The following is a paper I wrote last year in a COMM class about countercultures. Having studied the '60s in America, we examined our present society in search of modern countercultures (if such things exist). For your reading pleasure, here it is:
It’s frequently said that if you remember the 60’s, you weren’t there. In America in the 1960’s the concept of a counterculture was born with a portion of society living in radically different ways- to include new clothing, politics, and drugs that might make one forget periods of time. Countercultures today are multifarious and subtle. Though modern countercultures are just as revolutionary, some can and do come from the Right. Parts of Christian belief, culture, and teaching interact with secular society in radical ways. To understand this we must ask how modern non-denominational Christianity creates a counter-cultural identity for men that includes being a strong leader but also submission to authority, fellowship with peers, sharing of struggles, and a greater acceptance of emotions relate to conceptions of manhood found in secular society.
Sex and gender are not simple issues. Despite the fact that I have one of each and they determine everything from when I get up in the morning (read: whether I put effort into my appearance) to what I will spend the rest of my life doing (read: baby-making or employment), I could hardly provide a comprehensive definition for either. To complicate matters, both Christian and secular views of gender are paradoxical! While in the Christian conception men are expected to be athletic, aggressive leaders who strive for agape love and fellowship, the secular conception is no less strange: men feel ubiquitous pressure to be athletic womanizers despite the fact that the social constructionist view is regularly accepted by academics. Christianity may be so integrated into the fabric of American culture that even those who are not affiliated with the church feel the pressure to overtly display machismo or perhaps Christianity is only one of many forces dictating that men dominate and lead. To explore this multifaceted issue I used a variety of media: books, websites, and first-hand research. I conducted a few peer interviews of those whose views on Christianity I was already familiar with. The nature my research took was asking several people, some from each worldview under study, what experiences or thoughts they had related to masculinity and Christianity, if applicable. Such a broad, open-ended format allowed me to observe an interesting phenomenon: Christians responded faster and more coherently than non-Christians. I gather that Christians have a more clear idea of gender because they have been instructed by church and the bible on what masculinity/femininity means and because of the nature of the two worldviews. My sampling may be skewed because the non-Christian participants have not taken any courses to study gender, so the two groups have not spent comparable time ruminating on the subject. The women’s studies major I interviewed also knew immediately how to respond and had a pre-formulated opinion. These methods have provided a well-rounded description of the evangelical counterculture of masculinity
A major subject of my research is Promise Keepers, a prominent Christian men’s organization. PK, as it is known, was founded in 1990 to revive the biblical concept of masculinity and by “1995 the organization employed 250 full-time staff and had a $64 million budget.” The “main contributors to the Promise Keepers include Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade; James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family; and Edwin Cole, the founder of the Christian Men’s Network” (Beal 155). The Promise Keepers’ main text is the list of seven promises. Promises 1, 3, and 7 display the intention of the organization to be countercultural, despite the conspicuous absence of that term:
A Promise Keeper is committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer, and obedience to God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. A Promise Keeper is committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity. A Promise Keeper is committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (see Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:19-20). (Promise Keepers)
The references above refer to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. (NIV)” (Mark 12:30-31) and “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (NIV)” (Matthew 28:19-20). These verses and commitments, along with the verse commonly referred to as the command to “be in the world but not of the world” (John 17: 16 Bible Gateway) demonstrate the counterculture nature of Christianity. Nor is this something that faithful resent; Ryan Dickey, a young Christian male responded extremely positively to the news that I would be describing Christianity’s modern conception of masculinity as a counterculture. “Everything Jesus did was countercultural,” he lauded.
