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How Christianity Fixes ‘Toxic Masculinity’

"Toxic War on Masculinity" cover
Image CreditBaker Books

Nancy Pearcey’s latest book, ‘The Toxic War on Masculinity,’ explains how historical forces pushed men out of the house and denigrated their authority — with devastating consequences for society.

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Man, argues Aristotle in Book VIII, Chapter 12 of his Nicomachean Ethics, “is naturally inclined to form couples—even more than to form cities, inasmuch as the household is earlier and more necessary than the city, and reproduction is more common to man with the animals. With the other animals the union extends only to this point, but human beings live together not only for the sake of reproduction but also for the various purposes of life; for from the start the functions are divided, and those of man and woman are different; so they help each other by throwing their peculiar gifts into the common stock.”

In Book I, Chapter 2 of Politics, Aristotle offers a social genesis narrative that begins with the individual household, proceeds to a village formed out of a group of such households, and culminates with a city (or city-state; polis in Greek) composed of several such villages bonded together.

The Greek word that Aristotle uses for household is oikos, which represents both the linguistic root of and the historical foundation for economics. Unlike our current nuclear family, the oikos was a complex, self-sufficient economic unit made up, in its fullest incarnation, of parents and children, grandparents and cousins, servants and slaves, lands and livestock, weavers and artisans.

Everyone from the master to the servant, the farmhand to the milkmaid, the potter to the blacksmith had a function within the oikos. Within the family itself, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters had distinct and separate roles, but all worked together for the common good of the oikos.

An Industrial and Domestic Revolution

Nancy Pearcey does not use the word oikos in her newest book, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes. However, s+

he argues — or, rather, demonstrates — that just such an economic unit was a common phenomenon in pre-industrial America. “Before the Civil War,” she writes, “90 percent of American freemen owned their own farm, shop, or small-craft workshop. … Often the living space was in one part of the house, with an office, workshop, or store in another part.”

“As a result,” she goes on to explain,

[L]ife in the thirteen colonies was characterized by an integration of life and labor. Husband and wife were engaged in a common enterprise (though not necessarily in identical tasks). They worked side by side, suffering common defeats and rejoicing in common victories. A husband/father was the head of a small commonwealth—a semi-independent economic unit that often included members of the extended family, relatives, apprentices, servants, hired hands, farm laborers, boarders, and (mostly in the South) slaves.

The head of this patriarchal economic unit, this Christian oikos, was the father. He was not, as he would increasingly become after the Industrial Revolution, a distant breadwinner who went off to work in a factory or business and left the running of the domestic sphere to his wife. He was intimately involved in every aspect of his household, supervising family devotions and taking upon himself the lion’s share of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual education of his children. In fact, I was surprised to learn, in “the colonial age, literature on parenting—such as sermons and childrearing manuals—typically addressed fathers instead of mothers.”

Pearcey, professor and scholar in residence at Houston Christian University and bestselling author of Total Truth and Love Thy Body, has done a prodigious amount of research on the state of the American family before and after the Industrial Revolution.

But she has not done so merely for the sake of illuminating the early history of our nation. She has done so to address one of the most pressing social problems of our day — the demonization of masculinity as inherently toxic. How did we arrive at our current state of affairs, Pearcey asks, what does it mean, and what can we do about it? 

Let me begin by finishing the compelling, if tragic, story that Pearcey tells about the consequences of the Industrial Revolution on fathers and families. The need to leave the household unit for work did far more than reduce the amount of time men had with their wives and children. It catapulted them into a secular, amoral world that privileged competition, individualism, and acquisitiveness over cooperation, communalism, and stewardship.

As such, it fueled the effects of an Enlightenment-inspired split between the public Darwinian facts of the workplace and the private Christian values of the home — a split that further drove a wedge between the secular battlefield of business and the sacred refuge of the home, between the rational-logical-objective “masculine” world of working fathers and the emotional-pious-subjective “feminine” world of domestic mothers.

“From the time of the ancient Greeks,” Pearcey explains, “people had thought that knowing right from wrong was a rational insight, that men were more rational, and therefore, that men were more virtuous than women.” After the Industrial Revolution, along with Romanticism, reordered society and the sexes, virtue became inextricably linked to feeling and considered the purview of the female. Once “the moral and spiritual leaders of the household … men were [now] told that they were naturally crude and brutish, and that they needed to learn virtue from their wives.”

Sadly, this shift widened the gap between the sexes. Women began to accuse men, in private and public, of the same “toxic” behavior that they are accused of today. Men, in response, reacted by either deferring submissively to their wives’ moral superiority or giving themselves over to the very kind of debauchery that they were told was endemic to their masculine nature. Often, they did both at once, causing them to lead bifurcated lives between their amoral workplaces and their moralistically feminine homes.

Wives suffered dearly on account of this split, but so did their children. In addition to losing time with their fathers, they lost the moral example and the moral discipline that fathers had previously set and enforced. This had a particularly devastating effect upon boys who, reacting against the sentimentalized, feminine nature of morality, modeled themselves after the new, secular vision of masculinity as self-centered, hard-living, and commitment-avoiding. Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, these wild boys rejected the shrewishness and over-civilized prudery of their mothers and maiden aunts in favor of a primitive, savage, carefree life on the open road, the wild West, or the tameless sea.

