Katie Ribbens – Staff Writer
Eyes turned to screens across campus and beyond for Dordt’s First Monday Speaker, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, played on Vimeo October 5th. While Kobes Du Mez planned to visit in April, due to COVID-19 she had to reschedule and became the first speaker to present virtually. As a Dordt alumna, she could relate to her audience well, but her speech was ill-timed.
With Election Day only a few weeks away and Sioux County still debating the New York Times’ “Christianity Will Have Power” article, the debate around faith and politics is a touchy one. Kobes Du Mez’s book, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation”, serves as another playing field for that discussion.
“We as a university, we have an imperative to embrace the controversies of the day to engage with them,”
In her presentation her criticism focused on militant patriarchal white evangelicals responsible for suppressing women and supporting Trump—a man that contradicted evangelical values. Kobes Du Mez begged to differ. She believed that he stepped into the very role white evangelicals prized.
“I was incredibly disturbed to observe [in white evangelical circles], year after year, one after another, we were preaching and promoting this militant model of Christian manhood that had become implicated either personally, directly, or indirectly in sexual abuse scandals,” Kobes Du Mez said, “I understood that this very militant brand of Christian masculinity in fact contradicted many of the teachings at the heart of the gospel.”
Lyle Gritters, a Dordt alumnus and former employee, lived through the decades Kobes Du Mez referenced as key points for militant Christianity to arise. She pointed to anti- communist ideals meshing with the evangelical culture. Gritters said he couldn’t relate to the culture she was describing.
“As I look back over the 50’s and 60’s,” Gritters said. “I don’t think we necessarily thought of it [communist threat] as a religious issue.”
Additionally, Gritters didn’t recall witnessing a militant patriarchy find a foothold in evangelical circles.
“We as a university, we have an imperative to embrace the controversies of the day to engage with them,” Scott Culpepper, a Dordt history professor, said. “If we’re going to be any kind of legitimate university, we have to tackle the hard questions.”
But rather than appearing with fists raised and ready for a fight, Kobes Du Mez diffused the situation with a smile and a few clarifying statements.
“The subtitle ‘How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith’ is making a bit of a normative claim,” Kobes Du Mez said. “One reviewer has called this book urgent and sharp-elbowed, and I think that is accurate.” By choosing a provocative title, she sought to help white evangelicals face some of their issues.
While the audience had prepared for disagreement, Kobes Du Mez came across less controversial than feared.
“As a historian she feels the need to provide a narrative that’s more factually based,” Jake Thorsteinson, a junior at Dordt, said of Kobes Du Mez. “Personally, I do wish that she came down a little harder.”
The controversy surrounding Kobes Du Mez’s book stirred up an important question: How do Christians deal with disagreement among themselves?
“Recognize that unity isn’t the same thing as uniformity,”
“Recognize that unity isn’t the same thing as uniformity,” Justin Bailey, a theology professor at Dordt, said. “How do we resist the cultural temptation to vilify people who disagree with us?”
When asked this question, Thorsteinson said, “I think some strategies you can use is just remembering that we’re all made in the image of God and just because they don’t understand, or they don’t come from your point of view is probably just because they have a different perspective and they have a different context that they’re living in.”
“These labels are so slippery,” Bailey said. “You might call someone an evangelical, and they might not even agree to the term.”
Kobes Du Mez was careful to point out that “white evangelicals” doesn’t fit into just one category and could be interpreted several different ways.
“When I think of ‘who is an evangelical?’ it really is somebody who has been shaped and formed by this broader evangelical culture, which includes theological ideas, but it also includes a kind of cultural identity.”
Culpepper blames a polarizing culture for the increased sensitivity to disagreement. He said he doesn’t believe Dordt should stop hosting speakers that might come across as controversial.
“It’s troubling that the culture has changed to the point that it seems like a lot of people have lost the sense of what the purpose of the university is,” Culpepper said. “We certainly want to support and affirm the principles on which the institution is founded. But those principles don’t do the larger world any good if you don’t take them out and if we don’t test them again.”
Leah Zuidema, vice president for academic affairs at Dordt, said Dordt doesn’t endorse everything a speaker says just because they give them a platform. Dordt hosts speakers so that students can get a special learning opportunity, not to push a political agenda.
“I don’t think that we go and seek controversial speakers,” Zuidema said, “I think that we look for people who are really engaging some of those challenging questions of the day,”