Source of book: I own this.
The main reason that I read this book is that I have a number of friends who are fellow survivors of Bill Gothard’s cult (or other cultic fundamentalist groups) who wanted to be able to discuss it. My wife listened to it on audiobook a few months ago, so I had already heard some of her views on the book and on the underlying history. Many of them will be found throughout this post, although I may not always remember that she said it first.
Many of us woke up on November 9, 2016, wondering what the HELL happened. How did the people we thought we knew vote for a disgusting bully who literally ran on a platform of racial grievance? And worse, why did they LOVE him so much?
But for myself, this was just the most recent in a series of catastrophic disillusionments that started…well…that’s part of what I am trying to process. The more I consider the past, the less sure I am of exactly when and how the process of the destruction of my relationship with my parents started, and time has made it more difficult to separate out the good times from the bad.
The most obvious break occurred about a decade ago, with a flagrant violation of my wife’s boundaries by my mother, but more honestly, they never accepted my wife. This was a shock to me, because I was naive enough to take their words at face value, and believe that gender roles were at most a secondary religious issue, rather than, as my father loves to say, “the hill to die on” that it became. Growing up with a mostly happy childhood, I never expected that my parents would sacrifice their relationship with their daughter in law so casually, and over gender roles and performance of those roles in a certain way. And yet, in the end, those beliefs turned out to be more important to them than a relationship with me and my family.
It was disorienting and devastating to find that, due to our feminist beliefs, we were now the enemy. Of course, now, with an LGBTQ child, well, it’s pretty clear what the future holds.
But, as this book helped me understand, it had to have gone back a lot further, at least to James Dobson and his teaching that authoritarianism was godliness - that the most important thing a “christian” parent can do is to teach unquestioning obedience to their children. And from there, on to Bill Gothard: I objected to joining the organization, but was overruled, the first time I think I realized that my own desires, needs, and wellbeing would come second to the toxic theological and political ideologies that my parents embraced. The part that still puzzles me is that these ideologies are contrary to the way I was raised during childhood, and indeed were contrary to what I still feel to be my parents’ natural inclinations - toward love, gentleness, egalitarianism, and anti-racism - those are the values I was taught. Which is why it was such a devastating shock to see the change over the decades.
Jesus and John Wayne helps tie a lot of that together, at least in a partial sense. I believe the book has a significant flaw in that it sugar coats the inseparability of patriarchy from white supremacy. I’ll get to that later in more detail, but certainly, despite that flaw, the book has well researched and lucidly presented history of how American Evangelicalism forsook any pretense of following Christ in favor of a “gospel” of gender hierarchy.
So, let me get the flaw addressed at the outset, which my wife also noted, and then I can proceed with the very many excellent things about this book.
The problem is that Du Mez chooses to pull punches when it comes to the connection between patriarchy and racism. Full stop. There were a few places where I could not believe she didn’t mention the obvious.
The most egregious was in the chapter that focuses in part on Phyllis Schlafly. The book, before explaining how she was recruited to lobby against the Equal Rights Amendment, casually mentioned that she was already an active lobbyist in Washington. This would have been the time to mention what she was lobbying for.
And, not coincidentally, she continued to air her deep and vicious racism throughout her life, up to the point where she endorsed Trump specifically because he was going to keep the dirty impoverished brown skinned people out. She was a racist. Full stop. That was literally her core identity, and the patriarchy flowed from that.
Likewise, I was disappointed that Du Mez completely neglected to mention that James Dobson (who gets a good bit of time in the book - and most of what Du Mez says about him is spot on) repackaged the Eugenics ideas of his mentor Paul Popenoe (who greatly influenced the Nazis), including the racial superiority beliefs, which were just “softened” into dog whistles. If you didn’t know the history (which has largely been suppressed these days), it might come as a surprise that Dobson went off on brown-skinned immigrants, calling for their complete exclusion. Focus on the [White] Family cannot be understood outside of that context - it literally exists to encourage white people to out-reproduce those other people.
Dobson wasn’t the only one, either. Pretty much every one of these patriarchal sorts are white, and deeply and viciously racist. Even the “respectable” ones like Josh McDowell.
In understanding my own family, therefore, I had to understand both the roots of patriarchy, and of racism. And that the three men most influential in our family were ALL deeply rooted in patriarchy and racism. (John MacArthur, who has made opposition to CRT his latest hobby horse; James Dobson; and Bill Gothard, who shamelessly stole his ideas from Rousas Rushdoony, an open neo-confederate.)
In the end, I think this was probably a philosophical choice, and I get it. Her point was to focus on the patriarchy. And to be fair, she does mention the racism here and there. It isn’t completely missing, just softballed a bit. I don’t want to make this into more than it should be. Jesus and John Wayne is an excellent book, well written, and timely.
My thought is that it would have been helpful to trace the ideas back a bit further. One could, of course, go back to Henry the Navigator and the first religious excuses for enslavement - the rhetoric was heavy on the superiority of white European manhood compared to the effeminate “savage” brown people. But for purposes of the United States, the history should at least start with the Cult of Domesticity, which was, from the beginning, about race and class. And then perhaps mention Robert Lewis Dabney, and how in the post-civil-war era, it started to become official dogma for the all-white Southern Baptists. (Hey, I actually wrote a big post back in the day about this!) At every step of the way, the adoption of the Cult of Domesticity as the backbone of “christian” doctrine has been inseparable from the pro-slavery and pro-segregation movement, and from racist and eugenicist ideas. That is the bottom line.
Okay, now to get into the book. The basic premise is that over the last 100 or so years (and, as I noted, earlier), American white Evangelicalism has substituted the idea of a gentle, suffering messiah - that is, Christ - for an ideal of belligerent, violent, powerful manhood. In other words, John Wayne. (And yes, Du Mez does note that both John Wayne the actor and his characters were strongly racist and patriarchal.) This, in turn, led to Evangelical support for Donald Trump.
So far as that goes, I believe it is accurate. I also found that most of the information from the last 40 years was very familiar, because I have spent a lot of time reading and researching since I started this blog, as part of my own quest to figure out what happened - how fringe charlatans like Gothard went mainstream. This is not to minimize the research that went into this - it is impressive, and I know how much work it is just to find good secondary sources - she cites plenty of primary ones.
Less familiar to me was the history during the 1950s through 1970s, in part because a lot of the main figures either died or were disgraced before I was born, and so they were not part of the culture in the same way that Schlafly and Gothard and Dobson were.
I took a ton of notes, and still didn’t write down all of the great lines. If nothing else, Du Mez’ writing will make this topic come alive for people who might not feel like slogging through academic articles.
The introduction is a good summary of what follows in the book, but two lines in particular stood out to me.
I soon came to see that a Christian warrior ideal fueled culture wars politics on the home front, too. If every man needed a battle to fight, enemies abounded.
Oh yes. And these days, I am one of those enemies. To understand our fractured nation, one need look no further than the past four decades of Evangelical culture wars, where we were taught to view people different from us as the enemy, and life and culture as a war against those who are not like us. Sigh.
And this line, which I could have written myself. (I certainly have said words to this effect many times.)
In the fall of 2016, white evangelicals handed Donald Trump the presidency. When exit polls revealed that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, observers struggled to understand how “family values” evangelicals could have voted for a man who seemed the very antithesis of those values. But it was clear to me that evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Trump embodied an aggressive, testosterone-driven masculinity that many conservative evangelicals had already come to equate with a God-given authority to lead.
Subsequent events bore this out. Far from becoming more “presidential,” Trump continued to thumb his nose at democratic norms and basic civility. His incendiary language fueled polarization. Unwilling to condemn white supremacy and the alt-right, he stoked the fires of racial resentment and social unrest. He spoke of “shithole countries,” demonized Muslims, denigrated refugees and immigrants, and spewed vitriol at his opponents, all while coddling conservative evangelical leaders who did his bidding and insisting that it was white Christians who needed protection - protection only he could offer. Rather than summoning America’s better angels, Trump roused its demons.
Here again is a pulled punch. I would have noted the obvious: hatred of refugees and immigrants, insults toward developing countries, and white supremacy ARE the values of white evangelicals. Trump was the perfect embodiment of those values, which is another reason they worship him. But yes, that is a perfect summary. And how about this, from the opening chapter?
But evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad. By the time Trump arrived, proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.
Du Mez is spot on that Trump did not create this. He was merely the most obvious symptom of a deep malignancy that has eaten away at what I thought was my faith tradition.
In this chapter, Du Mez does note that “evangelicalism” has become not just a political brand, but a very white political brand.
