Hawley is calling for a "revival of ... manhood in America." Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University professor and the author of Jesus and John Wayne, explains how masculinity is a political issue.



Senator Josh Hawley says he's defending men. The Missouri Republican spoke last week at the National Conservatism Conference. He attacked the political left, as many Republicans do, and alleged they are targeting masculinity.


JOSH HAWLEY: This is an effort that the left has been at for years now, and they have had alarming success. American men are working less. They're getting married in fewer numbers. They're fathering fewer children. They're suffering more anxiety and depression. They're engaging in more substance abuse.

INSKEEP: In a TV interview with Axios, Hawley said he wants to make this a signature political issue. We heard a critique of Hawley's speech from Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She is the author of an acclaimed book on Christian nationalism called "Jesus And John Wayne." It argues that white evangelicals embraced an idea of men drawn more from Western movies than from the Bible. She teaches at Calvin University, which is a Christian school in Michigan. When she read Hawley's speech, she said something was missing.

KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ: It's never entirely clear how he defines masculinity, even though he's quite certain that masculinity is under attack, and the left is trying to do away with real men. He uses words like courage, independence and assertiveness. He is calling on conservative men to step up to their roles as providers and protectors - protectors of faith, family and nation and to protect what he calls our culture.

INSKEEP: I want to ask how this compares to what's really going on in society because he seems to have keyed off of a Wall Street Journal article that interviewed a lot of men, and it's not the only article I've seen that's played on this theme. The September 6 article had the headline "A Generation Of American Men Give Up On College." And then there's a quote from a young man, I just feel lost. And they cite a real statistic that of college students right now, they're almost 60% women. Would you agree that something is going on or even going wrong there?

DU MEZ: I think that there are many challenges that the younger generation is facing right now, women and men. But there are a lot of assumptions that Hawley's making that the problems are caused by some sort of destruction of manhood or destruction of masculinity when we could look at, what are the expectations of masculinity that might be inappropriate, that might be outmoded that are perhaps exacerbating this crisis?

INSKEEP: I want to hear more of Senator Hawley's speech. Let's listen.


HAWLEY: It's hard to accept that the pathologies gripping so many American men are good for American society. I'd argue just the opposite. Now, this is not to say that American women aren't central to this story - far from it. American women have shaped our culture every bit as much as men, and their virtues are every bit as necessary to the success of our republic.

DU MEZ: He's drawing on these notions of gender difference that women and men are created by God in very distinct ways, often kind of pitted as opposites. So men are to be courageous and independent and assertive or aggressive, whereas women are made by God to be dependent, to be submissive, to be delicate. Men are protectors. Women are designed to be protected. And so these - this vision of gender difference really runs through conservative Christianity and through American conservatism more generally.

INSKEEP: I guess we should be clear. We're not asserting exactly what Senator Hawley's religious belief is. But you're telling me this is a very widespread religious belief, and this is how a lot of people would read that speech.

DU MEZ: Exactly. It would resonate powerfully with conservative evangelicals in particular and with conservatives more broadly.

INSKEEP: I'm obliged to note that Senator Hawley made enormous news on January 6, 2021, when he held up a fist to protesters outside the Capitol who were soon inside the Capitol in an attack on democracy. And Senator Hawley voted to object to the election in which Donald Trump was defeated. How does Donald Trump and his story match up with these traditional masculine virtues?

DU MEZ: Well, it's a bit of a leap. Donald Trump isn't generally seen as a particularly virtuous man, but here we have to understand that these traditional masculine virtues are in the service of white Christian nationalism, really. And that's clear that for Hawley, he's really using this militant language. And that militancy does sanction violence, and that would resonate with many among his base. We have survey data that shows the majority of white evangelicals believe the election was stolen. And of those, 39% believe that violence may be necessary to save the country.

INSKEEP: You know, if Senator Hawley were with us here - and I should note we've invited him on the program; he is welcome - if he were here, I wonder if he would take issue with a word that you've used. You said white Christian nationalism. Senator Hawley might say, I didn't say anything about race here. And in fact, he can point to his speech in which he refers to dads at Southwood High School in Shreveport, La. These are, if I'm not mistaken, largely African American fathers who were concerned about school violence and went into the school to sort of patrol the hallways. Why do you use the word white when you're talking about this Christian nationalism?

DU MEZ: Yeah. With this calling on men to defend our shared culture, in his words, he really does seem to be tapping into a distinctive notion of who real Americans are. And those are Americans who share his conservative values, not just around gender, but arguably also around what this country is supposed to be, what this country is supposed to look like. I think we do need to understand how these words that he's using resonate in particular ways with his base.

INSKEEP: One other question - we're in this period of really intense identity politics, as you know. And there are a lot of social narratives and political narratives in which white men are explicitly made out to be the bad guys. What do you think white men should make of that?

DU MEZ: I can understand that, and I think it could be frustrating in some cases. If you're looking to strengthen fathers, there are many ways that, you know, the left is actually working to do so, such as paid paternity leave and broader family leave policies - and that there can be ways to find common ground here rather than pitting half of America against the other half. And I think that white men actually have a really critical role to play in that respect.

INSKEEP: Kristin Kobes Du Mez, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

DU MEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.