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Political Editors / February 4, 2022

In Brief: Is Christianity Harming American Men?

Men face rising rates of depression, suicide, and disengagement from the workforce. And the church is not helping.

“Men and boys in America are struggling,” says Anthony Bradley, professor of Religious Studies at The King’s College in New York City, “and if we don’t do something about it soon, we’ll see the disintegration of the very institutions that allow for sustainable human flourishing — institutions like the family and the marketplace.”

He goes on to talk about the prevalence of suicide among men, as well as depression and anxiety. “Men are disappearing from colleges and the labor force,” he says, pointing to stats representing three million fewer men in the workforce, the precipitous decline in male college enrollment (61-39% in favor of women), and the increase of drug-related deaths.

If men are experiencing extremely high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, if they’re dropping out of the labor force, not attending college, dying of addiction, and so on, we may need to accept that what we’ve been doing about men and boys is not working. Something needs to change drastically.

Conservatives are quick to blame feminism as the root cause of the decline in men’s thriving, but after reading Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity by Leon Podles, one could easily conclude that Western Christianity itself may be part of the problem. When the church attempts to reach men, it usually ends in emasculation, power abuses, clergy control, or silly gimmicks.

In his book, Podles argues that since the Middle Ages, Catholic theologians and preachers have told men that they “had to become feminine to be Christians,” with Puritan Protestants eventually following suit. Clergy worked really hard to “squelch anything that might excite men, including dancing, drinking, and sports.” … When surveying the history of Christianity, for “almost a millennium Christians have tended to see their primary identity as feminine,” writes Podles, this as the church often exhibited a quasi-condescending attitude toward women as “weak, helpless, and trained to obedience.”

There are numerous examples of this sort of teaching and thinking. It’s certainly not all bad or wrong, and men can be horrible in ways that a woman’s touch can help, but there’s an argument to be made that it missed some important balance and it drove men away.

By 1899, according to Clifford Putney, author of Muscular Christianity, “women reportedly comprised three-quarters of the church’s membership and nine-tenths of its attendance.” Alarmed by the numbers, church leaders launched new movements and programs to try to bring men back into the church for spiritual and moral formation.

“The first major masculinity movement within American Christianity was the Social Gospel movement,” he says. This was followed by the creation of the YMCA, “integration of the Boy Scouts of America into church life, and so on.” Then came the Promise Keepers movement or pastors like Mark Driscoll. “Sadly, these movements come and go and lack the sustainable capacity to attract men.

The church to date has been largely unsuccessful at sustainably reaching men. Is there a way for Christian institutions to begin to think differently about the challenges we face today, with male students falling behind academically and not enrolling in college, with prime-age men dropping out of the labor force, and especially the increasing rates of male suicide and drug abuse death rates? If clergy-led solutions ultimately alienate men, what can help men thrive in ways that build strong families and add value to the marketplace? Surprisingly for some, Podles concludes that the solution lies with the laity, not the clergy, because, as history shows, "the movements that reach men are mostly lay-led and lay-governed.”

Bradley will have more in Part 2, but you can read all of Part 1 here.

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