The Golden Masculine Mean

This week CBS News released a short documentary that asked, “Is there a better way to raise boys?” It explored the challenge of raising boys to avoid the trap of “toxic masculinity,” and the crew visited our home in Franklin, Tennessee, to get the perspective of a conservative Christian family. You can watch the documentary here:

I write and speak quite a bit about masculinity in America—not because I represent any sort of ideal but because our nation faces an immense challenge in raising boys, and any discussion of the challenges of modern American society (including deaths of despair) that does not explore the masculine identity crisis is missing a big piece of the cultural puzzle. It’s true that men still achieve well at the apex of American society (they fill boardrooms, legislatures, and CEO chairs), but in the rest of American society, men are starting to fall behind. 

There are complex economic, cultural, and spiritual reasons for the struggles of millions of young men, but one reason is that our nation is losing its understanding of virtuous masculinity. Note well, I’m not arguing that we’ve lost an understanding of virtue—we know we want children to be kind, to be truthful, and to be brave, for example—but we’ve lost a sense of what it means to translate these virtues through a distinctly masculine filter. Or, to put it another way, the effort to raise a child to become a good person is quite often different from the effort to raise a boy to become a good man.

Yes, we’re all just people. And no, men are not all the same. But as a general matter, men and women are different, and that means (again, in general) that we’ll be disproportionately plagued with different vices and disproportionately blessed with different virtues. 

Instead, our culture often treats vices in men as the result of their masculinity, while viewing their virtues as the result of their humanity. The result is a culture that often tells young boys that there’s nothing distinctly good about being a guy—but there is a lot that’s perilous. 

Are you aggressive? That’s a bad thing that plagues boys. Are you brave? Fantastic! But anyone can be brave.

Are you emotionally distant? Well, young men often struggle with expressing themselves. Are you steady under pressure? Wonderful! I admire people who can respond to adversity. 

Indeed, we’ve reached a point where the American Psychological Association is essentially pathologizing traditional masculinity itself. In early 2019, it declared that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance, and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” It published guidelines that arguing that “traditional masculinity ideology”—defined as socializing boys toward “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence”—has been shown to “limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict,” and negatively influence mental and physical health.

But wait. Look at those lists of characteristics again. Many of them can be virtues—even indispensable virtues. Is there an inherent problem with achievement? Of course not. A desire to achieve helps build families, economies, and nations. Is there an inherent problem with stoicism? Of course not. As I explained in the documentary, there is often a desperate need for a man to be able to handle the storms of life with a calm, steady hand. 

Is a sense of adventure problematic? Don’t tell Neil Armstrong. Even risk and violence have virtuous and indispensable uses. Just ask the men who held Cemetery RidgeHill on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, or the men who surged forward onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, or more recently the men who landed in Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. 

If you spend any time around boys, you know that they are disproportionately (though not always, of course) prone to take risks, seek adventure, and demonstrate aggression. If we tell a child there is something inherently wrong with those things, we will often tell a child that there is something wrong with his very nature. 

The challenge of raising a boy, then, should not lie in suppressing their masculine characteristics, but rather in shaping them and channeling them toward virtuous ends. 

It is absolutely true that there can exist a “man box” (a term used by one of the experts in the documentary) and that boys who don’t possess many of these stereotypically male characteristics can live a life of misery as they’re forced to conform to society’s expectations against the grain of their unique nature and disposition. It is also true that many of these male characteristics are stereotypical for a reason, and that our desire to create more liberty for young boys should make the walls of the “box” porous—it should not obliterate or denigrate masculinity itself. 

Toxic masculinity is a real thing, and we see its effects in the #MeToo sex predators, in the violence of gangland criminals, and in the rage and fury of abusive boyfriends and husbands. As a Christian, I see toxic masculinity as the outgrowth of what happens when men surrender to sin. A man surrendered to sin will often behave quite differently from a woman who surrenders to sin—with a greater propensity to commit acts of violence and predation. 

At the same time, a man raised to live a life of virtue will often behave quite differently from a woman raised to live a life of virtue—with a greater propensity to take the kinds of adventurous risks that quite often advance human civilization and a greater propensity to channel aggression into protection. You could swing the doors of the infantry wide open to men and women, and men will always choose that path with greater frequency than women. 

One of the mysteries and realities of the differences between men and women is the way that boys so often respond worse to fatherlessness than girls. Leadership by example is so vitally important to young men. A good father, a good coach, a good teacher, or a good commander can demonstrate for his son, his player, his student, or his soldier the golden mean of manhood—a life that shuns the excesses and indulgences of toxic masculinity but also shuns extreme overreactions to male misbehavior and understands that there can be something distinctly good about being a man.

Answering subscriber comments.

