- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Outside observers and critics confronted white evangelical support for Donald Trump — not exactly a Christian-family-values figure — as a puzzle to be solved. But while many saw hypocrisy, historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez identified a number of continuities. In her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Du Mez argues that evangelicalism has evolved into a right-wing movement, and Trump was exactly the man many had been waiting for.
Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University and a Calvinist who grew up in the Christian reformed church. Her book has become a best seller and a sensational topic of debate within evangelical America.
On a recent episode of The Dig, Dan Denvir sat down with Du Mez to discuss her book, the history of American evangelicalism, and how that history got us to where we are today.
There are a lot of debates over Trump voters’ demographics and their motivations, but there’s maybe no better representative of the red-hot core of Trump’s base than white evangelicals.
There was a lot of effort to understand what was perceived to be evangelical hypocrisy. “How could family values voters support such an icon of brazen sexual immorality?” One common answer was that it was about instrumentality — that they reconciled to the candidate who could pick Supreme Court justices. But you write that Trump did not contradict evangelical values but was rather their fullest embodiment. Why?
On the surface, it absolutely seems like hypocrisy. But historically speaking, what evangelicals mean by “family values” always comes down to white patriarchal power.
If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, during the emergence of the religious right, you see that the issues they originally mobilized around were the authority of white parents to make choices about their children in light of racial desegregation efforts, and the assertion of traditional masculinity against both feminism and antiwar sentiment in the Vietnam era. What links these things together is the assertion of white patriarchal authority. To the extent that Trump symbolized the same kind of ethos, we really aren’t talking about hypocrisy or a betrayal of evangelical values.
You write that evangelicals, more than any other religious group, support preemptive war, torture, and the death penalty. They’re the most likely to own guns, to support gun rights, to be anti-immigrant and anti-refugee.
A key part of your argument is that the culture wars were never just about what we thought they were about — about sexuality and reproduction in this narrow sense. What are the culture wars really, and what do we miss when we see them as just simply about a tradition or biblically informed objection to gay rights and abortion in particular?
There is so much more to being an evangelical than holding particular doctrinal views on sexuality or reproduction. Although these are very important, they primarily function as a kind of bridge between religious faith and nonreligious cultural ideals and political values, binding them together.
If you observe evangelicals and see what motivates and shapes them, the religious and the cultural and the political are always deeply intertwined. They are bound together through the media they consume, through the words they hear from the pulpit. We have to think of evangelicalism as a religious, cultural, and political identity. It’s all mixed together and impossible to separate out.
In terms of theology, you argue that the finer points don’t matter that much, at least not anymore, and that most white evangelicals are quite theologically illiterate.
Yes. The way that evangelicalism has traditionally been defined by scholars of evangelicalism and by evangelicals themselves, at least elite evangelicals, is through these four distinctives, which have come to be known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral. This four-point definition was coined by historian David Bebbington a couple decades ago. If you go to the website of the National Association of Evangelicals, you’ll find those four points.
As I was researching, I came to realize that definition didn’t get me very far at all to describe the movement. For example, on the issue of race, if you take that theological definition of evangelicalism then you can actually categorize the majority of black Protestants in America as evangelicals. But the vast majority of black Protestants who can check all of those theological boxes do not identify as evangelical. That’s because to black Protestants, it is very clear that there is so much more to being an evangelical than these theological distinctives.
And then for white evangelicals, you see that theological distinctions matter less over time. They used to matter a great deal. Questions like: What happens with the return of Christ? When does it happen? Disagreements over the existence of spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, infant baptism versus adult baptism.
These issues have traditionally been really important in distinguishing one denomination from another. What I saw in my research is that in the last fifty to seventy-five years, those theological distinctions have receded into the background for most evangelicals. What emerged instead were these cultural and political flash points.
Instead of theological criteria, what comes to define evangelicalism is instead your stance on issues of gender and sexuality, the embrace of patriarchal authority, belief in female submission. That’s how you determine who is in and out of the fold. So we’ve arrived at the point where progressive evangelicals who can check off all those ideological boxes but have a different opinion on LGBTQ issues, for example, fall outside the evangelical fold and are ostracized. This realignment and redefinition of boundaries takes place in the last half century or so.
