A man standing outside a church with a Christian cross.

How have Christians perceived masculinity over time? What influences have shaped these views?

In Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Du Mez argues that evangelicals endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election because he was the paradigm of militant masculinity that became orthodox among evangelicals in the last century. She traces the history of Christian masculinity from the Victorian era on.

Read more for Du Mez’s historical assessment of American Christian masculinity.

Christian Masculinity

Kristin Du Mez is a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. We’ve organized her analysis of American Christian masculinity into several historical eras. We’ll discuss how the World Wars caused evangelical Christians to shift away from Victorian sensibilities toward a militant view of masculinity, the impact of the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s, the influence of Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan, and the aftermath of 9/11.

What Is an Evangelical?

Du Mez discusses what evangelicals are not—she maintains that they aren’t merely a group that shares a common set of theological beliefs—but she doesn’t explain what evangelicals are. Her lack of a formal definition of evangelicals is understandable since pollsters have long recognized the difficulty of determining who exactly counts as evangelical. Nonetheless, two broad types of definitions exist: a theological definition and a cultural definition.

According to the theological definition (which Du Mez rejects), evangelicals are individuals who accept certain core theological doctrines. In particular, experts have identified four key points that one must accept to be an evangelical: first, that the Bible is the ultimate, infallible authority that reveals God’s revelations; second, that Jesus’s crucifixion on the cross atoned for humanity’s sin; third, that Christians should encourage non-Christians to convert to Christianity; and fourth, that Christians ought to express the Gospel through activist works (such as giving to the poor). 

However, some others hold that the notion of “evangelical” also has a social dimension in addition to the standard theological account. According to this definition, evangelicals also accept politically conservative stances on a wide array of social issues, such as opposition to abortion and the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. Thus, this definition might lead us to conclude that Episcopalian Christians—who largely accept the same theological beliefs as evangelicals but take more progressive stances toward (for instance) LGBTQ+ relationships—wouldn’t qualify as evangelical. 

Victorian-Era Christianity

Du Mez points out that, throughout the 19th century, men mostly worked hands-on jobs such as farming or operating small businesses. Virtues like self-discipline were considered essential to masculinity. However, Du Mez maintains that this model of masculinity began to erode during the late 1890s, as the evolving US economy changed the nature of men’s jobs.

Du Mez says that, under 26th US President Teddy Roosevelt, a new brand of rugged Christian masculinity arose in response to this perceived threat. She notes that Roosevelt’s election in 1901 popularized his rugged concept of masculinity. It took on a distinctly evangelical flavor through the “muscular Christianity” movement.

How the World Wars Impacted Christian Masculinity

The horrors of WWI cooled the enthusiasm for militant masculinity, causing a shift toward the paradigm of the Christian businessman. Although WWI had robbed evangelicals’ hyper-aggressive concept of masculinity of its allure, Du Mez contends that the onset of WWII allowed this concept to rear its head again. She argues that, in the face of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, evangelical circles once more promoted militant masculinity.

This type of masculinity was deemed necessary to win WWII. In part to promote this masculine ideal, fundamentalist Christians—evangelicals who interpret the Bible as literal truth—created the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. Du Mez relates that the NAE’s cofounder Harold John Ockenga called for evangelical men to go on the offensive, both in the war but also domestically to evangelize the nation.

The Influence of Billy Graham on Christian Masculinity

Du Mez argues that the NAE wasn’t the most powerful evangelical force promoting a tough, militaristic masculinity. That title belonged to evangelist Billy Graham. Du Mez writes that Graham employed war and sports metaphors in his portrayals of Jesus to mass audiences. By the end of WWII, Graham had established himself as a preeminent defender of “manly evangelicalism.”

How the Vietnam War Shaped Christian Masculinity

Du Mez observes that, as the Vietnam War dragged on and the US failed to defeat the Viet Cong, many Americans grew disillusioned with US involvement in the war. Evangelicals, by contrast, drew a different conclusion, arguing that the US’s inability to defeat the Vietnamese stemmed from a dearth of masculinity among US soldiers. Du Mez reports that, to remedy this problem, evangelicals maintained that fathers needed to raise their sons to become rugged defenders of freedom.

The Pushback Against the Feminist Movement

As a reaction to the feminist movement in the 1970s, two sets of influential evangelicals—Marabel Morgan and Phyllis Schlafly on one hand, and Bill Gothard and James Dobson on the other—pushed back against feminism by defending traditional gender norms in marriage and in the nuclear family.

