Culture Wars/Current Controversies

How Christian Nationalism Corrupted Evangelism’s Message of Love: A Conversation with Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez

It is not fear of the outside world that is driving evangelical dogmatism and militancy, it is the other way around

JUN 17, 2023

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Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a project of The UnPopulist. I’m Aaron Ross Powell, and this is a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in his campaigns and presidency. White Christian nationalism was a driving force in efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and many of the worst reactionary movements in the country, powering the growth of the far-right’s influence, have their source in evangelical America. This is all, frankly, a little perplexing, given the peaceful, “love-thy-neighbor” core of Jesus’ moral teachings. But it’s nothing new.

In her fascinating and troubling book, Jesus and John WayneHow White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, Calvin University’s Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces the emergence of the Christian radical right, particularly its patriarchal and toxically masculine forms, from its origins in the middle of the 20th century through to Trump. It’s a story that’s often appalling, but also helps us to understand much of our contemporary political scene.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.

Aaron Ross Powell: One of the things that I think might be surprising to people who come from a more secular background, or at least not an evangelical background, didn’t grow up in evangelical culture and so on, is how much evangelicalism that seems to be the default right now. For a lot of us, we just think of characters like Jerry Falwell as representative of what it simply means to be an evangelical Christian. One of the surprising things about your book is how that brand of evangelicalism is both kind of historically contingent and relatively new. What did evangelicalism look like before the rise of what you call this the John Wayne version?

Kristin Kobes Du Mez: As a historian, you can go back. You can just keep going back in time. Evangelicalism historically was a revival movement. A revival movement, a popular movement that spread beyond any evangelical or any denominational boundaries, a kind of popular/populist movement in many cases. And it was many things. It was this kind of reinvigoration of a personal relationship with God, this very personal faith commitment, not just institutional. And in many cases, it actually, in the 19th century, disrupted social hierarchies. If the Holy Spirit—anybody had access to the Holy Spirit and this kind of rebirth, this conversion experience. Men and women and people of different social classes and races could be empowered by the Spirit.

In the 19th century, you will have evangelical feminism and abolitionism and a number of social outworkings of this transformative faith that really bridged from conservative to what we would call progressive and everywhere in between. Evangelicalism has always been many things. One of the things I trace in my book is how a particular form of evangelicalism that was socially, culturally, politically conservative became the dominant strand in the second half of the 20th century.


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