You write that “militant, white masculinity serves as the thread, building all of these issues into a coherent whole. A father’s rule in the home is inextricably linked to heroic leadership on the national stage, and the fate of the nation hinges on both.” How is it gender that serves as the hinge connecting what we think of as evangelical family values to evangelicals’ broader right-wing Christian nationalist worldview?
When we think of evangelical politics, often people go immediately to the family-values politics, domestic issues, and issues of sex and gender. There’s good reason for that. Evangelicals talk about that an awful lot. What is often forgotten is just how distinctive evangelical views on foreign policy are as well. I wanted to explore the connection.
The first time I became curious about the topic of evangelical masculinity was actually more than fifteen years ago, when I read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, which sketches a very militant and militaristic conception of Christian manhood. God is a warrior-god and men are made in his image. Every man has a battle to fight. I was startled by this. I’m a Christian myself, and that’s not really my conception of Christian manhood or Christianity. This was also back in 2005 or 2006, the early years of the Iraq War.
The book went on to sell more than four million copies. Every evangelical man, boy, and many women were reading that book. At that time I was also seeing all this survey data that white evangelicals were much more likely than other Americans to support the Iraq War, to support preemptive war in general, to condone the use of torture, to embrace aggressive foreign policy. It was just a basic question to me as a historian of gender: What might one of these things have to do with the other?
This conception of warrior masculinity is almost everywhere in conservative evangelical spaces. It is used to defend masculine leadership in the home, which is seen as the building block and fundamental organizing principle of society. Patriarchal authority — a husband’s authority over his wife and children — is directly linked to God’s will for society. You need strong leaders in the home, strong leaders in the church — also men — and strong leaders in the nation as well. You need to ensure that these men are not emasculated, that their authority is not challenged, whether it’s in the home, in the church, or in the nation.
The conventional history is that fundamentalists retreated from politics and from public life after the John Scopes “Monkey Trial” over evolution in 1925, but they then bided their time and then just exploded on the scene suddenly with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the ’70s. But you write, “It was in the 1940s and 1950s that a prudent mix of patriarchal gender traditionalism, militarism, and Christian nationalism coalesced to form the basis of a revitalized evangelical identity.”
What’s revealed that’s otherwise obscured when we put the early evangelical movement where you argue it really belongs — at the center of Cold War American life?
The original narrative is that evangelicals retreated to lick their wounds after humiliating defeats, including the Scopes Trial and a failure to regain or take control of major Protestant denominations, and that they essentially disappear until they reemerge in the 1970s. That’s what it looks like to liberals and secularists.
But historians of evangelicalism have long argued that is not the case. Where did these people go? They started their own institutions, their own denominations, their own bible colleges, their own newsletters, their own publishing houses, and they were doing quite well.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, you see a lot of these smaller institutions being established. And then, in the early 1940s, they get together and say, “You know what, we’re doing a lot of really good work across the country, but imagine what we could do if we came together.” In 1942, they form the National Association of Evangelicals. It’s their explicit plan to exercise strength in numbers and to assert their influence over American culture and society.
They say, “We need magazines with subscribers in the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands. We need to take to the radio. We need to embrace Christian publishing. We need bookstores in every town and city across this country.” What’s really remarkable is that within fifteen years, they’ve accomplished all this and then some.
They believed that they were the most faithful Christians, the “faithful remnant,” the ones that held God’s truth, and so it was their duty to make sure that they exerted their influence widely over American society. This was during World War II, and we see patriotism also infusing this sense of evangelical purpose. They were the true Christians and the true Americans.
This sense of special purpose is only sharpened after the Second World War, with the arrival of the Cold War. Suddenly there was this great threat to both the nation and to Christians in the form of communism. Communism was anti-God, anti-family, and anti-American — all of the things they held most dear. They understood that their role was to defend American Christianity, and that required a military defense, because the threat of communism was a military threat.
The thing is, these values that conservative evangelicals held dear in the late ’40s were not all that different from the values held by many Americans, particularly white middle-class Americans.
That’s why they don’t, in retrospect, stand out so much, and people can think they weren’t there at all.
