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 Leader; The Barbarian Way and Fight 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

What's sad about books like God's Gift to Women is that they translate sexuality into codes of combat, and clichéd ones at that.

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 as Straight 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

"Homosexuals" is kind of a code within the Christian men's movement.

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 with New 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

"The gay man" is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom.

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.

Jeff Sharlet is co-author of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible and a visiting research professor at New York University's Center for Religion and Media, where he edits The Revealer: A Daily Review of Religion and the Press.

 Click here to read other features from the Moral Values Issue!


©2005 Jeff Sharlet and Nerve.com

Commentarium (61 Comments)

Apr 25 05 - 4:57am

"Nonetheless, writers such as Eldredge and Lundy shy away from intellectual conflict."

That's true, but there's also an increasing interest in take-no-prisoners fundamentalist Reformed theology among some of the Charismatics who are involved with this masculinist self-help discourse. For instance, the flaming sword of Rousas Rushdoony is particularly attractive to Doug Giles, the Florida-based radio preacher (and brother-in-law of Mell Winger, who wrote "Fight on your Knees"): he keeps a copy of Rushdoony's "Institutes" on his desk, and has an MA from James Kennedy's Knox Theological Seminary, an institution apparently devoid of any female input.

If I may take a moment to self-publicise, I've got a bit more here:



Apr 26 05 - 3:55pm

Wonderful! But...when you get to the word "evangelical" read FUNDAMENTALIST. The "fundies" have got the public using evangelical, charismatic, and conservative as words to hide their true "flat-earth", Scopes Monkey Trial, snake-handling, holy-rolling, hate-filled fundamentalist identity. Pass it on - they are the Fundamentalists!

Apr 27 05 - 12:12pm

Gay former souther baptist anarcho-socialist punk here...

Used to know this guy at the christian college i idiotically attended (and still owe lots of money for) almost ten years ago now. Forgotten his name. Cute, kinda mormon looking, who was really into Promise Keepers (the christian men's movement where men cry and hug and sing and talk about how hard it is to stay with their wives....) and the charismatic/joy movement. He liked to hug a lot (guys, of course--not supposed to give girls hugs because it might cause him to think sinful thoughts), and would always talk about how he was "really feeling the joy of the Lord today." One time he told me how, the night before, he was "on his knees for hours until he finally felt the Joy of the Lord come upon him."

The warnings I heard from my sojourn through evangelicalism about "The Homosexuals" from deacons, pastors, and "concerned women," lurid stories of sexual acts the likes of which i still cannot imagine even now, seemed always a little too prurient, almost vicariously lustful.

Jeff Sharlet rocks.

Apr 27 05 - 12:28pm

Usually I shudder whenever fundies get press. Sharlet manages to explain their views honestly without being flippantly dismissive or sympathetic. Good work.

What sparked the need for fundamentalism anyway?

Aug 25 11 - 2:11am
Porter Doran

Fundamentalism was a reaction to the scientific criticism taking the world by storm in the late 1800, early 1900s. And I must say if you read the original works of a lot of the criticism of that day much of it is hard to swallow: there was a bitter arrogance that knew no shame either of overreaching or of bullying. Yet this criticism was itself a strong reaction to the endless Church Age it was thirsty to replace. So, I suppose I would say fundamentalism was sparked indirectly by the excesses of Christendom ... of course, a fundamentalist would not see it that way ...

Apr 28 05 - 9:32am

This is the kind of article that makes me start to wonder if I have suddenly lost the ability to read the English language. Surely those electrons did not die to preserve this creakily ancient, shallow and thoughtless bigotry.

"the Christian men's movement ... Promise Keepers to the tenth power"

What, exactly, would that mean, if it meant anything?

Promise Keepers pretty much was the beginning of the "Christian men's movement." (They're also the only people - anywhere, any time - that I've ever heard talk in public about racial reconciliation. How did every "objective" critic miss that topic entirely?)

"A discussion ... is best begun with some mean-spirited fun"

Here's a thought, Jeff: Try interacting respectfully and responsibly. Just a thing I heard somewhere.

As far as respectful responses from me, this disorganized, scattergun string of unsupported assertions and flippant ignorace has had the lot.

Apr 28 05 - 3:57pm

Anyone who

Apr 28 05 - 5:55pm

Thanks for this excellent article. I noticed some of the hypocrisy several years ago when I had been reading Iron John, and Wild at Heart Came Out. I was 19 at the time, and I remember having lunch with a Fundamentalist middle-aged man, who was strongly "encouraging me" aka telling me I "had" to read this book. I asked him to explain the gist of it, and when he did, I told him that I was reading Iron John, which takes the myth of the Wild Man as its basis, and he ignorantly tried to debunk the quality of the book based on the fact that it was from a "myth".

So when I did finally get around to reading some of Wild at Heart, and saw how Eldridge pretty much just distilled it into Christian Spirtual hogwash, I got kinda upset, to say the least. Oh, whatever will we do?

Thanks again,

Apr 29 05 - 10:10am

TO RM: You're correct that Promise Keepers speak publicly about "racial reconciliation," and that I did not discuss that aspect in my article. That's because my article was about a movement, self-defined in its literature, and its attitudes toward sexuality. As to your assertion that the Promise Keepers are "the only people - anywhere, any time - that I've ever heard talk in public about racial reconciliation." -- that's absurd. Only white Bill McCartney talks about racial reconciliation? That's a revolting notion, sir. You need to learn some American history. And I'd recommned deepening your understanding of race in America beyond the idea that all can be solved by white men and black men hugging one another and talking about their feelings.

