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Kristin Kobes Du Mez: What Evangelism Means Today

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Kristin Kobes Du Mez: What Evangelism Means Today

Kristin Kobes Du Mez describes how Evangelism has transformed, and its relationship to masculinity, oppression, and nationalism.

Kristin is a pastor and a professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin University. Her book, Jesus and John Wayne, reveals “how evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.”


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Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

So, what we have now, is an ideology and kind of politics that's blended with a certain masculine ideal of militancy that stands in, that replaces kind of traditional Christian teachings. What you don't hear in these spaces, is any meaningful discussion of the virtues.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. Her book, Jesus and John Wayne reveals how Evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.

Kristin, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Thank you for having me.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'd love to start with an understanding of terms, and I'm going to ask you to define Evangelical Christian, which I know is a trap because even though the association of evangelicals has a definition which you cite, you're the first to acknowledge that that does not match reality. So, who are we talking about when we say evangelicals?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah, so, I don't offer a very precise definition. I don't try to define evangelicals as much as I try to describe them.

And so, you're right, the National Association of Evangelicals will offer a theological description of it's biblicism, taking the Bible seriously, conversionism, the born again experience and crucicentrism, the centrality of the cross of Christ, and then activism.

That's kind of their official definition, and I'd planned to use that, that's what most scholars do.

And then I started looking at history and realizing that we really needed to understand evangelicalism more as a historical and cultural movement and as a series of networks, and in many ways, as a consumer culture.

So, to be an evangelical is to attend an evangelical church, absolutely. To listen to Christian music, Christian radio, absolutely. To shop at Christian bookstores, to read Christian publishing. If you participate in this culture, you are shaped by these values.

And that's really the evangelicalism that I'm studying as a cultural historian.

Ken Harbaugh:

These days, it seems like that historical slash cultural definition is incomplete and it kind of glosses over the biblical or scriptural or faith-based definition. But what it's really missing is the political element. Is that a fair critique?

I mean, politics now, seems to define the evangelical movement more than faith itself.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Exactly. So, if you're just looking at theological doctrines of evangelicalism by the standard definition, what you'll find is the majority of black Protestants also, check those boxes.

But the majority of black Protestants, vast majority, who can check all those boxes theologically, do not identify as evangelical because it's very clear to them that there's a whole lot more to evangelical than just the theology.

And that you can believe all those things, but if you don't hold the same political views, if you likely aren't attending the same churches, you likely aren't reading the same books. So, why would we insist on grouping those together?

And if you look at this historical cultural movement, you can see that politics very much has come to define kind of the boundaries of who is accepted and who is not accepted in these spaces.

Ken Harbaugh:

It seems to me that it's done more than define the boundaries. It has moved the boundaries. It has shifted the Overton window.

We recently had Angela Denker on and she made this observation, which I'd love your reaction to, because I hadn't heard it before, and it kind of shook me. She said that when faith conflicts with politics these days, people leave behind their faith. They identify more with their political tribe than their theological tribe.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

That is very true. And so, but they will tell themselves that they are holding their political views because of their faith, because it is God's truth, because God's word dictates it.

But they're reading the scriptures, they're approaching their theology, they're forming their theology already with this political cultural lens. So, that's absolutely correct.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of the things your book did for me, was challenge this idea that the evangelical vote for Trump was an accommodation, or a compromise, or somehow strategic politically.

You argue that's not really the case. And I'm not going to put words in your mouth, I'll just read this section of the book and would love your thoughts on it.

“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.”

Trump isn't a compromised candidate, he's their prophet.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yes, I do make that claim. And I'd started looking into researching the connections between evangelical conceptions of masculinity, and militarism, and aggression more than 15 years ago. And so, I'd kind of been tracking this.

And I'd also, seen how many of the evangelical men most promoting this kind of aggressive masculine ideal became implicated in scandal, in abuse of power, in sexual abuse.

