Evangelical explains how the movement swooned for Donald Trump — and betrayed its own ideal of masculinity
Four years in, people are still struggling to understand the overwhelming support for Donald Trump that has come from what should have been its least likely source: American evangelicals. They belong to a socially conservative movement that embraces traditional Christian morality and family values. Their leaders have loudly insisted, especially during the Clinton years, that the moral character of our president deeply matters. They take as their highest infallible authority a Bible whose central themes include God's love for the poor and the vulnerable, and a demand to love one's neighbor — even one's enemies — to the point of great personal sacrifice.
He, by contrast, is a man whose lifestyle displays little regard for Christian morality or family values. His dishonesty and infidelity have been almost daily news items since before he took office. His reputation for sexual predation, bullying, narcissism and a host of other sins and vices antithetical to Christianity has only continued to grow since he took office. His most notable advice for interacting with half the human population is "grab 'em by the pussy". Who could have predicted such an alliance?
In 2003, philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote an op-ed in The New York Times lamenting the discrimination faced by atheists in the United States, particularly in politics. Dennett's lament could be echoed by members of a variety of religious minorities. But within evangelical circles Dennett's lament seemed bizarrely disconnected from the truth. For the dominant narrative among evangelicals is just the opposite: Christians are persecuted; religious freedoms are being curtailed; discrimination against Christians and their faith is rampant; their values are under siege by hostile forces in American culture aiming to promote an anti-Christian agenda. (Dennett himself had said in print elsewhere that "safety demands that religions be put in cages ... when absolutely necessary," and he wrote as if theologically conservative Baptists, among others, were prime candidates for caging. This was just fuel for the fire.)
As an evangelical myself, for a long time I mostly embraced the narrative of embattlement. In 2016, however, shortly before the presidential election, I found myself crashing into it. I was president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, a professional organization formed in the late 1970s for the purpose of promoting fellowship among those who self-identify as both philosophers and Christians. There was an incident that fall in which a presenter at one of our conferences made some inflammatory remarks about members of the LGBTQ community. The remarks went beyond the sorts of moral objections that familiarly arise out of traditional Christian sexual morality, and seemed to arise out of sheer bigotry. They made their way onto social media and drew predictable (and justified) condemnation. As president, I felt compelled to respond.
I wrote a public post on Facebook in which I expressed "regret for the hurt that was caused" by the remarks, and emphasized the SCP's commitment to diversity and inclusion. I can't say exactly what I expected to come of this, but what I certainly did not expect was the flood of outright hate mail that I received rapidly in the wake of it from fellow Christians, some signed with phrases like "In the truth of Christ." Several minor news outlets wrote about the incident. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher wrote an article condemning me. Evangelical leader Al Mohler condemned my remarks on his weekly podcast.
How could such a frankly anodyne expression of regret and concern for others provoke such anger, especially within a Christian community? The answer, I learned in conversation with colleagues who had signed a petition demanding an apology from me, was that I had triggered the evangelical sense of embattlement. (That's my gloss, not their words.) The fact that it was not perfectly OK to make the sorts of inflammatory statements about the LGBTQ community that this person had made left a lot of traditionally-minded Christian philosophers feeling persecuted. They felt unsafe in what they took to be a kind of refuge from an academic culture hostile to them and their views.
Never mind Jesus' own declaration that we are blessed when persecuted for his name's sake; the threat to unfettered freedom of expression that had been raised by my expression of concern for the LGBTQ people in our midst was, for many Christian philosophers, intolerable. This despite the fact that, demographically speaking, straight white males are overwhelmingly in the majority in the Society of Christian Philosophers, and traditional Christian beliefs are featured in and defended at just about every conference that it sponsors.
This sense of embattlement goes a long way toward explaining why evangelicals might want to cozy up to powerful political figures. But it still leaves us wondering: Why Trump? There is another, more important piece to the puzzle.
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 argues compellingly for the conclusion that evangelical infatuation with Trump stems in large part from the "cult of masculinity" that American evangelicalism has both cultivated and succumbed to over the past century. What evangelicals wanted, and found, in Trump was not just a (potentially) powerful ally, but a man of a certain sort — a political strongman whose brash and swaggering demeanor made it clear not only that, but how he would wield power on their behalf.