Apr 30 05 - 7:35pm

I enjoyed your analysis. I don't know if you are already familiar with the website www.godhatesfags.com. It is an actual homepage for a baptist church. I heard about it on the Howard Stern show. The frightening part is not only do they distort the truth about God and the Bible they also publish their funamentalist bullshit into a huge market (the world wide web) for impressionable, internet saavy youth. They strike me as no good, gay bashing, abortion clinic bombing, simple minded fools.

May 03 05 - 10:16pm

So next time we want to talk about women's rights in the Middle East like its this complete "Other" world... maybe we should look on our back doorstep for this phenom. This is a conversation we have to have. I think my generation (20-ish yr olds) have totally forgotten that the fight against oppressive discourses must not be forgotten.
On another note-- see Elaine Pagels "Adam Eve and the Serpent" for more on sexuality and Christianity throughout the ages via A+E exegesis. In many ways, I think what we are seeing with this movement relates back to Augustine. I would be interested to know what the Professor Sharlet thinks about the 'origins' of this contemp 'discourse' and also how women are responding. I guess they are lying down and taking it?
Sorry, no pun intended. Ok ok it was-- just too good to resist!
What is the motivation behind these guys?? Insecurity? Political empowerment?
Excellent scholarship, totally material for book (a very provocative one at that).

Nov 02 06 - 11:27pm

Your remarks are congruent with the sexual and religious history of this country. We are still enduring this great fear of "the other" -- whether gay, female, black, foreign etc. Being Christian, and being close friends/ related to people who went the long way around to "come out" it is clear to me that a great deal of this thinking is projection pure and simple. The church is , of course various and not monolithic. But protestants, catholics, *evangelicals* and *fundamentalists* (or any other of a myriad of groups, cults, and subgroups) still cannot get past the sexual shame blame and regret to get to the nitty gritty of Jesus. *Homosexuals* are just the latest in a long procession of boogey-men that act out the part of "The Devil" for the church. Churches that are gay-friendly, that help gay, straight, female, foreign, poor , black -- that help ALL and condemn no one are to be lauded, are miraculous by virtue of their mere existence. All people long for wholeness, for not just the belief, but the EXPERIENCE of God's love for everyone. I suspect the gay-denouncing, gay hating churches are in fact , full to the brim with self loathing homosexuals. What a pity. I know a gay man who is a {close} relative of Dobson. This man has been denounced and driven from his family for his open homosexuality. When I see religion with no heart, no mercy , no compassion, I wonder if God herself (*joke*) ever despairs of the thickness of some skulls.

Headship. Good lord. Don't these people know anything about language etc/???

Dec 08 06 - 9:01pm

Oh my god! there are men not feeling guilty for being men and thier christian!!! Burn the intolorant ones!!!!

Mar 01 07 - 10:05pm

You seem to feel your way through this article, almost as if you are listening to a siren yourself. The excitement you feel as expressed in your words lead me to believe you feel from this could even be somewhat of an intoxication of sorts. Although you obviously have been reading a few of the "top" right-wingers, though sparingly at best, you fail to get a grasp of what evangelicals would hope you might from such a huge download of conservative verbage. It truly must have been hard for you to swallow given your opinion. I am sorry. I have been reading these and many other evangelicals for over 30 years (and beyond if, like I do, you think of the Bible as evangelical) think you fail to get the message of evangelism itself. The message is: all have fallen short of the perfect standard set by Christ. All will perish but for His Amazing Grace. If you want to get a particle of that message, go to see the movie by that name (Amazing Grace), and see a silver screen rendition of the life of a man affected radically and eternally by the message Jesus is whispering to you even now. Wilberforce (you have read of him, I am sure) nearly lifts the anti-slavery movement on his back like a cross in the late 17th and early 18th centuries bringing about what may be called the greatest blow to slavery since Jesus died to set us all free from our debts of sin. I say this in all humility and love accepting you as you, your feelings and beliefs as you are, without condemnation, just as Christ in His perfect expression of manhood, has accepted me as I am....just as I am. He has performed all that must be performed to conform you and me, as males, just as he does females, into His likeness. He is able to keep us until death, the end of time, and on into eternity. Want to try that out? His blood is for everyone of those He created. EVERYONE.

I accepted Jesus most unwelcome intrusion into my life 30 years ago and have not been able to go back to my old way of life. I know you are extremely bright. I am not. I have to work at saying things so others might get it at all some times. If you want to check out what I have been saying, try looking up what I have been saying (the Gospel in a nutshell or the evangelistic message) in a Greek and Hebrew bible. Much is lost in the King James as well as other modern translations. Are you a Greek Geek? If not, try to get a modern translation that has the Greek and Hebrew words or just get a Greek and Hebrew dictionary to go along with a modern English translation bible, etc.

I hope this will broaden your investigation into the mind of conservative evangelists (who are charged by the word of God not to give an impression of evil). As Christians we are not condemned and are told that we, as Christ, cannot be Judge over any other. I cannot speak for all, but I can say that I personally try to speak the truth I know in love. Be blessed of God.

Aug 25 11 - 2:41am
Porter Doran

So much of this is meaningless on its face. What does "All have fallen short" and "but for grace" and "His blood is for everyone" even mean? On their face they mean nothing. When I add to this nonplussery the knowledge that Evangelicalism, being the ultimate pyramid scheme, compels you to post this sort of thing, then it becomes meaningless not only on its face but devoid of any authentic intent and therefore very meaningless indeed.

Jun 11 08 - 11:41pm

What a tireless and meaningless rant. The suggestion that the attraction of Jesus was somehow erotic? That the gender of Jesus was at any time in question? Whose cool-aide are you drinking? How can you get that from any kind of honest reading of the gospel? The tone of that whole piece was arrogant drivel as you wondered from subject to subject like you had something to prove or perhaps to rationalize your own way of life. As far as your descriptions, please at least act like you care about getting the facts right. Homosexuals being somehow "more homosexual"? Please.

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