Although foundational to white evangelical identity, race rarely acts as an independent variable. For 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.
As I said, there are soft-pedaled places, but the above is a good line. All of the rest of this is intertwined with racial identity, specifically white racial identity.
I think one particularly profound insight that Du Mez gives - one that hadn’t entirely occurred to me - is that Evangelical popular culture is inherently consumerist. It’s not just that theology has taken a back seat to the culture wars (and it has!), but that the culture is found in the consumption of cultural goods, an entire marketplace of religious crap that people outside the culture don’t really understand. And that is why church attendance and denominational identification are far less important to evangelical identity than the religious consumer culture.
During the Trump campaign, many pastors were surprised to find that they wielded little influence over people in the pews. What they didn’t realize was that they were up against a more powerful system of authority - an evangelical popular culture that reflected and reinforced a compelling ideology and a coherent worldview. A few words preached on Sunday morning did little to disrupt the steady diet of religious products evangelicals consumed day in, day out.
Rather than seeking to distinguish “real” from “supposed” evangelicals, then, it is more useful to think in terms of the degree to which individuals participate in this evangelical culture of consumption…By partaking in a common culture, individuals form bonds with other like-minded consumers, and these affinities form the basis of a shared cultural identity.
So much good stuff in there. Again, understanding the evangelical “brand” as one of shared consumption, rather than core religious beliefs, really aids understanding. It is kind of like people who form a culture around some consumer item, like, say BMW ownership or Harley-Davidson ownership. This consumption of common culture also explains things like why very few white evangelicals can tell you what the Torah teaches about immigration….but they can give you the orthodox right wing position as stated by Tucker Carlson on Fox News last week.
After this introduction and opening chapter, Du Mez starts her history off with the “closing of the West,” and Theodore Roosevelt. For many of us, TR is a complex figure, both hero and villain. My father-in-law adores TR, although I would hardly categorize him as belligerent. As an avid hiker and lover of the wilderness, I admire what TR did to preserve our national parks. But on the other hand, he was racist even by the pathetic standards of white people of his time, viciously pro-genocide, and strongly eugenicist. So….complicated. And, as Du Mez points out, he was really the first idol of the patriarchal religious right.
In a way, the new American Imperialism was framed as a conservative effort to restore American manhood. When Roosevelt became president in 1901, the embodiment of heroic American manhood became the undisputed leader of the American nation. By fashioning a violent, fantasized masculinity, and then injecting that sensibility into national politics, Roosevelt offered ordinary men the sense that they were participating in a larger cause. Roosevelt’s hypermasculinity appealed to men anxious about their own status, and the nation’s. For many, these anxieties would become inseparable.
[note: see Richard Hofstadter’s excellent essay on the Spanish-American War and American Imperialism]
Another excellent point that Du Mez makes is that evangelicalism as a 19th Century movement has largely disappeared. (The heirs to the Social Justice Warriors of that era - abolitionists, feminists, socialists, union organizers, and more - are more at home today in Mainline denominations or in secular organizations; while the missionary and evangelism movements have lost out to the Culture Wars.) Instead, what we have now is essentially neo-Puritan Fundamentalism with the name of “evangelicalism.” Du Mez notes that Fundamentalism was viewed as toxic in the post-war years, at least in mainstream American religious life. Fundies decided on an aggressive strategy.
To launch the offensive, a group of fundamentalist leaders came together in 1942 to form the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Their choice of the word “evangelical” was strategic. Aware of their image problem, fundamentalists knew they needed to rebrand their movement.
In the next chapter, Du Mez talks about the realignment of Southern Baptists from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, which she sees as starting with an ideological realignment of sorts. (I think it was always there, but spread beyond the SBC to Evangelicalism at large. But her point isn’t wrong either. And I wasn’t alive for most of the realignment - my earliest memories were that of course white protestants voted Republican.)
Contemporary evangelical partisanship can only be understood in terms of a broader realignment that transformed partisan politics from the 1950s to the 1980s, a realignment that evangelicals themselves helped bring about. At the heart of this realignment were attitudes toward civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and “family values.” For conservatives, a defense of white patriarchy emerged as a unifying thread across this range of issues; for conservative evangelicals, a defense of white patriarchy would move to the center of their coalescing cultural and political identity.
The idea of white patriarchy as the center of culture and political identity for white evangelicals is spot on. Incredibly spot on. It was a shock to me to discover that, but when I did, it was devastating. As with the embrace of Trump, it was tough as a devoutly religious person to realize that what you had thought was one thing, was actually….this. Ugh, disgusting. As Deana Carter sang back in the 1990s, did I shave my legs for…this???
White patriarchy in this particular form was also a recent thing. White Evangelicals like to pretend that their issues are timeless, dating from the origins of Christianity - abortion, patriarchal nuclear family - but they are actually modern affectations. (In the case of abortion, some of the beliefs are literally younger than I am.) If you want to read more about how the two-parent nuclear family with a single - and always male - breadwinner is actually an aberration of modern times, I recommend The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Koontz. Du Mez notes the truth here as well:
The nuclear family structured around a male breadwinner was in fact of recent invention, arising in the 1920s and peaking in the 1950s and 1960s; before then, multigenerational families relying on multiple contributors to the family economy had been the norm.
Ah yes, the 1960s and the 1970s. Having not lived through them, my view was unfortunately colored by my subculture, which genuinely believed that we lost the Vietnam War because of a lack of “manhood.” We withdrew rather than finishing it. (By failing to honestly acknowledge that we were unwelcome in Vietnam as yet another colonizer, we set the stage for a string of catastrophic foreign wars up to and including the recent debacle in Afghanistan.) But also lost was how and why white evangelicals supported the dishonest demagogue, Richard Nixon over George McGovern (who I was taught was a horrible candidate.)
Nixon’s opponent, George McGovern, was a former ministry student, son of an evangelical minister, and a deeply religious man. Despite having served as a B-52 [sic] bomber pilot in the Second World War, however, he opposed the war in Vietnam and proposed large cuts in military spending and amnesty for draft dodgers. In his acceptance speech, McGovern issued a prophetic critique of the nation and its culture of militarism. He promised to end bombing in Indochina on Inauguration Day, and within ninety days to bring every American soldier home: “There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools” and no more Americans sent to die “trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.” He called on Americans to live with more faith and less fear. Countering those who said “America - love it or leave it,” he instead urged Americans to work to change their nation for the better, “so we may love it the more.”
Naturally, evangelicals hated McGovern. Methinks he sounded a bit too much like Christ for their taste. Instead, evangelicals embraced Nixon, and, also unfortunately, Billy Graham. One of the things this book (and other recent books) have done, is to tear the mask off of the legend of Billy Graham, who said and did a lot of despicable things over the years. Perhaps Franklin Graham came by his bigotry honestly…The worst of these for me was Graham’s defense of the Vietnam war - the worst of the war, no less. He remarked that he had “never heard of a war where innocent people are not killed,” and justified the atrocities with “We have all had our Mylais [sic] in one way or another, perhaps not with guns, but we have hurt others with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act, or a selfish deed.”
What the hell????
Because the brutal murder of 500+ unarmed civilians, mostly women, children, and infants is TOTALLY like the unkind thing I said once. Fuck off, you evil asshole. I cannot believe you said that, and you should be ashamed of yourself. And I am SO sick of this sin-leveling, used to defend atrocities and abuse by making it equivalent to the mostly inadvertent sins of decent people. This is a continuing problem within white evangelicalism. My own personal experience has been that when I call people on their racism, I am the “bad person” because I didn’t do it nicely enough (meaning not at all, of course.) My “sin” of meanness is worse than actual racism.
See: totally the same thing as not being nice enough when calling out racism....
This was a harrowing part of the book, showing that as American atrocities came to light, evangelicals became MORE supportive of the war. It’s almost as if killing a bunch of brown people gave them some kind of spiritual erection. (And yes, I went there. Hate seems somehow sexual in evangelicalism, probably because of the way they brutally repress sexuality.)
The Vietnam War was pivotal to the formation of an emerging evangelical identity. For many Americans who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Vietnam demolished myths of American greatness and goodness. American power came to be viewed with suspicion, if not revulsion, and a persuasive antimilitarism took hold. Evangelicals, however, drew the opposite lesson: it was the absence of American power that led to catastrophe. Evangelical support for the war seemed to grow in direct relation to escalating doubts among the rest of the public.
For me, the war that demolished the myth was the “war on terror,” aka the “let’s bomb the shit out of two middle eastern countries for 20 years and accomplish nothing” war. And, seeing as my children never knew a time when we were not mired in those wars, I suspect it will shape their perception of American “goodness” for the rest of their lives.
