For a good chunk of the 90s, I attended a conservative evangelical (Baptist) church, and most of my social circle consisted of other conservative evangelicals. Pretty much everyone in my circle voted Republican and had conservative views on issues like abortion and sexuality. Yet I, like many, have been startled by the violent and hyper-aggressive turn evangelical culture has taken in recent years. I’ve heard people say it was always there, and I’m sure that’s right to some degree. But it was 100% not my experience of that world. I had plenty of complaints about the policing of people’s (especially women’s) behavior and the prioritization of social issues over taking care of people, but I never experienced those who were more conservative than me as being mean.
This book by Kristin Kobes de Mez helped me see how, yes, that violent strain was there all along, but, yes, it has ebbed and flowed. Turns out, I was in that world during a time when servant leadership was the model men were encouraged to follow. It was the era of the Promise Keepers, when men were told that they were to be leaders in their homes and churches, but that leadership should be one that honored women and where men loved their wives sacrificially, as Christ loved the church. The movement even included a push for racial reconciliation, although it remained largely a white movement. (I’m reminded now that Bush ran for president touting himself as a compassionate conservative.)
When the September 11 attacks happened, the evangelical church, along with much of the rest of the country, took a more war-like stance. The rising leaders in the evangelical church presented a model of manly men, who served their family and country by defending them, with violence if necessary.
The book traces how that aggressive hyper-masculine strand of Christianity took root among evangelicals, under the influence of men who saw the church as a means to an end, a way to gain power and influence. (The chapter on Reagan includes a lot of “win at all costs” rhetoric that is almost exactly what we hear today from conservatives who care less about representing the people than about making sure they get their way.) I was familiar with some of this, particularly when it comes to the conservative takeover of the Baptist church in the 1980s, but it was helpful to see the theological and political strands weaved together as they are here.
For much of the conservative movement, theology was shaped to fit whatever cultural narrative was needed to maintain power at the time. To some degree, I think this is only natural. Scripture can be shaped to mean all sort of things. I’m sure my egalitarian, liberal views inform how I read the Bible, although I always hope to allow God’s spirit to shape me and my reading. But du Mez shows that big theological questions, about the nature of God, of salvation, of scripture, became secondary in recent decades to beliefs about male dominance. And, today, evangelical is as much a political identity as a theological one. And the political identity is toxic, favoring violence over peace and violence over humility. There’s room for plenty of disagreement about what the Bible means and how to live out a Christian faith, but I cannot fathom how anyone would come away from the gospels thinking we should be giving semi-automatic rifles as Christmas gifts. It’s enough, as Anne Lamott says, to make Jesus want to drink gin from the cat dish.