I just finished reading Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Du Mez, which has taken some corners of American Christianity by storm in the last year. If you’ve not read it, her thesis in brief is that a militaristic, authoritarian brand of masculinity has been at the heart of the evangelical movement for decades and has fueled any number of its features, from purity culture, to abuse in the church, to Christian nationalism, and ultimately to Trumpism, which she sees as a feature, not a bug of the movement. She is a Christian, by the way, she was raised evangelical (reformed) and teaches at Calvin College, a reformed Christian school.
A lot of what she said about gender roles and how women are treated within evangelical cultures resonated with me. As a tall, big-boned, loud, outspoken, driven, career-minded woman, I never fit in, try as I might. It was very clear to me always that the ideal woman was petite, adorable, highly maternal, sweet, domestic, demure. I had many run-ins with men who found me threatening, although I was spared the more overtly sexist and demeaning treatment endured by some of my friends, usually women who dared attend seminary. I also definitely registered the idea that female sexuality was dangerous and that women were ultimately responsible for the sexual morality of men.
On this issue, a fun anecdote before I get to the actual point of this post. At my evangelical boarding school, there was a rigid dress code, complete with a swim suit inspection prior to the seniors’ annual beach trip. This was apparently necessary so that the boys in our class would not have impure thoughts. Because everyone knows that boys will never have impure thoughts gazing upon a teenage girl in a modest one-piece, but a bikini will turn all of them into rabid fornicators. This was also true for skirts more than two inches above the knee (measured from the ground while kneeling) and strapless banquet dresses. If you have no straps and more than the two inches, clothes start spontaneously rolling themselves up into little balls on the floor, and everyone begins having sex and going to hell.
The Swimsuit Inspection was part Miss America contest, part Spanish Inquisition. And really just a super fun time. You donned the swimsuit or swimsuits you planned to wear on Senior Safari and paraded in front of an esteemed panel of female staff members who included your dorm mom, your class sponsor, and any puritanical volunteers they could find. You had to walk toward them, away from them, bend over, squat, bounce, and do some light calisthenics. Then you had to get the swimsuit wet to determine its potential transparency. The judges carefully assessed whether there was any hint that you were a human adult female, and if there was, that swimsuit was a no. I was fortunate enough to bear little evidence of sexual maturity myself, but my more buxom friends had a heck of a time. They practically had to wear turtle-necked swimsuits. If burkinis existed back then, I’m sure they would have been mandatory. We made the best of things, crafting homemade beauty pageant sashes and crowns, doing our hair up nice and huge, and drawing pictures and messages all over our exposed skin (“Mombasa or Bust!”). But in truth, it was flat-out humiliating. The boys simply had to avoid speedos, which admittedly was a big sacrifice for the Europeans.
But back to the book/my larger point. The gendered themes are obviously central, but it was another more subtle, related point that really resonated with me. She documents the connection between patriarchal authority and a lack of accountability in a lot of these cultures and institutions. As part of that, tolerance for not only gross abuse but a more pervasive, more quietly destructive dishonesty comes to the fore. The book includes numerous, well proven examples of evangelical figures lying about their backgrounds, histories, accomplishments, behavior. Or the wholesale fabrication of anecdotes and narratives that prove the superiority of the evangelical cause or the wickedness of its adversaries. The collection of these that stands out was a group of supposed former jihadis who converted to Christianity and became evangelical heroes testifying to the evils of Islam. It turns out that, other than being originally from the Middle East, none of their stories were true.
I won’t go into details to avoid personally shaming anyone, but I witnessed this myself, particularly on the mission field. Usually not wholesale lies–although one case comes to mind of an entire “revival” being invented–more like slight exaggerations, analysis and interpretation presented as fact, tweaked statistics, telephonic tales that grew in transit. I myself confess to indulging in this, slightly amping up a spiritual experience to make it that much more miraculous and convincing of my faith. For me, this was usually claiming to be led by God to do something, even saying I had heard a voice or come across the perfect Bible verse at just the right time when in fact it was all much more muddled and complicated a process. As faith tends to be.