Du Mez also looks at the well-documented connection between the patriarchy movement and the Cold War. The USSR was a convenient enemy, and so many of our worst policies and actions come from the fear of that bogeyman. (Also, using “socialism” as an epithet to demonize the civil rights movement was shockingly effective. And still is.) There were a few names that I wasn’t as familiar with in this time period.
One of those was Jack Hyles, whose career ended in a series of sex scandals in the 1980s - he and other leaders in the IFB denomination systematically swept child sexual abuse by clergy under the rug. Sound familiar today? Anyway, Hyles in the 1960s said a lot of the same things as Gothard would say, starting a decade later. Some things still sound exactly like the Fundie subculture. For example, the emphasis on enforcing “masculine” and “feminine” pursuits for children, with the accompanying fearmongering that letting boys be tender (aka “feminine”) would turn them gay. Boys would be trained to “lead,” girls to “submit.” And teaching women instant submission would be a “favor to a future son-in-law.” Yeah, that’s Gothard and other patriarchist teachers.
Oh, and Hyles also taught brutal corporal punishment, and gave advice on how to hide the bruises from the authorities. Yikes. And, just like James Dobson later, Hyles taught that obedience was the single most important thing to teach children.
Hyles also advocated corporal punishment of children, even infants. (Spankings should last “at least ten or fifteen minutes” and should “leave stripes,” as necessary.) Parents in his church took his advice to heart; one woman recalled receiving more than three hundred lashes from a leather belt, and Hyles advised the girl’s parents how to avoid arrest after authorities were notified. “Our natural man” might rebel at such punishment, Hyles explained, but children must learn obedience or end up in hell.
And that is the crux of the teaching - and yes, that includes both Dobson and Gothard. Either children learn unquestioning submission to authoritarianism, or they will burn in hell. I never did well with that kind of an approach, which meant my teen years were harder than they had to be, and I still struggle with the fear that questioning my beliefs will lead to…well, since I don’t believe in hell, something bad at least. (So MANY of my friends with a similar background have the same issue.) Now, I recognize this as spiritual abuse. Parents were frightened with the threat of damnation for their children if they did not brutally enforce the rules, including gender roles.
I don’t have that much to say about the section on John Wayne, other than that yes, John Wayne is revered in Fundie circles, for the same reason as Trump, and despite (or because of) the same character flaws. Du Mez does bring out some of Wayne’s worst racist quotes, fortunately, and notes his many failed marriages (and rumors of domestic abuse.) I was never all that in to John Wayne, although my family kind of went through a fad of watching his films when I was in my early 20s. I remember thinking that The Green Berets was a piece of pro-war propaganda trash (and it is), but the one that really turned me off was The Quiet Man. Wayne’s character essentially turns into a violent spouse abuser, with his control and abuse being truly gross and disgusting. And, of course, because of the kind of film it was, this abuse “wins the heart” of his victim. I still want to vomit thinking about it. So, never really a Wayne fan. (Also, the best Western ever filmed is Tombstone. Fight me.)
Anyway, I do think Du Mez sums up Wayne’s influence pretty well.
To many conservatives, including evangelicals, Wayne personified “a tone of life” that needed to be recovered if the country was to reverse course “from the masochistic tailspin of this prideless age.” He modeled a heroic American manhood that rallied the good against evil; took pride in the red, white, and blue; and wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. That Wayne never fought for his country, that he left behind a string of broken marriages and allegations of abuse - none of this seemed to matter. Wayne might have come up short in terms of traditional virtue, but he excelled at embodying a different set of virtues. At a time of social upheaval, Wayne modeled masculine strength, aggression, and redemptive violence.
That last one, a belief in “redemptive violence,” has become particularly central to evangelical belief, unfortunately. Which is exactly the opposite of Christ’s “redemptive non-violence.”
The chapter on the early women of patriarchy, starting with Marabel Morgan and continuing through Phyllis Schlafly was mildly disappointing. I felt it was a missed opportunity. It was interesting to read about Morgan’s marriage advice books, which were indeed the harbinger of hundreds to come. (And of course, essentially told women that their identity was as caretakers of their husband, children, and house.) I really wish that Du Mez had noted that this advice wasn’t original with Morgan, but was borrowed directly from the earlier eugenicists trying to figure out how to make marriage and childbearing seem more attractive to white women. But anyway, it was interesting, and there is no doubt that the evangelical subculture has adopted Morgan’s views as gospel truth - a core doctrine of the faith.
By giving husbands what they wanted, women could transform marriage from “an endurance contest” into something enjoyable.
And thus, you have the increased suicide rates among married women. I personally find that marriage is an endurance contest only if one or both parties make it something to endure. It becomes enjoyable when it is egalitarian, with equal value placed on the needs of each spouse. (Toddlers, on the other hand, are an endurance contest. Just saying.)
Oh, and of course Morgan tied a lack of clear gender roles and behaviors to a risk of homosexuality. Du Mez nails it on this point, though.
Within evangelicalism, this activism is often depicted as an expression of long-standing opposition to same-sex relationships triggered by the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but the virulence with which conservative Christians opposed gay rights was rooted in the cultural and political significance they placed on the reassertion of distinct gender roles during those decades. Same-sex relationships challenged the most basic assumptions of the evangelical worldview.
Oh yes, that is the issue. When your view of how people are treated - indeed their full humanity - depends on their genitals, then same-sex (and thus likely egalitarian) relationships are an existential threat to the worldview. To the ideology.
Unfortunately, because I have an LGBTQ child, I (and they) are a threat to my parents’ ideology of gender. I knew that having an LGBTQ grandchild would ultimately not be compatible with their beliefs, and am not entirely surprised that their decision to cut me out of their life coincided with my child coming out to them. And, unfortunately, the idea that LGBTQ people are caused by parents who insufficiently enforce gender roles remains popular with my parents’ generation. Which is problematic for relationships in my family. It must be the fault of my wife and me for failing to enforce gender roles and behaviors with our kids, of course. (There was a passive-aggressive comment to that effect left on my announcement of my wife’s grandmother’s death.)
But then again, neither my wife nor I have ever fit the mold right. In addition to detailed rules for femininity, patriarchy offers a model of manhood that never worked for me.
To be a man was to have a fragile ego and a vigorous libido. Men were entitled to lead, to rule, and to have their needs met - all their needs, on their terms. Morgan’s version of femininity hinges on this view of masculinity.
Yep, that never worked for me. Du Mez also accurately explains why so many women are attracted to these teachings. Sure, subordinating your personhood to gender roles and pleasing an insatiable man isn’t easy. But “for many housewives, the new opportunities feminism promised were not opportunities at all. To those who had few employable skills and no means or desire to escape the confines of their homes, feminism seemed to denigrate their very identity and threaten their already precarious existence. It was better to play the cards they were dealt.”
I have experienced a lot of this in my law practice. Many women are furious that the life they were promised didn’t work out. They were pure and submissive and good Christian housewives, yet the marriage broke down. And, as it turns out, the law expects them to support themselves, and many are furious about that. (And, I might add, they are threatened by women who are successful in the workplace. That was also a factor in my own family.)
While I did wish Du Mez had noted the racism and eugenics connection to this advice - the need to have more white babies - there was a lot that really resonated here.
Even closer to home was the chapter on Gothard (and therefore Rushdoony.) Here is the crux of Gothardism:
Like Rushdoony, Gothard believed that most problems could be solved by submitting to the proper authorities in each domain of life…
For Gothard, those in authority were stand-ins for God and were owed absolute obedience. In his moral universe, the notion of personal rights interfered with the hierarchical structure of authority, contradicting God’s design and provoking only anger and resentment….For Gothard and Rushdoony, this order found expression in the authoritarian rule of men. Men who forsook their duty to impose order abdicated their masculinity, allowing women to usurp their power, and Rushdoony eagerly awaited the day when “once independent and feministic women” would be humbled and “seek the protection and safety of a man.”
To help families navigate conflicts, Gothard offered extensive and inflexible rules.
