Hello and welcome! A few months ago, we talked about evangelicals’ reckoning with mental illness in their ranks. One flavor of Christianity seems especially vulnerable to this problem, too: bro-dude Christians. Today, let me show you what bro-dude Christianity is — and how it’s made toxic Christianity even worse.
(Disclaimer: Today, we discuss toxic Christianity. Obviously, quite a few Christians reject that mindset.)
Last year, Stephen Rodrick wrote an arresting story for Rolling Stone called “All-American Despair.” In it, he related the growing number of middle-aged white male suicides in America. He wrote:
The Centers for Disease Control recorded 47,173 suicides in 2017, and there were an estimated 1.4 million total attempts. Many of society’s plagues strike heavier at women and minorities, but suicide in America is dominated by white men, who account for 70 percent of all cases. Middle-aged men walk the point. Men in the United States average 22 suicides per 100,000 people, with those ages 45 to 64 representing the fastest-growing group, up from 20.8 per 100,000 in 1999 to 30.1 in 2017.
Rodrick uncovered some common elements to these deaths. Generally, these men tended to be loners. They resided in communities that lacked a strong social-support network. Worse, their cultures celebrated toxic masculinity, and passed those values on to these men.
As a result, Rodrick’s subjects aspired to be stoic, misogynistic, strong-willed, sexually-adventurous, and powerful. You know, like manly men. Like John Wayne.
Manly men thickly populate movies and Louis L’Amour books. Of course they do. In fiction, a creator can move pawns around in any direction on the board. In real life, though, that facade turns out to be much harder to maintain.
Regardless, many real-life men try hard to emulate these fictional characters.
In addition, one other element predominated the accounts Rodrick gathered:
I found something else: guns, lots of them. Guns that could be procured in an hour. A house where a wife did a gun sweep and found dozens hidden.
As I read that, a chill ran down my back.
The Promises They Absorbed.
Stephen Rodrick’s Rolling Stone article identified Midwestern culture as a common element in self-harm among white, middle-aged American men.
In that culture, men hesitate to talk about their problems. They see therapy as silly and unproductive. Even worse, they perceive even asking for help as emasculating. If they do seek help for their depression, they fear mockery or belittlement from their fellow men.
As Rodrick explains it, many of these men got sold a bill of goods as children and teens. When they were growing up, their entire society promised them great and exciting futures. But when they reached adulthood, those futures never materialized.
Instead of becoming the lords of their domains, they took Joe jobs in repair shops, oilfields, and trucking. As the value of workers’ wages fell further and further, the working-class paycheck that once guaranteed a man a comfortable life now didn’t even cover the household’s bills. Even the basic-1950s-family dream dissolved at the seams once these men’s wives joined the workforce to help — or divorced them. And then, the economy tanked. Even those inadequate jobs dried up.
Making matters even worse, middle age is about when people’s unhealthy lifestyles begin catching up to them.
As the years passed, life’s possibilities narrowed further and further. Now middle-aged, those men know those wonderful promises won’t ever happen. Not for them. Not ever.
The Great Lie.
Those men had been told a terrible lie. Fair or unfair, that kind of early indoctrination can have a devastating impact on someone later in life. The situation only worsens if that person lacks the emotional and societal resources for reconciling fantasy with reality.
(Of course, Christian women face their own lies. That said, I suspect they have better resources for handling their crushing disappointment.)
Instead of recognizing that it’d always been a lie, they blamed anybody they could for wrecking their lives: immigrants, Black people, women, libruls, whatever. Really, the identity of the scapegoat doesn’t matter and never did.
What matters to these men is finding the villains who’d stolen away their dreams.
Once they find those thieves, then they will punish them. Then, they will take what they feel they are owed by the universe. If that plan fails, well, a dark and steely escape hatch is all too easy to find.
Pinning the Tail on the Toxic Christian.
Over and over again, I found myself marveling that Rodrick didn’t drive the final pin into his map of toxic masculinity.