And over and over again, I saw this pattern emerge and I saw evangelical communities end up defending perpetrators, defending abusers, and ostracizing victims. And the ends justifies the means, and this very culture wars mentality of us versus them, zero sum game. I just saw that over and over again.

So, when we got to the fall of 2016, particularly October, the release of the Access Hollywood video, and the question that everybody was asking is how can evangelicals betray their values to vote for a man like Donald Trump? Right then I knew that was the wrong question.

This was not a betrayal. We needed to understand family values evangelicals, always at the heart of family values politics has been the assertion of white patriarchal power. And as soon as you put that at the center, a lot of these other things fall into place.

Ken Harbaugh:

I know the Access Hollywood tape keeps coming up again and again. And you're right, the question we were asking about evangelical support was the wrong one.

And I think that was really highlighted a couple nights ago at the CNN Town Hall when we saw his mockery once again of an abuse victim. His repeated shaming of someone he abused, cheered by that crowd.

Which just is an exclamation point on this idea that he's not a pragmatic choice. They don't rationalize their support for him, they adore him.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah. I didn't see a lot of the … kind of the theory was that they're holding their noses to vote for Donald Trump. I was watching very closely, and I didn't see a lot of nose holding there.

Instead, I saw a lot of kind of praising this. He was their ultimate fighting champion. He was going to do what needed to be done, precisely because he was unrestrained by traditional Christian virtue. Like humility, and gentleness, and meekness, or we could even talk honesty. That was precisely what they loved about him.

And yes, we see how he confessed to assaulting women and bragged about it.

And repeatedly, and what I knew from researching this history is that evangelicals too, these family values evangelicals who put so much emphasis on sexual purity and the purity of women over and over again when evangelical men with power, when pastors and leaders abuse women, sexually assault women, even young girls over and over again, they end up defending the perpetrators and blaming and shaming the victim.

In fact, while the CNN Town Hall was going on, I was just wrapping up a documentary film shoot with a couple of survivors in evangelicalism. Sex abuse survivors who are just poured out these harrowing stories of what it was like not just to be abused by pastors, but also, then absolutely blamed and shamed by their own churches.

Ken Harbaugh:

You talk about traditional Christian virtue and its conflict with the actual behavior of leaders within the church. But I get the sense that traditional Christian virtue is itself being redefined to maybe mitigate that conflict.

When you look at the imagery of Christ in modern evangelical churches today, the way they talk about him as a vengeful warrior Christ (your words), that's not a traditional depiction of Jesus at all. And I would imagine that reframing is very useful politically.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Exactly, exactly. Evangelicals self-identify first and foremost as Bible believing Christians. That's how they advertise who they are. Core of their identity.

And yet, when I look at the last half century or so of conservative white evangelicalism, it's very interesting to see in which cases they hold onto this very rigid sense of plain reading of the scripture and biblical literalism on things like sexuality, sexual morality of a certain sort, and submission of women.

But there are a whole lot of other Bible passages about giving your money to the poor, about welcoming the stranger, about loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek. And there's all kinds of convoluted reasoning that's done around those passages to say, “Those don't actually apply to us today.”

Now, all Christians do this to a certain extent. All religious folks who have a kind of sacred text are going to be kind interpreting in different ways.

But evangelicals tend to be much less aware of the lenses that they're bringing to scriptures and absolutely convinced that there is no interpretation. They are simply receiving God's word and doing it.

And so, I will say that the title subtitle of my book, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. That corrupted a faith phrase is not a historical claim. There's actually no such thing as corrupting a faith historically. There's a bit of a normative claim there.

And although the book is a work of history, that is me talking directly to conservative evangelicals for just a moment and saying, “You say this about yourselves, take another look. Take another look at the scriptures, take another look at these values, take another look at the figure of Jesus Christ, how you've painted him. And then look at that text again and see how they match up or see how they don't.”

