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The Christian Right's Masculinity Problem
Forging an army of manly warriors
There’s a diagram that’s instantly familiar to a good many people who have been educated as evangelical Christians. It was originally designed and disseminated by Bill Gothard, a disgraced former titan of faith-based homeschooling, and founder of the infamous Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), and it’s spread, as memes tend to, across the world of patriarchal Christianity.
The diagram itself is simple enough. It shows a downpour cascading over three umbrellas of decreasing size, each one sheltered by a larger one. The largest one is labeled “CHRIST,” the second “HUSBAND” (underneath the “HUSBAND” umbrella, the text “PROTECT FAMILY” and “PROVIDE FOR FAMILY” offer helpful pointers); below the husband, a smaller umbrella reads “WIFE,” under which the labels CHILDREN, MANAGERS OF HOME are affixed. Alongside being an accused serial sexual predator and creator of dubious educational propaganda, Bill Gothard is a huge fan of very detailed diagrams: in other cartoons, he labels the umbrella “God-Given Authority” and the rain “Destruction.”
Gothard’s diagrams are as simple as a knife. Without a husband’s God-given authority, a wife is doomed to destruction, as are her children. Only Christ reigns above the husband, shielding him; to step out of the umbrellas of protection, as he calls this model, is to face annihilation. For evangelical men, the reality is strait forward: adhere to a model of forceful masculinity, control and dominate women in the guise of protection and provision, and make damn sure not to step out of line, or, as God once said to Adam, thou shalt surely die.
Gothard’s teachings were made famous by the Duggar family, the stars of a long-running reality show on TLC called “19 Kids and Counting”. The curriculum, laid-out in the IBLP’s “wisdom booklets”, is a motley collection of homilies, proverbs, anachronistic math, frankly racist sketches of history, and a continual fixation on sexual purity. In one booklet, children are encouraged to identify “eye traps” in the outfits of cartoon women, such as the low necklines and sheer sleeves designed to draw sexual attention. These models extended far beyond the Duggars; they percolated throughout fundamentalist communities across the United States, providing a rigid and unbending model of the family, a model that millions of Americans were raised in — and are emulating as they begin their own families. In these families, feminism is a four-letter word.
One of the signature achievements of feminism — that of no-fault divorce, which means that, with a minimum of legal fuss, women could free themselves from oppressive, abusive, or simply unfit marriages without having to prove misconduct or infidelity in a court system — is a popular subject of Christian ire. It took a four-decade fight —from 1969 to 2010 — for no-fault divorce laws to be imposed in all fifty states. These laws resulted in dramatic decreases in domestic violence, suicide, and femicide. And in certain states, they are under attack.
In its 2022 platform, the Texas Republican Party, which holds majorities in both chambers of the state’s legislature, inserted a clause asserting, “We urge the Legislature to rescind unilateral no-fault divorce laws, to support covenant marriage, and to pass legislation extending the period of time in which a divorce may occur to six months after the date of filing for divorce.” (Those married under covenant marriage are only able to divorce under certain conditions, such as legally provable adultery or sexual abuse.) Under such a mode of government, femicide is merely an incidental issue — one that certainly does not usurp the sanctity of marriage between, as the GOP so fondly and frequently repeats, one man and one woman — with the man firmly in charge.
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Across the country, other state Republican parties have adopted opposition to no-fault divorce as part of an overall platform built of God-drenched planks, which ooze bigotry, zealotry, and a general air of holy-roller opprobrium. The Nebraska GOP, for example, offers its opposition as a defense of civilization, and a hostility to the federal government couched in religious values. The “Family” landing page for their party platform outlines this interrelated series of Christian values: the right to ignore federal law for the sake of religion; the notion of an indivisible, heterosexual nuclear family as a kind of societal self-defense, in which women free from male control are in essence hostile free agents.
“The Nebraska Republican Party affirms the family as the natural and indispensable institution for human development. A society is only as strong as its marriages and families, for the family nurtures those qualities necessary to maintain and advance civilization. We believe no-fault divorce should be limited to situations in which the couple has no children of the marriage. We believe that the citizens of each state have the right to define marriage in their state and that the usurpation of that right by the U.S. Supreme Court was wrongful. We believe that the institution of marriage is crucial to the American family and that marriage should be defined as the legal union of one man and one woman.”
