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One of the genuinely weirdest turns that fundagelical Christianity has taken in recent decades has been its bizarre emphasis on hypermasculinity and rejection of all that is even vaguely perceived as feminine.

I first encountered this strange focus when looking at the car of a co-worker some six or so years ago; it bore a bumper sticker that declared that “Real Men Love Jesus.” I stared at it in complete befuddlement for a while. I couldn’t even start unpacking the weird fixation on masculinity required to permanently deface one’s vehicle in this manner, or fathom what sort of insecure man would find that kind of message compelling or would make that kind of nonsensical, easily-debunked statement. The co-worker who owned the car in question was a quiet, lumpy, taciturn young fellow with one of those “I give up forever” lumberjack beards. He seemed like the last person in the world to have some definitive opinion about what constitutes a REAL MAN™. In reality, he was bossed around without end by his neurotic, high-strung little wife; they volunteered according to her wishes with a variety of youth camps and Christian causes, but I didn’t think she’d come up with the idea of putting that sticker on the car they shared. I’d never have guessed he’d feel moved to make such a statement as “real men love Jesus.”

Later on, I’d find out about Mark Driscoll and his similarly weird fixation on strongman, he-man, macho Christianity. His vision of a deeply sexist church headed by a super-manly-man macho pastor speaking for an equally super-manly-man macho Jesus is one of the aspects of his ministry that was most criticized back when he was still relevant in the religion–and one could well argue that it was that exact fixation on hypermasculinity that spelled the downfall of both his ministry and his relevance.

I don’t know exactly where it comes from, this obsession Christianity has with deciding who is a REAL MAN™ or REAL WOMAN™, but it seems like the roots of it were already taking hold in fertile soil back when I was Christian. Christianity as a whole sees a lot of life as a zero-sum–and dualistic–game: there are only two diametrically-opposed aspects of the game, and if one aspect of it increases, then the other by definition must decrease because the game can only contain so much at one time. So back then, women’s rights were getting more attention. I was already hearing rumblings from men that if women’s rights increased, then by necessity’s men’s rights would have to decrease. If women made strides in business, science, and industry, then men would by necessity be held back and be unable to make strides themselves. If a teacher began calling more often on little girls, then by necessity that teacher would be calling less often on little boys.

In some ways this vision of the zero sum is correct. The teacher only has so many questions to ask and so much time in which to ask those questions. There are only so many jobs to be had. But the men making these rumbling noises of discontent did not seem to understand that the reason men had gotten so many of those jobs and so many of those questions to answer was because they were getting them at the expense of the rest of the group’s members. That outsized share of the pie hadn’t been theirs fairly and equitably in the first place.

That said, other aspects of the game are not zero sum. Human rights are a major case in point there. If someone is a human being, then certain rights belong to that person. Recognizing rights for one group does not lessen rights for another group. I can tell that a big part of the fundagelical terror about LGBTQ people is a feeling that if LGBTQ people’s human rights become more widely recognized and exercisable (we do not say “granted” nor “given” because that is not what is happening–these rights are theirs, not anybody’s to grant or give–or take or withhold), then somehow–by magic, I reckon–fundagelicals’ rights will become lessened. When non-bigots marvel at how bigots worry so much about their own marriage rights being somehow lessened by the exercise of marriage rights by other groups, they’re not taking into account these bigots’ dualistic, zero-sum thinking. As the Bible verse goes, if one increases, the other must decrease–and that applies to everything in life.

Somehow this idea of a “feminized Christianity” began emerging around my era–and it was not an image of the religion that the people around me liked much. This kind of Christianity was a touchy-feely, non-confrontational, overly “nice,” overly-oriented toward social justice, and overly-emotional religious ideology, one that misogynists imagined was supplanting the very masculine conceptualization of Christianity they preferred. We see Christian leaders talking like this a lot nowadays. From fundagelical Mark Driscoll’s inchoate rage over “pussified” America to a Catholic archbishop whining about how the “feminized Church” is driving men away, it seems like this hatred of women and drilling-down on hypermasculinity is one of the few topics on which Christians at both ends of the Protestant/Catholic spectrum can agree wholeheartedly, the same way that fundagelical Christians might be absolutely pants-shittingly terrified of Islam but secretly admire how effectively Muslim men control “their” women.

I really think that one reason Biff–my preacher then-husband, for the new folks–got into the flavor of Christianity he did was because it offered him a very clear way to achieve masculine identity and gain respect as a man. He had been a bit of a, well, gormless, aimless loser when I’d met him, a conjob wandering in search of his big con; like a lot of narcissists do, he talked a really big game–but his egocentric expansiveness covered up a gaping maw of insecurity. We’d been dating before he converted, but even so, I was astonished at how quickly he slid into that mindset of a sexist Christian man pushing “complementarianism” as THE BONUS PLAN™ for women. Even his mother told me once that she didn’t know how I put up with the incredibly sexist pig her son had turned into and insisted he sure hadn’t learned that attitude from his parents.

I knew he hadn’t. I knew perfectly well where he’d gotten it from: a church that recognized (correctly, it must be conceded) that women’s rights were a huge threat to the hierarchical power structure that lies at the heart of both evangelicals’ and fundamentalists’ view of the world. But neither Biff nor I realized that the threat wasn’t just the obvious one–that women would refuse to play second citizen to men. There was a far more insidious but further-reaching threat under the current of the waters: that men, too, would reject sexism for themselves. It took a little more time for that threat to reach the surface. Once it did, it broke with full force. At that point, it became almost as important for Christian leaders to dictate how men should act as it was for them to try to control what women did.

When I saw this stuff on Christian Nightmares about some bodybuilding evangelical ministry called “Power Team” running around in the early 1990s using feats of showmanship and flimflammery strength to win overly-trusting young people to Christianity, it really took me back. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when young Christians were gullible enough to equate “breaking blocks of (likely doctored-up) ice” with “Jesus is totally real and awesome, dude,” but I can totally see some of the young Christians I knew in high school and college getting into that sort of thing. It was a really heady time, so stuff that would get side-eye from all but the most overenthusiastic of Christians was embraced without questions back then. This unthinking acceptance of sexism wouldn’t happen today without a lot of pushback (a lot of it from Christians, I’m happy to say; I’ve seen ’em do it)–sort of like how if a movie came out today with a dramatic climax involving a date-rape, people sure wouldn’t take that as an expression of zany comedy or be okay with seeing that rape victim cuddling up adoringly with her rapist on the movie’s poster. Stuff like that is inherently a product and expression of its time. Take it out of that context, and it suddenly looks grotesque and weird. Well, that’s how bodybuilding-and-hypermasculinity-for-Jesus looks nowadays to most folks: a relic of a bygone age.

I can’t especially blame bodybuilding “ministries” for capitalizing on an aspect of their own time: evangelicals’ emphasis on masculinity as an inherent expression of Christianity. Here’s a great article at JSTOR about how these sorts of ostentatious displays fit into the evangelical model and why they succeeded so grandly at it. As its author points out, “muscular Christianity” wasn’t even originated by Power Team’s founder; back around the turn of the century it was being pushed by Billy Sunday, one of the religion’s most successful evangelists, who was himself an ex-professional athlete in that most masculine of professional sports at the time, baseball. To some extent, these kinds of displays have always appealed to a certain segment of Christians.

Before the NABF Bodybuilding Nationals
Before the NABF Bodybuilding Nationals (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But in the 1990s, as women’s rights slowly became accepted by Americans and started looking like an increasing threat to the power structure of evangelicalism, this manly-man Christianity found a new resonance among young men who maybe felt threatened and challenged by the loss of just a little bit of their onetime dominance. By the time I landed in fundamentalism, that extreme thinking manifested in a supreme distrust of women wearing men’s clothes or doing men’s jobs, or trying to steal men’s authority. Even back then, when I was a die-hard, true-blue, gung-ho Christian lass myself, I thought it was a little suspicious that “Jesus” so completely shared my religion’s leaders’ obviously-unjust opinions about women.

Too late, Christians themselves have begun to notice what is happening. I’ve seen some startled opinion pieces about some of the worst examples of this obsession with maleness, and a few worried-sounding pastors trying to figure out how to spin sexism in some sort of positive light to keep people from rejecting it. Here is just one piece that admits that why yes, absolutely, young people see conservative Christian views as hugely sexist as well as bigoted, racist, and homophobic, but in the same breath “makes no apologies” for holding doctrines that are seen that way and clearly is only fretting about finding a way to communicate those ideas without alienating outsiders. This is the general tenor of what you’ll encounter from leaders who even sense at all that sexism is cutting into their bottom line: Men are like this; women are like that; they should interact just-so; and by wild coincidence, Jesus totally agrees. There simply must be a way to say that without pissing off every compassionate person who hears it.

Despite these infrequent and weak warning calls, the tide doesn’t appear to be turning anytime soon–and really, Christians have only themselves to blame for this one. For about thirty years they’ve been busily polarizing their people into increasingly extreme expressions of sexuality and gender. I almost wonder if they were starting a fight they were sure they’d win, much like bullies tend to pick on kids who absolutely can’t defeat them in a fair fight. Well, it backfired; sexism is now one of the major reasons Christians give for leaving the religion–and the younger the people involved, the more likely they’ll reject Christianity’s party lines about both sexuality and gender, even if they’re Christian themselves. And even so, many Christians still cling to those platforms.

Not much gets so many Christians (especially men) quaking in their booties like confusing grayscale vagueness, especially as touching gender and sexuality. The nice thing about Christian sexism is that it gives very clear definitions and behavioral guidelines about everything in life, especially the stuff that is changing rapidly in the real world, and especially the stuff that that spells big changes for Christian culture itself. Though people tend to focus on how Christian sexism treats women, men obviously are distinctly impacted by it as well–and not in a good way. I noticed even as a Christian that many of the men around me largely defined themselves by how not-womanly they are (which itself relies upon a definition of womanhood that is, at best, overly-simplified, insultingly condescending, and essentialist). So if women stop fitting into those definitions Christians envision for women, then it gets a lot harder for men in that culture to define themselves; we see that thinking in operation when Christian leaders snidely ask who wears the pants in a marriage when women get too uppity, and when ignorant people ask lesbians which one of them is the ‘man’ in the relationship.

