Americans have come to expect certain conversations after public shooting incidents. It’s a stain on our national discourse that we have such a thing as a “generic” response to mass murder, but we all know what it is. Gun control and mental health are both invoked and then made to duel it out in the media, as if it’s about a fight for the One True Cause of gun massacres. But the conversation is changing. Since the December 14th shooting in Newtown, CT, articles have begun piling up that express surprise and concern over a glaringly obvious, but strangely invisible piece of the puzzle: white masculinity. Here are just a few of the latest:
What is it about men that they’re committing these horrible massacres?
White Men and Mass Murder: Did a Sense of “Aggrieved Entitlement” Lead Adam Lanza to Kill 26 People at Sandy Hook Elementary School?
White Men Like Adam Lanza Commit 70 Percent of the Mass Shootings in the United States. Why is the Media Afraid to Talk About This Obvious Fact?
MSNBC Guest: If CT Mass Shooter Was Not White, Public Debate Would Be ‘Much Uglier’ (video)
Here’s an especially good roundup of the conversation so far from feministing:
We teach men to be aggressive. We teach them that is the very essence of “being a man.” We say that women are supposed to be caring and compassionate and we tell men not to be like women–to be anythingbut a “girl.” We teach men that anger is the only acceptable emotion for them to express–and violence is an appropriate way of expressing it. We police their masculinity in a million small ways everyday from the time they are even younger than the children who died in Sandy Hook. In Katz’s words: “We socialize empathy out of boys all the time.”
And then we act as though this state of affairs is natural–as though the rules of masculinity are ordained and not systematically enforced. It’s not. There is nothing inevitable about the fact that 95 percent of violent crime in this country is committed by men.
But we have hard time seeing that, because male aggression is naturalized. Yes, if it goes too far, it will be considered deviant, crazy, inhuman, evil. But to a point, it’s expected. As Michael Kimmel notes, in a sense, the young men who’ve committed mass murder aren’t “deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution.”
What I want to add to that conversation is this:
As we look at violent norms of masculinity in American culture, we need to pay attention to the role religion plays in fostering it. Fighting sexism nowadays involved pushing back against the myth that sexism hasn’t already been eliminated. Covert or “benevolent” sexism is more common in our daily lives than the overt sexism we see (and are aghast at) on period shows like Mad Men or in scans of outdated advertising campaigns.
But there is still a vocal part of American society that openly practices and glorifies sexism: the Christian patriarchy movement.
- We do socialize empathy out of boys… and patriarchal Christian preachers openly encourage it, because it props up the myth that women are naturally nurturing homemakers and men are aggressive breadwinners – a cornerstone of Christian “family values.”
- Patriarchal and “complementarian” Christianity is the wellspring from which homophobia pours into society, because the behavior that most threatens their paradigm is behavior that transgresses gender roles – especially when men are the ones doing that transgressing.
- Patriarchal Christians are the main sources of anti-feminist sentiment.
- Patriarchal Christians are one of the few social groups who openly say things like, “Women shouldn’t work outside the home” and take political action to make that work harder to access.
- Patriarchal Christians are the only American social group I’ve ever heard of that takes pride in not educating its daughters, training them to rely on their future husbands’ earning potential.
- Patriarchal Christians are the only ones who feel that they don’t have to justify their sexism with actual evidence, because “God said so” is a good enough rationale for men to be the heads of their households.
- Patriarchal Christians argue that women’s identities are literally subsumed by their husbands’ under an “umbrella of authority,” and that women must go through their husbands to communicate with God.
- Patriarchal Christians advocate marital rape. (“We believe that a woman has no right to select a husband for herself, but that she is to be chosen by a man and marriage is to be an unbreakable arrangement between the man and her father. Based on this reasoning, we have shunned a standard proposal and wedding ceremony, because if I had asked her to marry me (which I did not) then I would have given her the decision to marry me rather than selecting her and taking her myself.”)
- Patriarchal Christians advocate arranged marriages brokered entirely by fathers.
- Patriarchal Christian marriages are explicitly about the transference of authority from father to husband: (“Then, at one point, [my fiancee’s father] told her, “Sweetheart, all your life you have submitted to me, trusted me, and followed me, and you have done this well. But, when Matthew comes and takes you, all of that transfers over to him, even if that means he leads you in ways that vary from how I would do things.” And when I went to get her, she followed her dad’s final lead right into my headship of her. Wow! Did I walk into a good deal or what?!“)
- Patriarchal Christians set themselves in deliberate opposition to the very idea of equality. Some of them argue that African Americans were better off under slavery and that God used the Trail of Tears to lead Native Americans to Christ, so all that genocide kind of worked out in the end.
If you want to deal with the subtler expressions of sexism, patriarchy, and male privilege in mainstream American society, you’ve got to start dismantling the machine that manufactures it. Patriarchal Christianity is not a valid religion, because patriarchy is not a valid social structure. The Christian Patriarchy movement is the Berlin Wall of American masculinity; you’re never going to get rid of the specter of patriarchy unless you make it not okay in any context, religious or otherwise, to proclaim sexism as truth and white supremacy as God’s will. The sooner you tear it down, the sooner we can end the risible “culture war” we’ve been fighting for thirty years.
If you raise a generation of men, as Christian patriarchy does, to see themselves as antagonists toward the rest of American culture; to see feminism as the source of that antagonism; and to see themselves as entitled to control of women (through “headship”), control of government (because America is “God’s chosen nation”), and control of society (through Christian “dominionism”), you reap a whole cluster of social problems.
Not only will those men be extremely disappointed to find that the world doesn’t work the way God says it should (according to their pastors and parents), they’re going to be extremely vocal about what they’re entitled to and how God backs them up. And that message of male entitlement is going to be very attractive to ordinary men who don’t buy into the whole evangelical Christian package. They will swallow the doctrines of male headship of the household and white control of society under the guise of a “return to old-fashioned family values” regardless of whether they ever set foot in church. And it’s that sense of entitlement that leads angry, depressed, and suicidal men to take down as many people as they can with them when they fall off the edge.
Christian patriarchy is the munitions factory where sexism is made. Get rid of that, and it’ll be a hell of a lot easier to stop socializing empathy out of boys.
Comments open below
Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog the phoenix and the olive branch
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce