The entrenched “masculinity” of white evangelicalism
An emotional review of Jesus & John Wayne, and Jerry Falwell Jr.’s downfall
I didn’t expect reading Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Divided a Nation (Bookshop.org, Amazon) to be so emotional. I’ve been reading a lot of books about white evangelicalism and Christian nationalism in advance of the release of Powers & Principalities later this month, but Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s book took me by surprise.
Perhaps it was the way it threw the incongruities of white evangelical teachings about masculinity in sharp contrast to the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it was the way she drew the line of history back even further than I expected—back past the false, imaginary foundation of the religious right in the late 70s, back even beyond James Fifield’s work aligning Christianity with corporate America in the 1940s—all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt & Billy Sunday at the turn of the 20th century. Perhaps it was how every era built one on top of the other, not in a way that edifies a Christ who said “blessed are the peacemakers,” but rather edifies a Christ whose forgiveness comes on very specific terms for very specific people (read: other white men), and “comes not to bring peace but a sword” to all the rest—all culminating in the raucous, enthusiastic support of strongman Donald Trump.
Knowing some, but not all, of the history that would play out in Jesus and John Wayne didn’t provide any comfort. Instead, it ratcheted up my anxiety while following the narrative Du Mez traces—because I lived through some of it, and saw the older men in my life live through others.
The products Christians consume shape they faith they inhabit. Today, what it means to be a “conservative evangelical” is as much about culture as it is about theology. This is readily apparent in the heroes they celebrate. - Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Preoccupation with masculinity & femininity is one of the key markers of white evangelicalism. Because white evangelicalism is patriarchal (and becomes increasingly moreso as figures like RJ Rushdoony, Bill Gothard, and James Dobson, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Mark Driscoll gain power and influence), the preoccupation is primarily with what defines “a man;” femininity is only defined in comparison and complementary to masculinity. Yet despite the theological certainty espoused about “biblical manhood and womanhood” and their own institutions tipping the scales toward “male headship” and “female submission,” the leaders of white evangelicalism project an air of uncertainty and embattlement around matters of gender—and manliness in particular—at all times.
This preoccupation with masculinity creates a culture and mindset rife with dissonance. I remember attending my small town United Methodist church in Indiana; the first pastors I had were women. I remember my father and other men at church going to Indianapolis for Promise Keepers and coming back “emboldened.” I remember working at a Christian bookstore and selling books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Wild at Heart, and Every Man’s Battle. Elisabeth Eliot was on the shelves.
However, I also remember the example of my Greek professor, years later, teaching me about the Philippian Hymn, and how Jesus set aside aspirations to the glories of godhood and dedicated his life to service. I remember that even the biblical text with its “plain reading” has passages attributed to Paul that declare both that “in Christ there is neither Hebrew nor Greek, male nor female” and “wives, submit to your husbands.” I remember a Jesus who tended to uplift women throughout the Gospels, who counted women as his disciples, and women who bore first witness to the resurrection.
The dissonance only really resolves itself if you choose the culture of manliness and patriarchy over and against the evidence of all else arguing vociferously against it—the evidence of one’s experience, of one’s convictions, of the historical narrative, of the demonstrable strength of women.
Yet the visage of masculinity white evangelicalism has fostered over the past century—from Teddy Roosevelt & Billy Sunday’s “muscular” Christianity to the militant Christianity of the plagiarist and spiritual abuser Mark Driscoll—has proven intoxicating to men insecure about their place in the world. Insecurity is a real, human thing. But any sense of pride built upon diminishing others is a weak and petty pride. And that is no more evident than in the ways these “manly men” have routinely failed to live up to the standards they set for themselves and others, and how they have routinely misused notions of “forgiveness” and “redemption” to escape accountability and consequences.
Throughout Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez provides several examples of white evangelical leaders who failed to live up to their standards. Billy James Hargis, an early proponent of “sexual purity,” was felled by a sex scandal, as were Jimmy Swaggart & Ted Haggard. Mark Driscoll, a founder of the expansive church network Acts 29, was caught plagiarizing, improperly using church funds to buy copies of his own books, and cultivated an environment rife with spiritual abuse. Yet Driscoll just closed up shop, skipped town, and relocated from Seattle to Phoenix.
Driscoll’s successful second act is indicative of the grace extended to “manly men” in white evangelicalism. I sense that we are going to see another similar story for Jerry Falwell, Jr. who is taking a leave of absence from Liberty University. Falwell, Jr.’s downfall wasn’t his staunch support for President Trump, but rather a poorly-thought out post to Instagram featuring unbuttoned pants and an alcoholic drink he tried to pass off as “black water,” which is notably not a real thing.
The path to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s “redemption” is well-trod. Many powerful white evangelical men have walked this path before—right back to their positions, their power, their wealth, and into the arms of forgiveness that open for them, but not for most. It’s predictable and cliche, to the point it can be summed up in a tweet, as Diana Butler Bass did:
That this is what felled Falwell, Jr. is a testament to the true “family values” of white evangelicals: power.
There is a growing resistance to this type of “masculinity.” People who’ve left white evangelicalism should repudiate the harmful gender roles that have been codified in conservative communities for decades and which have very little bearing in history. But let’s not kid ourselves that overcoming more than a century of belief will be an easy task. Just as Jerry Jr. will likely be back, these beliefs will likely stick around until they are uprooted.