The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill has led to much reflection on the state of the modern evangelical soul. One thing that stood out from the podcast is that Driscoll and many like him have capitalized on the perception that there’s a “crisis of masculinity” — that in some fumbled generational handoff, men at some point forgot how to be men. Pastoral gurus like Driscoll then step in to provide the needed instruction.
It has become something of received wisdom among American evangelicals and even among some secular folk that masculinity is in crisis. Hasn’t the flower of American manhood gone from the hardy souls that stormed the beaches at Normandy and changed flat tires by the roadside to the effete slobs spending every evening in the soft blue glow of internet porn in their parents’ basements?
One thing we must recognize about manhood, though, is that its expression is inescapably tied to economic realities. A large component of the received American vision of manhood is the role of provider. Many assume that providing for a wife and children is the only true and complete expression of manhood. But for much of human history, this wasn’t the case. Though being the patriarch and head of a family was certainly cherished as one epitome of the fully expressed masculine life, other expressions were possible, and for most, in fact, economic realities precluded the kind of independent living a head of family would need to have.
Consider, for example, the classic show Downton Abbey, about times not really so distant from our own. Lord Grantham expresses his masculinity in his role as a benevolent patriarch and head of a family. But as the head of a family, he presides over a house of servants for whom having a family of their own is economically unattainable. Instead, most of them live their lives in service to the Grantham family. Notice, however, that this does not necessarily render the men any less masculine. Suppose anyone imagining that the masculinity of the butler Carson was anything but complete!
The received wisdom in the United States, however, is not comfortable with a celibate, economically dependent expression of masculinity. We tend to see ourselves as the inheritors of a unique set of economic circumstances: due to the vast tracts of unsettled land (unsettled, that is, by whites) and abundant opportunities for homesteading, the way was open for an unusual percentage of the population to achieve a subsistence level of existence, or even a certain amount of agrarian prosperity. The ideal of every man dwelling under his own vine and fig tree, his musket hanging over the hearth — the world depicted in Little House on the Prairie or the Leatherstocking tales — is mostly still the beau idéal of American manhood, particularly among evangelicals.
Never mind that the reality of American manhood was always more complicated. For one thing, the popular image ignores regional differences, such as the South with its far more hierarchical social structures, resembling more Jane Austen than Ingalls Wilder, and supported by a vast population of enslaved Africans. The northeast, meanwhile, had its own population of servants, indentured and free. The west was being settled by a population predominantly of single males, with settlements of freebooters serviced by bawdy houses. In the predominantly Scotch-Irish settlements of Appalachia, precarious extended-family homesteads were punctuated by less than ideal family values.
Even if we take the slice of American social reality that the Little House books ostensibly depict, we discover a picture misleading in important ways. Though the books often make oblique or softened references to the precariousness of frontier homesteads, one would not come away from them necessarily realizing that most homesteads were economic failures, that the homesteaders as a whole represented a tiny fraction of the contemporary American population, or that the frontier settlements as a whole were subsidized by massive government expenditures in Indian wars, Indian removals, resettlements, new transportation infrastructure, and so forth.
This is not, however, to deny any validity to the somewhat romanticized ideal. The Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1904, and the ability to appropriate land by fee simple, certainly enabled a much larger proportion of the American population to enjoy relative economic independence than in Europe. But the economic conditions that fueled that masculine ideal were already running out of steam by the 20th century. The frontiers were closed, and anyway people began to aspire for something other than agrarian subsistence. Tales of families from the Great Depression are full of runaway fathers or children at tender ages farmed out for productive purposes. Though the exact vocabulary used differed, this was the era of the first great crisis of American masculinity. Then, the worry was less pornography than hard liquor, but vast swaths of American manhood were regarded as irresponsible, sometimes violent deadbeats.
Did anybody notice that these men turning to liquor were also trying to provide for a family while experiencing an economic hardship and frustration that was unknown to their fathers? One suspects the human failing is to focus more on the symptoms of the problem than the root causes, which were fundamentally economic in nature. If the American ideal of manhood involved economic independence, and that was out of the reach of most, then by necessity most men were condemned to be men manqués, and the refuge from their shameful condition was the bottle.
This first crisis was ended by the postwar industrial boom. War had destroyed the productive capacity of the rest of the world; American goods, then, were in high demand, and fetched a high price, which bankrolled great expenditures on wages. Suddenly something of the old opportunities for economic independence reappeared, in the sense that a man with no special skills or experience could land a factory job and afford a car, house, and a family to boot. Here was something even better than eking out the old subsistence life: a comfortable house in the suburbs with all the modern conveniences.
