Evangelicalism, Militant (White) Masculinity, and the “Threat” of Assertive Spirituality

Evangelicalism, Militant (White) Masculinity, and the “Threat” of Assertive Spirituality

I just finished reading the book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez a couple of days ago, and I’ll be honest, it’s so impactful I’m going to be processing it for quite some time. In this article, I’ll talk about how this general audience history book makes the strongest case I’ve seen yet for the need for many people to embody the ideas behind this Assertive Spirituality project, in discussing the disturbing long-term impact of the ideas of militant masculinity as embedded in (white) Evangelicalism for decades.

So in this piece I’ll talk about this excellent book and how it helps us understand how the militant white supremacists we saw on January 6 storming the US Capitol with a flag and prayers was sadly not a surprise in light of this particular historian’s read of past decades of white Evangelical history in the US. I’ll also discuss how this important book published in the summer of 2020 (probably inadvertently) makes a strong case for why this Assertive Spirituality project is so important—and also is seen to be such a threat from the viewpoint of white Evangelicalism.

And yeah, by the end, hopefully all of you will run out and seriously buy this incredibly important and highly disturbing book. And also work to continue to assertively speak up against the real threat—which is represented by the extremely damaging kind of patriarchal white supremacist spirituality Du Mez outlines in her book and we saw culminated in the recent attack on the Capitol.

Disclosing a Bit More about My Church Background

Before we dive in, let me give you a quick backgrounder to where I’m coming from as I write this. Up to this point on this blog I haven’t specified which moderate denomination I grew up in, so here’s the awkward moment where I disclose that I grew up as a pastor’s kid in the same denomination as Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne.

As I’ve discussed before, that particular denomination was a mix of right-leaning and progressive trends, so in many ways the forms of aggressive masculinity Du Mez writes about were further sublimated there during my upbringing under a veneer of more passive “Christian nice”—right up until the 2016 election blew open all pretenses, leaving its congregations deeply divided politically. (I’ve written about the toxic sides of “Christian nice” extensively on this blog, in a series starting here, and have started to also call it “Christian bothesidesism” in more recent articles such as this one.)

A Guide from Someone With a Common Base But Historical Expertise–Very Useful!

In Jesus and John Wayne, then, it was really helpful for me to have someone from a complementary discipline but such a similar background help fill in a lot of historical details around my experiences in recent decades, up to and including the years where I myself started to migrate toward the more progressive side politically, as I dimly saw and felt the issues Du Mez outlines in her book and became deeply uncomfortable with them.  

So yeah, as I’ve said before (especially here, here, and here) this project is a deeply personal one for me—and reading this book was like reading my own history.  

Also, as a communication scholar who studies and teaches about stress, trauma and conflict communication, this book also helped contextualize this Assertive Spirituality project I started on this site (2.5 years ago now!). I’m about to unwrap at least the surface of what I’ve seen in the rest of this blog post. I’ll also unwrap a bit more of why we need to keep being assertive, even now that we’ve installed a few key healthier leaders in the US.

This might take a bit to unpack. Please hang with me as I do.

So…Yeah, Let’s Talk about Why Those Peops Storming the Capitol Weren’t a Puzzling Anomaly

Okay, so you just have to read the Jesus and John Wayne to get there (please do! It’s such an important book), but this excellently researched book of history traces the ebbs and flows of what Du Mez calls “militant masculinity” in (largely white) Evangelicalism over the past 50 years and before.

And let me tell you, by the time you get to the end, it’s really really hard to disagree with Du Mez’s historically-based assertion that white Evangelical support for the president who just left office definitely did not come out of left field.

In fact, her narrativization assertively connecting all the dots makes it clear that white Evangelical male leaders—mostly those who had not been to war themselves—have been peddling toxic zero-sum militant masculinity for decades and decades.

And while of course the book came out before the storming of the Capitol, it’s extremely clear after reading it exactly why those militant (mostly) males who stormed the Capitol saw no contradiction between carrying the cross and committing violent acts. As the book shows, their actions were thoroughly grounded in decades of gradually radicalizing Evangelical views of zero-sum aggressive masculinity.

An Aggressive Zero-Sum View of the World

To be clear, Du Mez doesn’t specifically use the term zero-sum, mind you—she mostly just uses the term militant masculinity. But what she’s describing in Evangelicalism’s peddling of militant masculinity over the last several decades is an incredibly aggressive zero-sum view of the world.

As a reminder, a zero-sum view of the world is one in which if one person wins, another person must lose. And while this is sometimes the way things go in the world, they often don’t have to.

In conflict studies, this view of conflict is often called the distributive approach to conflict.

But Wait, That’s Not the Only Approach!

But as all the conflict research shows, the distributive approach is not the only style. There’s also the integrative approach to conflicts, which is actually required for the most functional and effective groups.

In the integrative approach to conflicts, each party looks for as many ways solutions can benefit both parties as possible. And yeah, scholarship has shown that integrative approaches to conflict management, who try to meet as many needs as possible in any given situation, are more effective for groups.

In short, in the integrative approach, translated into the terms of spirituality, one could say that people seek to love both their neighbor and themselves, and especially to take care of vulnerable populations over and against those who think they have to exploit and hurt them. (Note that a lot of Christians read these as incredibly common themes in the Bible, and other religions and spiritualities often see these same concerns as deeply essential as well, especially the healthier forms of them that take these ideas as seriously as possible.)

Stress research underlines the fact that these aren’t just pie in the sky ideas: integrative approaches to the world, that take care of as many needs as possible, are also literally healthier for us than distributive approaches.

This same approach is inherent in the idea of assertiveness, which as I defined it back in an early post on this site seeks to tread the ground between aggressiveness and passivity by enacting “communication behavior that reflects respect for yourself as well as for other(s)” (Galanes & Adams, Effective Group Communication).

But Those Who Champion Zero-Sum Approaches Want You to Think It’s the Only Possibility

In contrast, the viewpoints that champion zero-sum or distributive approaches assume you have to choose aggressiveness and passivity, but can never solve problems integratively through assertive behavior.

In short, according to zero-sum views of spirituality such as that Du Mez outlines in her book, there’s really no way to love both your neighbor and yourself at the same time. Not really.

Nor is there, as we’ll see, a way within this militant masculine spiritual frame for men who are trained to see themselves as “natural aggressors” to “abase themselves” to do more than to pretend to love their neighbor, especially those who are different from themselves.

While the softer forms of patriarchy put forth from this frame of reference put forth the idea of “servant leadership” by men, Du Mez highlights the cognitive dissonance and desire to dominate shown even in these “softer” forms, and maps the ways in which more obviously militant forms of masculinity always came back to dominate the narrative.

No wonder this system sees assertiveness, especially from those who don’t fit the paradigm of “natural (white) male aggressiveness,” as a threat. After all, as we’ll discuss, it only sees aggressiveness and passivity as true possibilities.

To this view, assertiveness and integrative views are seen to be “unnatural” and even “Satanic”–conveniently to be fought at all costs. (Freaky, isn’t it? Talk about making what’s evil good and what’s good evil! Makes me shudder to think about it.)

The Embattled Aggression of White Evangelical Patriarchy

While, again, Du Mez doesn’t quite put it in the terms conflict scholars would, even a quick read-through of her book makes it extremely clear that white Evangelical patriarchy has been pushing a message of aggression and domination for white conservative males in recent decades.

Much has been said about the white Evangelical persecution complex in recent years, and the increasingly inflamed and embattled culture wars that have been fought by them politically using wedge issues like abortion and homosexuality to inflame the subject as well as to get people to vote for conservative candidates at the cost of all other concerns.

In Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez shows persuasively how white male leaders who feared losing their influence used fear and aggression messaging, including a lot of zero-sum distributive messaging, created and inflamed these “culture wars” to translate the idea of nationalism inward to see fellow Americans as threats, especially those who wished to have equality with white males in the existing hierarchy.

It also shows how they used politics and mediated communication, including books, television and radio, to gain more power for their message in both overt and subtle forms. The evidence is all there in the book to show how deeply diseased, aggressive, and zero-sum this form of patriarchy has been in at least white Evangelicalism, and how far back its roots go.

Zero-sum Masculinity and Arguments about “God-given” Aggression

The book also shows how deeply this aggressive form of masculinity has relied on peddling a message of passive submission to women, minorities, and vulnerable populations, and has deeply attacked and abused these populations when within their ranks even while pretending to protect them.