Man, that just gags me these days. And no, joining the Gothard cult when I was nearing adulthood did not sit well with me, no matter how hard I tried (hey, I trusted my parents back then), and no matter how carefully I played the hand I was given (law was NOT my first choice, but it was my only choice, because that’s all Gothard offered.) The way that Gothard “solve” his “Basic Youth Conflicts” was with the dictate that parents were ALWAYS right because God spoke to them. Never to the children. In retrospect, this idea was damaging to all of us. Parents do not hear the voice of God in a special way, so they end up mistaking the voice of the religious charlatans that claim to speak for God for that voice. It is easier than doing the hard work of navigating a complex world that is often stacked in favor of the wealthy and powerful. But not only that, it is an impossible burden to place on parents, one they should never have to bear. And it wasn’t good for me, either in the sense that my attempts to grow up and be an autonomous adult didn’t lead to family harmony, but also in the sense that when I tried to be “good” and let God lead me through my parents I lost out on the chance to listen to my own desires and do the hard work of planning an adult course for my life. It was a lose-lose. The damage that Gothard did to our family and relationships is immeasurable, and the poisonous doctrines continue to bear rancid fruit to this day, even though I left half a lifetime ago.
It wasn’t just Gothard, though. I believe that the other charlatan who damaged our family has to be James Dobson. And he was likely the first to do so. After all, he was the first to insist that the most important duty of parents was to teach their children to OBEY.
Dobson saw children as naturally sinful creatures, inclined toward defiance and rebellion. He may also have been inspired by his own childhood to believe that seemingly innocent children required stern discipline to keep them on the straight and narrow.
This is, as I now realize, problematic. Children are, like all humans, a complex mix of good and bad traits, but to say that they are essentially evil until the bad is beaten out of them is to guarantee problematic parenting. For the most part, when children are difficult, it isn’t because of “rebellion” or “insubordination.” It is because they are…kids. They are tired, or stressed, or not mature enough to handle emotions well. And, let’s be honest, when you have (as we did) three kids under age three, parents are tired, and stressed, and not handling emotions well either. It is a wonder we survived those years. (And many thanks to Amanda’s mom for all the hours she put in to give us some relief. We really appreciated it!) I really wish that I had better deprogrammed from Dobsonism before I had kids. All I can say is I wish I had done better, and hope I would now. My goal with my own kids has at least not been to instill “obedience.” (Our second child broke us of that.) Rather, I wish they would become ethical, compassionate, and decent people, willing to stand up to bullies and bigots, and who look after the least of these. In other words, I don’t want them to unquestioningly obey, I want them to do what is right. And there is a huge difference. Also, contrary to Fundie teaching, the way to learn right from wrong isn’t blindly obeying authority; it is learning through practice to tell right from wrong, cruel from kind, and wise from foolish.
At some point during my childhood, there was a palpable shift in the evangelical subculture toward political culture wars. Ostensibly, these were all about “threats” to the family. (In reality, it was never the gays, the immigrants, or liberals who threatened the wellbeing of the family - it was declining wages and increasing costs for housing, education, medical care…) Here, Du Mez makes another excellent point.
As evangelicals began to mobilize as a partisan political force, they did so by rallying to defend “family values.” But family values politics was never about protecting the well-being of families generally. Fundamentally, evangelical “family values” entailed the reassertion of patriarchal authority. At its most basic level, family values politics was about sex and power.
Family values politics, then, involved the enforcement of women’s sexual and social subordination in the domestic realm and the promotion of American militarism on the national stage.
This chapter gives some play to the LaHayes, including their sex manual. (Which the man who officiated our wedding gave us as part of our “counselling.” No offense, because the man in question is an older man who grew up in Germany during World War Two - and by the standards of how he was raised, this was undoubtedly a shockingly progressive book - it at least acknowledged the importance of female sexual pleasure. But, dang, it was…of an era. But there was another author who got involved in the sex ed debate. A guy named Billy James Hargis. I had never heard of him, but apparently, he was a big deal back in the day. He teamed up with the John Birch Society AND the Ku Klux Klan. Great guy, obviously. Well, the year I was born, his career came to an abrupt halt with an expose from Time magazine. Apparently, two students at his Fundie college married, and made tearful confessions on their honeymoon. She had previously had sex with Hargis…and so had he.
By the way, the pairing of Fundies with the Ku Klux Klan was quite common. For reasons.
Like Graham, Hargis considered sexual morality critical to the nation’s defense against communism. Others soon joined his new crusade. With none-too-subtle pamphlets like Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex? conservative Christian leaders sounded the alarm, and battles over sex ed soon broke out in nearly half of all school districts across the nation. Many of the citizens who waged this battle were the same ones who were fighting against gun control and unsettled by the prospects of interracial dating at desegregated schools.
I think this is important to remember: anxiety about sex here in America cannot be separated from anxiety about “racial mixing.” Purity Culture is inseparable from ideas about racial purity.
Oh, and Hargis wasn’t the only one palling around with the John Birch Society. (And that society’s looniness is only exceeded by its racism. I wish that Du Mez had noted that as well. ALL of these patriarchists tie back to racist organizations. ALL OF THEM.) The LaHayes were in big with the JBS too, being a featured speaker for them for two decades. I mentioned Richard Hofstadter above, and his history of Goldwater and the JBS brings a lot of Fundie sorts together with them. It’s a good read, if you get a chance.
There is another passage where the author does make it explicit that “family values” were never about all families. It was always about white middle-class families, not impoverished or minority families. Their well-being never mattered and does not matter now to the “family values” crowd.
In the summer of 1980, a pivotal event brought together Falwell, the LaHayes, and other architects of the Religious Right in dramatic fashion. Conservatives, it turns out, hadn’t been the only ones concerned with the fate of American families. Feminists, liberals, progressive churches, African American and Chicana activists, doctors, teachers, academics and professionals - even the National Gay Task Force - were all invested in strengthening and protecting families in the 1970s. Thinking that conservatives and liberals might come together in a common cause, President Carter organized a White House Conference on Families. Things didn’t go as planned.
Well before the conference, the fault lines were impossible to ignore. Who got to define “family”? Conservatives championed the “traditional” model: an archetypal family headed by a white, heterosexual male breadwinner. Liberals proposed a more adaptive family model, one that allowed for single parents and gay men and women. Liberals looked to government to support families. Conservatives opposed government “interference” and sought instead to protect families from moral erosion.
These fault lines still exist. So-called “family values” conservatives vigorously oppose publicly-funded childcare (that’s what women are for), oppose the Violence Against Women Act (because it threatens patriarchal authority, which is backed by a threat of violence), oppose the idea of universal healthcare (which separates access to healthcare from the jobs held mostly by white males), and indeed any policy that benefits the well-being of children at the expense of patriarchal authority.
At this point, the overtly Christian (and Christ-following) Jimmy Carter was replaced by a more “suitable” masculine role model: Ronald Reagan. I grew up during the Reagan years, and heard him speak in person on a couple occasions. It has been rough to realize just how damaging he was in the long run, even if his admirable optimism and pro-immigrant views have aged pretty well. I was too young, and too naive to understand his constant use of racial dog whistles (mostly directed at African Americans), or grasp the long-term results of his economic policies.
Reagan played perfectly the part of the stern, authoritarian father. I hadn’t realized that he advocated for violence against Kent State students, of course, because that was before I was born. And his “tough on crime” stance didn’t really strike me as racist until much later in life, when I realized that “thugs” and “welfare queens” and particularly “street crime” had racial overtones that never really occurred to me as a child. I think one reason for this was that I was the child of missionary kids, who themselves didn’t always seem to get the cultural dog whistles (I’m guessing there), but also because I grew up in a racially diverse suburban neighborhood. Crime was committed by…criminals, who could be any color. And “street crime” was, well, when you were on the street, not in your home? Or something like that. But now, it is pretty obvious.
Also not obvious to me as a child is why my parents disliked Jimmy Carter as much as they did. Not personally - to their credit, they believed him to be a decent, good man - but they bought into the (now debunked) story that he had been prevented from carrying out his policies and appointing the people he wanted, because the Party controlled him. What is more true is that no president has unlimited power, and politics (at least the functional kind) require getting competing factions and interests to compromise. Du Mez gets at the heart of why evangelicals disliked Carter, despite the fact that he was literally a Southern Baptist.
To conservative evangelicals, Reagan was a godsend. In the face of Carter’s “wimp factor,” Reagan projected the rugged, masculine leadership they believed the country so desperately needed. (It was much easier to chalk up Carter’s failures to deficient masculinity than to blame US policy stretching back decades.)
A couple of solid points here. Conservatives have derided most Democratic presidents of my lifetime for being “wimps” - essentially for being deficient in manhood. Carter. Obama. And now Biden, who patriarchists like John MacArthur recently mocked as being a “child.” The one exception was Bill Clinton, who, well, fucked a bunch of younger women. It wasn’t really about whether they were morally strong, but whether they portrayed that certain aggressive masculinity that by now is worshipped as the “masculine” godliness.
