June 22, 2022

Analysis: The secret of why evangelicals love Herschel Walker (and Donald Trump)

Was the crowd skeptical of the Georgia Republican Senate nominee? Quite the contrary. Politico reported that Walker “received resounding applause from evangelical Christian activists on Saturday.”
How to explain that seeming contradiction? Enter Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University. Du Mez is the author of The New York Times bestseller “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” a book that has had a profound impact on how I understand the rise (and continued support) of Donald Trump and his acolytes, like Walker.
I reached out to Du Mez to chat about Walker, Trump and the broader Republican Party. Our conversation — conducted via email and lightly edited for flow — is below.
Cillizza: Herschel Walker was cheered by a social conservative crowd over the weekend, just days after he acknowledged he has four kids, not the one most people thought he had. What gives?
Du Mez: We really shouldn’t be surprised by this anymore. Every time we see “family values conservatives” rally around a candidate who makes a mockery of family values it can feel jarring, but of course, this is nothing new.
There are a lot of things going on in this particular case. Obviously, there are political reasons for conservatives to stand by their man. It’s not easy to find an African American Republican with Walker’s name recognition to go up against Sen. Raphael Warnock, and this is a key race in the upcoming midterm elections.
But there’s more to this picture.
Republicans have long equated a rugged masculine strength with successful political leadership. This ideal of conservative masculinity, or at least its current manifestation, can be traced back to the 1960s when conservatives accused feminists and antiwar activists of redefining traditional manhood in a way that left families and the nation at risk. This masculine ideal was both personal and political. Men needed to be good fathers and strong fighters, and in this way, “traditional” masculinity ensured both order and security.
Within American conservatism, rugged White men are often seen to embody this masculine ideal, but Black men who support Republican social and political values can also be seen as champions of traditional American manhood. As a social conservative, Republican loyalist, and former football star, Walker was in many ways perfectly positioned to step into this role. He boasted of his business prowess and talked frequently about the problem of absentee fathers.
Within the African American community, an emphasis on fatherhood transcends party lines, but among social conservatives, this rhetoric can also be used for partisan political ends. Rather than looking to systemic racism and structural inequalities, social problems can be blamed on the individual failures of Black men.
In Walker’s case, his vocal condemnation of absentee fathers now strikes a hypocritical tone.
Fortunately for him, social conservatives have proven quite ready to forgive and forget when politically convenient to do so. We’ve seen family values conservatives embrace the likes of Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, and of course, President Trump in recent years, despite allegations of abuse and moral failings.
In fact, in the case of White evangelicals, we’ve witnessed a dramatic reversal in the last few years in terms of how much personal morality matters when it comes to their support for political candidates. In 2011, just 30% of evangelicals believed that a person who commits an “immoral act” could behave ethically in a public role; in 2016, 72% thought this was possible [according to polling from PRRI/Brookings]. Walker is only the latest Republican man to reap the benefits of this situational morality.
Cillizza: In your book, you write that the rise of Donald Trump fits into a long pattern within the evangelical community. Explain.
Du Mez: When it became clear that White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, pundits (and some evangelicals themselves) responded with shock and confusion. How could family values evangelicals support a man who seemed the very antithesis of the values they held dear? This question only intensified in the days after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, when only a handful of evangelicals wavered in their support of a man caught on video bragging about assaulting women. There is certainly hypocrisy at play here, but as a historian of evangelicalism, I knew that what we were looking at couldn’t be explained merely in terms of hypocrisy.
For decades, conservative White evangelicals have championed a rugged, even ruthless “warrior” masculinity. Believing that “gender difference” was the foundation of a God-given social order, evangelicals taught that women and men were opposites. God filled men with testosterone so that they could fulfill their God-ordained role as leaders, as protectors and providers. Testosterone made them aggressive, and it gave them a God-given sex drive. Men needed to channel their aggression, and their sex drives, in ways that strengthened both family and nation.
Generations of evangelicals consumed millions of books and listened to countless sermons expounding these “truths.” Within this framework, there was ready forgiveness for male sexual misconduct. It was up to women to avoid tempting men who were not their husbands and meet the sexual needs of men who were. When men went astray, there was always a woman to blame. For men, misdeeds could be written off as too much of a good thing or perhaps a necessary evil, as evidence of red-blooded masculinity that needed only to be channeled in redemptive directions.
Within evangelical communities, we see these values expressed in the way organizations too often turn a blind eye to abuse, blame victims, and defend abusers in the interest of propping up a larger cause — a man’s ministry, an institution’s mission, or the broader “witness of the church.”
In 2016, we heard precisely this rhetoric in defense of Donald Trump. Trump was a man’s man. He would not be cowed by political correctness, but would do what needed to be done. He represented “a John Wayne America,” an America where heroic men were not afraid to resort to violence when necessary in pursuit of a greater good. Evangelicals did not embrace Trump in spite of his rough edges, but because of them.
