As a recent college graduate in 1983, I sat spellbound with thousands in my southern city civic center, mesmerized by a mousy man projected on a big screen who taught us we must submit to authority in every domain of life. Authority is God-given, Bill Gothard taught, and in his moral universe, any diversion from obedience disturbed the force and ignited interpersonal conflict, along with personal anger and resentment. Gothard’s principles for life’s dilemmas included specific practices based on the Bible. Obedience begets blessings, peace of mind, and confidence in one’s relationship with God.
Specifically, Gothard directed us to seek out those we’d offended and ask forgiveness. Past conflict clogged up one’s conscience. To be released from former transgressions freed us for future treasure, or something like that.
My mind immediately went to a high-school girlfriend I’d heartlessly dumped as I made my way to college four years prior. Gothard offered a script of contrition, so I looked up her phone number, dialed, and read my repentance. Needless to say, she was nonplussed and wondered why in the world I was calling. I told her about the seminar, about obedience and the blessings that awaited us both if she’d obey and forgive me. Moreover, God structured things such that she actually had to forgive me since she was a woman and I was a man. It was how authority in the universe supposedly worked.
Fast forward 20 years to a congregation I served as a minister in Boston. We hosted a special event featuring the popular Reformed evangelical pastor John Piper, who like Gothard stressed the importance of obedience in a hierarchical chain of command starting with God and descending to men over women and children. The Lord established male headship over women as part of creation’s order, Piper taught, for his glory and our joy. The place was packed, mostly with young, male, goateed enthusiasts, wide-eyed in wonder over how good they had it as men in God’s economy.
In her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez situates Gothard and Piper in a long line of white, alpha-male leaders whose devotion to a militant Christian patriarchy and nationalism inevitably led to exuberant support, among large numbers of white evangelicals, for Donald Trump as president—despite his clear deviation from anything evangelical in a spiritual or behavioral sense. As it turned out, Du Mez argues, obedience wasn’t as much about goodness and grace as it was about power and who wielded it.
A ‘Masculinity Problem’
Early in the 20th century, Du Mez writes, “Christians recognized that they had a masculinity problem.” If America was to be truly great and fully Christian, it had to man up. Effeminate features of Victorian piety would no longer do for a nation aspiring to righteous superpower.
The popular idea of America as God’s chosen nation traces back to Puritan leader John Winthrop’s 1630 “city on a hill” sermon, which went mainly unnoticed (except by historians) until Ronald Reagan rolled it out amid the latter days of the Cold War. Invoked by successor presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, the notion of American exceptionalism became core to the national identity. In the eyes of many Christians, America’s chosenness was linked with its morality, specifically in the areas of sexual ethics, family values, character education, freedom of (Christian) worship, and a potent foreign policy. And safeguarding that morality required various forms of government action.
With the evangelical embrace of morals legislation came a commitment to order and hierarchical authority, starting at the top with God and manifested in strong male leadership in government, business, the military, churches, and families. Masculine power was essential to America fulfilling its calling. Without it, America would allegedly go the way of wusses, weakening as a nation into a soft and too-delicate democracy.
Du Mez saddles up with Teddy Roosevelt as a Rough Rider and giddyups all the way to the present, lassoing the likes of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, Duck Dynasty and Mark Driscoll, along with plenty of other Christian cowboys (and a few cowgirls too). She shows how militant white Christian patriarchy paved the way for a fractured nation and a ruined religion whose doctrine of grace and commandment to love diminish in the face of political expedience. She stresses how, as a political culture as much as anything, white evangelicalism captivated believers enough to redraw the boundaries of faith around political allegiance rather than creedal assent. (One example of this dynamic at work: As I entered my new role as editor in chief of Christianity Today, I was asked more about my position on particular policy issues than about any thoughts on theology.)
As Du Mez explains, “For conservative white evangelicals steeped in this ideology, it can be difficult to extricate their faith, and their identity, from this larger cultural movement.” So true. This is especially the case as political loyalties hijack faith commitments to the point that whom you vote for determines what kind of Christian you are rather than the other way around. Du Mez cites Doug Phillips, a Teddy Roosevelt aficionado and leader of the Christian homeschool movement, as representative of the patriarchal-political ideology:
[Phillips] called on men to assume patriarchal leadership “more noble than the valiant deeds of shining knights of yore,” and, quoting Charles Spurgeon, he instructed wives to set aside their own pleasure, to sink their individuality into their husbands, to make the domestic circle their kingdom and husbands their “little world,” their “Paradise,” their “choicest treasure.” Phillips believed that patriarchy and patriotism were inextricably connected, and both were God-given duties. Patriarchy was key to the success of nations, and to be “anti-patriotic” was to be a spiritual ingrate.
Mix white patriarchy and patriotism together with prejudice, and you have all the ingredients for white supremacy, the fuel behind America’s longstanding racial animus and recent political hostility, which many worry could break American democracy itself. In voting for Donald Trump, Du Mez writes, “Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity.”
A Better Hierarchy
On one level, Du Mez’s thesis is compelling and extensively researched. She shows how white evangelicalism worked as both a basis and cover for white-privileged power plays and culture wars, all in an attempt to preserve a hierarchy that served white male agendas, excused misbehavior, and exonerated abuse. Not that all of us white males imbibed the testosterone. Plenty of us, including what Du Mez calls the “northern establishment evangelicals—the Wheaton and Christianity Today types,” were baffled by the overwrought Call of Duty discipleship. Still, our devotion to specific social policies, our worries over the loss of moral high ground and cultural hegemony, our fears over the dissolution of Christian institutional influence, and our own leadership led us to render unto Caesar the things that belonged to God in a desperate last gasp for legitimacy.
At the same time, Du Mez seems guilty of a bit of confirmation bias. If you’re hunting for white privilege and fragility, it’s not hard to find. Having announced her thesis about militant Christian-nationalist, male-patriarchal supremacy, she mines American history for classic deplorables, most all of whom went on to be exposed for the scandalous sins their pride and prejudice invariably caused. On the other hand are plenty of white evangelical men canceled out for political acts never committed but only assumed and whose patriotism gets distorted as nationalism simply because they’re white, Christian, and male. As a political force they barely register compared to Amazon, Facebook, and Hollywood.
But as the religion scholar Arthur Farnsley notes, white American evangelicals make up about a quarter of the American population. And “when this election is over,” he writes, “they will still be here. And they will still be deeply intertwined in American life. These folks are our fellow-citizens, part of our country’s lifeblood. We need to be building bridges toward evangelicals of goodwill, not burning them.”
As an older white southern male, weaned on evangelical Bible studies and teaching, it’s possible I’m part of the problem and that I have little ground from which to critique Du Mez’s argument. Hierarchy has its upsides, as I’ve enjoyed genuine privilege. And as one popular adage has it, when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
The high-school girlfriend I dumped declined to forgive me. I’d hurt her, she said, and grace wouldn’t come cheaply. That my conscience bothered me four years hence was a good thing, she thought. Better to let me stew in those juices for a while and learn a lesson. I confess that I did.
Obedience doesn’t work like a math equation. And the joy it brings comes at a high price. Jesus himself did not consider his own equality with God as something to exploit but humbled himself unto his own obedient death on a cross for our sake (Phil. 2:1–11). This is the attitude to which we should aspire, a hierarchy that locates our own interests at the bottom of the pile. It may not seem very manly, but if Jesus is the ideal, so much for John Wayne.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief of Christianity Today.