The second point is another thing that I now have seen played out multiple times. Republican presidents of my lifetime have done a lot to fuck up foreign policy. Actually, US foreign policy since World War Two has been mostly an unending shit-show, but belligerent Republicans have been primarily responsible for the things that have blown up on us, starting with Eisenhower in 1953 - when the CIA destroyed the progressive democratic government in Iran so that BP could get a cushy oil deal. And funded Islamic extremists that then became the fanatical government they have now. What? You hadn’t heard that? What about the time in the 1970s that the US financed the Taliban so that it could overthrow a leftist progressive democratic government in Afghanistan? You hadn’t heard that one either? Maybe it is time to take a little tour of all the times (it’s DOZENS) that the US overthrew foreign governments to protect corporate interests and/or fight a proxy war against the USSR. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, this has mostly blown up badly, and it has been Democratic presidents that have tended to take the fall for it. You can see it with Biden and Afghanistan, and with Carter and Iran. But the events were set in motion decades before that in both cases. Ditto for the other thing that my parents were sore about, the fact that the US returned the canal to Panama. Actually reading the history, though, it is clear that the right wing lied about this. The canal treaty was signed by a man who did not represent the Panamanian government, and hadn’t even lived there in 17 years. It was a sham, a raw land grab by the US. All the way back to 1964, the US knew that this was causing a loss of reputation in Latin America, and wanted to negotiate a return (with international rights for using the canal.) Carter merely finished what Gerald Ford had started.
Okay, went down that rabbit trail. Mostly to make the point that only belligerence in foreign policy is recognized by white evangelicals as the “manly” approach to international relations. (In some ways, Trump is the paragon of this approach: all noise and threats and…a total mess left behind.)
Moving on, I am glad that Du Mez mentions the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC, and corrects the official propaganda about what it was all about. It is hard to believe now that the SBC once had female pastors, female theology professors, approved of Roe v. Wade, and was actively trying to shed its history as the denomination founded to defend slavery.
Accounts of the battles over the SBC commonly focus on the question of biblical inerrancy, but the battle over inerrancy was in part a proxy fight over gender. Conservatives were alarmed by women’s liberation, abortion, and changing views on sexuality generally, but they also had concerns specific to the SBC. “Evangelical feminism” had been making inroads in Southern Baptist circles, and growing numbers of Baptist women had begun challenging male headship and claiming leadership positions; between 1975 and 1985, the number of women ordained in the SBC increased significantly. These women insisted on interpreting biblical texts contextually, attentive to the settings in which they were produced. Conservatives, however, insisted on a “populist hermeneutic,” a method privileging “the simplest, most direct interpretations of scripture.” For conservatives, this wasn’t just the right method, it was the masculine one. They depicted biblical authors like Paul as uncowed by political correctness. Paul wasn’t afraid to prohibit female authority, and masculine men should do likewise. They accused liberals and moderates of waffling, of introducing needless complexity while they stood firm in their quick grasp of the obvious literal truth of the Scriptures.
The issue of inerrancy did rally conservatives, but when it turned out that large numbers of Southern Baptists - even denominational officials - lacked any real theological prowess and were in fact functionally atheological, concerns over inerrancy gave way to a newly politicized commitment to female submission and to related culture wars issues.
It is way beyond the scope of this post - and even the book - to get into the theological weeds here, but it is worth pointing out that the conservative interpretation is unadulterated horseshit. The New Testament is full of examples and descriptions of women in leadership, but these were suppressed once church leadership became a Penis Pe. As Du Mez notes, it wasn’t theology that drove this - it was patriarchy.
Maybe the most depressing chapter was the one on traitor and criminal Oliver North, who somehow (well, the book explains how) became a veritable hero for evangelicals. Sigh. Bigtime Sigh. What a horrible person, devoid of ethics and morality. But a perfect embodiment of the “ends justify the means” as well as the “who gives a fuck if a bunch of brown people die” elements of evangelical political theology. I do not recall my parents being fans of North. But apparently millions of evangelicals loved him.
I thought Ralph Reed’s explanation of North’s appeal to be interesting. (And Ralph Reed of all people!)
“Part of politics is having the right friends, but an important part of politics is having the right enemies.”
That is definitely true in the Trump era. Trump’s appeal was mostly that he hated and threatened harm to the right enemies. Mostly brown-skinned people, but also Democrats, educated sorts, LGBTQ people, atheists…
It is at this point in the book - the late 1980s - that I started really recognizing people. Not just North, but the whole series of televangelists and their sex scandals. I think it was then that I started to realize that what I had been taught about human sexuality - and how it related to culture - was unadulterated bullshit. Somehow, it turned out that a shockingly high percentage of those who pushed patriarchy had big-time sexual issues. And that includes Gothard, of course.
Evangelicals had long framed sexual immorality as a worldly sin, the product of secularism, liberalism, feminism - that is, as something that happened outside the Christian fold. Yet the televangelist sex scandals revealed that their own religious heroes had feet of clay.
I think it is important to note, as Du Mez does in a number of cases, that the hallmark of evangelical sex scandals is the abuse of power. And so it remains to this day.
Something else that makes a lot more sense after reading this book is the irrational hatred for Hillary Clinton. I mean, it was BILL that fucked a woman less than half his age, who cheated on his wife, and had a history of sexual assault. But Hillary is the one who was hated.
Since the 1970s, the identity of housewives had become highly politicized, and Hillary Rodham Clinton triggered fear, resentment, and disdain among many conservative women, some of whom felt devalued by her very existence.
Never mind, of course, that Hillary wasn’t exactly non-domestic. She threatened the hierarchy. She had a degree of economic power and intellectual credibility that women were not supposed to have. This was one way in which I was blindsided by my own birth family. I expected Amanda (who has amazing domestic skills) to be embraced. But the fact that she worked (and continues to work) outside the home meant she triggered fear, resentment, and disdain instead. Because the identity as a housewife was tied up with politics and religion - we might just as well have been atheists as split the breadwinning.
And then there is the “It takes a village” controversy. Which was stupid, because of course it takes a village. But the problem with villages is that it includes everyone, not just the people you like. Hmm. We see the nasty fruit of this now in vaccine and mask refusals.
This chapter on the Clintons also brought back memories of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Looking back, would it have been difficult to imagine a more stupid and senseless policy. “We’ll try not to overtly persecute you as long as you try to hide who you are.” I mean, let’s be honest, LGBTQ people are nothing new in the armed forces. Churchill referred to the tradition of the Royal Navy as “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” I guess it was a move in the right direction, but it was not a particularly good compromise.
Oh, I also have to mention this one in the category of “literally everything the Right Wing says is projection.” So, apparently Phyllis Schlafly, despite supporting actor Ronald Reagan, prophesied that because of Bill Clinton, “Americans can look forward to a succession of TV charlatans and professional liars occupying the White House.” Says the woman who endorsed reality TV star and charlatan Donald Trump. It’s all projection, I’m telling you.
I love that Du Mez directly calls out evangelicals on their hypocrisy regarding Bill Clinton. I mean, now that Trump got a pass for disgusting sexual behavior, it is clear it was never really about sex. But at the time, I (and others of my age) got lectured endlessly about how Clinton was unfit for leadership because of his sexual behavior. And then, every single one of those adults who lectured us were fine with Trump. Why? My observation is that it was always about something else. I mean, they hated Trump when he was a Democrat in the 80s. But all he had to do to win their undying worship is put an (R) after his name and say a bunch of racist shit. (And the last was crucial.) I didn’t know it at the time, but Clinton’s popularity among evangelicals went up slightly after the sexual revelations. He looked like more like a “Phallic Leader,” as Du Mez puts it.
Among Clinton’s evangelical critics, it appears that their concern with Clinton’s predatory behavior was more about Clinton than about predatory behavior. Within their own circles, evangelicals didn’t have a strong record when it came to defending women against harassment and abuse. In the 1980s, for example, Dobson had recommended a healthy skepticism toward certain allegations of domestic violence. In Love Must Be Tough (1983), he warned of women who “deliberately ‘baited’” their husbands into hitting them, “verbally antagoniz[ing]” them until they got “the prize” they sought: a bruise they could parade before “neighbors, friends, and the law” to gain a “moral advantage,” and perhaps also justify an otherwise unbiblical escape from marriage through divorce. This argument remained unchanged in his 1996 edition of the book.