These social forces culminated in two political movements that Pearcey allows us to see from a new perspective: women’s suffrage and temperance. It is well known that most women of the time were opposed to the suffrage movement. The reason for this was not that they were lazy or uneducated, but “because they understood clearly that universal suffrage implied a shift from the household to the individual as the basic unit of society.”

“[It] struck a blow to the concept of male responsibility. For if society accepted that a man voted as solely an individual, then it no longer held him morally responsible for representing the common good of the entire household,” writes Pearcey.  The result was that men, to use a phrase that Pearcey repeats often in her book, were let off the hook and allowed to indulge their base and selfish desires.

As for temperance, Pearcey quotes academic studies to show that during the first half of the 19th century, the “number of taverns and saloons skyrocketed, and drinking reached an all-time high … alcohol consumption hit a peak in 1830, when average Americans drank three times as much as they do today.” This growth increased the separation of fathers from their homes and families and furthered the corruption of young men in flight from “female” religion. The women who fought to shut down the saloons were not fighting an abstract crusade against alcohol; they were fighting to protect their homes and their children from a kind of masculinity that was truly toxic.

Restoring Masculine Headship

In tracing these historical forces, Pearcey makes full use of her signature strengths, combining academic rigor with lucid accessibility, blending overlooked primary sources with cutting-edge sociological research, and humanizing history with stories of real people, including her own personal experience as the daughter of a verbally and physically abusive father. She also, as she does in all her books, quotes fairly the thinkers (and pundits) with whom she disagrees.

Chief among those with whom she disagrees are secular and Christian public intellectuals who never tire of quoting the “fact” that evangelical Christians divorce at the same rate as the secular world. This well-known “fact,” Pearcey proves by quoting the most reliable sociological studies, is both wrong and deceptive. If “evangelical” means someone who identifies as such on surveys, then the “fact” is true. However, when a distinction is made between nominal evangelicals and evangelicals who attend church and live under the authority of Christ and the Bible, an astounding truth emerges.

“Compared to secular men, devout Christian family men who attend church regularly are more loving husbands and more engaged fathers. They have the lowest rate of divorce. And astonishingly, they have the lowest rate of domestic violence of any major group in America,” she writes. In sharp contrast, “nominal Christian men have the highest rates of divorce and domestic violence—even higher than secular men.”

The evidence, Pearcey shows, not only gives the lie to the supposedly equivalent rates of divorce in the evangelical and secular communities; it explodes the claims made by feminists and the secular media that evangelical notions of complementary headship and submission are a breeding ground for violence against women.

“It seems,” Pearcey explains, “that many nominal men hang around the fringes of the Christian world just enough to hear the language of headship and submission but not enough to learn the biblical meaning of those terms.” Evangelicals who know and believe the true meaning of biblical headship practice it in relation to their wives — who report the highest rates of happiness among American women — and their children.

Churchgoing dads are “the least likely to yell at their children” and “the most likely to be warm and affectionate” and they “spend more time in activities with their children, such as eating meals together, reading to them, playing games, coaching sports, attending school activities, and leading a church youth group. All told, religiously active fathers spend about 3.5 more hours per week with their children compared to secular fathers.”

If we are serious about protecting women and children from abuse, abandonment, and other male-inflicted traumas, then we need to do two seemingly opposite things simultaneously. First, we must stop treating men as if they were toxic merely because they are men. Male aggression is not, in and of itself, a toxic thing; to the contrary, it is a natural component of the masculinity that God created and called good. It is not aggression, but the misuse of it, that makes a man toxic. Channeled properly, aggression empowers men to protect and provide for their families.

Second, we must hold men to a higher standard and praise them when they achieve that standard. They must be encouraged to take back their traditional, God-ordained role as head of the household, not to lord it over their families, but to love and serve them as Christ does the church. Fathers who do so bring joy and stability to their wives and children, while gaining for themselves a deeper sense of purpose and dignity. Research, Pearcey reports, “has found that becoming a father brings about a significant improvement in men’s well-being and mental health.”

In the closing chapters of her book, Pearcey offers helpful advice for identifying behavior that is truly toxic and calls on churches to hold men accountable when they give way to such behavior. But she also calls upon churches to lead the way to recovery by modeling a workplace ethos that assists and rewards employees, male or female, who intentionally balance their duties to their workplace and to their families. If they do so, Pearcey promises, they will discover what many secular critics and companies have already learned: “Parents who are committed to family time may work fewer hours … [b]ut parenting makes them more effective when they’re on the job.”

Everyone in America who cares about the future of the family must read The Toxic War on Masculinity. And they must encourage their secular friends to do so as well. Pearcey provides the history, the data, and the biblical and sociological analysis necessary to transform the toxic war being waged against masculinity into a movement to reconcile the sexes and restore men to the responsibility of running their households in a loving, godly, community-building way.  


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