In the cultures he describes, toxic Christianity dominates most communities. Churches dot the landscape, competing for members and poaching Christians constantly from each other. Coffee-shops print Bible verses on their cups, while businesses plaster Jesus fish on their signage. When meeting a new acquaintance, people in these areas ask immediately where the newcomer attends church.
(The only excuse they accept for not attending church: looking for a new church home. In such cases, they immediately offer their own church as a solution to that pressing problem.)
In so many ways, the mindset Rodrick describes could be considered a playbook for a new and extremely virulent form of toxic Christianity.
Toxic Christians barely recognize mental illness as a valid problem. Instead, the leaders of these groups prescribe prayer as the only real solution for depression and anxiety. Often, they prescribe prayer for physical ailments, too, as well as the only preventive/vaccine that anybody ever needs.
In particular, ministers fear to seek real professional help for themselves. After all, their flocks would never stand for such a perceived insult to their faith.
And now, a big part of toxic Christianity embraces hypermasculinity and glorifies its extremes.
“The Feminization of Christianity.”
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)
For a very long time now, Catholics and Protestants alike have skewed female. Lately, that gap’s been narrowing. This trend is occurring not because Christians attract more men than women to their ranks, but because women are leaving their churches in greater numbers than before.
Of course, toxic Christians recognize religious trends a lot later than the rest of us do here in Reality-Land. They always have, and that’s if they ever do at all.
Accordingly, they’ve been fretting nonstop for years about what they consider the feminization of Christianity.
In 1999, one of them wrote a book on the topic called The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity. There, author Leon J. Podles (yes, seriously) argues that women have somehow “emasculated” his religion. Yes, women have totally turned churches into social clubs benefiting only themselves!
Podles warns that men must regain control of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches. If they don’t, then men will leave Christianity to create new and “horrifying” religions for themselves.
Now, he wasn’t the first writer to talk about this stuff, though he seems like one of the most strident of the lot. To be sure, he used really attention-getting and emotionally-charged language. And he got a lot of attention for it.
The Misogyny Floodgates Opened.
When a society’s god is male, its males become gods.
— Something I saw on Shakespeare’s Sister long ago (RIP).
Since Podle’s book came out, dozens of similar books have sprouted forth:
- Why Men Hate Going to Church, by David Murrow (2011)
- Man Up! Becoming A Godly Man in an Ungodly World, by a guy named Jody Burkeen (2011) (Note: At least one typo in its Amazon blurb. Correct spelling is for women, I guess.)
- How God Makes Men: Ten Epic Stories, Ten Proven Principles, One Huge Promise for Your Life, by Patrick Morley (2013) (Note: Cover photo depicts Army boots.)
- Man Up! The Quest for Masculinity, by Jeffrey Hemmer (2017) (This might be a new edition. Note: Cover graphics look militaristic.)
- Stand Strong: 365 Devotions for Men by Men, by Our Daily Bread Ministries (2018)
- Disciplines of a Godly Man, by R. Kent Hughes (2019)
- The Sword & Shield: A 40-Day Devotional Journey for Men, by Robert Noland (2019) (Note: Cover graphic depicts a stylized sword and shield.)
Uniformly, the language these writers uses sounds militaristic, even aggressive. Universally, their authors promise that men can achieve their frustrated (toxic masculinity) dreams by following their suggestions.
Disobedience to those suggestions? Guaranteed, that brings men only confusion, pain, and worst of all deconversion.
In this way, toxic Christians have fully adopted toxic masculinity. As a result, they take as read that women have totally wrecked men’s groove in churches.
In a very real way, they’ve adopted women as their scapegoat. Women have stolen men’s property. And thus, women must be punished. Christianity must be taken back from them.
Taking Up the Torch.
In response to this perceived problem of feminization, Christian leaders push the same kind of macho-man Christianity those book authors like best.