This is not something I ever really saw called out or corrected, as Du Mez also documents. If a Christian leader was caught in a lie or abuse, it was usually at the hands of some “secular” force that was painted as “out to get us.” At best, the offender was quietly sidelined. At worst, an entire infrastructure was erected to protect the (always male, but women also partake it these deceptions) leader. She includes some, to me, shocking examples of Christians I have admired giving some of these cases a pass.
This kind of dishonesty is all well and good because at the heart of the evangelical movement is the assumption that we are on the right side of a cosmic battle for humanity and morality, but more specifically for the white evangelical church to maintain dominion over a country they consider to be God’s chosen nation (which it’s just not, just from a purely historical standpoint, and evangelical curriculums routinely present inaccurate, distorted historical narratives to prove their nationalistic beliefs. But this deserves another whole post). Anything or anyone that exposes our weaknesses is a threat. In defending our cause, anything goes. It’s for the greater good. If I lie a little bit to help Jesus win the day, then so be it (Also, for the worst of the hucksters, if I can bring in a pile of cash and buy myself a mansion, that’s fine, too. Jesus would want me to have it).
On a more personal level, too, people’s experiences and feelings are discounted if they challenge the dominant narrative or power structure, and as a result, in my experience, evangelical Christianity often exhibits a stunning lack of empathy (I in fact recently observed a Twitter debate in which some evangelical participants argued that empathy wasn’t biblical). Abuse victims have been silenced or worse, made responsible for their own assaults. Women have been pidgeon-holed into confined roles and definitions of femininity regardless of their gifts. Black Christians have been told to sit down and shut up if they want to remain in predominantly white churches. LGBTQ people are told they don’t really exist, their realities and their loving relationships are the result of essentially demon possession. Homesick, neglected children at boarding school were (and thankfully this is no longer the case) told to suck it up so their parents could devote themselves to mission work. People in desperately unhappy or even abusive marriages are told they must endure. We have to maintain a united front here or Satan will win! We can’t give those heathen a single inch!
This distortion or denial of truth, lack of empathy for others’ experiences, and comfort with dishonesty in pursuit of “winning” is of course another huge intersection between evangelicalism and Trumpism. I have been aghast at the complete denial of fact and truth by people I have loved and respected. There have been several times when I have confronted a friend or family member with irrefutable evidence that something they have said or posted is not true, and their response has been, “Well, the larger point is true. Our enemies are bad, we are good.” Fox News is repeatedly caught spewing lies and, unlike mainstream outlets when they misreport things, rarely if ever issues retractions. Our intelligence community, which is comprised of apolitical civil servants, has identified streams of misinformation emanating from our worst geopolitical enemies and spread by the former President of the United States and his allies, and the response of many evangelical friends is to shrug and hit share. This has astounded and deeply disillusioned me.
But reading this book, a light bulb went on. This, too, is a feature, not a bug.
And it’s a damn shame, not just for the country and the faith that have been damaged, but for these Christian brothers and sisters themselves. Because the truth, in all its complexity and discomforts, is always better than a lie. Lies are so exhausting to maintain. And they always contain the seeds of one’s own destruction. Just for me personally, coming to a place in my life where I can tell the truth about myself and my faith is such a relief. I’m grateful I did so before my faith was completely destroyed, as I am convinced it would have been. Taking an approach to the Bible that does not require constant mental acrobatics in order to grasp both it and my experience in the modern world is a liberation. As a white person, studying and accepting the facts of American history is a burden lifted. Maintaining racist structures and ideals has been devastating and denigrating for our whole country. I can still love my country with its flaws, I can love it even more, just as I love my husband even more after 20 years even though I am now fully aware he is unable to throw away used paper towels. Relationships are always deeper and more fulfilling when built on an acceptance of truth.
You cannot have real reconciliation, real acceptance, real love, real healing, real justice, real faith, without first having truth. You can’t fix what you can’t identify as broken. You can’t grow fruit from a bad seed. You can’t cure a disease that has not been diagnosed. That is actually the heart of the gospel, that we present the full truth of ourselves to God, to ourselves, and to others, and we receive grace and forgiveness. And that sets us free.
I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said his burden is light. The truth can at first seem so weighty, more than we can bear. But with each step forward, it sheds pounds, it floats off our backs, and if we keep carrying it, it becomes wings.