My parents owned that book. Let me be clear, my dad was not and is not an abusive man, which is probably why my parents did not recognize that Dobson is using the language of abusers justifying their abuse here. Once I started defending victims of domestic violence as an attorney, I got a quick education as to abuse dynamics. And what an education it was. Again, as of 1996, this was still official approved doctrine for evangelicals. And in many cases, it remains that way today.
The book also takes a look at one of my least favorite organizations, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which I more accurately describe as the Council on Victorian Gender Hierarchy. Back in 2016, I wrote a post on why CBMW has been unable to coherently condemn domestic abuse - the answer is that condemning abuse endangers the hierarchy that enables it. As long as men have the right to control women, abuse is inevitable. But CBMW and its “Danvers Statement” claiming that subordination of women was God’s will have been immensely influential in evangelical culture. As we found out, challenging that is tantamount to apostasy.
Among complementarians [the euphemism patriarchists often prefer to describe themselves], other doctrinal commitments seemed to pale in comparison to beliefs about gender, and ideas about male authority and the subordination of women increasingly came to distinguish “true evangelicals from pseudo evangelicals.”
Yep. And that is one major reason I cannot consider myself an evangelical. It is also how I was blindsided by my own family. I failed to realized that beliefs about gender - not theology - were the core of the family identity. Never mind that I was pretty orthodox (I’ve become less so with time, but we have never fought over, say, the existence of hell, or whether penal substitutionary atonement is the best way to understand the cross) - our irreconcilable differences have been ALL about the culture wars, particularly gender, but race too in the Trump era.
I’ll just touch on Purity/Modesty Culture since I wrote a whole series on it once. This isn’t because it is less important - in fact, it was the cause of the first serious break with my parents. Rather, it is just one facet of patriarchy. Here is one quote that is good, though.
Purity culture emerged as a cohesive movement in the 1990s, but it drew on teachings long championed by conservative evangelicals accustomed to upholding stringent standards of female sexual “purity” while assigning men the responsibility of “protecting” women and their chastity. Female modesty was a key component of purity culture. If men were created with nearly irrepressible, God-given sex drives, it was up to women to rein in men’s libidos. Wives were tasked with meeting husbands’ every sexual need, but it was the responsibility of women and girls to avoid leading men who were not their husbands into temptation.
For the most part, this section is good, if fairly brief. (I get that - it is just one facet of the movement the book describes, and others have written good books on Purity Culture.) What was disappointing is that Du Mez again soft-pedaled the racist origins of Purity Culture. DNA evidence shows that virtually every African American has “white” genetic origins. This is scientific proof of what everyone already knew, which is that white enslavers routinely and constantly raped the women they enslaved, then sold their own children. Since, as I noted above, EVERYTHING the Right says is projection, white enslavers had to create a fiction about black people: they were sexually out of control. Specifically, black women were seductresses that good white boys couldn’t resist (hence, it wasn’t rape, right?) and black men were rapists, which is why white men had to protect their women by lynching black men.
The very origin of Purity Culture is in that racist idea.
Oh, another trigger:
Harris introduced a generation of young Christians to “biblical courtship,” the idea that fathers were charged with ensuring their daughters’ purity until their wedding day, at which point they handed unsullied daughters over to husbands who assumed the burden of protection, provision, and supervision.
That phrase “transfer the burden” is something my dad used to say. I hated it then, and I hate it even more now. Women are not a fucking burden. And they don’t need “protection, provision and supervision.” They need to be treated with respect like any other human beings, and allowed to follow their own callings like anyone else. When I left home and wanted to marry, the LAST kind of woman I wanted was a burden. I wanted an equal, so we could create a life together. A life WE MUTUALLY decided was best for us and our eventual children. But all this courtship and purity culture and crap was really about patriarchy.
Like “servant leadership” and complementarian theology, the purity movement enabled evangelicals to reassert patriarchal authority in the face of economic, political, and social change.
And unfortunately, this was aided with federal tax dollars. Du Mez points this out, but I also ran across it while researching a post I wanted to write (never got to it) on abstinence-based sex education. It was shocking how many government curricula had flagrantly patriarchal teachings in them. “Abstinence” is apparently inseparable from gender essentialism and outright assertions of the male right to rule over female. I mean, it wasn’t surprising that they went together, but that secular governments literally taught this shit.
Man, looking back on my notes, I can see why I read the second half of the book more slowly. So. Many. Triggers. I had to take a step back regularly to clear my head. Here is the next one, about John Eldredge and Wild At Heart. Our former church did a retreat with the video version of this as the theme. Yawn. I literally mentioned that it didn’t resonate with me - and so did several others. I’m a lover, not a fighter. Sorry not sorry. But of course, this was hugely influential, and particularly seemed to be popular with the sort of less educated macho white boy sorts who dealt with their inferiority complexes with posturing. (And/or rolling coal.) I guess if making men feel okay about being men, that’s probably a good thing; although I would prefer tapping into a gentler vision of masculinity. But the book also pushed a nasty and misogynist interpretation of the Fall of Mankind that has been used to abuse and denigrate women.
According to Eldredge, a woman sinned when she tried to control her world, when she was grasping rather than vulnerable, when she sought to control her own adventure rather than share in the adventure of a man.
See, kids, Vagina People have no right to control their own destiny. They must wait for a man to come rescue them, and then they can devote their entire lives to the man’s vision. Only Penis People get to follow their own callings and control their own adventures. Vagina People are called to sacrifice themselves to do the drudge work behind the scenes so that the Penis People can follow their dreams and callings. Again, my wife stepped in it big time when she dared to control her own destiny and unapologetically follow her own life calling. She endured a decade and a half of passive-aggressive antagonism, bullying, and abuse from the female members of my family over this issue, before she finally had enough and left. I have been gaslit enough about this, and have no intention of candy coating it any further. It happened.
I suspect Du Mez could have devoted an entire book to the New Calvinists (more accurately, the New Puritans - the old ones were also obsessed with gender hierarchy to the point that they persecuted women who dared to assert themselves socially or theologically), but the chapter that she wrote is pretty damning. I personally find New Calvinist theology to be cruel and outright disgusting. But it was (and kind of remains) popular among a certain kind of young man. The evangelical equivalent of a hipster, but less fun. Du Mez nails it in this passage.
Even as they rejected or deemphasized many elements of the broader confessional tradition of Calvinism and Reformed theology (including infant baptism, covenantal theology, and a more nuanced understanding of biblical authority over and against a simplistic commitment to inerrancy), New Calvinists claimed to find in sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin and later Puritan scholars a meatier Christianity that would serve as an antidote to a “softer” evangelicalism. Suppressing the emotive side of evangelical revivalism, they emphasized the existence of hell and the wrath of God, which required Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, his bloody death on the cross to atone for humanity’s sins. Theirs was a properly masculine theology, the story of a vengeful Father-God taking out his rage on his own Son. Strict gender complementarianism was at the heart of this Calvinists resurgence. For leaders of the movement, patriarchal power was at the core of gospel Christianity; in the words of John Piper, God had given Christianity “a masculine feel.”
Leaving aside the obvious heresies in this worldview, it is 100% correct that strict gender hierarchies were at the core of Neo-Calvinism. I recall a brief conversation with a former friend who in a rare moment of self-awareness wondered at the fact that in eternity, there is “no male or female,” which he (of course it was a male) thought would feel weird after a lifetime of gender hierarchy. “Fortunately” for him, he discovered the heretical doctrine of the “eternal subordination of the Son.” So now he can blissfully believe that Penis People will dominate Vagina People for all of eternity, so he never needs to get used to egalitarianism.
Du Mez found a quote from Roger Olson that is interesting. He compared Neo-Calvinism to Bill Gothard’s cult - he is spot on with this. He observed that there was “a certain kind of personality that craves the comfort of absolute certainty as an escape from ambiguity and risk and they find it in religion or politics of a certain kind.” Such people were attracted to an ideology that was “absolutistic, logical (or seemingly so), simple and practical.” The notion of “God’s chain of command” offered precisely this absolutist certainty. Needless to say, white men were at the top of that chain of command, at least in terms of human relationships.
Yep, that is exactly right. I think for my parents, this appeal of the escape from ambiguity and risk was a huge attractant to Dobson, and Gothard, and even MacArthur before that. And yes, the “chain of command” conveniently places white people at the top.
Another depressing passage was on the role that James Dobson has continued to play well into the 21st Century. My generation grew up with him, and while some of us eventually discovered his eugenicism and white supremacy and broke with his ideas, he still remains in some ways a kingmaker. Mess with Dobson at your own risk, if you are a Republican politician.