Exactly. This was the postwar baby boom, so traditional family values were all the rage and supported by government spending through the GI bill, for white middle-class Americans in particular. Given the Cold War consensus, they weren’t that distinctive. But what that meant is that they very much felt at the center of things, which they continued to be throughout the ’50s with the rise of their key popular figure Billy Graham.
The Cold War allowed evangelicals to map the holy war between the forces of Christ and the Devil onto America’s terrestrial geopolitical conflict with communism. How did it also play this key role in taking evangelicalism in a more thoroughly patriarchal direction as well?
The US government was really trying to emphasize the threat of communism and mobilize opposition to it. But a lot of Americans, especially coming out of World War II, didn’t really care that much at first. So there was a conscious effort on the part of the government to ratchet up a sense of urgency and crisis, and evangelicals helped in that effort. They added their own spin, which was that the fight against communism was synonymous with the fight against the Devil.
As that fight moves to the battlefields of Vietnam, things don’t go as planned. People start to ask, “What’s wrong with American manhood that we can’t defeat this enemy?” And there’s also the opposite reaction, which is you start to see a rise in antiwar activism.
The other thing that’s going on at the same time, in the 1960s and early 1970s, is dramatic social change in terms of feminism challenging “traditional” gender roles. As a historian, you always have to use scare quotes around the word traditional. In this case, we’re really talking about this breadwinner economy that only applied to certain white middle-class Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Both feminism and what’s happening in Vietnam are raising some fundamental questions about gender: about what it means to be a man, what kind of men we need, what it means to be a woman. They’re also raising questions about authority.
You have student protesters disobeying university authorities. You have the antiwar movement challenging state authority. You not only have hippies who are challenging US military action but men growing their hair out and wearing flowered shirts. All of these things seemed to strike at the God-given, God-ordained social order.
That’s when evangelical values shift from being consensus values to being oppositional values in the broader culture, and also develop a particular emphasis on authority.
This first became clear to me when I looked at the writings of James Dobson. I’m not sure how familiar James Dobson is.
He’s pretty famous.
James Dobson was a household name for generations, and I would argue that if you’re going to understand the history of white evangelicalism in the last half century, he’s your guy. He’s at the center of things. He comes to prominence in the early 1970s as a child psychologist writing about how to discipline your children.
He’s like the anti–Doctor Spock.
Spock was the nurturer. Dobson looked at Spock and said, “This is exactly what’s wrong with American society. By coddling your children, you’re setting them up to become hippies.” In fact, Doctor Spock himself did become an antiwar activist, so there might be something there.
Dobson said the exact opposite of Spock. He said you need to discipline your children; you need to spank your children; you need to assert your dominance so that they learn to submit to parental authority, because the fate of the nation depends on submitting to proper God-ordained authorities. He wrote a book called Dare to Discipline.
What a title.
James Dobson is mainstream white evangelicalism, family values evangelicalism. But he was drawing from and had a lot in common with more fringe figures.
There’s another person I write about in tandem with James Dobson named Bill Gothard. Bill Gothard is this kind of shadowy figure. When I initially set out to write this book, I had no interest in writing about him because he seemed too fringe. He’s an ultra-authoritarian advice giver who also has a lot of views on how to raise and discipline children. Unlike Dobson, who was on the radio and very outward facing, Gothard did his thing through these not quite secretive, but not super open, seminars.
Hundreds of thousands of conservative evangelicals attended these Gothard seminars. In the course of my research, many mainstream evangelicals pulled me aside to ask if I’d be discussing Bill Gothard. Over time I realized just how deep his influence ran and how broad it was, just beneath the surface. You’ve heard of James Dobson, but most of your listeners probably haven’t heard of Bill Gothard.
He was drawing on the teachings of a Christian Reconstructionist theologian named Rousas Rushdoony? What is Christian Reconstructionism and how does its vision compare to the relatively more vanilla model put forward by someone like Dobson? How did that model, which is really far-right reactionary — Rushdoony was an apologist for chattel slavery — spread so far and wide throughout American evangelical Christianity?
