Masculinity, Christianity–and the (Surprising) Truth: Nancy Pearcey
Author and professor Nancy Pearcey explores sociological data to uncover why it's open season on masculinity—and the surprising role of Christian men.
It turns out the very concept that masculinity is toxic has much deeper roots than most of us realize. Most of us probably think about the ‘60s or something, with the feminist movement, second wave. No, no, no; you have to go all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. -- Nancy Pearcey
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Author and professor Nancy Pearcey explores sociological data to uncover why it’s open season on masculinity—and the surprising role of Christian men.
Masculinity, Christianity–and the (Surprising) Truth: Nancy Pearcey
Nancy: It turns out the very concept that masculinity is toxic has much deeper roots than most of us realize. Most of us probably think about the ‘60s or something, with the feminist movement, second wave. No, no, no; you have to go all the way back to the Industrial Revolution.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
When we first got married, you would often say, “I never want to be like my dad, ever!”
Dave: That was a mission of my life.
Ann: It was a mission, because—
Dave: “I will not become an alcoholic—
Ann: —"a womanizer”—
Dave: —"womanizer, divorced, selfish, money idol.” I mean, there were some good things about my dad; but he walked out when I was seven. I was on a quest: “I will never become that man.”
But when I was a junior in college, I looked in the mirror one day, and I thought, “I am my dad.” I wasn’t a Christian yet, and I was scared. I was going to parties and drinking; I was the college quarterback, so I had women.
Ann: And money was at the top.
Dave: Oh! I was like—I picked my major—
Ann: He was always thinking about money.
Dave: —based on: “How much money can I make?”
Then, I come to Christ; and Jesus started transforming my life. I read the Bible, and I said, “If I don’t do something, I’m going to become my dad, even though I don’t want to be. It’s going to happen.” One of my quests was: “I’ve got to find out what a godly man looks like, because I don’t know.”
Ann: And you know what? You have become that. Really, honestly, I look at you and think, “You’re an amazing man of God.”
Dave: Well, that’s nice.
Ann: And we’re going to talk about this. We have Nancy Pearcey back with us. Nancy, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Nancy: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Ann: You’ve written a book called The Toxic War on Masculinity. We talked about it yesterday, and we ended our segment talking about this toxic masculinity and what’s happening to the view of men in our culture. Is it just the United States, or is it happening worldwide?—of this negative opinion of men.
Nancy: Well, I think it’s worldwide, just because whatever happens in the United States spreads. Yes, we ended the last program on the hostile rhetoric; because you asked me why I wrote the book. Part of it was because I was so blown away by how hostile the rhetoric is today/how acceptable it is to say things negatively. There are books out now with titles like: I Hate Men, and No Good Men, and Are Men Necessary? You can get published with titles like that.
Ann: And even on TV, we see the man is the dummy. They’re always dumbing him down, or he’s the joke of the program. It never used to be like that. I don’t know if it was healthy in the past; but now, we’re at a whole different place.
Nancy: And even men—this was part of the surprise for me—I looked at a news article where James Cameron, the Director of Avatar, said, “Testosterone is a toxin,—
Nancy: —"and you have to work it out of your system.” There is a best-selling science-fiction writer, Hugh Howey, who said, “Testosterone is the problem. Women should be in charge of everything.” Another book author said, “Talking about healthy masculinity is like talking about healthy cancer.” I thought, “These are men! These are even male writers.”
Ann: And you’re reading these things and getting a little riled up about it.
Nancy: Yes; I’m thinking, “Where does this come from?”
Dave: That’s my question:—
Dave: “Where does this come from?”