He was a man who would "tell it like it is" — code for something like "confront people and issues aggressively, without concern for the usual norms of tact, diplomacy, respect, and concern for the feelings of others." He would "turn over the tables" — code for something like "deliberately upset or circumvent the usual rules and protocols for getting things done in Washington in order to push his own agenda and the agenda of supporters." In displaying this demeanor while at the same time embracing a socially conservative and superficially Christian-friendly political platform, he sent a clear message. He would deal with evangelicalism's "oppressors" and cultural enemies in the manner of a political John Wayne, James Bond or Jack Bauer. He would be a hypermasculine tough guy, a modern day Goliath, who would fight on their side in the culture wars.
Here, too, my experience with the Society of Christian Philosophers controversy is instructive. Predictably, in the wake of my unimpressively mild expression of support for LGBTQ persons in our society, many called me a "liberal." (I'm quite sure that the day before I posted that message, most of my academic friends would have described me as quite conservative). Some Christian philosophers puzzlingly called me a Nazi. But the slur that was most striking, and now seems most interesting, was this: some called me a "cuck."
A cuck, I discovered by consulting the Urban Dictionary online, is a "weak, effeminate, inadequate man." (It is apparently derived from "cuckold" which, of course, means something else entirely.) What was wanted by my critics, although I didn't fully understand this at the time, was someone who would lead the Society of Christian Philosophers in a certain, decidedly masculine way — an intellectual John Wayne who would put the academic persecutors of the Christian faith in their place. A leader who instead sought to look out for the feelings of vulnerable minorities and to ensure that the Society of Christian Philosophers would be seen as a welcoming and hospitable space for all of its members, and not just the straight white male conservative majority, was not just manifesting the wrong set of values; he was effete, insufficiently masculine, an inadequate man.
In a 2012 address entitled "The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle," the influential evangelical pastor and writer John Piper commented that "God has given Christianity a masculine feel." Piper drew this conclusion on the basis of the fact that the Bible tends to characterize God in terms usually reserved for males (masculine pronouns, stereotypically male gender roles and so on), and the leadership of the early Church was predominantly male. But, if we may mince words for a moment, none of this really implies that Christianity, at its origins or even for much of its history, has been given a masculine feel in any of the contemporary senses of that term.
As Notre Dame sociologist Gail Bederman has pointed out, the term "masculinity" and its cognates only came into common use in the late 19th century as changes in the economic conditions of middle-class males, together with anxieties and challenges posed by the burgeoning women's movement, were beginning to erode and call into question previous ideals of "manliness." The American version of the "Muscular Christianity" movement played an important role in cultivating ideals of Christian masculinity; and, as Du Mez explains, the history and development of this movement is deeply intertwined with the history and growth of evangelicalism. The 20th-century conception of masculinity which evangelicals embrace is both patriarchal and racialized (hence Du Mez's focus on white evangelicalism). There is a strong case to be made for the conclusion that it is not God who has given Christianity a "masculine feel" in this sense, but instead evangelicals themselves, and their 19th-century predecessors, have given American Christianity that feel.
"Jesus and John Wayne" is a tour-de-force indictment of the white evangelical cult of masculinity. But the indictment comes not so much at the level of analysis as at the level of mere description. Although Du Mez has done a brilliant job of weaving a narrative that brings into high relief the relevant tendencies and trends within American evangelicalism, analytical commentary was not her book's main task. Nevertheless, as has often been the case with evangelicalism's president-hero Donald Trump, description is all it takes to indict. The picture that emerges is one according to which, time and again (and increasingly over the years), the culture and visible leadership within American evangelicalism has persistently valorized a John Wayne-style conception of masculinity, sought to empower and emulate leaders who exemplify this conception, and embraced a political agenda that supports it.
