Redeeming the Patriarchy

Christianity Offers the Superior Script for Harmony Between the Sexes

A Google Ngram depicting usage of the phrase “the patriarchy” in books published over the past 200 years shows that occurrences took off beginning around the 1960s. Similarly, two studies conducted in 1970 and 2005 demonstrated that women’s views of men have grown more critical. What’s happened? Have men’s characters deteriorated, or have women’s views toward men become more cynical? The answer, Nancy Pearcey suggests, is both, but to understand how and why, we have to look further back in history.

In The Toxic War on Masculinity, she surveys norms and attitudes in American history from colonial times, when the hardy frontiersman was admired, through the Industrial Revolution, when attitudes toward men began to decline, and on to the present day, in which cultural elites from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., openly espouse misandry.

Manhood: Self-Sacrificing to Self-Making

In early America, most husbands and wives worked interdependently in some kind of trade. Fertility was high, and the household might include several children, extended family members, apprentices, and laborers. Heading up these miniature societies was the husband/father, who not only bore responsibility for looking after their welfare, but who also was expected to reach out and serve the wider community. Manhood was thus defined in terms of duty and service. To be a man meant sacrificing personal desires and interests for the “common good.”

Attitudes toward men changed with the Industrial Revolution. As the economy shifted from one based on farming and home proprietorships to one dominated by manufacturing, work for masses of men moved to the factory or office. Not only did this take them away from their families and disrupt the integrated dynamics of pre-industrial life, but the new workplaces often involved different ethical environments and incentive structures. While many men no doubt went to work specifically to provide for their families, they often found themselves navigating cultures of competitive individualism. No longer were duty and sacrifice held up as ideals; aggression and looking out for number one were often rewarded in this new game. “The ideal of manhood changed dramatically,” Pearcey writes, quoting historian Anthony Rotundo. Whereas manhood had been defined in moral terms, the key word around the turn of the nineteenth century became “self”—as in self-advancement and self-made man.

Women: Keepers of Virtue?

As the public realm grew more secularized, the private realm, i.e., the home, was sentimentalized. Critics cast the marketplace as a corrupting realm driven by greed, and people increasingly looked to the home to be the place of refuge—and to women to be the guardians of virtue.

Women typically outnumbered men in the many reform movements launched during this era. They formed associations to serve the poor, assist freed slaves, and advance causes for the benefit of home and children. These developments would have been all well and good, except that in many cases they openly berated men, as if the Christians among them had forgotten the biblical precept that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Even the tone of the church softened and became more emotional. Liberal theologians gave up much of the intellectual content of the faith while holding onto the feelings religion might evoke. Whereas terms like “toughness,” “sternness,” and “intellectual rigor” had been associated with masculinity, including in the church, church life took on more typically feminine traits, such as caring and nurturing. Notably, Pearcey writes, quoting historian Ann Douglas, “mothers increasingly took over the formerly paternal task of conducting family prayers.”

Tarzan: The Demoralized Man

As this moral quasi-dichotomy settled into the public psyche—men bad; women good—men started owning the biting attributes and taking pride in a new image of the “Real” Man. “Rather than civilize themselves according to a feminized definition,” Rotundo explains, “men took the negative labels affixed to their character and made them into virtues. Primitive, savage, barbarian, passion, impulse.” The ascendance of evolutionary theory even conferred a patina of scientific credibility on them for doing so.

Of course, not all men started channeling Tarzan, but notice how, in the span of two centuries, the meaning of manhood was drastically degraded:

The earlier ideal of the Christian gentleman had urged men to live up to the image God had implanted in them. By contrast, the Darwinian worldview urged men to live down to their presumed animal nature—to compete in the ruthless struggle for existence for dominance and power. The “Real” Man was being defined in increasingly toxic terms.

An Ngram depicting occurrences of “toxic masculinity” shows that it debuted in the 1980s and surged dramatically starting around 2012. But what we have here is not a case of men becoming suddenly toxic, but longer-running social trends that have infected the whole of our culture.

A Question of Scripts

Admittedly, this sweep of history consists of generalizations, but Pearcey draws extensively from historical sources to substantiate them. More importantly, she offers the remedy for the infection that has poisoned relations between the sexes, as captured in her subtitle, How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes:

The secular script for the “Real” Man defines courage primarily in terms of ­conquering and dominating others. But the Bible defines it as facing our own inner faults and sins, and then being willing to confess and repent. That takes a unique form of courage.

Indeed it does, but the rewards far surpass those of short-sighted self-making. According to empirical data, devout Christian men who attend church regularly are the most loving husbands, most engaged fathers, and exhibit the lowest rates of domestic abuse, violence, and divorce. And here’s a kicker: their wives—meaning religiously conservative women who attend church regularly with their husbands—register the highest levels of marital quality, sexual satisfaction, and overall happiness.

Yes, there is a secular script that casts Christian men as abusive and domineering, but secular journalists have overlooked a pivotal detail in the data. It is nominally Christian men who fit the unseemly stereotype. “It seems 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,” Pearcey explains. Apparently, they follow the secular script and manipulate Scripture to justify themselves.

Sadly, that is nothing new, but neither masculinity nor Christianity, rightly understood, is toxic; rather, it’s the secular ideologies and scripts that are harmful. They have set the sexes at odds with one another and thwarted men’s and women’s efforts to find lasting happiness together. “Neither sex can fulfill its purpose by denigrating the other,” Pearcey writes. “Instead of accusing men of being toxic, a better strategy is to support their innate sense of what it means to be the Good Man.” This is the kind of patriarchy we should all welcome.

 is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #67, Winter 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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