From the moment COVID-19 arrived on U.S. soil, conservative Christian men across the country rose up to sound the alarm to their fellow Americans. In their view, the real threat wasn’t the virus, but the nanny state’s response to it. The government, they argued, would use the virus as an excuse to get what they’ve always wanted — control.
This was obvious when the government started shutting down churches. And so these men rose up. Anointing themselves as fighters for God and God-given liberties, they would go on to resist calls for lockdowns, shutdowns and mandates. And while just about every state supplied its share of fighters, few answered the call like the Lone Star State.
For instance, in March, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, made national headlines when he boldly declared that he was prepared to lay down his life for the sake of keeping the economy open if necessary. For months, Gov. Greg Abbott not only fought off calls for a statewide mask mandate but also prevented local governments from trying to enforce their own. When a salon owner defied Abbott’s order to close, fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz booked a flight and an appointment to get his hair cut at the infamous shop.
Only Rep. Dan Crenshaw, also a Republican, inspired more than 100 Texas physicians to sign an open letter pleading with him to stop undermining their efforts to save lives. Among their complaints was Crenshaw’s labeling of Harris County leaders as “‘fear mongers’ and ‘tyrants’ for implementing the same common-sense safety measures he’ll now pretend to support.”
Stories like these are not remotely surprising to historian Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who studies white conservative Evangelicals. Rather, the author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” said they are only the latest example of a phenomenon key to understanding life in Texas. And that is the embrace of what she has come to call “cowboy warrior masculinity,” which takes on its “purest form” right here in the Lone Star state.
Cowboy Warrior Masculinity
Based on the swaggering ethos of Teddy Roosevelt and John Wayne, this myth of Christian manhood first took root in white Evangelicalism in the 1940s, when conservatives were confronting Nazis and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal alike. It was around then the religious movement began to absorb this square-jawed protector-of-home-and-country version of masculinity into its theology, anointing it as biblical and God-ordained. What the white Christian man was protecting against would morph through the years, from Germans to Soviets to Arabs. Other times the enemy was closer to home, as in the case of Civil Rights agitators, hippies and feminists. Regardless of the menace, however, the cure was the same: a red-blooded cowboy for Christ.
In Texas, this equation between Jesus, freedom, and manhood explains why Gov. Greg Abbott boasted during his campaign that the accident that left him wheelchair-bound also left him with a spine of literal steel. Or why during his first year in office he ordered the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on a Navy SEAL/Green Beret training exercise after rumors swirled that President Barack Obama was planning a hostile takeover. Beyond Abbott, it is why when the governor finally did institute a mask mandate, sheriffs across the state lined up to announce they had no intention of enforcing it. Last but not least, it is why in 2016 white Evangelicals across Texas lined up to cast their votes for a twice-divorced, foul-mouthed reality TV star from Queens.
Common wisdom holds that these believers checked Donald Trump’s name, noses plugged, for the sake of conservative judges dedicated to protecting religious liberty and “the unborn” (i.e., fetuses, in an effort to deny women sovereignty over their own bodies). But Du Mez said that argument overlooks many of the group’s dominant traits.
“Evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it a pragmatic choice,” she writes in her book. Rather, it was the natural result of a group having long “replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ.” In short, white Evangelicals “did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.”
As prevalent and powerful as this mythology has become, Evangelicalism existed before the cowboy warrior and can exist after it. In fact, look closely enough and Du Mez, herself an Evangelical, believes some early cracks may be beginning to show — starting with the women.
For decades, Christian women have played the role of the nurturing housewife. Vulnerable, dainty and submissive, she is a damsel for whom the Christian male warrior fights. But what happens when that damsel gets Twitter and amasses hundreds of thousands of followers?
Based out of Houston, Beth Moore is nothing short of an Evangelical superstar. The pixie-size author and speaker with beauty-pageant hair has made a career out of teaching God’s word to other women through conferences, YouTube videos, a podcast, and more than 50 books, including audiobooks and Bible study workbooks. And while her operations are all housed under the entity Living Proof Ministries, she is not, by her own emphatic assertion, a minister. To claim a spot at that all-male table would be an attack on the patriarchal order ordained by God. Rather, she insists she is just a woman passionate about the Bible sharing her insights with other ladies. That she happens to espouse a traditional view on gender roles doesn’t hurt either.
By remaining inside these carefully drawn lines, Moore managed to sidestep any major controversies for decades. Then came Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood tape. Moore, herself a survivor of sexual abuse, watched in dismay as pastor after pastor shrugged off the Republican candidate’s lewd comments until finally, she couldn’t take it. The day after the leak, the Bible teacher fired off several short posts to her nearly 1 million Twitter followers. Among them was one that read: “Wake up, Sleepers, to what women have dealt with all along in environments of gross entitlement & power. Are we sickened? Yes. Surprised? NO.”
Right up until the moment she hit send “she was the perfect Evangelical woman,” Du Mez said. Overnight, that changed. “Men tried to discredit her.” One influential pastor told her to “go home.” But to no avail. If anything, the criticism seems to have only emboldened Moore, who has continued to speak out, be it about Trump, the #metoo movement, or, more recently, white supremacy.
Whether Moore represents a trend or an aberration is hard to say. But as Du Mez points out, “A lot of misogynistic energy is being directed toward her. She has a lot of enemies. And yet, she remains enormously popular among Evangelical women.”