Such positions are echoed by — or originate from — the beating heart of fundamentalist Christianity’s largest institutions. “God hates divorce in every case,” Gary Chapman, the head of evangelical juggernaut Focus on the Family, intoned into a microphone in a 2019 YouTube video for the organization’s quarter-million YouTube subscribers. In every case, regardless of assault, abuse, infidelity, even sexual abuse of children. It is the wife’s duty to repair a broken marriage — to pray for forgiveness for her anger; to offer her husband the comfort of on-demand sex; to refrain from criticism; and to preserve through passivity and suffering the holy sacrament of marriage.
As the historian Caroline Shanley put it, the whole crusade is part of a broader attempt to place women firmly under male control, and to determinedly annihilate both their bodily autonomy and their equal citizenship. “Women of the 21st century are currently living through direct, concerted attacks to their rights including reproductive choice,” Shanley wrote for CNN this year, as abortion bans rolled through states about as often as tornadoes, and left more destruction in their wake. “This renewed assault on divorce shows how quickly purported concerns about marriage can become a proxy for a conservative agenda that wants to reinforce women’s subordination to men.”
Even beyond the bonds of marriage — which are solid as iron and quite as restrictive — contemporary evangelical Christianity in the United States has plenty of ideas about what being a Christ-like Christian man is all about. It will come as no surprise that most of them have very little to do with, say, developing skill at carpentry.
There are many definitions of being “Christ-like” across the broad spectrum of Christianity, but in fundamentalist contexts, the qualities held up for young men to emulate aren’t all contained in sermons, parables, or the hill of Calvary. To be a man of God doesn’t require loving your neighbor as yourself. One must be a leader on earth: a leader of one’s family, in the church hierarchy — rarefied heights where no women reside — and among society at large, too.
One example of a kind of near-cartoonish masculinity vouchsafed to me by a former evangelical is the curious troupe known as the “Power Team,” a group of extremely burly men who travel between churches and schools, bedecked in brightly colored muscle shirts, performing “feats of strength” (often involving either lifting or breaking large pieces of wood) along with devotional skits to enthrall the congregation.
Their photo gallery is full of bulging muscles, flashy sweatsuits and smoke-machine fog. The power of God can melt hearts, it seems, but it helps if it can also shatter blocks of concrete with a meaty, sunburned fist. They call their performances “crusades.”
A less flashy, if more well-known, example of Christian manly virtue comes in the brotherhood-cum-social movement known as the Promise Keepers, an organization for faithful men willing to renew their bonds with fellow manly-man Jesus Christ, in a particularly masculine way. Founded by a former football coach in 1990, the group routinely holds large, ecstatic meetings across the country, filling stadiums and halls usually used for the less godly pursuits of monster truck rallies and heavy metal concerts. The men-only organization holds its brethren to seven Promises, among them “practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity.” Promise 4 asserts that “A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values.” The verses cited to support Promise 4 are unsurprising: Proverbs 22:6, which instructs parents to “train up” their children; and Psalm 127:3-5, which compares children to arrows in a warrior’s quiver, and blesses the man who fills his up.
Among some fundamentalist sects, the notion of “manly men” — what the scholar Kristin Kobes du Mez describes as the John Wayne model of cowboy Christian masculinity — takes on darker tones. In her book Jesus and John Wayne, du Mez explores a model of fierce, authoritarian masculinity that has permeated evangelical communities for decades, expanding exponentially in the reactionary, militarized atmosphere of post-9/11 America, when a society-wide sense of civilizational warfare made evangelical men look back to models of militant Christianity, the Crusaders of the Medieval world chief among them.
Along the way, preachers began emphasizing that a man of God is a warrior, not just in the spiritual, but sometimes in the literal sense. You can see it in the ways the evangelical right embraces law enforcement — a cross and a Thin Blue Line flag are common lawn companions — and a military-first foreign policy; you can see it in the ways evangelical movements are often married with showy acts of violence, as when homophobic Christian commentators videoed themselves shooting up cases of Bud Light. You could see it on January 6, 2021, when a crowd, spurred on by the rams’ horns preachers were blowing, bum-rushed their way into the Capitol, and the foundations of the country rocked and swung and trembled like the hemp-rope gallows that had been set up on the Capitol Hill lawn. You could hear it in the chants in that very loud crowd — the ones that, having objected to the results of a democratic election, chose to fill the air with a new chant: “Christ is King!”