I also somehow missed just how big Ted Haggard was in evangelicalism. Maybe it is because we literally had three kids under age three when he became the president of the NAE. I also didn’t realize how much he pushed the “capitalism IS Christianity” narrative that has now become gospel truth.
Like Dobson, Haggard’s evangelicalism was explicitly political. He spoke nationally in support of the Iraq war and against abortion, and he embraced free-market capitalism both as an economic model and as essential to the spread of Christianity.
I do, however, remember when he fell from prominence after it came out that he was paying a man to fuck him on the side. Gee, see a pattern yet?
Man, a few names I had forgotten, such as Bobby Welch. His claim to fame was stirring up the worst instincts after 9/11. His book openly called for the murder of civilians, for example.
Offensive tactics had served the cause well in the conservative takeover of the SBC, Welch noted, and he believed the September 11 attacks required a similar mobilization. In this war, too, there would be casualties: “good, sweet, kind people, even children and infants” would be mauled, burned, ravaged by demons. It would be a war filled with “murder, rape, and mayhem,” and it wouldn’t be won “by parlor games in board rooms” or holy hugs or singing “Kum Ba Ya.” Jesus, the Warrior Leader, would lead the assault against “Satan’s terrorists.” Along with Jesus, Welch looked to figures like Robert E. Lee and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest as models of warrior leadership.
Really? What the fuck is wrong with these guys? Does it always come back to the Confederacy and White Supremacy? Actually, yes. YES. IT. DOES. That’s my point. You cannot understand the patriarchy movement without understanding that it is deeply and viciously racist to the core.
A final mention about this chapter is that Du Mez correctly notes that all of the vitriol and hatred from the Cold War easily transferred to Islamophobia - as did the fear.
As in the Cold War era, for all their militant rhetoric and supreme confidence that God was on their side, evangelicals seemed curiously fearful. In twenty-first century evangelicalism, the threat of radical Islam loomed large. Yet upon closer examination, this fear appears suspect. On the part of evangelical leaders, at the very least, fear of Islam appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to drum up support for the militant faith they were hawking.
The same might be said for the GOP, and it is fascinating how quickly fear of Muslims morphed to a fear of non-white immigrants during the Trump Era. Just like fear of communism morphed into Islamophobia after the fall of the USSR.
In the wake of September 11, Islam replaced communism as the enemy of American and all that was good, at least in the world of conservative evangelicalism.
This whole chapter, entitled “Why We Want To Kill You” is harrowing. I lived through this, and it is a deeply unpleasant chapter. Basically, after 9/11, a whole Islamophobia Industrial Complex came into being, and charlatans (yes, that word keeps coming up, because it is accurate) started selling to morally stupid evangelicals a bunch of hateful snake oil.
I know, because my mom gave me one of these books. By that point, I could smell a rat, and did a fairly basic google search, which revealed that this one, like pretty much all of the “Dark Side Of Islam” type books, it was a fraud. The authors of these books not only lacked the terrorist background they claimed, they in many cases grew up in the United States or Canada in secular - and sometimes mixed race - households. They decided to cash in by stirring up hate and fear against Muslims with their ethnic background. And seriously, a basic internet search revealed that these guys (again, all men) were mountebanks, frauds, hucksters, charlatans. This is not to say that radical Islam is good or anything. But, as Salman Rushdie put it, fundamentalism isn’t about religion, but about power. The problem wasn’t Islam per se (3 million Muslims live peacefully in the United States - and have higher levels of education and lower levels of crime than American white Evangelicals) but about fundamentalist expressions of religion. Like Christian Patriarchy, aka the Christian Taliban.
[Side note: a big reason why I stopped trusting anything my mother gave me that looked at all like propaganda is a LONG history of gullibility to charlatans of all kinds, dating back to my childhood. Our family went through fad after fad in diets and alternative “medicine” over the years. Once I got to high school, I realized that very little of it would fool a reasonably educated 9th grader - the errors were so obvious. Once we got internet, it was far easier to fact check with reliable sources, and it was easier to see that pretty much everything the right-wing counterculture sells is snake oil. And that includes most of the political and religious ideology that my parents ate up. Reality skews to the left.]
I figure at this point, I should also make a belated apology to John McCain. I’m still not much of a fan, although I am grateful that he saved the Affordable Care Act, and indeed, Medicaid. (I really wish people knew how close we came to cutting off the bottom 50% of our society from meaningful access to healthcare in 2017. My sincere hope is that in the afterlife, every GOP voter will have to experience the pain of seeing children die because of the policies they voted for. Damn, I hope that happens.)
But back to McCain. He was hated in our subculture for the wrong reasons. In part because he dissed Jerry Falwell Sr. Which, well, Falwell Sr. was an open segregationist and nasty racist. So yes, he should have been called out as an apostate and an evil man. McCain was right. My quibble these days is that McCain supported far too many social Darwinist GOP policies, but he was right about Falwell.
Senator John McCain was a Republican war hero who attended a Southern Baptist megachurch, but he had never embraced culture-wars evangelicalism. In 2000, when running against George W. Bush in the Republican primary, he had denounced those who practiced “the politics of division and slander” in the name of religion, party, or nation, and he urged voters to resist “agents of intolerance,” by which he meant men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
It is amazing how calling out the sin of slander gets you “farewelled” from evangelicalism really fast. Slander is apparently fine when referring to “those people,” whether on the other political side, or more commonly, immigrants and refugees who lack white skin.
Oh, and Du Mez does lay it on the line about President Obama.
An African American with the middle name of Hussein, Barack Obama challenged the values - spoken and unspoken - that many white evangelicals held dear. As an adult convert to Christianity, he could speak with eloquence and theological sophistication about his faith, but for many evangelicals this mattered little. For some, racial prejudice shaped their political leanings. But even for those who did not hold explicit racist convictions, their faith remained intertwined with their whiteness.
I remember being shocked at the vitriol so many white people in our former church held toward Obama - a vitriol that never fully applied to Bill Clinton. And this despite the fact that Obama seems to have been a model husband in addition to being a devout and thoughtful Christian. The idea of actually listening to a black man about faith and theology was literally offensive.
It is particularly frustrating that I was unable to engage in meaningful conversation about Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his sermon. Every white evangelical I knew bought into the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh take about that sermon, without any interest in understanding the words in context. I mean, “God damn America” is inflammatory by itself. But “God damn American as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme” is prophetic, particularly as applied to a nation “blinded by a culture of war.” In context, this was a calling out of America for addiction to violence, colonization, occupation, and regime change for financial gain. As a whole, that sermon would have fit right in the book of Jeremiah. Literally. But white evangelicals didn’t want to engage with it, because their real god wasn’t Jesus Christ, but American White Nationalism. Jeremiah Wright, like his namesake, insulted their idol, and they were fucking pissed. And worse, an “ungrateful n----r” had the audacity to call them out on their evil behavior and attack the idea that white Americans - white males - were the epitome of goodness and light and godliness.
Another puzzling thing from that era was how evangelicals could embrace Sarah Palin - another female politician who did much the same thing as Hillary. (Well, except, as we later saw, she quit her job when she got tired of it…) Du Mez I think hits on a key reason. I mean, obviously, “Republicans Good, Democrats Bad.” But there was more to it. Hillary wasn’t “fuckable,” in their view.
But Palin didn’t only, or even primarily, project a maternal image. A former beauty queen, she embodied an ideal of feminine beauty that had been elevated to a new level of spiritual - and political - significance…In this way, Palin embodied the conservative ideal that “their” women knew how to please men.
Turn on Fox News, and you can see this projection of a certain - very white - ideal of feminine beauty. It is okay to be a career woman, as long as you give off that “fuckable” vibe.
During this same era, there was a noticeable shift in evangelicalism toward hostility to brown-skinned immigrants. I never was a fan of Wayne Grudem or any of the CBMW bros, so I missed his giant tome on his political views. Like all these guys, he claimed that he was asserting the “biblical” viewpoint on a plethora of political issues. Du Mez notes that this book was not only hostile to undocumented immigrants, but claimed that we already had “too many” legal immigrants here in the United States. Whaaat? How is that a biblical position? Has he even read the book? But no, he recommended immediate closure of the border with Mexico. And also preemptive war against Islamic countries.
About this time, the jihad against transgender people heated up as well. And, like everything on the Right Wing, this too was projection, as Du Mez notes.
Dobson’s fury at the threat of transgender restrooms reflected longstanding assumptions about unrestrained male sexuality, female vulnerability, and predatory behavior.