When I looked up the phrase “the feminization of Christianity,” I turned up a multitude of blatantly toxic-Christian blog posts:
A rave 1999 review of The Church Impotent, on the conservative Christian blog First Things First. Their reviewer thought it should be “commended.” Unfortunately, they didn’t like some of the more “silly” assertions in it.
Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig (WLC)(2013). After a female reader challenges his opinion, WLC responds at length. Money quote: “I’m very worried that the church is on a course that will end in relatively few men’s being active Christians.” He concludes by condescendingly informing “Alexandra” that he doubts she’ll change her mind after reading his reply. However, he’s still right, and she’s still wrong.
“If the church is ‘feminized,’ most men want out,” Terry Mattingly (2016). Mattingly is a professional Christian who looks like the Marlboro Man’s sleep-paralysis ghost. He complains about how Christians present concepts like “the bride of Christ” to men. Officially, the column describes a speech by none other than Leon J. Podles. Podles complains to his hardline-Catholic audience about “the message that was long given to men.” If you’re wondering, that’d be: “Only if men become like women can they become Christian.” Then, Podles blames women for turning church services into “dates with Jesus.”
CBMW.org, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (2006). They titled this one “Feminine Christianity turns men away from church, CBMW Executive Director says.” Accordingly, they blame sappy Boyfriend!Jesus love songs in churches and touchy-feely sermons for men’s dissatisfaction. They declare that this stuff’s “at least partially unbiblical.” As well, they express alarm at the rise of women becoming “more masculine.” They never define what that means. (My guess: female pastors and wanting equal rights.)
(Unbiblical is Christianese. It just means something that interferes with toxic Christians’ culture wars.)
The Rise of Bro-Dude Christianity.
In my own head, I began calling this variant of toxic Christianity bro-dude Christianity. It’s not just regular toxic Christianity. This variant adds in excessive stereotypically-macho posturing. Its men behave like space aliens who watched way too many John Wayne movies to prepare for their secret surveillance mission. Obviously, they fully expect women to put up with this act, even to love them all the more for it.
Bro-dude Christianity is marked by absurdly-exaggerated machismo and stereotypical male posturing and swaggering. Its leaders and fiercest proponents identify specifically as anti-feminist. They insist on rigid 1950s-style gender roles in their romantic relationships. They glory in absurdly-macho displays and engage in stereotypically-male hobbies like hunting, gun-collecting, cigar-smoking, and the drinking of artisanal liquor.
As one might guess, they prize well-tended lumberjack beards, dapper old-school clothing, and pretentious faux-intellectualism. Nowadays, when we encounter logical Christians who pride themselves on being good little rational Christians, unlike women and wimps who are so easily led away from the truth by their feelings, these will be men who’ve embraced bro-dude Christianity.
Bro-dude Christians’ most successful leaders have either served in the military or claim falsely to have served. They pretend to be cops. During their sermons, they bluster and bellow and beat their chests. They speak of a Jesus who in the modern day would own and love guns, eat lots of red meat, and be good with his fists. Their Jesus sees nothing wrong with shooting protesters or grabbing women’s pussies, and neither do his bro-dude worshipers.
Indeed, bro-dude Christians have no use for a meek, peaceful, loving Jesus. And even less use for meek, peaceful, loving men.
And Its Dark Side.
The leaders of this movement certainly get embroiled in the weirdest, most outrageous scandals imaginable. One such chucklenut got arrested in February for firing a gun at someone in a road rage incident. He still pastors at his church. Because of course he does.
Other pastors openly encourage congregants to bring their guns to church. Still others even give guns away as incentives to attend. Regularly, at least one church offers Wrestling Night. The one in that link asks men, “Are you becoming the man God created you to be?”
That’s not even getting into the constant string of sexual scandals coming from the ranks of those leaders.