And sometimes it’s organized ahead of time, and the notion of being “warriors of God” becomes very literal indeed.
Just ask Mark Rogers, a former pastor at Harvest Time Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas, known online as “The Christian Gun Owner,” proprietor of a YouTube channel with thousands of subscribers. “The fact is that millions of responsible Christians across the U.S. enjoy shooting and hunting,” Rogers writes on his website, christiangunowner.com. “The true Christian gun owner believes he/she is to be a servant to humanity. But that belief does not extend to being a doormat to those who refuse to live by the rules of reasonable human behavior.”
Drawing on his faith, Rogers declares that Christianity need not be equated with passivity — nor does being fully armed at church detract from one’s faith. “Civil law and order is Biblically assumed to be something we are all to be participants in,” he writes. “That civil law and order involves the use of weapons by police and the utilization of weapons by all citizens were legal.” In a section dedicated to would-be armed-security leadership, Rogers reminds the reader that “That confrontation could result in them having to take a life. Are they prepared to do so if necessary? Discuss this from all possible perspectives.” And pray, if you can fit it in.
To return to the infamous Bill Gothard: Alongside his umbrellas of protection, the man had another task for Christian boys: to join his militia. A.L.E.R.T (Air Land Emergency Resource Team — the man loved his acronyms) has some 2,600 alumni since its founding in 1994. “Our alumni are all over the US and world,” the website reads. “ALERT alumni are currently serving as pastors, businessmen, entrepreneurs, and members of the military, special forces, and local police and fire/EMS departments, using the training they received here to serve their families, churches, and communities.” The glossy photos on display show something of a mix between Full Metal Jacket and church camp.
Of course, an unaccountable organization run by religious authorities responsible for not just the spiritual salvation, but also the corporal needs, of a large group of young men has run into trouble, now and again. Jeri Loftland, a former Gothard Disciple who ran the blog Heresy in the Heartland, alleged that students in the ALERT program faced extreme punishments, as well as medical neglect. In one case, she alleged, “a unit of under-dressed teen boys was forced to stand outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures at night until one confessed to a minor infraction.” Other, anonymous alumni report medical neglect — such as being forced to hike on a knee so swollen that a doctor outside ALERT subsequently administered steroids — and abusive training consisting primarily of yelling and screaming, honed to a fine pitch designed to shatter a boy and mold him again in a more obedient image.
Men march into the ceremony as graduates and leave as Units. The whole thing is modeled after the military, after all, though it isn’t accountable to any government, nor any civilian payroll, nor, indeed, any oversight whatsoever outside a sprawling campus in Big Sandy, Texas. They are responsible to Christ alone. Let loose on the world, forged into men by all that severe discipline interleaved with Gospel truth, they are entreated to take up the positions of authority and power they have earned through all those ropes and verses. They number in the thousands, and the number keeps growing. Every thirty weeks a Unit graduates (graduation followed by banquet). Ready to spread the Word, by any means necessary. Ready to march.
ALERT is hardly the only “Christian Boot Camp” in the country, though its Gothard branding may make it the most infamous. Another “boot camp,” adopting liberally from military culture while staying firmly within a divine (and tax-exempt) context, is based out of Calvary Chapel, an evangelical juggernaut with branches “planted” across the world, though the first was born out of the “Jesus Freak” Christian pseudo-hippie movement in Costa Mesa, California, in 1965. Among the many ministers leading Calvary Chapels is a bluff, square-jawed man with the rock-solid name of Chet Lowe, and hair so solidly styled it looks ready to withstand hellfire. Chet Lowe has, he writes in his official Calvary Chapel South Bay biography, dedicated his life “for the sake of the Kingdom.”
As a leader, Chet has many passions: an urge to heal the sinful nature of man through the grace of God; to salve the world under the influence of the divine; and to send as many people as possible into the deepest wilds of California and Peru for his sixteen-week Patmos Intensive, “a 24/7, 16-week adventure of faith and tithe of time to the Lord where students are taught lessons based on the discipleship style of Jesus.” (It’s named after St. John of Patmos, the author of the Book of Revelation, the bestselling book of prophecy of all time and featuring a great many flaming deaths and multi-headed entities.) It was founded in 2005, in an attempt, Lowe wrote, to create “radical disciples.” His methods, as it turned out, were radical too.