Rushdoony was an apologist for chattel slavery, white supremacy, and misogyny. He espoused a harsh chauvinism: women shouldn’t vote, women shouldn’t go into college, women shouldn’t work outside of the home, the husband has absolute authority over every single aspect of his wife’s life. He was very far right, very extreme, very fringe. But this is part of the problem. It’s tempting to write off some of these fringe figures like Rushdoony, or even Gothard, as irrelevant extremists.
But when you start to look at the networks and start to look at the teachings and beliefs of ordinary evangelicals, you realize that it’s really difficult to distinguish the fringe from the mainstream. That actually became a theme of my research. When you look at somebody like Dobson, who is emphasizing patriarchal authority, a hierarchical authority structure, the need to submit to the God-ordained authorities, and the idea that the fate of the nation hangs on our ability to achieve proper submission to authority, and then you look at somebody like Gothard, there is not a lot of distance between the two. One is, yes, harsher and taken to the extreme, but there’s a lot of overlap.
A lot of scholars before me wouldn’t touch somebody like Rushdoony, because really quickly you can get accused of making a mountain out of a molehill. Who’s ever heard of Rushdoony, even in evangelical spaces? It’s very much, like Gothard, kind of under the surface. But if you look at popular writings on family life and child-rearing, if you look at textbooks in the homeschool network and in Christian school networks, what are they saying about chattel slavery? What are they saying about Christian America? What are they saying about gender roles? That’s where you can see the fingerprints of this Christian Reconstructionism, this very hierarchical and patriarchal structure to all of society.
Some people will only ever dabble in the mainstream version. Some people will be hardcore homeschool far right. Many people are going to be somewhere in between, and they’re going to be promiscuous consumers. If you shop in a Christian bookstore or go to your church library, or now if you go online, chances are that you’re going to have sources available to you across the spectrum. And if you venture into the more extreme articulations, they’re not going to be super shocking to you, perhaps, because you’ve already been introduced to the slightly less extreme versions of these teachings.
Phyllis Schlafly’s emergence as an evangelical star is a particularly striking illustration of theology’s fading importance as unity on these cultural principles comes into focus. Schlafly, of course, was Catholic. Evangelicals traditionally held some pretty strongly negative views about Catholics and Catholicism in the United States. What did it mean for evangelicals to unite behind a Catholic in the culture war?
Throughout much of American history, evangelicals and Catholics were not good friends. Catholics were seen as the enemy. They were not true Christians. If we look at abortion, conservative evangelicals were not lockstep pro-life, not by any stretch in the 1960s, in part because that was seen as a Catholic issue, and who wants to be like the Catholics?
But Schlafly and the evangelical movement had a lot in common. Schlafly started out as an anti-communist, rising to fame with her book A Choice Not an Echo. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that she started to care about gender and feminism. A friend brought the Equal Rights Amendment to her attention and she initially thought, “I have bigger fish to fry here. I’m focused on anti-communism and foreign policy. Don’t waste my time.” Then she took a closer look and realized, just as evangelicals did, just how gender was linked to foreign policy — the idea that this strength of the American nation needs strong men and rugged men.
The counterpoint to that is that you need submissive, domesticated, very feminine women to play their proper role. And you need both together in the form of the nuclear family to strengthen the nation and act as a bulwark against communism, among other things, by raising boys to be strong men to fight the communists on the field of battle.
Anti-communism and gender conservatism fit so neatly together in Schlafly’s work, and this is inspiring for evangelicals. She articulates their own nascent ideas for them and puts the pieces together in a way that just makes perfect sense. Very soon they start offering their own versions of this.
From the nuclear family to the nuclear arsenal.
Exactly. And ultimately it didn’t matter so much that she was a Catholic, as she was clearly on their side where it mattered — again, not theology but cultural and political values. The traditional theological distinctions and cultural distinctions between Catholics and Protestants start to recede as we start to see these conservative values unite conservative white Catholics with conservative white evangelicals.
Later on, followed by more unity with conservative Jews and conservative Mormons.
Yes. With conservative Mormons, at this point already as well, we can see a parallel story, particularly around the issues of gender. You have conservative Mormon women also advocating these same values and they come together.