Ken Harbaugh:

I'd love to hear some stories about the reactions to your book. I make a point of reading both the five star and the one star reviews. And the one star reviews, if they weren't so menacing, I don't know, they'd be kind of funny. I you get a sense of who is writing those, don't you?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah, yeah. I will say that some of the critiques at least seems to me kind of prove the point.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I didn't want to say it, but it's like, it's angry white dudes with a bunch of guns, right?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Really angry, yes. I'm a historian. I teach at a Christian university. I wrote this book, as I was writing it, I actually didn't give a whole lot of thought to how it would be received, except I knew that it had to be absolutely vetted, well evidenced. I knew it would be a little controversial, so I just absolutely never went beyond my evidence.

There's 30 some pages of footnotes and notes, and we sent it out to like a dozen other scholars, experts to assess before it even went into publication. And then it had a thorough legal review. So, it's very well vetted, and I knew it would need to be because I knew that it was going to be provocative in certain spaces.

I expected some pushback, and there has been some from exactly who you would expect. What I didn't actually expect, though, I have to say, is how enthusiastically this book would be received in white evangelical spaces. I did not anticipate that. I have heard from so many …

Because I mean, the thing is about evangelicalism and even if you look at white evangelicalism, you have that kind of notorious 81% who voted for Donald Trump. That's a lot. And that's a really important part of his base and a very powerful faction of the Republican Party. Very significant.

Still, that leaves 19% of white evangelicals who did not. And then you've got some evangelicals kind of right on the edge, right in the middle. And it's many of those who read the book and said, “This is absolutely true.”

And so, like within two days of the book's publication, I started getting letters back from readers. And people assume I get a ton of hate mail and I get almost none. But I have gotten hundreds by now, probably a couple of thousands of messages, letters from evangelicals themselves saying, “This is the story of my life, and thank you for helping me to see.”

Ken Harbaugh:

Is there anything they can do to push back within their communities, or are their numbers so small and their opponents so militant, and I'll go back to that word again, menacing.

Which is never a word you should be using to describe a Christian congregation, but you documented, Angela Denker documented it. We've talked to a few people who talk about that feeling of menace. Angela uses the phrase fear-based Christianity.

In that environment, if you read a book like Jesus and John Wayne and it speaks to you, what do you do?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah. I love that you're connecting it to Angela's work because her book, Red State Christians came out almost a year before Jesus and John Wayne, or several months before. And so, she had actually reached out to me and we connected before the release of both of our books, because we saw we were describing some of the same patterns.

And so, yes, what can evangelicals do? What I have seen, and what I document in the book too, in the last chapters, is a number of conservative white evangelicals who have taken courageous stands in their churches, in their communities against this militancy, against this in terms of politics, anti-democratic impulses, standing up for victims of abuse.

Yes, and those stories are inspiring, but they are also, distressing because what happens time and again, is those are the folks who are then pushed out of their organizations, out of their churches.

If it's a pastor, they're no longer pastoring that church. If it's a Christian school teacher, Christian college professor, often they're the ones without a job at the end of the day.

And so, what I see is a lot of resistance and even some change, not a lot, but certainly some on the individual level. But if I look at evangelical institutions, it's a less hopeful situation. That's where you see the powers, donors, constituents, leaders are able to keep people quiet and maintain the status quo.

I mean, I was talking with somebody in a Christian media industry not long ago interviewing them for my next book, and they told me something that just rang absolutely true. And they said, “Kind of the inside memo here that we get is, you don't have to agree with this like right wing Trump politics and all. You just can't publicly disagree.”

And I think that very well describes the dynamic. So, at the individual level, you can dissent, but if you're trying to challenge the system, that's going to be trouble.

Ken Harbaugh:

It almost sounds like you're describing the Republican party itself. And I think that's probably an instructive comparison because what we have seen there is a death spiral.

You have moderates driven out, you have open-minded or just brave people willing to speak up, driven out. And a party that has grown so extreme that it has become a threat to democracy.

Do you see that happening to mainstream evangelical churches?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah, I actually use that comparison. I look at the book How Democracies Die by Ziblatt and Levitsky. And they talk about what happens because you're going to have wannabe authoritarian leaders rise up all the time, you do. Historically speaking, you can see this.