Former attendees spoke with independent Christian media outlet The Roys Report, which focuses on uncovering abuse and corruption in churches across America.“Patmos used firing squads and middle-of-the-night chases by ‘Muslims’ to make them rely on God,” former students said, leaving some traumatized and some questioning their faith. One said she left the camp in a wheelchair, another that he was forced to survive alone outside in the snowy mountains for four days with only communion wafers and grape juice.
Ashley Ruiz, a former staff member, explained that the camp was designed to break people down, and it did. “Patmos was a constant barrage of sleepless nights, constant physical labor, intense workouts and ridicule,” wrote one former attendee in Christian outlet The Phoenix Preacher. “Their intention was to destroy who we were, so that we could be built back up on the foundation of Christ. But they spent all their time tearing us down, and never bothered to build us back up again.” The former disciple described public “shaming sessions.” When the person expressed a desire to commit suicide, she alleged, Chet Lowe told them he could get a knife from the kitchens and slit their wrists, if they wished. The person didn’t. They slept on a pew in a sleeping bag, and wept.
Of such methods is muscular Christianity — the kind poised to leap at the world’s throat, if ordered to do so — made.
And it always, always, redounds back to where it began, in that backlash that started hissing through the air as soon as the ‘70s feminists started saying they were getting out of the kitchen unless it was going to be as professional chefs, and the tail of which is still arcing through the air, ready to slice flesh. It redounds back on women, God’s designated underclass, against whom, above whom, masculinity truly finds itself, with a mandate from God and marching orders from those godly men who position themselves somewhere between heaven and earth, and have definite thoughts about hemlines, equal pay for equal work, and whether women — who are inherently property — can own their own bodies or not (they can’t, because chattel can’t, as a rule.)
If you ask former evangelicals, another model of what true Christian masculinity looks like crops up — not John Wayne, nor even Ronald Reagan. The model of contemporary evangelical Christianity is Mike Pence.
Pence: erstwhile Vice President chosen for his immaculate credentials with the evangelical crowd, there to smooth away the vulgarities of Donald Trump; a man who is a candidate for president in the 2024 contest despite the avowed desire of a great number of the Republican base to hang him as a traitor to his former master. And a man who once held power over an entire state —Indiana —and who did what a good Christian man would do in those circumstances: he created a plague among the unrighteous, and instituted draconian abortion bans and symbolic punishments, such as a requirement that any aborted fetus be formally buried or cremated at the family’s expense — because shame is a weapon, too, especially when it come in the form of a tiny grave.
He did it all without raising his voice, with that air of preternatural calm that comes easily to men who believe unshakably in their own righteousness, and believe they hear the voice of God speaking to them personally. That is evangelical manhood: poor, perhaps, at aping the swagger of the ungodly, but very good at grasping the reins of power, and even better at inflicting pain under an unwavering veneer of tranquility. All control starts with the self. And control is always the aim.
Mike Pence calls his wife “mother,” and he’s never alone with another woman, because women are temptation incarnate. He is very, very married, a man to a woman; he keeps the reins of power, and she keeps bees. And he would like — and would like to codify if he could — this tidy arrangement for everyone else, too.
If marriage is both institution and sacrament, it’s clear who is at the head: it is the man, and no union is legitimate besides that of one man and one, subservient, woman. As the feminist journalist Katha Pollitt put it in an analysis of opposition to no-fault divorce, it’s impossible to extricate this position from a deeply fundamentalist, and deeply patriarchal, authoritarianism. “For right-wing Christians, both divorce and abortion represent social decay,” she wrote in The Nation in 2023. “Families should pray together and stay together, with the woman firmly under the man’s thumb.”
The nature of the thumb under which women are pinned is linked to the nature of the man who wields it. Give a man absolute power, and you see what kind of man he is. Often he is a tyrant, in a small, homebound, heartbreaking kind of way. Because he thinks God made him a king.
This country is full of petty little tyrant-kings who never bothered to unlearn it. Some of them are making laws, and others are breaking them, and to others, mere earthly law is nothing compared to the great fiery codex of divinity. If it’s true about that strange tree of liberty — the one that drinks blood, they say, the ones always eager to spill it — it must be thirsty. It’s probably time to call in a phalanx of gardeners to take a careful look. Gardeners split the earth with their spades. But they heal it after.