Fundagelicals responded to their religion’s decline almost immediately, at least on a subconscious level. They sprang into immediate action doing what they’ve always done. By this I mean they blamed others and drilled down extra-hard on all their worst beliefs. But the blame game doesn’t work as well as they keep hoping it will. Today, we follow that old film adage, cherchez la femme, to see why so much hate is pouring down upon the women who form the bedrock of modern American Christianity.
(Today I’m illustrating the post with pictures of creatures who actually deserve our sympathy.)
Cherchez La Femme.
In film noir, we find a classic trope: cherchez la femme. It means essentially there’s always a woman at the bottom of a given poor sod’s problems.1 Once the investigation finds that woman, then the problems will be understandable–as well as hopefully fixable.
When we look at fundagelicalism, we discover quickly that–similarly–there is always a way for fundagelicals to blame women for anything going wrong in fundagelicalism. In fact, over the past ten years Christian misogynists have created an entire narrative that verges on a conspiracy theory about how women have completely ruined everything about the religion.
Set the Wayback Machine for 2006. That’s the year when Christianity itself began to decline. Ironically, 2006 was the very year when fundagelicals seemed to be at the very top of their game. Behind the scenes, however, members had already begun rejecting the religion.
And Christians already knew who to blame for it all.
“Driving Men Away.”
In 2005, David Murrow wrote
the whinybutt screed Why Men Hate Going to Church. In this book, he blamed something he called “the feminization of the church.” See, church services seemed way too woman-friendly. Songs sounded way too Jesus-is-my-boyfriend. Why, women were even starting to fill ministry roles in some churches! ZOMG! Something had to be done!
The way Murrow saw it, church leaders were driving men clean away from church culture. Men didn’t want to belong to churches that didn’t cater to them and show them exclusively-male ministers giving their best Jesus Smiles from the pulpit. So men voted with their feet–either by leaving for churches that were 24/7 sausage parties, or else by leaving churches entirely. Naturally, “Jesus” (and big name pastors like Mark Driscoll) totally shared his viewpoint.2
Very quickly men in Christianity resonated with the idea that they’d somehow been “left behind” in all this dangerous feminizing. Books like No Man Left Behind sprang up like mushrooms after rain to feed that narrative and encourage more such theorizing.
Once a bad idea enters Christianity’s canon, it never leaves. Indeed, ever since then this narrative–poor widdle men have been left behind by church culture!–has overtaken fundagelicalism.
A False Narrative.
In reality, however, it’s tough to imagine a culture that leaves men behind less than fundagelical Christianity does. (Similarly, right-wing Christians always imagine they are the most persecuted people of all.)
Barna thinks that mainline churches in particular have seen a rise in the number of female pastors. Pew Research disagrees, putting the number of women pastoring at around 11% of congregations in America–and further says that figure hasn’t changed since 1998. Female pastors lead smaller churches, are usually paid less, and face harsher and more critical judgment from their congregations than male pastors typically do. But a number of fundagelical churches typically forbid women from any leadership roles that might put them into authority over men.
Because of fundagelicalism’s strict gender divides and demands for stereotypical gender conformity, the chances of a male pastor understanding anything about the women in his congregation range from slim to none. The situation worsens when he steps behind a pulpit to deliver sermons every Sunday. When I look over women’s lists of grievances about male preachers, like this one, I can easily perceive that most of these sermons leave women behind entirely–or offend them deeply.
Hell, I could have written that list in 1990.
The Real Miracle.
Really, the real miracle is that so many women still do attend church. But like most miracles, this one’s illusory–and fading more and more by the day.
For years, survey groups have tracked women’s level of engagement with Christianity. Patricia Miller, writing for Religion Dispatches in 2016, noted that women were leaving Christianity in droves. She pegged the reason as increased politicization in conservative Christianity, which sounds about right to me as well. We’ve seen other surveys that echo her opinion–like this recent research indicating that every single time fundagelicals go full throttle on their various culture wars, they drive more and more people away from their banner.
So if the gender gap in churches is closing quickly, and overwhelmingly male pastors don’t actually lead in a way that resonates with women in the first place, it might seem mystifying that male fundagelicals themselves consistently blame women like they do for their religion’s decline.
At least, it might seem mystifying if someone doesn’t know about fundagelicals’ need to rationalize and blame everyone under the sun for their own failures–except themselves.