There is other evidence Du Mez sees for believing Evangelical women are beginning to question the old gender stereotypes. “I hear from a lot of women who are saying, ‘This is not what I meant by my Christianity’ in reference to what’s happening around them. But many, many women are afraid to speak out. They don’t want to disrupt their families and their churches. They don’t want to be called out. They don’t want to make waves.”
This is a phenomenon Sarah Lowe says she’s witnessed firsthand. Raised Evangelical in California, Lowe moved to Texas in 2012 and quickly felt out of place in her new faith community.
“It was a big surprise to me when I moved and discovered that most churches in Texas, even if not Southern Baptist, tend to confine women to traditional gender roles and also don’t allow them equal access to leadership roles,” she said. What’s more, as a single middle-age woman with no kids she found it nearly impossible to eke out a place for herself not just theologically, but socially. Feelings of shame began to take root but when she tried to talk to other women, they dismissed her concerns as some kind of “California thing.”
Then came early 2019, and with it the onslaught of sex-abuse allegations against hundreds of leaders associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest and most influential denomination within the Evangelical tradition.
“That was really the catalyst for me,” she said about her decision to finally cut ties with the SBC. As painful as the choice was, she admitted it could have been a lot harder. “I personally feel like a lot of women silently struggle with sexism in the church but are afraid to speak up because they feel like their families and their relationships with their husbands are on the line.”
Dr. Beth Barr used to be afraid of, as Du Mez put it, “making waves.” Today a professor of medieval history at Baylor University, Barr’s assumptions about gender first started unraveling when, during her 20s, she entered a Ph.D. program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in medieval history. At the same time, her husband enrolled in the neighboring Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The result was a shared “whiplash” as together they realized the narratives they’d inherited about men and women were less the work of God than “sinful humans.” Nonetheless, it would be years before Barr would finally feel, like Moore, that she had an obligation to speak out on the subject.
Two events, both in the fall of 2016, led to this change in course. The first took place when she and her husband attempted to get permission for a woman to teach Sunday School at their church. The decision proved the last straw to her husband’s position as youth pastor, and they soon found themselves cast out from the community with whom they’d worshipped for almost 15 years. She was still reeling when, a month later, she watched in horror as the overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals threw their enthusiastic support behind Trump.
“That was a breaking point in my life,” Barr said. “That was the beginning of my activism.”
At the center of that activism has been her book, “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth.” Due out next spring, the text pulls together her own story with that of church history to explain that what the conservative Evangelical movement calls “biblical womanhood,” rather than ordained by God, is a product of human civilization that continues to creep back into the church.
Barr (and to some extent Moore) is not alone in her effort to use her own story to challenge the patriarchal status quo. The late Rachel Held Evans was something of a pioneer in this field, going so far as to spend a year baking bread, covering her head, and calling her husband “master” for her book “A Year of Biblical Womanhood.”
With her 2019 memoir “This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession,” Cameron Dezen Hammon is a recent addition to this group. Unlike Barr or Evans, however, Hammon is a convert. The singer-songwriter was in her 20s and living in New York when her friend baptized her in a lightning storm on the shores of Coney Island. Her hair barely had time to dry before she was on her way to Texas to be with her Christian boyfriend. The two married and made a career as musicians performing in worship services for churches in and around Houston. On paper, she was living the dream. And yet almost immediately, Hammon could feel something was off.
“Regardless of the denomination, this unconscious misogyny was always there,” she said in an interview. “It’s in the water, the soil — it’s in the DNA of the church in the South.”
In her book, Hammon recounts treatment by her fellow male Christians ranging from requests for her to make them a sandwich, to sexual assault. When she and her husband contemplated divorce, Hammon realized no pastor would hire her as a single woman. Aware that speaking out could cost her livelihood, not to mention her community, she remained silent. Then came the final blow.
After years of performing in various churches, she stumbled on one she finally felt at home in and agreed to perform part-time until the pastor secured the funds for a full-time position. When those funds did materialize, however, they went instead to her male friend, who the pastor hired to take her job. Shortly after, Hammon picked up a pen and started writing. The result is, as in the case of Barr and Moore, a withering indictment of this unchecked male privilege masquerading as God’s sacred order.
“This machismo-ing of Jesus has ruined Christian men for compassion and empathy and open-mindedness to the LGBTQ community, to sexuality on a spectrum,” she said in an interview. “It has nothing to do with Jesus, of course,” she added, echoing the other women’s conclusions. “It’s power.”
By speaking out against this power, these women aren’t simply undermining the culture of white Evangelicalism, but its theological underpinnings.
“There’s an uneasiness among those white Evangelical women informed by this Beth Moore approach of ‘God is love, Jesus loves you, let’s dig into God’s word and love everybody,’” Du Mez said. What has triggered that uneasiness ranges — as in the case of Barr, Hammon, and Lowe — from Trump, to treatment by pastors, to the revelations of sexual abuse, and beyond. Whatever its cause may be, Du Mez sees in this discomfort proof “of a powerful strand within white Evangelicalism that can run counter to this combative culture war faith.”
True, the two strands can also coexist, and indeed long have under the belief that “women are especially loving, which is great for them because they’re not tasked with leading the church and the nation.” By encouraging women to embrace these principles of gentleness and love, however, faith leaders have quietly nurtured an alternative form of belief that appears no longer willing to sit on the sidelines.
As Du Mez put it, “A vibrant women’s Evangelicalism has the potential to disrupt the status quo when it comes to Evangelical support for Trump, and the vengeful warrior caricature more generally.” All that needs to happen is for more women to be willing to take the leaps Moore, Barr, and Hammon have, and “speak and act with more boldness” in their “own churches and communities.”