Okay, this Sunday edition of the French Press hasn’t been much about faith, but let’s correct that omission by answering some reader questions from newsletters past. First, let’s start with exploring more whether Donald Trump’s is God’s man in the White House

A number of readers commented on my statement that “applying the logic of Romans 13, if Christians fight for Trump’s re-election, and Trump loses, they’ll have resisted the person who God ordained to become the president of the United States.” Here’s one thoughtful response:

[block]I get your point, but this is more complicated and could use more explanation.  The situation where I give effort in a direction and then find later that I was actually working counter to God’s eventual clarity happens all the time.  It might have been Lou Pinella, as manager in Seattle, who said he didn’t want Christians on his team because the took defeat too theologically — that is instead of anger and smashing lockers they’d say it was “God’s will.”[end block]

This reader is correct. The comment does require more explanation. Understanding that God is sovereign does not mean that we always understand his purpose. Moreover—this might bend your brain—it might even be right and correct for a person to fight against an enemy that God intends to triumph. To take an Old Testament example, if God intended to use an invading force to punish Israel for its sins, does that mean a righteous guard of the gates of Jerusalem should discern God’s purpose, fling open the gates, and allow the city to be sacked? 

No, his purpose is to guard the gates and trust God. 

Regarding Pinella’s comment, I’ve heard that critique of Christians many times, and it fundamentally misunderstands a Christian’s understanding of God’s sovereignty. Trusting in God’s purpose is a source of hope and a firewall against despair, not a rationalization for surrender, or for half-measures in your profession. A Christian who is called to be a soldier will fight with honor and give his “last full measure of devotion” on the battlefield, but he’ll also know that his destiny and the destiny of the nation are ultimately in the hands of a loving and merciful God. 

To be less dramatic, a Christian called to teach or to litigate or to build houses or to stay home and raise children will pursue his or her calling with diligence and energy that is intended to bring glory to God, even as he or she knows that the success of each of their endeavors depends on God’s grace. It’s lazy and unbiblical to hang back, throw your hands up, and simply say, “Que sera sera.”

For the next comments, let’s go back to my first faith newsletter, where I talked about Pete Buttigieg’s Episcopal faith and how it differs from orthodox Evangelical beliefs. We got almost 200 reader emails, and I’ve filed away a number for reflection and later response. Here are two comments that are reflective of a number of messages. First, here’s a comment on the virtue of Mayor Pete’s “God talk.”

I don’t disagree with any of the contrasts you outlined between Pete’s theology and Evangelical theology. However, considering the dearth of religion in this country, which you outlined generally and would be valuable to address in statistical detail, I suggest a second letter outlining the value of Pete’s religion on the public stage. It might not be yours or mine to a T, but its value transcends the liturgical differences. The term God-fearing used to mean something, but draws puzzled stares today. If Pete makes God-fearing a respectable trait (which Donald Trump will never do), then doesn’t that create a huge net impact on our society? I would argue the disdain towards Evangelicals is rising every day in the minds of the non-religious (and religious alike) due to the handshake deal they have with Trump. If a non-Evangelical can fix that, I say God Bless. 

This is a fair, though optimistic, point. When Mayor Pete forthrightly states that religious ethics have a place in the public square, he’s exactly correct. I’ve long argued against the idea that Christian people should make purely secular arguments in public life. Religious ideas have real force, and to surrender making a religious argument is often to surrender your best argument. 

At the same time, however, while Mayor Pete at his best is carving out a constructive space for religious argument, we should be under no illusions about the positive net effect on our national discourse—unless we supplement the religious justifications for our policy positions with a corresponding Christian emphasis on mercy and humility. 

Interestingly, Buttigieg has a present opportunity to do just that. Parts of the left are attacking him for volunteering with the Salvation Army, an organization that does much good in the world and has historically disagreed with Buttigieg on Christian sexual ethics. If Pete backs away from the Salvation Army under pressure, he’ll reinforce the emerging American reality that religious and political differences are growing so profound that they inhibit our ability to work together for common, virtuous purposes. If Pete refuses to apologize and affirms the Salvation Army’s virtues, I won’t say that he’ll go a long way towards cooling America’s polarizing passions, but at least it would represent a welcome, though modest, start. 

This second reader comment broadens the conversation from Evangelical and Mainline Protestants to “orthodox” and “progressive” Christians more generally.

[T]he real difference is between what James Hunter called the “orthodox” and the “progressives.”  Many evangelicals are orthodox but that diverse body is fracturing along with the mainline churches (who have already fractured).  Even Catholicism is seriously under pressure to divide between those groups, but what if the Pope is a progressive?  That is a real problem for orthodox Catholics.  The Lord is winnowing out world Christianity.

This is exactly why American Evangelicals have found it increasingly easy to work with (theologically) conservative Catholics. As strange as this may sound to Christians who lived even two generations ago, the theological divisions within Protestantism and Catholicism are growing so great that orthodox Protestants and orthodox Catholics are often closer together than they are to many of their Protestant or Catholic co-religionists. 

Or, to put it another way, I am more theologically aligned with my Catholic friends than I am with many members of a different Presbyterian denomination. A member of the Presbyterian Church in America is quite often going to align more with a devout Catholic than with a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA). That’s how profound the theological differences have become. 

One last thing … 

I promised that the faith newsletter won’t feature NBA highlights. I didn’t promise it would be Kanye-free. I loved this rendition on “Jesus Walks” on The Late Late ShowWith James Corden. Does anyone notice the change in the lyrics?

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