22 June 2005

Decoding the Literature of the Christian Men’s Movement

By Jeff Sharlet

(Published in Nerve, April 25, 2005)

A discussion of the Christian men’s movement — Iron John for fundamentalists, Promise Keepers to the tenth power — is best begun with some mean-spirited fun. Not because there is anything laughable about loving Jesus or thinking about gender, but because the language with which conservative evangelical men combine these two passions, at conferences and in “cell groups” and in books with titles such as You, The Warrior LeaderThe Barbarian Way andFight on Your Knees often seems as if it’s been lifted directly from Beavis & Butt-Head, absent the adolescent giggles. The movement itself is deadly earnest, and worse, a threat — legally, emotionally, sometimes physically — to all those who can’t or won’t conform to its perversely precise dream of a nation of sexually self-regulating spiritual warriors. I’ll get to that. But first, some yuks.

Take, for example, God’s Gift to Women (the title of a manliness guide for young men), male “headship” of the American family. Women can’t get enough of good headship, but a man must be careful; a woman’s hunger for his headship may lead him to abuse its potency through the sin of anger. A few years ago, I learned in an evangelical magazine what to do in such a situation: push your anger down and store it inside your heart, where Jesus will work it over it until it is ready to be “released,” transformed into “white-hot brother love.”

Christian men love some brothers more than others. Most loved of all, besides J.C., may be the Scottish warrior William Wallace, basis for the film Braveheart. In Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul — still a hardcover bestseller four years after publication — John Eldredge writes of a present given to him by his wife: “Stasi slipped out of the room with the words, ‘Close your eyes . . . I have a surprise for you.’” When she tells him to look, Eldredge finds “a Scottish broadsword exactly like the one used by William Wallace. I had been looking for one for several months.”

Apparently, Braveheart isn’t just for lovers. In God’s Gift To Women: Discovering the Lost Greatness of Masculinity, Eric Ludy writes of his youthful “introduction to ultimate manhood” in the form of Wallace, “one of history’s most provocative men.” Ludy, who opens his book by recounting a recurring nightmare of being “ushered in front of a mob of scrutinizing females” who find him inadequate, describes the image of William Wallace, riding to battle, that won him over: “His countenance was calm but intense. His sword was drawn. His cheeks were suffused with blood.” Ludy asks himself, “Who is this man? And how can I get what he has?” (italics Ludy’s).

Such questions have a double meaning that’s obvious to the Christian men Ludy writes for, and it has nothing to do with Braveheart‘s broadsword: It’s about Jesus. But the fact that so much of the language used to discuss Christ is homoerotic is no coincidence. The first miracle of Jesus to believers is that his appeal crossed so many boundaries of the ancient world, rich and poor, Jew and gentile, men and women — every kind of person loved him, and what’s more, desired him. Theologians of far greater subtlety than Eldredge and Lundy suggest that while Christ was biologically male, his gender is harder to fix, since he held a literally erotic power over followers of all persuasions. For that matter, “eros,” as a concept of any nuance in Western culture, owes its endurance to the Christians who for 2,000 years have been dreaming about God and how to know him, completely, fully, in spirit and in flesh.

What’s sad about books like God’s Gift to Women and Wild At Heart is that they attempt to contain the mystery of that question in metaphors that translate its inherent sexuality into codes of combat, and clichéd ones at that. The “enemy,” of course, is Satan, but his names are legion: pornography, homosexuality, feminism, humanism, the monolithic foe Christian conservatives call, simply, “the culture.” In a chapter dedicated to “military maneuvers,” Lundy spells out his personal, three-point “battle strategy”: “1. An identified point of attack [a personal vice to eradicate]. 2. A POW targeted for rescue [a non-Christian acquaintance to convert]. 3. A constant readiness to fight and fight hard.”

Eldredge, one of the most influential gurus of the Christian men’s movement, takes an even more aggressive tone. “A boy wants to attack something,” he writes with approval, “and so does a man.” Such hostility is not a sin to overcome, but the heart of headship, “a man’s heart, his passions, his true nature, which he has been given by God.”

Nonetheless, writers such as Eldredge and Lundy shy away from intellectual conflict. Even as they preach a metaphorically violent, domineering, and paternalistic vision of manliness, they dodge the natural question of that what happens when such men venture from their sacred hearths into the world. Not so Dr. James Dobson, one of a handful of the evangelical kingmakers to whom George W. Bush paid court before announcing his bid for the presidency in 2000. Dobson is most-recently known in the secular world for his charge that Spongebob Squarepants had been recruited as an agent of the “homosexual agenda,” but for the millions who tune into his radio shows or read his books or subscribe to one of the publications produced by his organization, Focus on the Family, Dobson has long served as a source for wisdom that embodies the feminist adage that the personal is political.

