Is Christianity doing more harm than good to American men?

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Men and boys in America are struggling, and if we don’t do something about it soon, we’ll see the disintegration of the very institutions that allow for sustainable human flourishing—institutions like the family and the marketplace. While it was once believed that clergy might need to take the lead in providing the context for masculine formation, church history, according to Catholic author Leon Podles, tells a different story. In this two-part series, I’d like to explore what is needed to motivate men, especially young men, to once again contribute to the common good.

First, let’s examine the problem. Again, men are struggling. In the United Kingdom, it’s reported that 125 lives are lost every week to suicide and 75% of those are male. The United States is not faring much better. According to recent data, 1 in 10 men experience depression and anxiety. We know that men in America die by suicide 3.5 times the rate of women. Men are disappearing from colleges and the labor force. According to recent data by Emsi, a labor-market data firm, between 1980 and 2009 declines in prime-age male workforce participation “jumped off a cliff,” from 94% to 89%. The drop represents nearly 3 million prime-age men no longer actively working or searching for jobs. Across America’s colleges and universities, women account for 61% of new enrollees. And Patrick Brown at City Journal recently reported on the spike in men overdosing on drugs:

The latest CDC data shows that 35,419 single and divorced prime-age (25- to 54-year-old) men died of drug-related causes, a 35 percent increase from the year before. The never-married make up about one-third of the prime-age male population, but compose two-thirds of that demographic’s drug-related deaths. Similarly, the share of prime-age divorced men who succumbed to drug overdoses was nearly twice their share of the population at large.

If men are experiencing extremely high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, if they’re dropping out of the labor force, not attending college, dying of addiction, and so on, we may need to accept that what we’ve been doing about men and boys is not working. Something needs to change drastically.

Conservatives are quick to blame feminism as the root cause of the decline in men’s thriving, but after reading Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity by Leon Podles, one could easily conclude that Western Christianity itself may be part of the problem. When the church attempts to reach men, it usually ends in emasculation, power abuses, clergy control, or silly gimmicks.

In his book, Podles argues that since the Middle Ages, Catholic theologians and preachers have told men that they “had to become feminine to be Christians,” with Puritan Protestants eventually following suit. Clergy worked really hard to “squelch anything that might excite men, including dancing, drinking, and sports.” To be Christian was to be, in a sense, feminine. C.S. Lewis argued that “we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to [God].” Hans Urs von Balthasar maintained that the structure of Christian belief centers on femininity and women’s receptivity, where man is the word and “woman is essentially an answer.” When surveying the history of Christianity, for “almost a millennium Christians have tended to see their primary identity as feminine,” writes Podles, this as the church often exhibited a quasi-condescending attitude toward women as “weak, helpless, and trained to obedience.”

Preaching to the emotions, sentimentalism, and a “sacred eroticism” led Origen (184–253), based on his interpretation of the Song of Songs, to frame the Christian life in terms of bridal mysticism. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) expanded the bridal metaphor: “If a love relationship is the special and outstanding characteristic of bride and groom it is not unfitting to call the soul that loves God a bride.” America Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians were just as bad, according to Podles. Consider how John Winthrop (1587–1649) addressed Christ: “O my Lord, my love, how wholly delectable are thou! Let him kisse me with the kisses of this mouthe, for his love is sweeter than wine: how lovely is thy countenance! How pleasant are thy embracings … thou wilt honor me with the societye of thy marriage chamber.” Puritan Edward Taylor (1642–1729) encouraged men to see themselves individually as the bride of Christ and to express the devotion to Christ this way: “I then shall be thy Bride Espoused by thee / And thou my bridegroom Deare Espousde shall bee. … Thy Pidgen Eyes dart piercing, beames of Love / They Cherry Cheeks sense Charms out of Loves Coast, / They Lilly Lips drop Myrrh down from above.” These bridal categories and semi-romantic notions of what it means to be a Christian drove more and more men away.

To add insult to injury, Podles retells the long history of clergy seeking to bring men under their control. In fairness, especially in medieval Europe, there was reason for it. To be a young man in medieval Europe was often to be part of groups characterized by gang rapes, sexual immorality, violence, dueling, drunkenness, and so on. Many of those vices were also a normal part of men’s culture from the American Founding era through WWII, which motivated much of women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and early feminist movements. Controlling men was a way to procure morally virtuous living. Unfortunately, it backfired.

Male-oriented recreation and social activities were also the focus of church opprobrium. In the early 19th century through the early 20th century, British and American culture strongly disapproved of sports and viewed them as ungodly activities for men, especially on Sundays. In the 1880s, for example, a Baptist newspaper referred to baseball as a “murderous game” that is “more brutal that a bull-fight, more reprehensible than a prize-fight, and more deadly than modern warfare.” The church’s solution for men’s debauchery and recreation was Christian service and domestication under the close oversight and control of clergy.

It’s often thought that control of women, and especially women’s bodies, has been the obsession of Christian clergy down through the ages, but actually it has been the control of men and their bodies that has just as often characterized Christianity’s orientation. However, because that control has historically been mismanaged, ranging from feminization, to priests using the confessional to control husbands, to clergy falling prey to marrying church and politics, to clergy sex-abuse scandals, to recent stories of evangelical pastors abusing their power, men have become increasingly alienated from the very institution created to form them to be of benefit to others. In fact, the alienation of Protestant men was so bad that, by 1899, according to Clifford Putney, author of Muscular Christianity, “women reportedly comprised three-quarters of the church’s membership and nine-tenths of its attendance.” Alarmed by the numbers, church leaders launched new movements and programs to try to bring men back into the church for spiritual and moral formation.

The first major masculinity movement within American Christianity was the Social Gospel movement. Walter Rauschenbusch wanted to use the social gospel to activate men into ministry because “there’s nothing sweetly effeminate about Jesus.” Jesus was a “man’s man,” Rauschenbusch asserted. Instead of focusing on the fatherhood of God, there was a special focus on the brotherhood of Jesus as a man of social action. The goal was to keep men engaged in the life of the church by committing them to follow Jesus in the divine quest for social justice. The Social Gospel era also included a drastic shift in favor of sports with the creation and promotion of the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A), Christian outdoorsman associations and camps for youth, the integration of the Boy Scouts of America into church life, and so on. Decades later, the same fears of men alienated by a feminized church reemerged, leading to the launch of the Promise Keepers movement, which amplified an evangelical emphasis on masculinity in terms of the domesticated role of husband and father. Years later, Mark Driscoll, highlighting the continued male alienation from Christianity, built much of his initial success by focusing on men’s issues in the church. Sadly, these movements come and go and lack the sustainable capacity to attract men. They fade and the fail. The truth is that Western Christianity has always struggled to maintain high percentages of male membership and engagement.

The church to date has been largely unsuccessful at sustainably reaching men. Is there a way for Christian institutions to begin to think differently about the challenges we face today, with male students falling behind academically and not enrolling in college, with prime-age men dropping out of the labor force, and especially the increasing rates of male suicide and drug abuse death rates? If clergy-led solutions ultimately alienate men, what can help men thrive in ways that build strong families and add value to the marketplace? Surprisingly for some, Podles concludes that the solution lies with the laity, not the clergy, because, as history shows, “the movements that reach men are mostly lay-led and lay-governed.” How the laity can achieve what the professional clergy could not will be the focus of part 2.