But then they ask the question, what actually makes it possible for one of these wannabe authoritarians to seize power?

And the key thing there is that the political parties do not play their necessary role of gatekeeping. That you've got political party leaders who think, “You know what? We can use this to our advantage. We can harness this to our political advantage.”

And they see there's like a window in which you can suppress this kind of reactionary element. But if you let things get too far, you lose the power to do this. And this is kind of the story of reactionary populism.

And I see you could apply that same metric to white evangelicalism. And one of the things I trace in my book is the complicity of more respectable, moderate evangelicals in this reactionary movement.

That many people, when it came to patriarchy, when it came to racism, when it came to some of these really more extreme reactionary elements inside evangelicalism that I trace, and this militancy, a lot of the moderates would still say, “At the end of the day, this is my brother in Christ.”

So, they're going to like kick out anybody who moves more progressive on LGBTQ or kick out anybody who rejects kind of this patriarchy female submission model. And they're no longer welcome in their gospel coalition.

But anybody to the right, was kind of tolerated or even platformed and seen as one of us against the left, against the secular threat.

And over years, over decades, we see where that has led us, which is now, those folks who thought they controlled evangelicalism, the respectable evangelicals, the elites, they are back on their heels and they are realizing that they actually don't have power over the movement.

Ken Harbaugh:

In America today, we cannot talk about the patriarchal nature of that movement. We cannot talk about the militancy of today's evangelical church without talking about guns. And it's striking to me how that has become a defining feature of evangelicals today.

And I'll get us started by just reading back to you one of your observations about this within the church. “Writers on evangelical masculinity have long celebrated the role guns play in forging Christian manhood. From toy guns and childhood to real firearms, gifted in initiation ceremonies.”

Guilty on both counts, played with them as a kid. Grew up in a very religious family. My graduation present was a nine millimeter.

“Guns are seen to cultivate authentic God-given masculinity. A 2017 survey revealed that 41% of white evangelicals owned guns. A number higher than members of any other faith group.”

What's going on?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah. I think it's possible to separate. Like you can … I bought my son a BB-gun for Christmas. So, I'll just put that out there. He likes to hunt and he plans to go into the military. So, there are ways to … it's not an all or nothing.

But in white evangelicalism, conservative evangelicalism, you do see this, I mean, what some evangelicals themselves will call almost an idolatry here of not just thinking that guns are okay for limited purposes, but really it's connected to their core identity.

And that guns are necessary as a way to fight and as a way to protect your family. I mean, realistically, very, very, very few families, particularly white middle cost families are in kind of dire threat where a firearm is going to bring them protection.

But this is the rhetoric then that justifies this kind of … if you understand that the world is against you, and if you believe that, and if you continue to, leaders like stoke this fear, then you are going to see a threat around every corner.

Like that is by design and it's an excellent way for leaders to consolidate power. If you convince people that they are under siege, that they owe you loyalty, they're going to give you money, and you're going to be able to demand sacrifice from them. This is how that system works.

In the case of firearms then, it really is aggression is linked to this identity of what it is to be protector, even if there is no actual threat that a firearm can protect one from.

And that is the framework that supersedes anything such as do not murder, or of turning the other cheek, of loving your enemies, of offering yourself and sacrificial love.

In Christian history, there is a long tradition of pacifism, a tradition of nonviolence. And what we see happening is like you can't even surface that. And there's no space anymore for actual theology, for theological conversations, for people to come together as people of faith and say, “What does our scripture teach us?” Because the politics trumps everything.

And in this case, one that is arguably really against much of Christian history and core teachings of the Christian scriptures, but it doesn't matter.

Ken Harbaugh:

That idolization of firearms has extended to the people who embody gun culture. I'm thinking of some of these AI generated images that are coming out of Jesus wielding UZI’s and evangelicals seem, not all of them — but the fact that people are making those things and celebrating them is just weird.