A big part of the problem is that evangelical Christians tend to need a lot of structure in their lives, and also don’t cope well with uncertainty.  Without those markers and boundaries, without those limits, without those carefully-drawn lines, people who have a high need for structure and authority start feeling adrift and uncertain. I can’t imagine a worse group of people to encounter a sudden sea change in how men and women alike view themselves and their proper roles in society, or a dramatic shift in how relationships work, than a group that needs a lot of structure and can’t deal gracefully with change. Christians like that are operating under a paradigm that can’t be questioned or altered without risking eternal punishment. Often their response is to drill down even harder on the faulty paradigm, to the point where that paradigm ends up looking like a comical caricature–and where men and women start looking like cartoon versions of the real thing. Ideal womanliness starts looking like a cartoon fusion of Angelina Jolie and June Cleaver, while ideal manliness starts looking like a cartoon fusion of Conan the Barbarian and Atticus Finch. Real men and women who can’t contort themselves into those models get seen as less-than in a great many directions–like I was for not being able to conform to it, and like many men I’ve talked to since deconverting felt like for not being able to be manly-man enough.

So groups like Power Team descended upon a Christian America eager and ravenous for the exact brand of extreme machismo peddled by these testosterone-addled,  corn-fed, bull-necked hulks. At first it caught on like gangbusters. Thanks to clever showmanship and a studied manipulation of audiences’ emotions, money poured into the hands of these evangelists. They hit a chord with their target. Judging by the numbers involved, it seems to me that the only reason I hadn’t really heard of them was that I was Pentecostal–which means I didn’t get into television or sports, and certainly wouldn’t be caught dead at what amounted to a wrestling match. I held such ostentatious displays in deep contempt and thought that if someone “got saved” as a result of this sort of hot-dogging, it wouldn’t stick very well–and would probably involve a flavor of Christianity that I didn’t approve of anyway. I sure couldn’t imagine “the original church,” this nebulous concept I had of the earliest incarnation of Christianity, involving strongmen flexing their oiled-up biceps and grunting and panting into carefully-positioned microphones as they broke handcuffs and roared at misbehaving audience members. I find myself looking at the photos and writeups of these displays and even now I’m just astounded that anybody ever thought this was how to convert people and get them closer to “Jesus.”

As the rest of America got tired of the all-manliness, all-the-time, always-on model of masculinity and moved on, groups like Power Team faded in relevance as well. Their one schtick was no longer valued like it had been, and they floundered as they sought to find another angle to get the money flowing again. The leader of Power Team ended up divorcing his wife under rather quiet, understated, carefully-guarded conditions–and he declared ministerial and personal bankruptcy as well, though the judge was, according to Vice, less than impressed with the personal part of that claim, all but flat-out calling him a baldfaced liar to his face (sort of like how the Kitzmiller v. Dover judge talked about the Creationist school board members in his famous decision; a pity that liars-for-Jesus don’t seem to possess any sense of shame).

Let us hope that the fading of this brand of outsized, overstated, overblown masculinity is a sign that some of Christianity’s other sexist leanings are also fading. It is genuinely heartwarming to see so many Christians rejecting this kind of sexism. I hope it continues.

A final thought:

If you can, do read that JSTOR link (you can sign up with them for free now!–and it’s an amazing clearinghouse for these sorts of scholarly pieces) for info about how they rigged their tricks and stunts to better awe the masses, and while you’re reading, be thinking about something its author only hinted at but which would have sprung out at me immediately even back then (I hope): Why does it seem like such evangelists know instinctively that “Jesus” isn’t a strong enough sell? Why do they need all these bells and whistles, all these fog machines and gadgets and stunts, to sell something that is supposed to be a real live god who passionately loves and cares about humankind?

Indeed, that was one argument deployed to devastating effect regarding Scholastic book fairs‘ marketing tactics: that giving kids presents for doing the right things sends them the message that doing those things is not, in and of itself, satisfying and rewarding. Rewarding children for getting good grades, eating healthy foods, behaving themselves when out and about, and reading books tells them that they should do those things for the bribe they’ll get for doing them, not because those behaviors are constructive and healthy. I see the same stuff going on in a big chunk of Christianity, and I’ve often heard young people say that when they got older and graduated from their youth groups to “grown-up” church, they really struggled with that transition. People don’t turn 18 (or complete their indoctrination classes!) and magically stop expecting, wanting, or caring about bribes.

And non-believers might already know this stuff, but it seems a little weird that Christians themselves might be making such an implicit declaration about the necessity of showmanship to sell their religion to the unwary.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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