As I wrote a few years ago about this, these guys are committing the sin of slander against transgender people. There have been a mere handful of instances in the last few decades of transgender people perving - an incredibly low rate considering how many trans people exist. Meanwhile, the number of Republican politicians caught raping, molesting, and perving is a LOT higher. It is helpful to remember (I wish Du Mez had said this) that there was a strikingly similar panic about black people in restrooms - the exact same rhetoric was used to justify excluding people of color from restrooms reserved for white people.
As we got into the Trump era in the book, I had a lot more personal knowledge. It was amusing to see Russell Moore get blindsided by support for Trump. While I think Moore is admirable for his stand against racism (and he paid the price for it), he continues to have a blind spot that his commitment to patriarchy is one of the reasons Trump appealed to evangelicals. Contrary to Moore’s claim, Trump is the perfect embodiment of what patriarchy actually is.
And contrary to Moore’s belief about his tribe, racism IS a core value, and the main reason they voted for Trump. Du Mez nailed it in this passage.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election, many pundits pointed to economic motivations behind support for Trump more generally, and some applied this reasoning to his white evangelical base as well. But surveys before and after the election disproved this theory. Fears about cultural displacement far outweighed economic factors when it came to support for Trump. In fact, among white working-class Americans, economic hardship predicted support for Hillary Clinton rather than for Trump. Among white evangelicals, economic anxiety also didn’t register as a primary reason for supporting Trump. Although evangelicals may have celebrated rural and working-class values, many were securely middle-class and made their home in suburbia. More than economic anxieties, it was a threatened loss of status - particularly racial status - that influenced the vote of white evangelicals, and whites more generally. Support for Trump was strongest among those who perceived their status to be most imperiled, those who felt whites were more discriminated against than blacks, Christians than Muslims, and men than women. In short, support for Trump was strongest among white Christian men. The election was not decided by those “left behind” economically, political scientists discovered; it was decided by dominant groups anxious about their future status.
Yep. That’s it in a nutshell. White evangelicals are used to being able to do whatever they wanted, including abusing vulnerable groups, without ever be called on it. The world started changing, and they feared the loss of status (and ability to abuse with impunity.)
In 2016, nearly three-quarters of white evangelicals believed America had changed for the worse since the 1950s, a more pessimistic view than any other group. They were looking for a many who could put things right, a man who could restore America to a mythical Christian past…
Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity. He was the reincarnation of John Wayne, sitting tall in the saddle, a man who wasn’t afraid to resort to violence to bring order, who protected those deemed worthy of protection, who wouldn’t let political correctness get in the way of saying what had to be said or doing what needed to be done. Unencumbered by traditional Christian virtue…he was the latest and greatest high priest of the evangelical cult of masculinity.
As I have been saying, Trump is now their Messiah, their Great White Hope. And all that silliness about morality never actually mattered.
Those lamenting evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of “family values” fail to recognize that evangelical family values have always entailed assumptions about sex and power. The evangelical cult of masculinity links patriarchal power to masculine aggression and sexual desire; its counterpoint is a submissive femininity. A man’s sexual drive, like his testosterone, is God-given. He is the initiator, the piercer. His essential leadership capacity outside the home is bolstered by his leadership in the home, and in the bedroom. The responsibility of married women in this arrangement is clear, but implications for women extend beyond the marriage relationship. Women outside the bonds of marriage must avoid tempting men through immodesty, or simply being available to them, or perceived as such. Within this framework, men assign themselves the role of protector, but the protection of women and girls is contingent on their presumed purity and proper submission to masculine authority. This puts female victims in impossible situations. Caught up in authoritarian settings where a premium is placed on obeying men, women and children find themselves in situations ripe for abuse of power. Yet victims are often held culpable for acts perpetrated against them; in many cases, female victims, even young girls, are accused of “seducing” their abusers or inviting abuse by failing to exhibit proper femininity. While men (and women) invested in defending patriarchal authority frequently come to the defense of perpetrators, victims are often pressured to forgive abusers and avoid involving law enforcement. Immersed in these teachings about sex and power, evangelicals are often unable or unwilling to name abuse, to believe women, to hold perpetrators accountable, and to protect and empower survivors.
From both personal and professional experience, I can confirm that this is all too often the case. There are exceptions. I think our former church went out of its way to do things right in this case, in part because my former pastor was a probation officer. My father-in-law advised clients to go to law enforcement in these cases - I really learned a lot from him as a law student about how Christians should handle abuse.
And then, there is Doug Wilson, one of the most disgusting and evil men within evangelicalism. Just to give one egregious example:
Wilson suggested that women who rejected submissive femininity were “unprotected”; women who refused masculine protection were “really women who tacitly agree on the propriety of rape.”
Yeah, he said that. So my wife, because she is in a leadership position at her workplace, has agreed to be raped. Fuck you, Doug Wilson. I hope that for you, at least, hell is real.
The book has a LOT more stories about how evangelicals cover up abuse, at least when it is done by powerful men. I won’t get into all of them, but you can find a few mentioned elsewhere on my blog.
I was tempted to reproduce the entire conclusion chapter, but obviously I couldn’t. I’ll hit some highlights. Finally, Du Mez starts hitting back at the racism and xenophobia that has come to define white evangelicalism, noting that they, more than any other group, believe we have zero duty to take in refugees or immigrants. Du Mez correctly notes that for all their claims about biblical authority, few actually get their views on immigration from the bible - or even claim to. (But they sure can repeat the talking points from Trump or Tucker Carlson.) Du Mez says what I realized about five years ago: American white evangelicalism isn’t really Christian at all. It has little to nothing to do with doctrines, and is actually mostly opposed to the teachings and example of Christ. It is a political and cultural tribalist movement based on enforcing hierarchies with white males at the top.
Finally, in this last chapter, Du Mez comes out with a core truth about “christian” masculinity: it’s about whiteness.
With few exceptions, black men, Middle Eastern men, and Hispanic men are not called to a wild, militant masculinity. Their aggression, by contrast, is seen as dangerous, a threat to the stability of home and nation.
I’ll end with a few perceptive observations from the last chapter.
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.
It’s no surprise, then, that the majority of evangelicals would agree that “building walls is not non-Christian,” that there is “nothing anti-gospel about protecting our nation from those who would do our nation harm,” and that those perceived as threats are members of nonwhite populations.
Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology. Evangelical views on any given issue are facets of this larger cultural identity, and no number of Bible verses will dislodge the greater truths at the heart of it.
In the end, I think this nails the key point. This is a political and cultural movement, based around the fundamental belief in white patriarchy. The core values are not so much religious in the sense of how we relate to God, but cultural - how we related to each other. And the fundamental value is that of the supremacy and domination of male over female, white over everyone else, and Americans over the rest of the world. It is a belief that women, minorities, and non-Americans should “know their place,” and not seek to step outside of the prescribed lines. And when they do, they can and should be met by violence by white males.
For that reason, there is no one person who more perfectly embodies the real core values of white evangelicals than Donald Trump.
Many of us were blindsided by our faith tradition, and by our families, because we failed to understand that the values we were explicitly taught were not the true core values - those were implied, and we were expected to adopt them without question. When we have failed or refused to do so, we paid the price. Jesus and John Wayne helps explain the core values, and how they arose. For those of us still reeling from Trump and severed relationships, this book also is confirmation that we are not crazy, that we are not imagining things, that our trauma and heartbreak is real.
A part of me is tempted to send this book to a number of people. But I know that they are not open to a challenge to their deeply held and deeply tribal beliefs. After all, they were willing to sever relationships with us already, lose longtime committed church members, so why would a book make a difference? I don’t have answers here, unfortunately. I suspect a whole generation of white evangelicals will mostly go to their graves seething with anger and hate and fear about their loss of status, and never opening up to the true gospel of Jesus Christ, that upside-down kingdom where there is no white or black, male or female, rich or poor, American or “foreigner.”
For those who are open to positive change, and to learning the truth about the core values of evangelicalism, I highly recommend this book. Go ahead and buy it if you can, because Du Mez deserves her reward for all her hard work researching and writing this book. I think it will open some eyes - for those who are willing to see at least - and will give comfort to those of us who have left that we did so for compelling reasons, including for the protection of ourselves and those we hold dear.
This book also confirms my deeply held belief that, to the extent that Christianity survives the next century, it will be because of the female prophets that are calling it to account, calling out the rank apostasy which is poisoning not only the church, but our nation and planet. Du Mez is one of those, and I believe this book will be seen in the future as one of the seminal works on religion of its time. For those of us who have open minds and hearts, it is an inspiration to look beyond the tribalistic and hierarchal beliefs we were raised in, and seek a more genuine faith.