The end of the Cold War posed a problem for militarized American evangelicalism. You write, “For decades anti-Communism had been a lynchpin in the evangelical worldview, justifying militarism abroad and a militant pursuit of moral purity at home. The victory of the free world was something to celebrate. But it was also disorienting. Without a common enemy, it would be more difficult to sustain militant expressions of faith.”
Evangelicals, you write, initially found their new enemy in a so-called New World Order, which I didn’t realize was such a thoroughly evangelical idea. What was this new evil, the New World Order, that evangelicals discovered?
In the ’90s, evangelicalism was thrown into disarray. You had Pat Buchanan and the old guard saying, “We need to double down. There’s a war on. It’s not the Cold War, but it’s a war for the soul of America.” But you also had people casting about for something new and saying, “Let’s focus on global poverty. Let’s focus on global persecution of Christians. Let’s engage in anti-trafficking activism. Let’s put the old ways behind us.”
The New World Order emerged as a candidate for the new threat. There’s a longer history here too, in twentieth-century conservative fundamentalism, of different interpretations of the scriptures as prophesying an evil global order. This pops up in theology and also in Christian fiction, the idea of a totalizing force that presents itself as standing for world harmony but is not of God and therefore can only be evil. The idea is, “This is Antichrist so don’t be fooled. We have to stand against them.”
It’s a way to carry over Christian nationalism, with its emphasis on American sovereignty and exceptionalism, into a world without communism. The New World Order stuff is definitely tied to conspiracy theories of the ’90s, but again we can’t just write it off as fringe, because you see elements of it within mainstream evangelicalism too. Evangelicals started to show a lot of antagonism toward things like the UN Human Rights Commission. You would think, “Well isn’t that a good thing? Can’t we all be for human rights?” No, not at all. Some evangelicals felt it was really of the Devil and needed to be fought at every turn.
Another strand that took off in the ’90s and aughts was this vast purity culture. It emphasized both abstinence and the joys to come of marital sex. How did that movement arise and what sort of activities and institutions did it entail?
Again, there’s a longer history of teachings of sexual morality within Christian circles. But the purity culture of the ’90s is distinct. It’s inextricably linked to patriarchy, placing enormous emphasis on female modesty and female purity. The explicit idea was that a girl would be ruined if she lost her virginity before she was married. She would be cheating her future husband out of what was rightfully his, and it would probably ruin their sex life.
Meanwhile, for this whole thing to work out, boys, too, needed to not be having sex before marriage. But there was less shame there. The shame was more around masturbation and porn. In men’s circles, there was a little bit more forgiveness — boys will be boys — in terms of actually having sex before marriage. But boys were promised that they’d have mind-blowing sex as soon as they got married, if they waited.
That’s just scratching the surface in terms of what purity culture was. It was a culture. Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye — he was a homeschool kid and wrote this book when he was twenty-one years old — was a massive bestseller. This really took things to an extreme: you don’t date; you court. And you court with the father’s permission. You might not even hold hands. Maybe you can hold hands, but you don’t kiss until the wedding day. And it wasn’t just Josh Harris; there was a whole market for this kind of media.
Purity culture pretty much dominated evangelical youth culture for more than a generation. If you were an evangelical kid in the ’90s, this is what you talked about in youth group. There was a whole speaking circuit where speakers would go to church youth groups and Christian schools and talk about all the bad things that happened if you had sex.
And then there were the purity balls, which still happen today. The idea is that a dad has to show his daughter what a proper romantic relationship looks like, and that her virginity is her father’s ultimate responsibility. So he will take her to one of these balls and she’ll be all dressed up, and there will be a ceremony where he bestows upon her a purity ring. As she accepts it, she promises to keep it on and remain a virgin until her wedding day, when the father literally hands her over to her husband. She is then under her husband’s authority, and can have sex and please him as God intended.
In reality, many evangelicals who received these teachings or participated in these rituals did not wait for marriage to have sex, and that has caused them decades of guilt, which many still carry. If their marriages didn’t work out, that was why, or so they were led to believe. Meanwhile, many who did wait discovered, to their deep disappointment, that married sex or their marriage itself wasn’t all that great. Overall, this culture has generated a lot of disappointment, guilt, and shame.