Christian men whine about a lack of “men’s ministry” programs, which sounds to me exactly like racists whining about not having a “White History Month.” They lament without ceasing how “radical feminism” has caused the “goodness and importance of men to be obscured,” and even assert that feminism somehow caused the Catholic child-rape scandal. They whine about how churches use terms like “the bride of Christ” that freak hypermasculine men out, then demand in the next breath that church leaders should be more “biblical.” (Because “the bride of Christ” isn’t Biblical enough, I guess…?)
And Then There’s This Guy.
All these ultra-privileged guys are wringing their widdle handsies over losing 1/2 of 1% of their own dominance. As far as they’re concerned, even losing that little bit means the end of the world as they know it!
Even so, it takes a special kind of entitled to come up with what I saw last month in The Federalist.
It’s called “If You Want Men In Your Church, Stop Treating Them With Contempt,” by Matthew Cochran. (His subsequent post informs readers about how “schools quietly indoctrinate your kids on abortion and transgenderism.” What a winner!) Predictably, the top photo for his post is a pudgy little boy, hands folded in prayer, looking back at the camera mournfully. If he could speak, this kid would tell us that it ain’t gonna get better from here.
Cochran’s knickers are wadded over something Ross Douthat wrote, you see. He thinks Douthat wrote very disrespectfully of men, you see, in stating that women discovered the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. Why, everyone was “faithless” at that point, Cochran informs us! And how dare Douthat forget that “Jesus is the only one who earned any points on Easter Sunday!”
… so yes, this means that Matthew Cochran totally Jesus Juked Ross Douthat.
When All You Have is Toxic Masculinity…
I never thought I’d see the day when aggrieved Christian misogynists would accuse Ross Abortion-Loving Women Caused Trump’s Election Victory Douthat of being disrespectful to men. But in Cochran’s addled mind, Douthat’s “contempt” rises to the level of “a cheap shot at men.”
And all of this utter disrespect, in his eyes, fully justifies whatever vengeance men choose to wreak. They must right the many horrific wrongs done to them by a callous, uncaring society.
They might choose to buy fewer football tickets and watch fewer football games (except that’s not how that worked). Or they might choose to engage in hobbies “to minimize dealings with” wives who “henpeck” them (of course, then they rail about no-fault divorces).
And yes, they might even choose to lessen their church involvement. Their fragile male egos are destroyed beyond repair by constant onslaughts of imaginary slights, you see. That’s totally why men don’t attend church. It’s just too, well, feminized.
In this case, this following list represents my summation of Cochran’s testable hypotheses.
- A significant gender gap exists in church attendance.
- Pastors preach sermons that show outright disrespect toward men.
- Christian men are leaving churches because they feel completely vilified and neglected by their leaders, who favor women more than men.
- Women use no-fault divorce to “victimize” men, which makes men less willing to marry women. Nonetheless, pastors are permissive about divorce in their flocks and don’t talk enough about “submission.”
- Hillary Clinton is ickie.
(I bet this guy goes to sleep every night convinced that he is a very, very, very logical Christian.)
Unfortunately for him, we can actually test his ideas.
If You Can’t Show It, You Don’t Know It.
First off, the gender gap has shrunk quite a bit since the 1970s. Women still outrank men in terms of church attendance, but it’s not as serious a gap now as it used to be. Worse (for Cochran’s narrative), Pew Research also discovered that religiously-affiliated men are more likely to say they attend church services weekly than they were in the 1990s. So while most folks think that women still form the bulk of a church’s volunteer corps, the sheer number of them is dropping.
Second, I suspect that pastors choose topics for sermons that they think their flocks will like. Very few pastors are willing to alienate and aggravate congregations. That’s a good way to lose their jobs. Given the reactions I listed above regarding how women perceive male pastors’ sermons, I’m not willing to concede that pastors are in fact ignoring men or pandering to women. If they are indeed trying to make women feel cosseted at men’s expense, they’re doing a spectacularly bad job of it.
The same goes for divorce. If pastors aren’t railing against divorce, it’s likely that they’re simply thinking about job security. Further, women do so poorly after divorce that it’s hard to fathom them taking such action lightly.
Since Cochran’s starting assumptions are incorrect, all the rest of it becomes untrustworthy.
Most damningly, however, Cochran’s narrative simply never shows up in surveys about why people leave church. I simply don’t see anything like he’s describing in any of the reputable surveys about evangelical churn. Either the people leaving Christianity aren’t revealing their true reasons for doing so, or he’s totally wrong about why people are leaving his religion.