And then you look at (and this is me approaching this from a veteran's perspective) the idolization of military people who actually betray every Marshall virtue, but in doing that, have become heroes of the evangelical right.

I'm thinking about folks like Eddie Gallagher, war criminal, murderer. But the evangelical right now, platforms him and he speaks from the pulpit. I bet if Lieutenant Calley had led the My Lai massacre today, he'd be on the speaking circuit in evangelical churches.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yes. And you see that the popularity of somebody like Kyle Rittenhouse too in these spaces.

So, we have now, as in ideology and kind of politics that's blended with a certain masculine ideal, militancy, that stands in, that replaces kind of traditional Christian teachings.

What you don't hear in these spaces is any meaningful discussion of the virtues. I go to a lot of evangelical churches and speak at evangelical colleges, and sometimes I'll have a white evangelical man say, “Okay, well, what should a Christian man do? What should a Christian man be? Could you give us the better Christian masculinity?”

And as a historian of gender, I can always say, okay, first of all, there are always many masculinities. Even the question that there is one way to be a Christian man that all men should fit exactly that mold, it's the wrong question.

That said, like if you really want to push me … I'm a historian, I don’t usually go there. I don't go there in the book, but I don't know, as a Christian, I would say maybe start with the fruit of the spirit. What does it mean to be a Christian? Not just man, but there's not a lot in the Bible actually, that's, “This is just for the men. This is just for the ladies.” Very little actually is.

But what does it mean to follow Christ? That's put very clearly. And in the fruit of the spirit, if you have the spirit of Christ right in you, you're going to see the evidence in kindness, gentleness, meekness, self-control. These are the things that show that you are in Christ.

I'm like, “I don't know, just take those things and apply them to what does it mean to be a man? That works too.” But those are exactly the … you don't hear anything about these virtues. You don't hear anything about traditional Christian teachings on discipleship.

Instead, all of that has just been swept away for this aggression, this militancy, and that is called Christian. And so many people are embracing that uncritically so that there's no space for actual Christian teachings to disrupt that.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, it could be argued that Jesus himself was an early example of a feminist. He gave the women of His early church the purse strings to manage the finances.

And I bet if evangelicals today, confronted the historical Jesus, there would be a real reckoning. He wasn't American, he wasn't blonde, he was the child of migrants. Does that ever come up?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Progressives love to throw those facts in the conversation, but no, it doesn't really disrupt.

And I should note that just this week a sociological study came out that showed just how much our preconceptions shape our religious belief (what you brought up before) and our prior commitments, our politics, our values.

And so, this isn't just conservative white evangelicals who do this. Each of us, if you are a person of faith or a person of the Christian faith or other faith, we tend to be drawn to religious traditions or interpretations in those traditions that make us feel good about ourselves, that confirm our biases or our values. So, everybody does that.

But many people are at least more aware of the fact that they do that. And what evangelicals, where they are different from many other traditions is their cultural dominance, their numbers, the political power that they wield, but also, that they have created this vast kind of subculture.

And if you're an evangelical, and I say the evangelical subculture, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you're not … like I use that phrase in the book except in a draft, it's not in the book because when I put it in a chapter, my editor, who's from completely outside this world, just marked that and said, “I don't know what these words mean, the evangelical subculture.” I was like, “Okay, take it out and let me show, don't tell.”

But the truth is, like it's invisible to people on the outside. What the evangelical subculture is, is books that sell in the tens of millions of copies, Christian radio, focus on the family playing like eight hours a day in people's homes.

So, they have this distribution system and able to really shape the worldview there in their words of tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people in this country, and increasingly globally as well.

And so, that's what's different here. Everybody has like their own values. Everybody has biases. Everybody thinks that there's our right and usually has like a religious or strong ethical reason for a saying so.

But evangelicals are able to control their narrative so powerfully and really mobilize politically around that in a way that is very difficult to disrupt, very difficult even to complicate, to nuance, to have any conversation. If you challenge it, you are clearly not on God's side. You're evil.