Nancy: Let me start where I start in the book. I wanted to start with the good news, because the bad news is pretty depressing. [Laughter] The good news is that evangelical men are doing very well. Christian men are, in fact, doing very well. Most Christians don’t even know this. In fact, the reason they don’t know it is because there’s a lot of criticism of them as well. Let me give you a few quotes; it’s very easy to find these online: “Conservative Protestant gender ideology can clearly lead to abuse, both physical and emotional.” Another quote: “It’s no secret that abuse is prevalent in conservative churches that embrace headship theory.” Another quote: “The theology of male headship feeds the rape culture that we see permeating American Christianity today.”
The problem with these accusations is that they ignore the data from the social sciences. The studies have found that evangelical family men—meaning husbands and fathers—who attend church regularly are the most loving husbands and the most engaged fathers. Compared to the average American family man, evangelical men are the most loving to their wives. And yes, they do interview the wives separately; that’s important, because women wouldn’t necessarily be honest [if interviewed with her husband].
Nancy: The women report the highest levels of being happy with the way their husbands treat them, with feeling loved and appreciated. They [evangelical fathers] are the most engaged with their children, both in shared activities, like sports and church youth group, and in discipline, like setting screen time or setting bedtime. They are the least likely to divorce of any group in America—and here’s the real stunner—they have the lowest rates of domestic violence of any major group in America.
Nancy: I tell people this; and everyone always sits back, kind of like, “What?!How come we don’t know this?” The reason you don’t know this is [because] it’s all buried in academic literature. I had to read mostly academic sociological journals to pull this out.
Ann: But it was there!
Nancy: It was there! Sociologists have been doing these studies, partly because they wanted to find out, “What is the data?” They read these accusations, and they say, “Yes, but where’s the evidence? Where’s the evidence?” So they go back, and they do the studies. They found that evangelical men actually are the most loving and engaged husbands and fathers of any group in America.
The sociologists went back to the data then, and they divided out truly committed Christian men, who do attend church regularly. That’s a fairly reliable correlate of whether they are truly committed Christians—authentic Christians versus nominal—that’s the dividing line.
Dave: But they’re [nominal Christians] not going to church, like you even said in the book, three times a month—they’re going less: maybe once; maybe not—right?—nominal.
Nancy: Barely, if at all; right. It’s mostly a family background; it’s a cultural background.
Nancy: The differences between these groups are absolutely devastating.
Dave: I mean, am I right in what I read? You say that the difference is, if you’re a practicing, evangelical man, all the [good] things you just said are true. If you’re nominal, you’re worse than a secular man.
Dave: That’s what I concluded.
Ann: This was shocking!
Dave: That was scary.
Nancy: It is. It was shocking when I first read it; yes. On all those numbers: first, their wives are the least happy with how their husbands treat them; they’re the least engaged with their children in terms of shared activities and discipline. They have the highest level of divorce, higher than secular men; and they have the highest level of domestic violence of any group in America, higher than secular men. This is what the church is up against, then, because they are claiming to be Christian.
Nancy: And I only found one study that gave the sizes. You and I probably hang out mostly with very committed Christian men.
Nancy: So we think, “Oh, those nominals: it’s probably a small group”, right? No; they’re about the same size. That means if you meet somebody, who claims to be a Christian, or even an evangelical, there’s about a 50 percent chance that it’s actually a nominal Christian who tests out worse than secular men. This is really what young women need to know this when they’re dating.
Dave: You’re saying—a single girl, who’s dating a guy—she should say, “Hey, how many times did you go to church this month?” [Laughter] He says, “Once”; she should say, “See you later”?
Ann: I’d say—
Dave: “You’re going to be worse to me than that guy over there, who says he doesn’t believe in God.” That is a little scary.
Ann: I’m thinking they need to identify them by their fruit.
Ann: You’re looking for the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience…—because they may be saying that they’re a Christian; but by the fruit, it doesn’t look like they are.
Nancy: Some people ask me, “Well, why are they worse than secular men?” It seems to be—and sociologists are number-crunchers, so they don’t always tell you why—but apparently they hang around the Christian world enough to get the language of headship and submission; and then they insert secular meaning of dominance, control, entitlement, and so on. They’ve picked up the language that makes them feel more justified in those kinds of attitudes. They end up actually being worse than secular men.