The evidence in the book illustrates how this Evangelical view of militant masculinity has relied on the vision of “protecting women and children from harm” as its reasoning for its aggressiveness, as well as a striking line of rhetoric about how aggression is an inevitable, “God-given” side effect of the testosterone men “naturally” have.

This Idea Persists, Even in the “Softer” Evangelical Forms of Patriarchy

One fascinating and disturbing thread the book follows is the ways in which in the period of “softer patriarchy” in the early 1990s, Evangelical rhetoric shifted from war language to that of sports metaphors, only to ramp back up again after 9/11.

Du Mez points out that the idea of aggression being natural to males and passivity to females never goes away, however, and gets increasingly radicalized after that point.

(And of course that any aggressiveness from minority males as well as females or those who supported them was also seen to be unnatural and a threat to be fought at all costs.)

Commonalities Between Evangelical Beliefs about Masculinity and the Far-Right Patriot Movement

Oh Lord, as a communication scholar would I love to go off on a loooooong rant about this particular patriarchal belief about aggression and dominance being “natural” to (at least certain alpha) males, and any assertiveness or aggression in others to be seen as “unnatural,” but as an assertive person I will restrain myself (and maybe make that into another article later on). 🙂

Instead, for now I’m just going to point you back to my article about how conspiracy theorists and other far-right members of the Patriot Movement were claiming that certain aggressive male leaders who had “secret knowledge” were given the “divine right of citizens.”

Du Mez doesn’t look in depth at conspiracy rhetoric in the book, but having studied the rhetoric of conspiracy having read Jesus and John Wayne, I can see even more clearly why white male Evangelicals found common cause with these other violent far-right groups and work together to make this kind of fascistic rhetoric mainstream. After all, white Evangelical male authoritarian rhetoric had been paralleling those other groups’ paranoid styles for decades.

White Males: The Group Who Doesn’t Seem to Need to Repent and Atone

As Du Mez notes rather dryly in the book, there was particular hypocrisy in the way those male pastors who peddled the idea of original sin refused to properly challenge the idea that white male pastors could be sinful or corrupt in how they were using their power.

Indeed, Du Mez goes into some of the ways that forgiveness rhetoric was used to protect vicious men over and above people like women and children who experienced abuse. The material she outlines on that supplements and substantiates the article I wrote on that same subject here.

Doesn’t Even Protect Who They’re Claiming to Protect

The final chapter of the book on the many sexual abuse scandals recently uncovered in Evangelical churches makes it abundantly clear that women within the church are definitely not being actually protected by all the Evangelical masculine rhetoric of protection of women, especially when combined with previous chapters that build in material from purity culture guides and marriage manuals.

This is a powerful note to culminate the book on—how incredibly hollow that “protect our own vulnerable folks” rhetoric is, when you look at the facts.

But Yes, Let’s Talk about “the Enemy”

Du Mez doesn’t fully get into it in the book, but let’s talk about why this militant masculinity would “inherently” turn against all perceived passivity or vulnerability, even those it claims to protect.

In order to understand this better, I find it helpful to think back through the book’s contents to see who is seen as “the enemy” from this militantly masculine perspective, and then think through why that might be in light of the evidence in the book and elsewhere.

If you go through Jesus and John Wayne, you’ll see that the list disturbing boils down to anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the zero-sum vision for militant masculinity.

This loooong list of suspects includes—wait for it—Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers as a Threat? Talking about Shame

Scary, right? I mean, if you’re outside of the Evangelical subculture or have resilience to the messaging of patriarchy as a whole, it’s hard to see how Mr. Rogers would in any way seem like a threat.

In fact, though, he definitely was—and I would argue that Du Mez’s book combined with Brene Brown’s work shows why (and if you’ve seen any of the Mr. Rogers’ documentaries, they touch on this material as well, a bit).

But yeah, as Brene Brown reports in Daring Greatly, the male shame message relates to not allowing oneself to seem vulnerable—and it’s pretty clear from both Daring Greatly and Jesus and John Wayne that the “real man” message, both inside Evangelicalism and in secular versions, outsources vulnerability to the women and other “vulnerable populations” it claims to protect.