Ken Harbaugh:

When you talk about the cultural dominance of evangelical Christians, you probably have to acknowledge that they wouldn't see it that way. They feel like they are under assault from all sides.

And if there's one Christly virtue that they seem to embrace, it's the idea of the blessedness of the persecuted. They love that persecution complex. They retreat to their bunker and every Sunday, talk about how they are being attacked. Am I wrong?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah. So, that's definitely a motif here, a persecution narrative. But they don't necessarily see themselves as blessed. They get really angry about that. Although it does signify that they're God's chosen.

So, anything that they do that makes people mad is kind of, “See, told you, the world will hate us.” And so, that kind of inoculates them against any legitimate critique.

But this persecution narrative, one of the kind of crystallizing moments for me in my research when I was around this issue. And it was actually as I was researching this strange phenomenon years after 9/11, and in the evangelical subculture of these ex-Muslim terrorists who are taking the Christian speaking circuit by storm all over the place.

These former Muslim terrorists who were killing Christians and then got converted not just to Christianity, but to evangelicalism, and now, they're going all around and telling other evangelicals just how dangerous Muslims are.

Turns out all these guys were frauds, total frauds. Made these their backstory up like ridiculously so, exposed.

And I came across these guys first because one of them came to my Christian college. And my colleague, fellow historian who happens to specialize in Ottoman history and knew a thing or two about Islam, within five minutes of attending this guy's talk, he's like, “This makes no sense. These words don't exist. He's making stuff up.”

And so, this guy was sponsored, supported by Focus on the Family. This is how this works. These guys are all over, Focus on the Family, CBN, like all over.

And so, my colleague actually calls and gets through and talks to the president of Focus on the Family. And it turns out they knew he was a fraud and kept putting this out there.

And so, that's when this clicked for me, that the fear is real on the part of ordinary evangelicals, ordinary Christians. There is a lot of fear in those spaces, but it is also, a manufactured fear, manufacturing this threat.

And I saw that in the case of those ex-Muslim terrorists. I saw it in the case of Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church. Very crass, militaristic pastor went down in disgrace, although he is now, pastoring another church.

But he loved this militaristic language. He would be flanked on both sides by security guards when he preached. Always trying to drum up this sense of threat, imminent threat. Why? He could demand sacrifice, loyalty, money from all of his followers.

And that's when it clicked for me, the fears were real, but it is manufactured. And rather than militancy being kind of the logical response of feeling threatened, which was what the narrative was in 2016, evangelicals are just so threatened. They're religious liberties. And so, what choice did they have but to run into the arms of somebody like Donald Trump?

I realize, no, we have to flip that script. More often than not, it's evangelical leaders who are stoking fears, manufacturing fears, so that they can consolidate their own power.

Ken Harbaugh:

What is so ironic and frustrating about the co-option of those anti-Islamic tropes is that post 9/11, the whole narrative coming from the right was that Islam was a violent religion, that it was inherently drawn to that.

And now, you see the Christian Evangelical Church going down that path for real and yet still scapegoating Muslims.

There's this passage from your book, and I trust your research on it. You say that, “White evangelicals believe that Christians in America face more discrimination than Muslims.” If ever there was a symptom of a bunker mentality, that's it.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Exactly. And yet, this is exactly what you will run into in these spaces. They absolutely believe that. And the books that they are writing and the books that they are reading are telling them this over and over again, Christian radio.

And now, they're telling you have to pull your kids out of Christian schools. You have to homeschool your kids because the culture is against you. The world is against you. Nobody respects you, and people are going to denigrate you, and people are going to corrupt your children.

Like this rhetoric is just pervasive in many of these spaces. And it's really hard to push back against because for many people, they're utterly convinced that … and I should say that I'm talking about inside these Christian spaces, Christian media.

But it's also, very much in the secular conservative spaces. And I would say secular with kind of air quotes because there's not a clear division between say, Fox News and right wing Christianity. There's a lot of overlap there. But these messages are being reinforced in those more secular media spaces as well as inside their church spaces.

