That evangelical Christians have long been able to co-opt popular cultural forms, give them a nice (and wholesome) Christian gloss, and then turn them into forms intended to further their aims is well established. For example, in the early 20th century, Billy Sunday parlayed his professional baseball (and hard living) past into a career as a barnstorming evangelist, drawing thousands to his evangelistic meetings. I’ve read (somewhere) that he would run out onto stage, sliding into position as though he were sliding into second base, and then stand up and start preaching. There are many other examples, some more well known than others, ranging from music to movies over the past 100 years or so. More recently a sort of X-Games Christianity has emerged where young evangelical Christians, who happen to be very good at skateboarding, or BMX, or stadium motocross, have been making a name for themselves. Now, there is an emerging evangelical group that is seeking to capitalize on the current rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). MMA is a particularly violent, brutal, and bloody “sport” in which two contestants seek to pummel their opponent into submission, until they “tap out,” or give up the fight. According to the New York Times, this is a growing trend among ministries aimed at attracting younger males back into evangelical churches, and presumably to introduce a little more testosterone into what they see as a “feminized” Christianity that promotes “kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.” Aside from the many, obvious comments that could be made about this rationale for introducing extreme violence to attract young men to a religion the founder of which famously identified the poor, the meek, and the peacemakers as “blessed,” this new “movement” invites some other observations.
Evangelicalism, and its sibling Fundamentalism, has from its beginning been an authoritarian patriarchal movement, and this MMA effort seems to illustrate the point. With (apparently) fewer young men attending church, youth pastors have chosen what they believe is an approach that will attract young males because of its emphasis on strength, male bonding, and violence. These pastors apparently believe that “butching up” Christianity will attract more men to their pews. We’ve discussed this around the office a bit, and an alternative hypothesis has emerged. Rather than young men being turned off by the “feminization” of Christianity, this hypothesis suggests that they are actually turned away by the presence of too many dominant males in church. In this, it is the pastors and the patriarchal authoritarian system they promote that chases away the younger men who try to encroach on the territory claimed by these dominant religious males. Well, maybe not literally chase them off, but it may be more difficult for younger men to find a place where they can pursue their church life in a setting where they are not the dominant male, and have no hope to be. Thus, it’s not that young men find Christianity unattractive because it has become too “feminized,” rather because it is too masculine and they can’t compete with the established males in the church.
Far fetched? Maybe, but that could be an interesting little project to pursue.
Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.