread wherever those products are sold. Christian radio — anywhere you find yourself in this country, you flip through the stations, you can find a Christian radio station and you’re going to get evangelical teachings, evangelical artists, evangelical advertising, right? Often it’s quite political. What this means is that it’s often through the products of evangelicalism that ends up shaping people who attend evangelical churches, who don’t attend evangelical churches, who don’t attend church at all. It doesn’t matter, you can still be deeply influenced by these teachings. That’s why, as a scholar, on the one hand, it’s important to look at distinctive traditions so you can look at the SBC, which a couple of generations ago most people in the SBC didn’t consider themselves evangelicals, and now they’re kind of at the heart of evangelicalism, or you can look at Pentecostal traditions and these charismatic traditions which were often historically at odds with folks in the SBC, for example, you’ve got independent, fundamental Baptists, you’ve got all these different kind of strands. If you look at the popular culture, somebody who attends an SBC Church may well be watching a charismatic preacher on television on Sunday mornings. On the consumer side of things, a lot of these different, distinctive traditions are kind of melding together into this dominant subculture. Distinctions that might be important to seminary professors become much less significant on the popular level.
Colorado Times Recorder: Can you kind of describe how evangelicals are driving a lot of policy conversations around LGBT issues and abortion?
Kristin Kobes Du Muz: There’s some similarities and differences between those two issues. On the one hand, it’s important to note that there is a longer tradition within Christian history of what might be called traditionalist views of sexuality, anti-LGBTQ teachings, and also anti-abortion, so there are some continuities there. However, there are also a lot of complexities. In the case of abortion in particular, something I mention in the book is that in the 1960s and well into the 1970s, a lot of evangelicals were pro-choice, which is not to say they were pro-abortion, but they understood it as a complicated moral issue. Some did not believe that life began until birth, so you have in 1968, Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, special issue on contraception and abortion and ‘right or wrong?’ The takeaway is, it’s complicated. Seeing abortion as a complicated moral choice by the end of the 70s, it’s been transformed into a black and white issue of good versus evil, right versus wrong. A lot of things happened there. You have Roe v Wade, which does increase the number of abortions, but you also have this broader political context where evangelicals are mobilizing politically as part of the Christian right, and in many ways it emerges as the perfect issue. It’s linked to their commitment to gender difference, to hierarchical authority structures, and to patriarchal authority. In that context, it becomes a kind of defining feature. Now, the other thing, and this is really relevant on the LGBTQ question as well, is we have to understand the ways in which evangelicals approach these issues in the context of Christian nationalism, because evangelicals not only are supremely confident in their discernment of what is right and wrong and what is moral and what is not, but they also tend to think that they have a special role in this country of shaping the laws and shaping the culture in a way that honors God’s teachings. Because America was founded as a Christian nation, as they understand it, because they can see it has kind of turned away from God, they think that they have a special mandate to bring the country back to obedience, which is why you’re not going to hear a lot of evangelicals saying, ‘I think this is wrong, but you do you.’ Instead, they’re going to say ‘We need our nation’s laws to reflect God’s laws.’ That’s where you’ll run up against constitutional rights of others, and that’s where you’ll see some movement, especially in recent years, that I think has to be described as anti-democratic. Ends justify the means because they are so sure that their approach is right and is more important than observing democratic norms.
Colorado Times Recorder: Colorado Christian University, which is our evangelical university, recently had an event recently debating the merits of Christian nationalism. Jeff Hunt, the director of the Centennial Institute, dismissed this idea of Christian nationalism. Do you view this movement as something that’s kind of dangerous or concerning or that people should keep an eye on? What’s your response to folks like Jeff Hunt who try to dismiss the influence and impact that this movement is having on national politics?
Kristin Kobes Du Muz: I’ve been following these conversations quite closely and there’s a really helpful Pew survey out last October on Christian nationalism, and it makes very clear that people mean different things by it. It’s very possible that ‘Christian nationalism’ to some Christians means, ‘Yes, I think America should be a Christian nation, so I’m going to vote my values and I’m going to participate in a democratic society. I respect other people’s rights, but yes, I will pray and act in a way that I hope that good things happen as I understand good.’ There are certainly people who understand it that way. There are also people who understand it more as a mandate to take control, and who want to believe that there are ‘real Americans.’ This is a common kind of idea, that it’s an us versus them. There are real Americans and then there are enemies of real America. You don’t want the enemies of real America, the enemies of Christian America, to have political power. That would be disastrous. That’s where you’re going to see, in survey data, that those who do identify as Christian or who fit the criteria of Christian nationalist, believing America’s got special dominion and so on, and that Christianity should have a kind of privileged status, they are going to be more likely to be okay with voter suppression and more likely to engage in election denial, and also more likely to think that violence might be necessary to achieve their political ends. It can mean a variety of things to different people. I think one important thing that has shifted how Christian nationalists engage in recent years has been the demographic change that we are experiencing. What social scientist Robert Jones has termed ‘the end of white Christian America.’ What that means is that we’re on the cusp of white Christians not holding the majority. In many areas of the country, that’s already the case. Whereas these kind of Christian goals could have been pursued in previous generations in terms of political mobilization and through organizations like Focus on the Family and bulletin inserts and Moral Majority, now there’s a sense that maybe more drastic measures are going to be needed because they simply don’t have the numbers. Democracy may not serve their ends in the way that it could in previous generations. I think we’re seeing more explicit rejection of democracy in some of these spaces. Now, the question is who is the majority? Who is right? There are extremists, certainly, and we could point to Jan. 6, or we can find evidence and some of the survey data, and then there’s more moderate folks. The question is at what point will the moderate folks say, ‘Nope, that’s too far.’ To what extent do they say, ‘You know what, I might not agree with all their tactics, but I’m on the same side.’ That’s the kind of question that scholars are trying to examine right now.
Du Mez will speak at the UCCS ENT Center for the Arts in Colorado Springs on Feb. 23 at 6 p.m.