Ken Harbaugh:

You've talked a lot about Christian media and the separate culture it has created, the books, the radio stations. But there is a massive economic component to that. There's even evangelical cell phone networks. Can you talk about the business of evangelical Christianity?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Oh, so much money. So much money involved. And part of this is because, I mean, people like to make money. Evangelicals are always about evangelism. Spread the word. Spread the word.

And so, there's a kind of myth that evangelicals are anti-modern and historians have been trying to blow that up for generations now, because evangelicals were always like at the cusp of whatever modern technology there was.

Radios knew they are on the airwaves, because you can preach there, you can spread your news, the good news of the gospel. And then Christian publishing and digital media and all of this. So, they are motivated to spread their message and to build their communities.

And the bigger your faith community grows, the bigger your market. And these are largely not nonprofit enterprises. There is a ton of money being made because if you convince people that secular products-

Ken Harbaugh:

But often non-taxed, right?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Okay. Also, that. Yes, very tricky here. But in some of these businesses, like so the publishing arm of the SBC Lifeway Christian books, massive book sales here too. Like if you aren't in those spaces, you're oblivious to just how powerful this is.

Another kind of disconnect with my editor when I was writing this book was he called into question some of my publication numbers. Literally tens of millions of copies of these books sold. And he just like flagged that and said, “This can't be accurate. You need to know publishers always inflate this. Where did you get these numbers?”

And I pointed him to the footnote. I was like, “Well, this was in the New York Times, but my bad, I'll go back and see what I can find.” He's like, “Oh wait, never mind. If it's in the New York Times, it has been vetted. So, this stands. This is accurate.”

But the thing is, none of these books, almost none of them, make the New York Times bestseller list because that's a curated list. And they know that their readers are not going to be going and reading the latest prophecy book, but the money is so big.

And so, what's their motivation? Is it just to fleece people? Is this just grift? There's a lot of grift, there's also, true believers involved. It's all of it. Which is why it is so hard to disrupt.

And so, for more progressive Christians who ask me, what can we do here? Like well, the battleground is popular media, but you're going to be at a huge disadvantage because the thing about progressive Christians is they aren't so scared of the secular.

They think they can learn things from people of other faith traditions. They don't have to hunker down and protect. Which may be a virtue, may not, depends on your interpretation. But what it does mean is there's not going to be a massive market.

So, that means that the Christian products that are out there are largely playing to that right wing market. And as long as you can tap that, you're going to be successful. If you try to move it over here, good luck trying to run a business.

Ken Harbaugh:

Something about that economic model entwined with spreading the gospel has always confused me. Which is that evangelicalism has become a global phenomenon, but it is so tied to nationalism in this country. How do we reconcile that? How does a nationalistic xenophobic movement go global?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

That is a really great question and I can't fully explain it, but I can describe what you're talking about. Because you're right, there's something within Christianity and Evangelicalism that spread the good news that is universalist.

That all people, national borders do not matter. Go out into all the nations and preach the gospel. Those are the instructions. And evangelicals do. They have mission organizations. All of these big evangelical ministries have global arms.

Christian radio is a really big deal, and Christian television in Africa. And Christian publishing dominates white evangelical. American publishing dominates Christian markets like in Brazil.

So, it is global, and yet what is being exported is this nationalistic understanding of Christianity so that you have these kind of allies between right wing Christians in Hungary, even in Putin's Russia, in Brazil with Bolsonaro.

And I'm hearing from people around the world, other countries across the globe, that this is resonating. And it's resonating … I don't know, we could try to explain it in terms of kind of a push against globalism, a seeking kind of community and meaning and purpose.

And then we just have to also, look at this is the Christianity that is being fed to them over and over and over again. And it's often also, linked with prosperity gospel teachings.

So, it's wrapped up with you believe this, you participate in this, and God is going to bless you. God is going to bless you in your place. And so, somehow this still works. You can uphold your national borders, think that America first, a hundred percent.