You write that the Promise Keepers declined after their ’90s heyday because the appeal of their soft patriarchy was fading. What filled the void were outfits like Mars Hill Church, founded in 1996 in Seattle by Mark Driscoll. It was tattooed, cursing, beer-drinking, hypermasculine, and really quite misogynistic.
Driscoll called on women in the congregation to give their husbands oral sex, warned against men being “pussified,” described women as being created by God to be “homes for men’s penises.” By 2019, Mars Hill had more than seven hundred churches all over the world.
Mars Hill was part of something called the New Calvinist movement. What was the New Calvinist movement, and how did it affect the evangelical movement?
I grew up in Calvinist Christianity. I teach at Calvin University. I still identify as a Calvinist. I came of age in the 1990s, right when we started to see this rise of New Calvinism, and at first I thought, “Yes! Good for us!”
Fun and tattooed.
I very quickly realized that there was no place for me in this New Calvinism. It was part of this swing away from the softer, gentler, kinder evangelicalism of the 1990s. The pendulum was swinging back. There was a backlash against things getting a little too soft. People started to think, “We need to toughen up. We need more rugged men. We need more masculine men in the American church.”
The book I referenced earlier, Wild at Heart, came out in 2001. James Dobson’s Bringing Up Boys also came out in 2001. Doug Wilson, again a fringe character who can tell us something about what was happening in evangelicalism, promoted a theology of fistfighting. All these folks are on the shelves in 2001 — right when terrorists strike the United States.
After 2001, this more militant, crass, misogynistic, and deeply troubling Christian masculinity starts to go mainstream. When you listen to some of Mark Driscoll’s sermons and teachings on sex, he’s absolutely abusive — shutting women down, commanding women to serve their husbands sexually because God told them to perform sex acts even if they weren’t comfortable with it. And Driscoll becomes a celebrity and role model for evangelical pastors and for an entire generation of young evangelical men. He’s platformed by eminently respectable evangelicals who at worst think he’s a little rough around the edges, but fundamentally think he gets complementarianism right.
Complementarianism is this idea that men and women are designed by God to be extremely different and have to come together to make a whole. Men are supposed to lead, preach, and fight. Women are supposed to stay at home, be feminine, and be beautiful. This is not a new idea, but a journal from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a theological think tank, began to spread these teachings far and wide.
Meanwhile, by the 2000s, somebody like Doug Wilson, who is a blatant racist — he would contest that, but you can read his writings on slavery and how good it was — are being platformed and defended by very mainstream evangelical men like John Piper. You see somebody like Mark Driscoll saying extremely problematic things about sex and women, and exhibiting an abusive leadership style, and he is being not just platformed but praised because he’s on the right side of gender and patriarchy.
Evangelical elites are essentially saying: “We can tolerate racism. We can tolerate abuse. But cross the line on gender or sexuality, and you’re dead to us. You are out. Your books will not be sold at Lifeway Christian Books. You’re kicked out of your church. You’re going to lose your pulpit.” And that’s how these boundaries are enforced.
How did evangelicals use 9/11 to both reassert gender norms and once again steer evangelicalism ever more intensely toward Christian nationalism and militarism?
9/11 was so critical. The pendulum was already swinging and they were already rejecting this softer, gentler patriarchy of the 1990s. But after 9/11, with this new militaristic mood, the Promise Keepers suddenly seemed so embarrassing and overly emotional. So the Promise Keepers got on board, toughened up, and rebranded as warriors.
Now we have this rugged Christian manhood on steroids. Things get really colorful in the early 2000s. You have MMA [mixed martial arts] ministries. You have one account of men at a rally literally singing about their balls. But it makes perfect sense, and it fuels a very aggressive foreign policy as well. What I came to see is that many of the men who were most vocally promoting this militant conception of Christian manhood were also virulently Islamophobic and were promoting these horrific stories of the “Muslim threat,” so reminiscent of the Communist threat a couple of generations earlier.
This was the new Cold War. It was like, “Boy, things were confusing there for a decade or so, but we are back on track. We have our enemy and God is on our side.”