Modern non-denominational Christianity contains a counter-cultural identification of masculinity because masculinity is characterized as universal, distinct from femininity, a concept that must be taught, and something imperative. None of the books, websites, or Christian interview subjects mentioned a variety of guises that masculinity might take. It was assumed, in every case, there was one type of masculinity that was correct and universal, a masculinity that involved leading and love. Nico attended Liberty Christian Academy for high school, where he, as a skeptic, observed the conservative culture. The impression gathered during those years was that, “if you’re in a relationship, you’re supposed to be seen as the provider and whatever dominant role. Image: his arm around her and ‘I want pizza tonight’ and anything that deviated from that was really looked down upon.” Jessica Glatz, a current practitioner states her perspective on masculinity as, “men are supposed to be the head of the household…Men are the ultimate source of authority in the household, but this is under the condition that they are consulting, working with, and respecting their marriage partners.” The organization Promise Keepers and one of its affiliated pastors, Dr. Tony Evans, proclaim a similar understanding of masculinity. On the PK website, the “About Us” states the organization’s mission as “to ignite and unite men to become warriors who will change their world through living out the Seven Promises” (Promise Keepers). Healy reports that the Promise Keepers see men’s emotional distance and lack of involvement in family life is a problem to be rectified by the father and husband figure having greater dominance and responsibility. Dr. Tony Evans is quoted with a rather radical statement of dominance. He “refers to this historical process of decreasing male involvement as ‘the feminization of the American male’ [which] has ‘produced a nation of ‘sissified’ men who abdicate their role as spiritually pure leaders, thus forcing women to fill the vacuum.’” To rectify this, he encourages men to take back the role of dominance from their wives; men are specifically encouraged to take instead of ask. For the reluctant wife, Evans says:
Give it back! For the sake of your family and the survival of our culture, let your man be a man if he’s willing. Protect yourself, if you must, by handing the reins back slowly; take it one step at a time. But if your husband tells you he wants to reclaim his role, let him! God never meant for you to bear the load you’re carrying. (Healy 221)
This is also an act of love for the world, as it protects “the survival of our culture.” Clearly, the way men relate to and love women is part of their manhood. Love is vowed on the level of the family, the church, and, ultimately, the world. Promises 2, 4, 5, and 6 are as follows:
A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises. A Promise Keeper is committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection, and biblical values. A Promise Keeper is committed to supporting the mission of his church by praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources. A Promise Keeper is committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity. (Promise Keepers)
These principles are distinct but related to the requirement for men to lead. Dr. Bill Bright “says that the central spiritual goal is the achievement of a state of unconditional, universal love, or agape” (Healy 215). Masculinity too requires love to function: “Where I’m at is that its very important to have masculinity nourished and encouraged” (Dickey).
As noted by the encouraged dominance of men over women, masculinity and femininity are believed to be totally distinct categories with different behaviors and characteristics. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) is described by Wikipedia as “a leading evangelical Christian organization promoting a complementarian (as opposed to egalitarian) view of gender issues” (Wikipedia). The Council states that “scripture implies that the woman would ‘desire’ to rule over the man” and that man has “sinful inclinations to dominate or shirk responsibility” (CBMW) and follows up this passage with a reference to Genesis 3:16, which reads, “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’” (Bible Gateway, emphasis mine). The citation of this passage reinforces Wikipedia’s description of the Council as possessing a complementarian view of gender issues; men and women may both be necessary, but they are surely not equal. The Council continues to establish differences between men and women by condemning modern culture for its understanding of gender as a continuous category:
Though culture is pushing for unisex everything, men and women need be careful that they are distinguishably different from the opposite sex in appearance, mannerisms, and cultural concepts of appropriate gender behavior. Some men might need help to recognize and change effeminate habits, which they have inadvertently developed. (CBMW)
A characteristic of a counter-culture is that it stands against the mainstream. This quality becomes prominent when examining the radical views of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Promise Keepers, a slightly less controversial counter-cultural organization, also emphasizes the separation of femininity and masculinity. PK critic Kevin Healy describes PK's intentions as such: "in its speeches, rallies, articles, books and small-group meetings, PK attempts to construct a unified, ideal model of gender and sexuality." (Healy 215) This is in contrast to Allen's description on page 66 of Rise Up, O Men of God where he says that the social constructionist perspective for gender, "emphasize[s] that there is an 'infinite variation' in biological endowments" and "evidence from historical research and cross-cultural anthropology that shows different constructions of gender in different historical periods and cultural settings." The modern Christian counter-culture has a simplified view of gender as two distinct categories with distinct roles whereas the modern secular view sees gender and sexuality as a range. The best visual for the secular view in direct opposition to the counterculture may be a gender spectrum. In an critical essay Becky Beal relates the PK message about prescribed masculinity from the Promise Keepers’ book What Makes a Man: “’If you could somehow freeze-frame biblical manhood or in some way boil it down into its component parts, you would see five elements that are always present.’ These are assertiveness, self-control, independence, self-confidence, and stability, which are noted as ‘an ever-present nature in all of us as men” (Beal 155). Ryan Dickey, a previously named interviewee, thought that both masculinity and femininity were important, but in different ways. He emphasized the leadership capability of the man and the nurturing capacity of a woman as factors “important for the growth of society.” He also brought up Ephesians 5:22, the “Wives submit to your husbands” verse alongside 5:25, the section indicating that men should love their wives. Depending on the source, the amount of respect and validation given to each gender varies, but the separate parts agree that men must be different than women. These Christian sources look to the biblical charges in Deuteronomy 22:5- “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this”- and 1 Corinthians 11:14-15- “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.” (Bible Gateway)- as indications that God wanted an outer distinction between the sexes (CBMW).