Morgan and Schlafly published influential anti-feminist books that spurred anti-feminist activism from evangelicals. Morgan argued that women ought to submit to their husbands to achieve domestic happiness because that was God’s intention for marriage (a belief known as complementarian theology). Moreover, because women ought to submit, Morgan concluded that men were required to become leaders in the domestic sphere. In a similar vein, Schlafly opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), arguing that the amendment falsely presupposed that women were oppressed and thus needed protection.

Du Mez relates that Gothard hosted seminars with over 200,000 evangelical attendees during the 1970s, teaching that societal problems stemmed from noncompliance with authority—problems that could be solved in the domestic sphere through unflinching obedience to fathers in the home. Likewise, Dobson—who founded Focus on the Family, an evangelical organization that sought to promote traditional family structures of male breadwinners and female housewives—emphasized the father’s responsibility to discipline his children with spanking.

How Reagan Influenced Christian Masculinity

Du Mez argues that Reagan’s victory over Carter in 1980 cemented the marriage between evangelicals and the political right. Du Mez suggests that what ultimately sealed the deal for Reagan with evangelical voters was his perceived masculinity. Whereas Jimmy Carter was often deemed a “wimp” by critics, Reagan seemed reminiscent of a cowboy, even owning his own ranch in California. Moreover, Du Mez writes that Reagan reinforced this masculine appearance by becoming the “tough on crime” candidate who wasn’t afraid to ruthlessly punish criminals.

The Evangelical Shift Toward “Soft Patriarchy”

Du Mez contends that the US’s lack of a concrete military opponent throughout the 1990s caused the militant concept of masculinity to atrophy. Instead, evangelicals promoted a less virulent but nonetheless patriarchal view of masculinity according to which men were divinely ordained to lead in the home as servant-hearted leaders—people who lead first and foremost through serving.

According to Du Mez, this shift originated in evangelical theologians John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s 1991 book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Piper and Grudem defended complementarianism, the view that God considered men and women to be moral equals but assigned them different roles. In particular, they contend that leadership in the house and the church was reserved for men.

While abstract, Piper and Grudem’s ideas had concrete consequences via the Promise Keepers, an evangelical organization in the late 1990s. Du Mez writes that Promise Keepers promoted complementarian ideas of “soft patriarchy” by exhorting evangelical men to become gentle leaders. Promise Keepers members often vowed to become better husbands and fathers by forsaking sinful activities like drinking and adultery and being present in their children’s lives.

The Impact of 9/11 on Christian Masculinity

Du Mez contends that the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 caused evangelicals to return to an aggressive, militant masculinity to fend off perceived threats from Islamic terrorists. As Du Mez relates, evangelical author John Eldredge argued in 2001 that, instead of being gentle leaders, evangelical men ought to emulate God—whom he took to be the ultimate warrior, not a meek noncombatant. According to Eldredge, violence was constitutive of masculinity.

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson advised evangelical fathers to foster their sons’ natural aggression, which he considered a fundamental benefit of masculinity. Douglas Wilson went a step further, arguing that men were entitled to the God-given right of dominion—that is, the right to power in certain domains, such as in the home and the church. Consequently, he reasoned that parents should teach their boys to embrace their internal drive to conquer and rule, which included teaching them how to physically subdue their adversaries in a fight.

The Election of Donald Trump

Unlike the other evangelical candidates, Trump explicitly tapped into the militaristic aspect of evangelicalism. To show as much, Du Mez points to Trump’s 2020 convocation speech at Liberty University—the US’s largest evangelical university, founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. During his speech, Trump asserted that Christianity was “under siege” and he would protect it by vastly strengthening the military.

Du Mez notes that the result of Trump’s support from leaders like Dobson and Grudem was striking: 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, propelling him to victory in a narrow race over Hillary Clinton. And, Du Mez argues, support for Trump didn’t involve hypocrisy for evangelicals but an expression of their deepest values—namely, the brash, militant masculinity that had been growing stronger for the past century.

Exercise: Reflect on the Evangelical Concept of Masculinity

Du Mez contends that the evangelical view of masculinity equates masculinity with virulence and militancy. In this exercise, reflect on the evangelical concept of masculinity and evaluate Du Mez’s arguments about it.

  1. Before reading Jesus and John Wayne, what traits did you most strongly associate with the evangelical notion of masculinity? Did Du Mez’s arguments align with your expectations?
  2. To what extent do you agree with Du Mez that evangelicals equate masculinity with militant brashness? Explain your answer. For instance, can you think of additional examples of evangelical leaders or policy positions that either back up or contradict Du Mez’s claims?
  3. In the future, do you think evangelicals will continue to support militant masculinity and politicians who espouse it, or do you think this view of masculinity will wane as it has at points in the past? Again, explain your answer.
A History of Christian Masculinity: From the Victorian Era to Trump

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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