Actually, I wanted to read you this one quote—my go-to sociologist here; the one who did the largest study/his name is Brad Wilcox; he is at the University of Virginia—he’s considered one of the top marriage researchers in the nation. He says, “It turns out that the happiest wives in all of America”—by the way, they emphasize the wives; because the assumption is that, if there’s any notion of headship/of authority, then it’s going to be oppressive to the woman/abusive to the woman.
Nancy: They usually phrase it in terms of wives. “It turns out that the happiest wives, of all wives in America, are religious conservatives: fully 73 percent of wives, who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their husband, have high-quality marriages.”
Ann: And you’re saying this is hopeful. This is hopeful news!
Nancy: It’s very hopeful.
Ann: And it’s good news when you’re talking and hearing about so much toxic masculinity. There’s good news in the midst [of it].
Nancy: Isn’t it?!
Nancy: It’s so encouraging: “How do we get men to behave better?” Tell them where they’re doing a good job! [Laughter] Tell them where they’re doing great stuff!
Ann: It’s so hopeful.
Dave: When you are regularly practicing your faith, this is one of the results. That inspires people to say, “I am going to get serious about my faith. That’s good news!”
Nancy: Exactly. Most of the numbers put these two groups together. I like your word, “practicing.” If practicing evangelical men do better than secular men, but nominal Christian men do worse than secular men—if you put these two groups together, which is what most surveys do—
Dave: Yes, yes.
Nancy: —most surveys: “Oh, are you an evangelical? We’ll put you in this box.” Obviously, the numbers are going to be completely skewed!
Nancy: So that’s where most of our statistics get it wrong, because they put these two groups together.
Ann: Yes. Well, let’s talk about how the script turned to toxic—this revolution of—
Dave: Do you really want to go toxic?
Ann: Yes, I do!
Dave: I’m kidding; I’m kidding. I love this good news; I just want to live here.
Ann: Because I thought it was really interesting, how this played out over our history. And you [Nancy] laid that out, so take us back in time.
Nancy: I really wanted to understand where this is coming from, because you can’t really effectively counter something if you don’t know where it’s coming from and how it developed.
Nancy: It turns out, the very concept that masculinity is toxic has much deeper roots than most of us realize. Most of us probably think about the ‘60s or something, with the feminist movement, second wave. No, no, no; you have to go all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution—the Colonial Age—men and women worked side by side; husband and wife worked side by side—
Nancy: —on the family farm; the family industry; the family shop. The husband and wife have a partnership, day in and day out; plus, men are working with their children all day. They’re the ones who were teaching them, training them, and teaching them adult skills. Men were expected/fathers were expected to be just as involved with their children as mothers were. The social expectation of the time was much more that men were in the care-taking role. They were supposed to be, not only fathers of their families—but a very common phrase back then was “fathers of the community”—they were supposed to bring that care-taking role into their community.
Ann: —in a very loving way.
Nancy: Exactly; exactly. One of my historians that I quote (not Christian) said, “In the Colonial Age, the masculine role was defined in terms of duty, duty to God and man.” That’s how he put it. The concept of authority was very clear; this was in the literature of the time. It means you’re responsible for the common good. I look out for my good; you look out for what’s good for you; but who looks out for the common good of our marriage/of our family? That’s what authority was for—to look out for the common good.
Dave: When I read that, I was like, “Man, that man is so different than the man today.” Even the fact that cooking books were written for men; they were very comfortable in the kitchen. Again, I’m not saying that’s not true today; but it was like that was what a man’s role was in the home. He was a nurturer of his family/of his kids. And we live in a culture now that’s: “That’s a woman’s job, not a man’s job.” And that was never true!
Nancy: I love reading some of these historians. That was one of the quotes in the book: “Men were as comfortable in the kitchen as women were,”—
Nancy: — was a direct quote from one of the historians.