How Evangelicalism “Spiritualizes Up” Standard Toxic Masculinity

In short, militant masculinity in Evangelicalism “spiritualizes up” the ordinary damaging cultural idea that men are without vulnerability—which, as Brene Brown points out in her book, paradoxically leaves men more vulnerable.

As Du Mez’s account shows, this denial of vulnerability also is extremely dangerous, both to men and to others they see as a threat. It deeply deeply hurts many other populations as it seeks to attack those who do show vulnerability. (As I said toward the beginning of the article, this bears out what interdisciplinary stress research shows about zero-sum distributive approaches to conflict being literally unhealthy.)

This “real man” form of masculinity based in shame is extremely irrational as it targets anyone else who shows vulnerability or “femininity,” or who advocates for the worth and equality of the vulnerable in any way. It sees them as a threat.

Fred Rogers’ show really did deeply disrupt this messaging. He offered a conflicting model of masculinity, via a deeply popular show, that didn’t shame others—an assertive one claiming that everyone deserves to see themselves as having inherent worth and claiming dignity. It was an incredibly assertive message, delivered by a man who wasn’t afraid to show vulnerability. No wonder white Evangelicals saw it as a threat.

Bringing it Back Around to the Continuing Need for the Assertive Spirituality We’ve Been Championing Here

I could go on for a long time, but for now, I want to bring this back around to how clear reading Jesus and John Wayne made it clear to me that we desperately need to continue to strive for assertive responses to the current situation in light of this spirituality of militant masculinity that’s now come to the point where it’s attacked the Capitol.

See, it’s clear, in light of all the evidence, that the attack at the Capitol, and the attitudes that raised a cross there alongside a Trump flag were not an anomaly. Removing the man whose name was on the flag from office won’t be enough to return our country to sanity, not with so many radicalized people in our midst. And as long as these distributive views are allowed to be at all dominant, integrative attempts toward the common good and asserting the value of vulnerability and genuinely caring for vulnerable groups may once again get sidelined, to the detriment of all.

In the same way, while assertive use of the justice system and of deplatforming white supremacist messages of hate and hopefully a move toward impeachment are crucially assertive responses to the issue, putting the insurrectionists who raised the cross and prayed after smearing feces in the Capitol definitely won’t reverse the destructive work this broadly based form of poisonous white supremacist militant masculinist religion has done within the domain of spirituality.

Why Assertiveness Is a Threat to White Male Spiritual Control

The thing is, this very idea of militant masculinity is built on the idea that, as I pointed out early in this article, male aggressiveness must win and others must lose.

Being assertive over and against such distributed views of conflict is absolutely crucial—being passive or “Christian nice” to ignore the deeply damaging violations that have occurred and in many cases are still occurring is like trying to put a band-aid over gangrene. It doesn’t really fix the real problem.

And let me be clear—if we are to assertively champion integrative spiritualities that stand up against militant masculine ones, we in no way are “as bad as” those who champion militant masculinity.

To accept that idea is in fact to reinforce the idea that distributive approaches are the only way, or to suggest that the persecution narrative white Evangelicals and their allies secular white nationalists suggest is in any way accurate. (Spoiler: it is not accurate to suggest that equity is persecution.)

Jesus and John Wayne Shows Us the Work Continues to Need Many Hands

And yes, it is absolutely fabulous that President Biden and other integrative leaders are busy at work making things literally healthier for us all. I’m very thankful for that.

That makes the work of us citizens a tiny bit less pressured just now.

But what Jesus and John Wayne has shown me even more than I knew before, is how d*mned much work is left to be done in this area. So let’s rest up when we need to, sure (and take time to read the book if you need to grasp how high and deep the task is!). But we need to continue our relay marathon toward justice and as healed and whole a world as we can make it, friends!  

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to keep speaking up against the toxic crap—including and especially all the varieties of this militant form of spirituality wherever we find it, and the passivity that supports it. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward speaking up for what’s right and dealing with the conflict that results?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you. It actually helps you with conflict both online and off. To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. As soon as we feasibly can we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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One thought on “Evangelicalism, Militant (White) Masculinity, and the “Threat” of Assertive Spirituality

  1. This takes us right back to the Golden Calf in Exodus and the basic problem with false prophets. It’s all painfully predictable because it was predicted over and over.
    America got lost in the ego trip “It can’t happen here.”

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