Of course, the lizard king of bro-dude Christians will always be Mark Driscoll. In a lot of ways, he pioneered the mindset. In 2010, Baptist News Global brought us a story about Driscoll’s quirky take on Jesus:
Popular Calvinist preacher Mark Driscoll loves to talk about his image of Jesus being a “prize-fighter with a tattoo down his leg, a sword in his hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.” He has said, “I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”
In a lot of ways, Driscoll’s product centered around this tough, macho version of Jesus. And unsurprisingly, considering the climate of toxic Christianity nowadays, he found plenty of takers for his product.
His bro-dude successors still do.
Through a Mirror, Darkly.
In the New Testament, we find this interesting metaphor for how people operate on Earth:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor 13:12)
For many years, Christians have taken this verse as meaning that right now, they can’t expect to fully understand their god. After they die, they’ll fully understand him. But for now, their perceptions tend to be clouded and limited.
Similarly, every one of these bro-dude Christian guys thinks he’s right and that what he perceives is exactly what is. They all take two things for granted:
- Men are losing their dominance in church culture.
- Churches are suffering enormously from a lack of adequate male participation.
But neither assertion is true.
The Reality of Bro-Dude Christianity.
To their own detriment, toxic Christian men remain solidly in control of toxic Christian churches.
As I’ve said earlier, churches have skewed female for a long time and still do. In general, Christian women tend to be slightly more religious than Christian men. Biola University, which agrees fully with the other toxic Christians profiled here, cites a Barna survey saying Christian women tithe more and attend church more often. As WLC’s detractor indicated, women get turned off by misogynistic posturing.
All the same, the leaders of toxic Christian groups are almost always male. In fact, toxic Christian men’s terror of female pastors largely sparked the entire Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)! So really, none of these churches could become “feminized” without their pastors allowing it. In a big way, perhaps that wisdom informs the frustrated vitriol bro-dude Christians direct at these churches.
As for the notion that churches suffer without adequate male participation, it seems the opposite to me. Indeed, the pastor of any church would be unwise to waste either dwindling funds or shrinking free time in marketing excessively to bro-dudes. Pastors may want that demographic, but getting it seems to alienate female members of their churches.
But perhaps even worse than not marketing to them at all is the excessive pandering to bro-dude Christians that some churches do when they go overboard. And there’s a real dark side to this situation.
A Man’s Man in a Man’s World.
A few months ago, Darrin Patrick — a bro-dude Christian, unfortunately — died tragically. Early in July, police investigators verified the cause of death as suicide. The revelation of Patrick’s cause-of-death seems to have re-opened a long-running discussion in the Christ-o-sphere about depression and self-harm.
In July, Religion News ran a post about the way that depression, anxiety, and grief are running rampant through church communities. Its writer called on church leaders to be more aware of people’s emotional struggles.
Then, in August, another Religion News writer wrote about how Black communities are struggling especially hard, between our nation’s convulsions with racial strife and the pandemic. Kenneth C. Ulmer specifically suggested that Black Christians must do more than just pray for help. Instead, they needed to seek professional help for serious problems.
A Religion News post from yesterday advises “faith leaders and lay people” to use their “natural helper skillset that is inherent to all human beings” to identify and help those struggling with mental illness.
Christian Post has run similar sporadic posts on the topic. In January, they talked about blue-collar working-class men, but they didn’t link these men’s depression to any particular flavors of Christianity.
In short, I see a few more-egalitarian Christians talking about toxic masculinity. But you won’t find that fusion of it with Christianity discussed much in major Christian sites.
What’s happening among middle-aged men seems only to intensify if those men are involved in bro-dude Christianity. And toxic Christians just don’t want to talk about it.
But we will — next time.
NEXT UP: The even darker side of bro-dude Christianity. See you tomorrow!
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Last note: My Evil Ex Biff used to call people working in the field of religion “professional Christians.” Usually, the term meant pastors, but he also used it for chaplains in the military, traveling evangelists, Christian songwriters/singers, and even commune leaders. Obviously, he yearned to be a “professional Christian” himself. When I can’t neatly summarize (or even figure out) just how a Christian earns money, I find myself falling back on it.