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How a book about evangelicals, Trump and militant masculinity became a surprise bestseller

Kristin Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, published a surprise bestseller “Jesus and John Wayne” that came out in paperback last month. (Jack Du Mez)

When historian Kristin Du Mez’s latest book, “Jesus and John Wayne,” came out in the summer of 2020, it received little attention from mainstream gatekeepers and reviewers.

But the book, which explores evangelical fondness for former president Donald Trump and strong masculine figures, has since sold more than 100,000 copies through word of mouth, podcasts and book clubs. When it came out in paperback last month, the book shot up to No. 4 among nonfiction paperbacks on the New York Times bestseller list.

As journalists and academics tried to explain how evangelicals could bring themselves to vote for Trump, Du Mez argued that evangelical support was not a shocking aberration from their views but a culmination of evangelicals’ long-standing embrace of militant masculinity, presenting the man as protector and warrior.

“In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values,” Du Mez wrote. “In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.”

The book also described a pattern of abuse and its coverup by several mainstream evangelical leaders, many of whom are still in leadership. Du Mez contended that evangelical leaders’ emphasis on militant masculinity created a culture where abuse was able to flourish and often kept secret, an argument that has both caught fire and created controversy.

Du Mez, who teaches at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote that mainstream evangelical leaders such as John Piper, James Dobson and John Eldredge, preached a “mutually reinforcing vision of Christian masculinity — of patriarchy and submission, sex and power.”

“The militant Christian masculinity they practiced and preached did indelibly shape both family and nation,” Du Mez wrote.

Piper, Dobson and Eldredge did not return requests for comment.

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Russell Moore, who was the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm until earlier this year, said in an email that everywhere he goes someone asks him about the book.

Moore, now a public theologian for Christianity Today magazine, said that many evangelicals are trying to understand recent developments like Trump’s rise and revelations of sexual abuse in evangelical spaces. Moore said that Du Mez has shown that “much of what has passed for evangelicalism over the past decades was more John Wayne than Jesus” and that some of the characters in her book who have been portrayed by some as fringe turned out not to be fringe at all.

“ ‘Jesus and John Wayne’ is not the whole picture, but it’s on target in enough places that we should take seriously the mirror put to our faces to reform ourselves by the gospel we believe,” Moore wrote in an email. “I don’t agree with this book on everything, by any means, but there are key aspects that are necessary for us to see, and that can help us make sense of some things.”

The book showed how masculine pop-culture figures like John Wayne could influence the evangelical imagination and shape the way people act and think, said Karen Swallow Prior, who teaches English at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Among my own group of friends and peers, this is the book that they have been talking about more than any other in recent years,” she said. “I can’t think of the last one that people talked about this much.”

In his review for the journal Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture earlier this year, Yale University historian Jon Butler called the book one of the most important on modern evangelicalism in the past four decades. A review for the Christian website Mere Orthodoxy said the book should be required reading for evangelicals. Du Mez’s book also inspired a four-part episode for the popular Holy Post podcast and was named book of the year last year by Englewood Review of Books.

The book also has its critics, including First Things magazine, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and other reviewers for Mere Orthodoxy.

“Having announced her thesis about militant Christian-nationalist, male-patriarchal supremacy, she mines American history for classic deplorables,” Daniel Harrell wrote for Christianity Today. “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.”

One of the more frequent criticisms she receives is from the subtitle of her book: “How white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation.” Du Mez said that she wanted to challenge White evangelicals to examine their core beliefs about Jesus’s teachings to “turn the other cheek,” love your neighbor and love your enemy.

“I wanted to make clear that I wasn’t going to woo evangelicals or cater to evangelicals,” she said. The Bible lists virtues like love, peace, kindness and gentleness that Du Mez argues would contradict the model of militant Christianity that leaders have held up.

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Raised in a Dutch immigrant community in Sioux Center, Iowa, Du Mez’s mother was a Dutch immigrant and her father was a longtime Reformed theologian at Dordt University, where in 2016 Trump famously told a crowd he could shoot someone in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue and not lose supporters.

Du Mez said she began working on the topic around 2005 when she started teaching at Calvin, a Christian university rooted in the Reformed tradition of Protestantism. Du Mez was teaching a class on U.S. history and lecturing on President Theodore Roosevelt to show how American ideas about masculinity have changed over time through economics, foreign policy and race.

Two male students came up to her after class one day and suggested she read the book “Wild at Heart,” by Colorado-based author John Eldredge, which has sold more than 4 million copies. She bought a copy and found “a particularly militant conception of masculine Christianity that Roosevelt had been promoting.”

In the early years of America’s war with Iraq, Du Mez considered how Eldredge’s vision of masculinity promoted militaristic ideas about America as an empire. Du Mez said she also reviewed data that showed White evangelicals were more likely to condone the war in Iraq and the military’s use of torture.

“I was trying to tease out: Is this mainstream or is this fringe?” she said in an interview. “As a Christian scholar, I thought, is this what I should be doing? If this is fringe, should I hold this up as though it’s mainstream?”

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Du Mez set the topic aside for a few years but picked it up again in 2016 in the days after the “Access Hollywood” tapes came out — in which Trump is heard making vulgar comments about women — and many evangelical leaders came to Trump’s defense. That’s when she decided what she had been working on wasn’t fringe.

Du Mez is a longtime member of a Christian Reformed Church, part of a denomination under the umbrella group called the National Association of Evangelicals. She was influenced by cultural evangelicalism through popular Christian music and the “purity culture” movement that encouraged sexual abstinence before marriage. However, she wasn’t exposed to popular evangelical leaders like John Piper, Wayne Grudem or Jerry Falwell Sr. until adulthood.

Her book, published by a nonreligious publisher called Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Co., found its way into the evangelical world through powerful word-of-mouth networks. Du Mez’s editor Daniel Gerstle said “Jesus and John Wayne” was the publisher’s “surprise hit” of 2020, selling over 300 hardcover copies every week in its first months of publication. The first jump came in late December when the book began selling more than 900 copies a week. Popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, Gerstle noted, has tweeted about the book, describing it as the one she hopes evangelicals read in 2021.

While the book is almost entirely focused on White evangelicals, Du Mez said she has received feedback from a number of Black Christian leaders about it as well. John Onwuchekwa, a Black pastor in Atlanta who left the Southern Baptist Convention last summer, said he felt “vindicated” when he read the book because it seemed to affirm his experiences and connected dots for him.

“The book was refreshing because it wasn’t someone who [seemed] angry or vindictive,” Onwuchekwa said. “There was a courage, a boldness, a matter-of-factness.”

Other books about evangelicals, politics, gender and race that published in the past year include “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” by Beth Allison Barr, “White Too Long,” by Robert P. Jones, “White Evangelical Racism,” by Anthea Butler, “American Blindspot,” by Gerardo Marti, “God’s Law and Order,” by Aaron Griffith and “Taking America Back for God,” by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry.

Du Mez said that many “troubled” evangelicals who have read her book are going through a “religious reckoning” where they’re grappling with what they have been taught both culturally and theologically. However, she said she hasn’t seen much change by many evangelical institutions.

Evangelical leaders and institutions continue to promote their versions of masculinity. This weekend in Dallas, thousands of evangelical men are expected to gather for a conference called Promise Keepers that will include speakers who once sat on Trump’s evangelical advisory council. Attendees are promised “biblical and spiritual tools that will empower you to be the man Christ intended you to be.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece said that the Holy Post podcast had a three-part series with Du Mez. It was four. This has also been updated to correct the title of the journal that published Butler’s review.

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