Indeed, this brief and abnormal interval began to be read back into the American past, consolidating the vision of full masculinity as being marital, sexual, and economically independent. The pump having been primed by the American mythos (and laissez-faire propaganda) of Little House, the fifties were prolific in reinterpreting the American West as the victory of the nuclear family and personal independence.
But the postwar situation could not last. The rest of the world was rebuilt, and American goods could no longer demand the prices they once did because of competition. This was not, note, the result of something called “globalization”: globalization was already a fait accompli, as one can see from the amount of American products exported to far-flung places in the postwar era. It was only when we as Americans were no longer winning the globalization game that we decided to give it a name.
Right on cue, the second and enduring crisis of American masculinity began. In the proper perspective, the glory days of our fathers and grandfathers was only a temporary reprieve from the crisis that was well underway with the 20th century. Right on cue, people were quick to blame the symptoms instead of the root causes, which were economic.
Consider for a moment a few hard realities. According to the living wage calculator developed by MIT, in my far from posh community in southwest Missouri, to sustain a family of four with the father as sole provider (a slightly smaller family than that depicted on The Simpsons) would require an annual income upwards of sixty thousand dollars. The median income for my part of the country is slightly more than twenty thousand. For most, then, a family of reasonable economic independence is an ideal completely out of reach. But we only see the symptoms: men that can’t seem to meet women, or who can’t seem to make their families work even when they do, and take refuge in dependence, drugs, and pornography.
If it’s accurate to say that the crisis of masculinity is an economic crisis rather than a crisis of character, what is the way forward? Evangelicals must modify their position in at least one of two ways, and possibly will have to embrace both. First, if creating an economically independent family is not feasible for most men, then the church must either give up speaking to those men, or it must articulate an ideal of masculinity that realistically reflects their situation. The pastoral demands of ministering to a population of men destined for lifelong celibacy is quite different from ministering to men whose life goal is “obviously” “ultimately” to start a family. Since it would be unacceptable to give up preaching the gospel to anyone, these modifications in pastoral approach must be made, though even an explicit rejection of these men would at least be clearer than the current situation, where we trifle with them, insisting that independent family life would be their birthright if they would “only” get their lives together – a cruel fiction.
The second and perhaps complementary possibility is to revise our commitment to the current economic state of affairs. It would mean retaining the ideal of independent families as the ideal environment for masculinity, but using that ideal to judge our economy and find it wanting. It would mean developing a protestant equivalent to the critique of capitalism one finds in, for example, the (primarily) Catholic distributists. Not being an expert myself, I can’t judge whether such a critique can be made cogently or such an economic ideal be implemented sustainably, though I would rejoice if some alternate economic arrangement really could create more economically sustainable families.
Either way, it is imperative for the church to develop a more nuanced and more economically informed understanding of the “crisis of masculinity.” The idea that any ideal of what is masculine – or, for that matter, what is feminine – can be articulated in a vacuum from prevailing economic realities is an illusion. What it means to be a man (or a woman), in the end, must be understood in the dimension of what it means to be economically productive, to provide for oneself and (where possible) a family as well. At least, it must be understood in that dimension on this side of eternity. If we ignore this, we hamstring the church’s ability to speak to men where they are. We give them false ideas about what it means to be a man and place false guilt for their subsequent frustration. We leave them vulnerable to the first huckster – be he pastor, politician, or some other sort of guru – who comes along and promises to make men out of them.
- Carson does marry later in the series, but this is something of an ersatz marriage because both he and his spouse are in their golden years with no prospect of starting a family, since they have spent their lives serving the Grantham family. ↑
- Vance Randolph, Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (Urbana, Il.: University of Illinois Press, 1986). ↑
- Tharp, Julie, and Jeff Kleiman. “‘Little House on the Prairie’ and the Myth of Self-Reliance.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 11, no. 1 (2000): 55–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43587224. ↑
- The Temperance Movement was by and large a movement attempting to address a perceived crisis of masculinity. To Carrie Nation, the great saloon-smashing maverick of the Temperance Movement, is attributed this quote: “No man who drank or smoked could ever come nearer to me than the telephone. I’d say, I won’t let you – you nicotine-soaked, beer-besmeared, whiskey-greased, red-eyed devil – talk to me face to face.” ↑
- At the time of writing. ↑
- Dani Alexis Ryskamp, “The Life in The Simpsons Is No Longer Attainable,” The Atlantic, December 29th, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2022. <https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/12/life-simpsons-no-longer-attainable/617499/>. ↑