Under the banners of "biblical manhood and womanhood" and the promotion of "family values," evangelical leaders like James Dobson, Mark Driscoll, John Piper and many others have decried or sought to prevent the "sissification" of American Christianity. They have advocated a conception of gender and gender roles that idealizes masculinity and links it with power, aggression, domination and strength in all spheres — not just in the home, but in business and military culture, in politics and in foreign policy. In doing so, they have sought shelter in the arms of powerful, paradigmatically masculine politicians even when (and to some extent because) the politicians have been known to behave in ways radically contrary to the Christian values they hope to promote. Indeed, time and again, even as they have denounced their cultural and political enemies for threatening Christian family values, male evangelical leaders themselves have behaved in ways that flagrantly disregard those same values. (The current scandal involving Jerry Falwell Jr. is only the most recent in this trend.) In their pursuit of power and the promotion of a patriarchal and heterocentric value system, they have worked to defend, protect and restore power to evangelical leaders guilty of a bewildering variety of misogynistic, predatory and abusive behaviors.
Many people, some evangelicals among them, have tried to explain evangelical support for Trump as a purely instrumental alliance: Although they can't really support, much less admire, the man, they have (grudgingly?) allied with him for the sake of greater goods. They have compromised some of their values in doing so but, so the narrative goes, they have done so in fidelity to the most important Christian values. But Du Mez puts the lie to this narrative. Her book comes to a close by highlighting what, by the middle of the book, has already become entirely evident:
Evangelicals hadn't betrayed their values [in electing Donald Trump]. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity. ... He was the latest and greatest high priest of the evangelical cult of masculinity. ... Within their own churches and organizations, evangelicals had elevated and revered men who exhibited the same traits of rugged and even ruthless leadership that President Trump now paraded on the national stage. Too often, they had also turned a blind eye to abuses of power in the interest of propping up patriarchal authority.
I grew up in evangelicalism and to some extent still comfortably inhabit that world; but, in contrast to many of the friends with whom I grew up — friends, for example, like the one whose main critique of one of the more recent "Star Wars" films was that he "didn't like all the female leadership" — I have largely abandoned the conceptions of gender and gender roles that are so often, and mistakenly, held up as the biblical conceptions. I teach feminist philosophy, and my wife is a pastor. Far from having any concerns about the "sissification" of Christianity (a sexist term that I use here only to represent the language of people whose views I oppose), I think that the Church would benefit from losing whatever distinctly "masculine" feel it has been given over the course of its history and especially in the last century. Ironically, I have arrived at such "non-evangelical" values by reflecting carefully on what follows from the commitments that my evangelical teachers taught me to hold most dear: love for others, love for Jesus, reverence for God's Word.
But I can still speak the language of the value system into which much of evangelicalism has fallen, and I still know the mindset. The mindset is one that would see a book (by a woman, no less!) making the points that Du Mez makes as an attack most likely motivated by an "anti-Christian" agenda — feminism, perhaps, or support for LGBTQ rights. It is a mindset that would have a hard time responding to mere argument with the concession that something has gone badly awry with the evangelical masculinity movement, not because reason and argument are not valued but rather because of the entrenched idea that arguments can seductively lead one astray. It is a mindset that is a deeply wary of arguments reaching conclusions different from those reached by the "respected authorities."
What then can be done? What critique could possibly be offered that might actually speak to people still at least partly in the grip of American evangelicalism's cult of biblical manhood and womanhood? What is needed, it seems to me, is not so much reasoned argument as a new lens through which to view the authorities in that movement — again, folks like Dobson, Driscoll and Piper. To hold up the lens, in turn, it will help to speak the language.
So I give you "the bitch."
As most of us know from film rather than actual prison experience, to make someone your bitch is to co-opt them as an ally and active supporter by way of a certain kind of oppression, usually sexual domination. The man who is made another man's bitch is held in thrall by the bitch-maker, reduced by fear or felt weakness to a position of submission to and respect or maybe even affection for the bitch-maker. Not just any victim of prison rape is the rapist's bitch. Rather, the bitch is the one who responds to the rape by sacrificing his values, integrity and autonomy in an effort to draw near and submit to the rapist. And not every bitch is a rape-victim. Doug Stamper in "House of Cards" was President Underwood's bitch — not because Underwood raped him (he didn't) but because, for reasons not entirely evident in the series, Stamper found himself deeply in thrall to Underwood's power and ruthless, domineering leadership.