At a time when many evangelicals perceived their values to be under fire, they looked to Trump as their “ultimate fighting champion,” a man who would not be afraid to throw his weight around to protect “Christian America” against threats both foreign and domestic.
Trump was not a betrayal of evangelical values, but rather their fulfillment.
Cillizza: Are there dissenting voices within the evangelical community? What is their message? And how is it resonating if at all?
Du Mez: There are certainly dissenting voices within the evangelical community. Depending on how you define “evangelicalism,” many Black “evangelicals” dissent from White evangelical politics. But among White evangelicals, too, there are dissenters. If we think about the infamous 81% of White evangelicals who voted for Trump, that leaves 19% who did not.
We can look to prominent evangelicals like Russell Moore, Beth Moore and David French, who have spoken out against Trump, advocated for victims of sexual abuse, and sought to call out the radicalism they see among their fellow evangelicals. There are also many local evangelical pastors and laypeople who are speaking out in these respects. But it is important to assess power dynamics within evangelical communities. Dissenters are often marginalized or pushed out of their communities. Both Beth Moore and Russell Moore were pushed out of the Southern Baptist Convention; Russell Moore abandoned a powerful leadership position and Beth Moore lost nearly two million dollars in ministry revenue. On the local level, too, many pastors find that they speak out against Republican politics at their own peril. Many are grappling with their inability to lead those they had considered their followers.
Cillizza: The New York Times over the weekend reported that gun companies have started using appeals to masculinity to sell guns. Does that surprise you?
Du Mez: Not at all. In this country, guns have long been a symbol of rugged individualism, cowboy justice and masculine power. The myth of the “good guy with a gun” runs deep in American popular culture. In the midst of widening political polarization, growing social distrust, and escalation of perceived threats, firearms manufacturers see ideal market conditions.
Traditionally, gun sales have gone up when Republicans lose elections, but Donald Trump worked hard to maintain an acute level of threat among his base throughout his four years in office. He railed against immigrants and protestors and warned of various threats to “real Americans” and their children. Black Lives Matter protests fueled rhetoric stoking fears of the inability of the government to protect (White) citizens and led to the valorization of Kyle Rittenhouse, a young man who, in their view, took it upon himself to do what the government failed to do. The “Stop the Steal” campaign extends this sense of existential threat to the nation itself.
This rhetoric of perceived danger and necessary militancy unites secular and religious conservatives. In “Jesus and John Wayne,” I point out how John Wayne was not an evangelical, but by the 1970s, he had become an icon of conservative American manhood. Over time, as a heroic (White) man who brought order through violence, he also came to represent an idealized vision of “Christian manhood.”
As ideals of Christian masculinity shifted, so, too, did the faith itself. Even though the Christian scriptures are filled with teachings about turning the other cheek, loving one’s neighbors and one’s enemies, and although the Bible instructs Christians to cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control, many conservative Christians have instead embraced an “us vs. them” mentality that requires a warrior masculinity. Good guys with guns need to protect their families, their faith, and their nation — by which they mean those deserving of protection, “real Americans,” Christian America.
We see evidence of this rhetoric from Christian pastors and worship leaders, throughout the Christian publishing industry, and even on the shelves of evangelical big-box retailer Hobby Lobby, where one can find wall plaques celebrating the Second Amendment, decorative guns to mount on walls, and charming d├ęcor warning, “If you don’t support our troops feel free to stand in front of them,” and, “WE DON’T CALL 911.” This goes beyond mere rhetoric. White evangelicals are more likely than other Americans to own a gun; they are bigger proponents of gun rights, more likely to carry a gun with them, and more likely than other Americans to feel safer with a gun in their household. Daniel Defense, a Christian family-owned gun manufacturer, made the gun used by the Uvalde shooter. They had previously advertised their assault weapons by pairing them with a Bible, a cross, and a young child.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If Donald Trump runs again in 2024, evangelicals will __________.” Now, explain.
Du Mez: “do exactly what they have been doing.”
We have seen evangelicals remain remarkably consistent in their support for Trump and for a radicalized form of Republican politics. Stories of dissenters tend to draw popular attention, but that should not distract us from the fact that most dissenters end up marginalized or pushed out of their communities altogether.
We should expect Trump to continue to drum up a sense of impending threat — that Democrats want to steal the election, that “real Americans” are under siege, that children will be corrupted, and that religious freedoms are endangered. But this time around, fewer evangelicals will feel the need to justify their support for Trump. He delivered on Supreme Court appointments and brought about the likely repeal of Roe v. Wade, so in their minds, the ends have justified the means.
If Trump runs, he can expect the enthusiastic support of his White evangelical base. If he wins, he will have them to thank. If he loses, he knows he can still depend on their support. A recent [PRRI] survey revealed that 60% of white evangelical Protestants believe the 2020 election was stolen, and that more than a quarter (26%) believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.” With the fate of Christian America hanging in the balance, for many, the end will justify the means.
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