Nancy: The Colonial Era—and of course, it was mostly Christian back then—the view of marriage and the view of masculinity in the Colonial Era was extremely positive. It gives us a baseline that we can compare to.
Dave: And then came—
Nancy: —the Industrial—
Dave: —the Industrial Revolution.
Nancy: Work is taken out of the home. That seems like a fairly simple thing; but what happens, of course, men had to follow their work out of the home into factories and offices. For the first time, they’re not working with people whom they love and have a moral bond with. They’re working as an individual man in competition with other men. That’s where you see the script start to change. It was protested at first, by the way. People protested that: “Our men are changing!”
Nancy: In the industrial workplace, it seemed like men had to be much more self-assertive/aggressive—look out for number-one; egocentric; make it financially—the language at the time was: “Our men are losing the Christian ethos that they used to have.”
Oh, and it’s more secular—that was part of it, too—as the public square becomes large with factories, and offices, and banks, academia, and so on. You know, these large public institutions grow up; people began to say, “Well, they should be run by scientific principles”; by which they meant value-free. “Don’t bring your personal values into the public square; keep those at home.” So men were being socialized into a secular worldview through their education and the workplace much sooner than women were.
But if values don’t belong in the public square, people still wanted to maintain values like love, and altruism, and self-sacrifice, and religious devotion, and so on; so who’s going to be in charge of them? Well, if they’re at home, women are in charge of them. For the first time ever in human history, women started being held up as morally superior to men. All the way back to the Ancient Greeks, the insight between right and wrong was seen as a rational insight, and men were thought to be more rational; therefore, men [were] more moral: “Men are morally stronger than women.” In fact, the word “virtue”—v-i-r is Latin for “man.”
Nancy: Virtue had overtones of masculine strength and honor. Men were thought to be more virtuous. In the nineteenth century, for the first time ever, you see culture shifting and saying women are more virtuous; women are spiritually stronger, more morally [upright], you know? Men are out in that rough and tumble, amoral, secular realm of the marketplace in commerce and politics; and at night, they come home to be reformed and refined by their morally superior wives. That’s where you get the double standard; this is when it began.
Ann: I’m thinking about attendance in a church. I don’t know if this is true—I would have to research it—but most churches I go into, generally speaking, have more women than men. I’m wondering—
Dave: —still true, statistically.
Ann: That’s what I’m saying, but I’m wondering: back before the Industrial Age, if you had gone into a church, would it have been more even?
Nancy: Different historians have different opinions on this, so I couldn’t quite get a clear count. Today, the average church has 60 percent women, 40 percent men.
Nancy: That’s David Murrow’s statistic.
Nancy: But in the early church, too—there’s a historian; he’s a sociologist, but he studies the history of religion; his name is Rodney Stark—he says [that], from the beginning, women were more drawn to the Christian church because they were given such higher status in the church than they were in the surrounding Roman culture. Women had very low status in the culture. When they went into the Christian church, they had much higher status and much more honor. He says, all the way from the beginning, we see evidence that there were more women than men because women were so much more honored and respected in the Chrisitan church.
I forget—it was one of the church fathers, who complains, “We have so many Christian maidens”—that’s his ancient word—
Nancy: —“We have so many Christian maidens; we’re having trouble finding husbands for all of them.” [Laughter]
Nancy: And that’s why 1 Peter talks about: “What do you do if your husband’s not a Christian?” That was so common.
Nancy: It appears that Christianity, to some degree, has always attracted more women than men; but it did grow worse in America, especially after the First and Second Great Awakenings. The Great Awakenings, in many ways, are what framed/gave us evangelicalism.
Nancy: And they did a great deal of good work. A lot of people came to Christianity or were restored to their faith through the Great Awakenings, but the problem with them was they had some negative baggage. They tended to focus on an intense emotional conversion experience. And who were thought to be more emotional?—women!
