Editor’s note: We recently spoke with Kristin Kobes DuMez, a history professor at Calvin University, a member of Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, an influential and controversial book that has been widely featured in national media outlets such as NPR and The New York Times.
Your book addresses the rise and influence of white evangelicals in America. Were you thinking of the Christian Reformed Church as you wrote this?
I’ve received notes from (CRC) people asking, “Are we or are we not evangelicals?” It’s complicated. Definitely popular culture that defines evangelicalism has swept through the CRC. In an old survey in The Banner, James Dobson topped the list for “favorite theologian.” Of course, he is neither Reformed nor a theologian. Some pockets of the CRC are not just deeply influenced, but functionally evangelical.
If, as you say, many in our denomination are functionally evangelical, how did CRC readers respond to your book, which is a pretty serious critique of white evangelicalism?
I had expected so much more pushback, but the response from readers, including CRC readers, has been overwhelmingly positive. Many letters I get have been from people who are somewhat troubled by where the (evangelical movement) has ended up. “I never understood what was behind some of these views” is something I hear a lot. One man said, “I bumped up against a lot of these trees but never saw the forest.”
How did you come up with the premise of this book?
When Donald Trump won the presidency with that critical evangelical support, it clicked for me: I already had the research to support the fact that aggressive masculinity is at the heart of evangelicalism. I began to write this book because I wanted to testify to and name this. There is power in history.
It’s easy to think that this form of militant, patriarchal evangelicalism is just a progression of the way it’s always been, but that’s not true, is it?
Things have not always been like this. In the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, real men were thought of as supportive and gentlemanly. There was evangelical feminism in the 19th and early 20th century, too. It’s only been since the Cold War that evangelicals have increasingly had these emphases. It’s incredibly powerful to look at history to show how we got here.
Evangelicals are deeply divided, and both sides have entrenched ideas about power, gender, and politics. Can we find any common ground?
These are deeply entrenched views, and I don’t see a lot of hope for common ground. However, as a spiritual practice we can, wherever we find ourselves, listen to people with different views. We can humble ourselves. I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic and humble reception of the book. People have written to me, “I was complicit in this. We need to undo, to take steps back.” I find some hope in that. The last words of my book say, “What was once done might also be undone.”