The fundagelical-leaning LifeWay Research ran a survey back in 2007 on the topic of churn. “Overly-feminized churches” didn’t even show up on the list of reasons people gave for leaving the SBC.3 Barna Group, similarly biased, didn’t list anything like that in 2011. These groups lean strongly fundagelical, and yet they didn’t find people saying anything like what Cochran is saying.
By contrast, Pew Research Group is arguably one of the best survey houses out there. And their landmark 2015 study also gives Cochran no support. They found that “both men and women have become less Christian and more unaffiliated in roughly equal amounts.” (See p.80 of the full report.)
Anecdotes Aren’t Evidence.
Cochran never gives any sources for his assertions about why men leave Christianity. Instead, he offers subjective anecdotes (“people have likewise been observing,” etc.).
I don’t doubt for a moment that he genuinely feels hard-done-by in recent years. He’s only just now reached adulthood, and he probably fully expected a very different life. His toys have been taken away before he even got to really play with them. Privilege distress can be deeply upsetting for people like that.
I also don’t doubt that millions of Christian men feel exactly like he does. I’ve lurked their forums and read what they have to say. These men hate women, and social justice itself, with truly shocking force. And those men have created this narrative of church culture that doesn’t even bear a passing resemblance to reality.
And that in turn means that we can’t expect their solutions to be rational or workable.
Cochran’s own solution to this deep, troubling problem sounds painfully familiar. He wants pastors everywhere to start drilling down on fundagelical doctrines. That’ll fix everything.
Why This Grand Plan Will Fail.
Misogynists in Christianity can’t accept that their dominance has collapsed. They simply lack the power to coerce women to obey their commands and put up with the kind of unequal, dysfunctional marriages that these misogynists desire.
In their dark, dank little enclaves, they speculate about what it’d take to destroy women’s rights. They dream of a day when women lose the right to vote. Obviously they want to criminalize abortion, recognizing as they do that legal abortion care forms the linchpin of women’s rights. Of course, no-fault divorce must also be abolished; only men can properly determine when a relationship should end. It’s sickening stuff–and ironic, considering that the reason most of them cite for wanting these huge societal changes is that women are supposedly too irrational to handle such heady powers as self-determination and elections.
They recognize, at least on some level, that the Republic of Gilead-style dystopia they crave can only happen if women are completely helpless and powerless–as well as stone-cold ignorant and uneducated. The fact that educated, self-aware women with rights and options want nothing to do with them or their ideas isn’t seen by them as a mark against their ideology, but rather as a mark against women themselves.
They neither know nor care about the vast abuses committed against women in the Bad Ole Days. I’m not kidding. They think we’re lying or exaggerating when we talk about it.4 They want their power back so much that they’ll gladly plunge half the human population into subjugation again to get it.
Oh, Yeah, and the Comments.
By far the weirdest and scariest parts of the man-o-sphere showed up to rant–at length–in the comments to Cochran’s post. I noticed that the majority of men commenting there shared his viewpoints. In particular, they seethed with rage toward the various women who’d rejected and divorced them.
These men represent the reason why fundagelical leaders really can’t reverse or significantly alter course. They are a visible outgrowth of Christianity’s decline.
They are not only suffering from deep privilege distress, but also deeply immersed in that whole culture-war mentality that is destroying their religion from the inside out. Long ago, they decided that any gain for women means a loss for themselves. Even longer ago, they absorbed a particularly toxic version of masculinity that has destroyed every relationship they’ll ever have.
Faced with a world that has outpaced them in every single way, they rage against their coming twilight.
It’s all they can do, since change is out of the question.
NEXT UP: Catholics might have come really late to the Satanic Panic party, but they got there eventually. See you soon!
1See here for a more detailed explanation.
2Rachel Held Evans is probably not this guy’s favorite person. But she’s not the only Christian to point out that the New Testament features the earliest Christian women doing pretty much all of the stuff that the men did. That said, nobody can make the claim that the Bible is in any sense of the word feminist.
3 I got a kick out of the SBC’s absolute assumption that all those young people fleeing their denomination would be trotting back to church when they got older. I guess “Jesus” didn’t see fit to tell them otherwise at the time.
4 See: Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, and much thanks to raven for finding this resource: “A disturbing fact continues to surface in sex abuse research. The first best predictor of abuse is alcohol or drug addiction in the father. But the second best predictor is conservative religiosity, accompanied by parental belief in traditional male-female roles.”
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