Masculinity is primarily characterized as a concept and way of living taught to young men. The Summit Church, which many UNC students attend in Durham, had many sermons on the subject of being a man, including “How to Date and Love a Woman,” “Men are from Earth and Women are from Earth: Deal with It!,” and “Men and Women in the Kingdom” (Greer). Cornerstone, an on-campus Christian group, has a yearly men’s retreat in the spring called “Manmaker” (Glatz). At Liberty Christian Academy, the teachers would occasionally give the boys “talks about how to deal with girls” in which “they treated men like bulls raging through a field of flowers and that that we weren’t supposed to destroy any of the flowers” (Nico). Bible studies at UNC are frequently separated by gender. According to Dickey, this is to foster honesty and understanding.
We’re less comfortable and honest in front of each other. A guy’s not going to say what he thinks in front of a girl. It’s the acceptance and desire to be thought of as good in front of members of the opposite sex. Its hard to get over those barriers in a group dynamic…Separate but equal, but done so that it’s the best environment for both. We just don’t think that it’s healthy to have that level of vulnerability around each other. It leads to things, to naked things. (Dickey)
Beal theorized that Promise Keepers and other similar groups “see a need for men to retreat from women to create spiritually-based homosocial rituals through which they can collectively recapture a lost or strayed ‘true manhood’” (Beal 158). Robert Lewis’ essay “Teaching Manhood to Men” explains that needs are met by these men’s retreats: Men’s Fraternity is a community of men who mentor and share with one another. Lewis believes that the first need of a man is “a safe place to go where they know someone understands them, where they don’t feel alone” (Lewis). Christian men in this counter-culture find community and an understanding of their identity through instruction from mentors, pastors, and retreat leaders.
“Men and Religion Forward Movement leaders perceived that the United States was in the midst of a moral crisis, and they believed that men held the key to correcting problems in churches and society” (Allen). Like the MRF Movement, many groups do not think of understanding and correcting masculinity as an accessory. It has been depicted many times as what must be changed in order to fix the world today. Beal notes on page 155 that the Promise Keepers’ “message of revival is also given with a sense of urgency, an immediacy that is directed at the apparent ethical decay of our society.” This same sense of urgency was showcased earlier by Dr. Tony Evans. These evangelists and organizations see misunderstandings of gender as undermining the family, society, and morality. There does not seem to be anything like this deep-seated fear of disruption as an undercurrent in secular society; it is unique. In summary, the modern Christian conception of masculinity is countercultural because it is thought to be universal, distinct from femininity, a concept to be taught, and something that must be maintained if one does not want to risk undermining society.
Not all Christians agree about gender and that is certainly true for secular society as well. However, the modern Christian countercultural conception of gender interacts with the secular society in interesting ways. Secular society admits a plurality of interpretation of masculinity even if there is some pressure in secular society to demonstrate machismo. In the comparison of the high school experiences of two of my interviewees, the difference between some freedom of interpretation and the restriction of the modern Christian counterculture becomes clear. Rocco Giamatteo attended a public high school in New York. He participated in sports and non-athletic extracurricular activities while there; “I was a wrestler, and, latently, I did feel more like a man when I was in the wrestling room than, say, writing for the paper.” The society in which Rocco attended high school probably worked off of the latent societal idea that men are “strong, unemotional, and sexually aggressive, and they consider women weak, emotional, and nurturing” (Allen 66). In comparison, at Nico’s extremely conservative high school:
Spongebob was reviled for being too gay. People thought I was gay, and my friend, Stephen. I didn’t have any overt interest in women and I didn’t say, ‘OH EM GEE she’s so hot’ all the time. And because I didn’t play the dating game they thought that I was gay. I was the kid who slept on a bench with headphones in. Jake and Britney, the all-star, all-American couple was emphasized and encouraged. I didn’t and I still don’t feel the urge to exert machismo or do overtly male things. I don’t cross dress or paint my nails, but I don’t compare weight lifting ability or get into sports because I don’t care. Because I didn’t care or didn’t get into that. My school was a bubble… they weren’t prepared to accept that there were things/people/cultures not like them…I would define myself as not being feminine in general, but not taking efforts to exert masculine qualities. Which is cool. I’m fine with that. People get the wrong idea, but I’m not insulted in the least.