Not that Dobson acknowledges a debt to feminism; indeed, he sees it as a threat to Christianity. The problem, as he outlines it in Straight Talk to Men, a Dobson “classic” originally published asStraight Talk to Men and Their Wives, is that men, in a righteous attempt to resolve the problems of sexism, have ceded too much power to women. As a result, he insists, women are engaging in a parody of male headship and most men lack the guts — and the sensitivity — to stand up to them. “Everything we do is influenced by our gender assignment,” he writes. “Any confusion… in the relationship between the sexes… must be seen as threatening to the stability of society itself.” Dobson, unlike other Christian manliness gurus, gets specific about the consequences, illustrated in this new edition of Straight Talk through an imaginary dialogue between a group of “yesterday’s husbands and fathers” (from 1870) who’ve been transported into the present to talk to a representative of “the culture.”

The culture’s spokesman paints a lurid portrait of today’s world, in which boys typically look at pornography depicting women “hanging from trees, and being murdered with knives, guns, ropes, etc.”; in which “it its legal for a father… to have a homosexual experience with his son”; in which women are called to combat in a time of war, because men are not up to the job. “I miss John Wayne,” laments Dobson.

The focus here is, as always, not on women, but on men, Jesus and John Wayne on the one hand, those whom C.S. Lewis — who privately enjoyed being dominated by his wife — called “men without chests.” That is, “homosexuals.”

I place “homosexuals” in quotes to suggest that the very term itself — so often referred to with code such as Lewis’ — is itself a kind of code within the Christian men’s movement. Lesbians, as one might imagine, are not popular among evangelicals; but then, they are not really imaginable. In the theology of “Jesus plus nothing,” there is no room for anything that is not man-God (or God-man, if you’re particular about such things), and that includes female sexuality. Many of the man-manuals advise loving attention to wives and speak of the joys of married, heterosexual sex as a bulwark against the culture (which is queer by definition, since it is not Christ-centered, a peculiar oxymoron at the heart of the faith), but they also teach a “sensitivity” that is called to stand in for the sins of their cavemen fathers. In an interview withNew Man, a Christian magazine, John Hagee, a popular pastor who is the author of What Every Man Wants in a Woman, explains what, in turn, every woman wants in a man (which is odd, since Hagee’s wife, Diana, is the author of a book of that name, and would have presumably been the more logical explicator): “nonsexual affection.”

Well, sure. That this is news to anyone is hard to believe. But more shocking is Hagee’s announcement that nearly every woman he’s counseled over the years has told him that “It’s really no big deal if I never have sex again with my husband.” This makes sense only if one accepts the division of identity increasingly popular in evangelicaldom: young men are knights and young women are virginal maidens, and even after marriage that formula, in a sense, continues: Men must get dirty in battle, women must stay pure at home. Sex is for the fellas.

Some fellas respond to that “spiritual reality” by seeking out other fellas; guys, the thinking goes, are always up for a good time. The oversexed female as public enemy has been replaced by the oversexed male; and in the worst case scenario, he is gay. Or perhaps it is, for the Christian right, the best case scenario — as the 2004 election proved in the eleven states where conservative activists put anti-gay rights laws up for popular voting, rhetorical gay bashing has proven one of the most effective organizing tools in recent American political history.

Of course, if you ask Dobson why homosexuality looms so large in the evangelical mind, he’ll tell you it’s because godless humanists planted it there by way of subversive signals in our television programming. Ask Pastor Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and good cop to Dobson’s bad cop at the top of the evangelical world, and he’ll offer a more nuanced answer. Like most fundamentalists, Haggard believes that sexual sin is among the worst; he also knows it is the most common. Evangelicals, he’ll say, aren’t more obsessed with sexuality these days; rather, homosexuals are, somehow, more homosexual. The official line is that gay marriage marks a tipping point (Haggard, like many evangelicals, is a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s book of that name) into wholesale hedonism. The unofficial line, among leaders such as Haggard and Dobson is that it’s a fight their side has already lost.

But the specter of gay marriage still serves a function. Christian conservatives take pains to distance themselves from the sexism of their forefathers. Every Christian man-guide emphasizes the claim that women play just as important a role in the maintenance of what evangelicals view as society’s all-important unit, the family, and it’s more than dishwashing, suckling, and sex (though what else they are to do is not often discussed). Women must submit to their husbands, but their husbands in turn must commit to “serving” their wives. The phrase that comes to mind is “separate but equal.”

But with Christian womanhood restored and redeemed, a crucial character in the Christian conservative morality play has gone missing: the seductress. It is no longer acceptable to speak of loose women and harlots, since sexual promiscuity in a woman is the fault of the man who has failed to exercise his “headship” over her. It is his effeminacy, not hers, that is to blame. And who lures him into this spiritual castration? The gay man.

Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. “The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls.

Most Christian conservatives are deadly earnest in their proclamations of love for the sinner, even as they hate the sin. Indeed, that love is at the heart of books like Wild at Heart, and Jim George’s A Man After God’s Own Heart, and Every Man’s Battle, a self-help manual for giving up masturbation which was co-authored by a couple of buddies. They love the gay man because he is a siren, and his song is alluring; and because they believe that the siren is nonetheless stranded at sea, singing in desperation from a slippery perch on a jagged outcrop of stone. The gay man, they imagine, is calling to them; and they believe they are calling back — as if all of human sexuality was a grand and tragic game of Marco Polo.