Within the evangelical cult of masculinity (and its counterparts in other ideological circles, both religious and secular), the bitch — as the very name implies, with all of its demeaningly misogynistic implications — is not masculine, but rather feminine. Whatever power the bitch himself might hold, he is ultimately the "beta" rather than the "alpha." He is not to be admired for his own sake; his position is not to be aspired to. What one wants, ultimately, is to be the alpha.
Importantly, there is no particular value system that goes along with being an alpha; nor, indeed, is there even any particular demeanor or personality disposition that goes along with it. The heroes of masculinity — people and characters like John Wayne, James Bond, Jack Bauer and Jack Reacher, but also just about every chivalric knight in Arthurian legend and every male hero from "Lord of the Rings" — have a diverse range of personalities, demeanors and value systems. But what they most saliently have in common, at least in the popular imagination, is a commitment to their principles and values that cannot be shaken by threat, pain or oppression, as well as a commitment to pursue their mission come-what-may, but only within the boundaries set by their principles and values. This, too, is their most salient point of contrast with the bitch, the man who responds to threat or abuse by compromising himself in submission to a bitch-maker.
In 2016, evangelical leaders became Trump's bitch. They have remained so to this day.
There is, of course, nothing objectionable in itself about finding a hero, looking up to a role model, or even seeking a powerful ally in effort to further one's own legitimate aims or to liberate oneself from oppression. But a man, under the conception of manhood that evangelicals and their secular counterparts have embraced, will do these things only within bounds set by their most deeply held values and principles. To compromise those values and principles in submission to or defense of a strongman, whether out of fear or calculated, transactional pragmatics, is to become the strongman's bitch.
As Du Mez points out, there are some values evangelical leaders did not compromise in submitting to Trump; but the values that were not compromised were simply those wrapped up in their own cult of masculinity and power-worship. Their moral values — the very values they appealed to in condemning Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewisnsky, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's alleged corruption and deceitfulness, the very values they appeal to in condemning the sexual lives and practices of others (even as they themselves do the same and worse) — they did compromise in submission to Trump. In doing so, they became Trump's bitch.
So evangelical leaders, along with others who have abased themselves before Trump in fear of their cultural enemies, stand condemned by the very value systems they proclaim. By the lights of their own conception of masculinity, they are unmanly. By the lights of the value system that valorizes "biblical manhood," they are not to be followed. They, rather than those who suffer persecution for taking a stand for LGBTQ rights or for the rights of women, they, rather than men who stay at home to care for children so as to support the careers of their wives or who pursue careers or hobbies culturally coded as feminine, they, rather than those who have more stereotypically feminine personality traits and dispositions (ironically, traits like love, peace, patience, gentleness and kindness, which the Bible labels "fruits of the Spirit"), represent the true "sissification" of Christianity.
Evangelicals should not be surprised that this has happened within their ranks. They have fallen prey to what they should recognize from their own scriptures as a common temptation for God's people. In the time of the Judges, God ruled over Israel; but Israel, according to the familiar story, was ashamed to be unlike the other nations in lacking a king. Eventually, God gave them what they wanted, delivering to them as king the finest specimen of traditional manhood in all the land, namely, Saul. But the divine commentary on Saul reported to Samuel is telling: "Do not consider his appearance or his height," God says to Samuel as he is about to anoint Saul king, "for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
So too, we might say in light of the history traced by Du Mez's book, contemporary evangelicalism has fallen into the trap of looking at appearances rather than the heart. Forsaking the steadfast commitment to Jesus and the principles that treat love for neighbor, concern for the oppressed and the obliteration of artificial hierarchies among human beings, evangelicalism has turned submissively to the desire for a strongman to preserve them in a place of privilege and power and to provide them with public recognition as partners in the deal-making that shapes the policies of our nation. This is a posture that many secular value systems will condemn; it is a posture that is certainly condemned by what I take to be an authentically Christian value system. but the point of the present essay is that it is also a posture that is condemned by the value system of "masculine" evangelical Christianity.