Nancy: So that did seem to put religion into the sphere of women.
Nancy: If you look at engravings made at the time of some of the revivals, they almost always show more women than men. The women would often be in the center, swooning and falling over, and having these great emotional experiences.
Ann: Yes, interesting.
Nancy: Yes, evangelicalism has had a greater problem, even than historic Christianity, in terms of attracting more women.
Dave: You know, one of the things I thought, when I read through your chapter on the Industrial Revolution—and obviously, there were a lot of good things: industry, commerce; I mean, we’re not just saying it was a bad thing—it was just the net result on men and the family.
One of your quotes that was a letter to the editor in The Independent—I’m just going to read it. It said, “The American man”—this was during this Industrial Revolution time—“The American man, in gaining the world, is losing his own soul. He prostitutes his energy, vigor, and courage to one sole end, materialistic success. Mammonology, the idolatry of mammon or money, is the great American religion.” You know, as I read that, I thought, “…even today.”
Dave: And I want to say to the men listening: we are still prone—centuries later—but we are prone—and I’m not saying women aren’t as well.
Ann: I think we are, too, in this day, Dave. We’re pulled—
Dave: —we are prone to mammonology.
Ann: Women, too.
Dave: I’ve never even heard that term before; I’m like, “We worship money and success.” I’m not blaming the Industrial Revolution, but it brought that in—higher success rates, money, prosperity; you name it!—all beautiful things; but the American church is plagued by that as well.
I just want to say to a man: “That is not our call. Our call is to serve our wife; our call is to serve our children; our call is to be a leader in the community, like it was in the Colonial Age.” Not that that was Utopia, but we’ve lost a lot of that. I think we are easy as men today; it becomes toxic, because we become obsessed with the wrong things. That hurts our wives; it hurts our families; it hurts our kids.
Ann: —our society.
Dave: Part of me—when I read your book, it revitalized my own soul—to say, “That’s what a man’s called to! Not idolatry, but a worship of God.” When I, as a man—and as a husband and as a dad—live that out in surrender to Jesus, the women and children in my home and in our culture thrive. You don’t need feminists; there’s nobody wanting to be one, because they’re celebrating a man who lives as Christ did, loving them and serving them. Am I right? It brings life to everyone around you!
Ann: I’m clapping my hands; because I think we, as women, are longing for that. We’re longing for men to step into—and we, as women, are called to step into our identity as women and of who God has made us—but culturally speaking, I look at you, and think, “We need men to step into that loving, sacrificial protecting in a beautiful way; and serving their families, their wives, and their community.” We need it, as a culture and a community.
Dave: Yes, and part of me wants to say, “Guys, just live as Jesus lived. [Laughter] You want an image?—there it is!” And I’ll remind you: “You can’t!—you can’t apart from Christ—if He isn’t giving you the power to do that, you’ll never do it. But if you do, trust me, your marriage, your home, your city, your neighborhood, your church will thrive.”
Shelby: You know, Dave said it best there: “Live like Christ, and know that you simply can’t do that apart from Christ.” One of the things that I’ve been trying to remind myself over and over and over again is: “Neediness is a good thing in the Christian life if you take that neediness to Jesus and ask Him to change you.” So why don’t you do that? Admit that you’re needy, and then take that neediness to Jesus Himself. Ask Him to change you; and watch things get different, as Dave said.
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Nancy Pearcey on FamilyLife Today. You know, Nancy has written a fantastic book called The Toxic War on Masculinity. This talks about how Christianity reconciles the sexes. It’s a very important book, and it’s going to be our gift to you when you partner with us financially. You can hop online and go to FamilyLifeToday.com, or give us a call with your donation at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” And feel free to drop us something in the mail if you’d like. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
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You know, toxic masculinity overlooks the real struggles faced by men and boys. Tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are back with Nancy Pearcey to talk about how to get on the solutions side of this very real problem. That’s tomorrow; we hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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