Does the evangelical embrace of Trump represent a turn toward the domestic liberal enemy?
It seems to be that way. We’re now at a point again where we don’t have a clear external threat to focus on and unite against. It could pop up quite quickly, as we saw after 9/11. But in the meantime, the enemy is us. Liberals, feminists, secular humanists, and so on have always stood in as one of evangelicalism’s enemies, usually aiding its biggest enemy, but now they’re kind of the primary enemy.
Along comes Donald Trump. He is not evangelical, but he promises to protect evangelicals. And then he’s kind of baptized by James Dobson. Yes, he swears. He says bad words. He doesn’t know how to talk the talk. But he will protect us. So they give him their vote, and he gets in the White House.
Trump’s brilliance, with regard to winning and maintaining evangelical support, was his ability stoke this fear, this existential dread that “they are out to get us.” The “they” were other Americans. Not real Americans. They were immigrants, they were non-white people, they were anybody who wasn’t a Trump voter. Anybody who wasn’t an adoring Trump voter was against us.
What do you make of the fact that so many white evangelicals believe in QAnon?
It’s reminiscent of the ’90s focus on the New World Order. Evangelicals have been primed for QAnon by a decades-long suspicion of mainstream and secular media. There’s also a prophecy tradition within evangelicalism and certain evangelical bible study practices of “the mystery will be clear to you, you can read the biblical texts and you can discern what it means for you and what message it has for your life,” kind of encouraging independent interpretation. Like, “We have our own sources of truth.”
And, in part, there was the communist evil empire supplanted by Muslims and now there was a void filled by a liberal elite pedophile cabal.
What’s interesting is that evangelicals who are loyal to Trump and QAnon are in some cases turning against their own leaders, the elites in their own movement. One of the things that we’ve seen in the last five years is many evangelical pastors coming up against the limits of their own authority. If a pastor decided to speak out against Trump, there is a not insignificant chance that he would be fired and removed from his pulpit. There are voices against Trump, voices against QAnon, voices for masking and other COVID-19 measures within evangelicalism. But they get so much thrown at them that they finally say “enough is enough,” and you’ve got high-profile figures leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. So what happens to those institutions? They’re doubling down and becoming even more reactionary.
The right wing’s central obsession right now is arguably the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (CRT), both of which suggest that the United States is fundamentally bad in some ways.
This was one of the things that, in significant part, fueled this recent ultra-right-wing takeover attempt of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination that was already taken over by right-wing insurgents in 1979 and is already one of the most right-wing religious groups in this country.
Evangelicals are so protective about what America was, but then also the most pessimistic and negative about what it is now and what it has become. What does the evangelical history that you tell teach us about what has brought us to this point where politics is so polarized, in a way that I don’t know has ever happened, around US history?
It’s quite a time to be a US historian. History is a battleground. Just watching this anti-CRT movement emerge in real time has been fascinating the last couple of years. There’s a much longer history here. Right now it’s called CRT or anti-CRT, but conservative evangelicals have long worked to set their own historical narratives about America. This is Christian nationalism — this myth that America was founded as God’s chosen nation, that it was an explicitly Christian nation, that our founding fathers were devout Christians.
Historians, including legitimate evangelical historians, have picked this mythology apart. But they haven’t made much of an impact in terms of popular histories, and history is very popular in evangelical circles. You’ve got somebody like David Barton, who’s writing these pseudohistories for adults. You also have a whole homeschool network and Christian school network. Their textbooks have now for generations been teaching this mythical version of American history in which America was founded as a Christian nation, and everything was wonderful and good including through the nineteenth century, and slaves had it good and were actually really good friends with their masters, and so on. This is all in the textbooks.
Evangelicals’ identities are rooted in their calling, their task, which is to return America to its Christian origins, because only then will God give this nation his blessing. Evangelicalism, remember, has been this way since World War II. They’ve always had this special mission.
Of course, they will never achieve their task, because their version of America was never real to begin with. But it is an incredibly powerful way to rally the troops, mobilize conservatives, and make them feel like they have lost something that is rightfully theirs — that this is our country, we were once at the center of things, and what needs to happen is that we need to be back in charge because then we can Make America Great Again.