But then see, find common cause with the people who are saying Hungary first and Russia first, and somehow think this is all going to work out okay. And the kind of truce is based on an embrace of traditionalism, authoritarian leadership, the punishment of LGBTQ folks, enforcement of patriarchy.

These are the things that are holding us in common. And I guess the idea is that everybody's going to stay in their areas and not try to assert power over the other. But it seems pretty shortsighted, but that's what's working right now in those spaces.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Speaking of the spread of evangelicalism, your Spanish language edition recently came out, and I thought the cover was incredible.

I mean, the American edition has that subtle relief of the guns crossed in the middle of the cross. The Spanish language edition is literally Christ nailed to guns. I mean, it's in your face.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

It's breathtaking, yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Did you sign off on that?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

No, no. I mean, I signed off on the rights and then they said, “Oh, here's the cover.” I was like, “Oh.” It did take my breath away when I saw it. It was phenomenal. And so, I had to sit on that for a while. They wanted to release it when the book released. So, it is a stunning cover.

And I will say, I mean, I had to finally tell the Spanish publisher, “I can't do all these interviews anymore.” I was doing one or two a day, and it just seemed indefinite for weeks. And so, now, they said, “Okay.” So, they're just bringing some big ones.

But there's such an interest in Spain. And the Spanish edition also, is available throughout Latin America too.

I was thinking more the Latin American audience, but in Spain, they're seeing the rise of right wing evangelicalism too. So, in Portuguese, so, available in Brazil at the request of Brazilian evangelicals who see absolutely these same patterns taking hold in Brazil.

So, it's actually daunting, chilling even, to see how this book, which is really about conservative white evangelicals in the United States (I'm an American historian), how much it is resonating with people around the world right now, in ways that should be alarming.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Last question, and it's a total non-sequitur, but something you said in a recent interview stuck with me. You're a Calvinist and you said that Calvinists see sin in structures. I have an idea of what that means, but why don't you illuminate it?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Yeah. So, I teach at Calvin University, and it's funny because a lot of kind of the bad guys in Jesus and John Wayne are also, Calvinists and they kind of dominate he public image of Calvinism, which is not a pretty picture.

And so, one of the most controversial things that I do from time to time is come out as a Calvinist on social media just to remind people, this is who I am, and I'm still a practicing Christian, attend a church down the street. And I think that throws people off sometimes.

But my tradition does take sin very seriously, like in all kinds of ways. We talk about sin a lot. We have theology that helps us understand. And sin is seen as yes, personal kind of heart orientation, and that's very much what evangelicals are all about.

But it is also, seen as structural. Like for generations, like humanity has been prone to pride and selfishness and greed. And so, over time, like our society's structures reflect that, and it snowballs. And so, we understand sin as both personal, making bad choices, being selfish and all of that, but also, absolutely structural.

And so, it's been kind of wild to see the absolute backlash against things like systemic racism. And many conservative Christians, including from my own tradition, are just blasting that. These are the political talking points. All of a sudden CRT is a thing, and it's the worst thing.

And for me, being rooted in a theological tradition, I can say, “Wait a minute, this shouldn't be a contradiction for you at all. You should be the first up to say, of course, sin, brokenness, corruption is everywhere.”

And if it is, then we should always be looking at how do we fix that? How do we make it less bad? And our fixes are never going to be perfect, but how can we bring some healing? How can we bring some restoration? How can we do justice? Which is a very, very biblical concept. What are we called to do? To do justice in love, kindness.

So, yes, that's where I come from, and that's kind of my faith tradition in the theology that shapes how I see the world. But then the book is a work of academic history and that's the story I had to tell.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think that is a great note to end on. Kristin, thank you so much for joining us.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez:

Oh, thank you for having me. This was great.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again, to Kristin for joining me. Make sure to check out our book, Jesus and John Wayne. The link is in the show description.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @Team_Harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael Dealoia, and David Moss.

I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


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