In some societies, even broader ideas about masculinity are accepted. I spoke to women ’s studies major, Crystal Randles, who said that, “A lot of people think ‘male’, ‘female’, that’s it. They think that gender’s binary but it’s not. It’s how you define it. It’s personal identity and how you see yourself.” In a similar vein, Allen says on pages 65 and 66 that there are two conceptions of how gender is constructed: essentialist and social constructionist. The essentialist position is held by the counterculture and holds that biological masculinity is the same thing as the set of behaviors and characteristics considered “male.” In other words, sex is the same thing as gender, whereas in the social constructionist position, sex and gender may or may not match. Any degree of biological masculinity can be matched with any degree of gendered masculinity.
Many in secular society, including myself, criticize the contemporary Christian counterculture. Healy, on page 225, suggests “that the feelings of love and peace experienced in Promise Keepers families indicate not the presence of agape but rather a profound sense of comfort within the safe boundaries of a rigidly maintained system of identity.” A system of values that so closely enforces its own standards to the point that “some men might need help to recognize and change effeminate habits, which they have inadvertently developed” (CBMW) does not seem like it could foster true agape love to me, either. Beal explains on page 156 that feminists object to the idea that female leadership is a symptom of social decay because it invalidates women as leaders and all that they have achieved. The Promise Keepers and many other groups who believe like them may not be anti-woman, as they claim, but they are anti-women’s advancement. And, frankly, a position that advocates decreasing or eliminating women from positions of power on account of them being women is, in fact, promoting the domination of women. Putting half the population on a pedestal to be served is not what women want or need. The societal idea of gender roles espoused by modern Christians seems dystopic and dysfunctional, but that is the way countercultures usually appear to those who are not in them.
These two dominant thought patterns concerning masculinity do overlap on a particular topic: sports. Rocco’s story above illustrates the value of sports to the stereotypical secular man; they are expected to be athletic. What is lesser known is the idea of “Muscular Christianity,” first introduced in 1857 to describe the slightly different form of Christianity being crafted to make church and God more appealing to men. There have been more women than men in church since “the late seventeenth century” and in the twentieth century, the movement to get more men in church took the form of integrating sports into Christianity (Balmer 3). The Promise Keepers online catalogue has items with the Promise Keepers logo on them, as expected. However, you will not find coasters, grilling supplies, or bathrobes; the products available are a tumbler, High Sierra Duffel Bag, Polo shirt, Sportsman hats, and Nike Power Distance Golf Balls.(Promise Keepers) This organization that promotes men returning to dominant leadership sells almost exclusively sport equipment with its logo. What kind of men are Promise Keepers? Men who play golf and go camping, based on the marketing.
The secular world has a lot of individuals who do not have a formulated opinion about gender, and then a part of the culture promotes, or at least believes, that gender and sex are two separate entities that may or may not correspond. Similarly, there is a core of Christians believing and promoting the idea that men and women are “separate but equal.” We can be confident that not every Christian believes and practices this, however, based on the fact that there are many groups and pastors declaring that the world is in decline because their flocks are not practicing “correct” gender roles. We can, to some degree, understand how modern non-denominational Christianity creates a counter-cultural identity for men that includes being a strong leader but also submission to authority, fellowship with peers, sharing of struggles, and a greater acceptance of emotions that relate to conceptions of manhood found in secular society. The relationship between the two was best stated by Balmer: “Promise Keepers, while purporting to shape public attititudes, was also remarkably adept at responding to criticism and to public sentiment. But that, alas, is another time-honored characteristic of evangelicalism” (5). As always, the answer is that it goes both ways.