Populist Masculinity, Christian Men’s Ministries and Trump

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My latest article looks at the synergies between Christian masculinity and populist masculinity, originally published at The Good Men Project.

Curious Bedfellows

Putting the horror of our political times aside, it is fascinating to cast an anthropological gaze upon the Trump era and observe how different cultural groups have moved in and out of alignment in order to enable Trump’s election and ongoing administration. One clear example of this is how the Christian Right have mobilized to support Trump despite there being a disconnect between the two parties in regard to various issues such as family values.

A further interesting dynamic is how populist masculinity has formed to support Trump. Populist masculinity functions akin to a pyramid scheme with Trump at the top, supported by his wealthy cronies. Below these highest echelons of the pyramid reside a celebrity class of populist masculinists who function as some of the key players in the alt-right, such as Mike Cernovich and Roosh: both these figures have morphed from discussing men’s improvement combined with unsavory opinions about women into conservative political pundits for the meme generation. The populist masculinity pyramid scheme is founded on a base of consumers who buy the ideological—and sometimes even literal—products of those further up the pyramid.

Populist masculinity serves as a form of masculinist revival that is transmitted not just through individuals, but also alternative media outlets such as Breitbart and Infowars. This kind of celebration of traditional masculine values has not really been witnessed since the early 1990s, a time which saw not just the rise of the mythopoetic men’s movement typified by Robert Bly’s Iron John, but the appearance of the Christian men’s movement in the form Promise Keepers.

At first glance, Promise Keepers’ message of serving the family has little in common with the pick-up artist heritage of populist masculinity. But on further exploration, the ideological synergies become more apparent, as do some emerging trends that allow for some speculation as to how these synergies may evolve.

Christian Men’s Ministries and Populist Masculinity

At its height of popularity in the mid-1990s, Promise Keepers drew many thousands of disciples to sports stadia across America. The appeal of Promise Keepers declined, which in turn led to a perception that interest in the Christian men’s movement had also declined. However, this is not entirely accurate. Promise Keepers was but one men’s ministry, and such ministries pre-date Promise Keepers. When interest in Promise Keepers declined, the energy that fed its popularity did not disappear, rather it diversified into thousands of individual men’s ministries, and remains a strong force across numerous Christian denominations, particularly within evangelical churches.

Men’s ministries share certain commonalities. With few exceptions, they appeal to a stereotypical masculinity, or even a hyper-masculinity. Men are encouraged to embrace their inner warrior, as demonstrated by popular books such as John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart. Men’s ministries often adopt a para-military flavor, with both the language and aesthetics resembling wartime propaganda: men are described as a “band of brothers” engaged in “spiritual warfare” and carry a camo bible. The violence implicit in such ministries is intended to be symbolic, but it does not take a huge leap of the imagination to see it manifesting in real life. Indeed, it should not be ignored that Eldredge’s Wild at Heart has been cited in 2010 as an influence on the violent activities of a Mexican drug cartel and more recently the gunman “investigating” the Pizzagate claims in Washington that were sensationally reported by Breitbart and Infowars.

It is this reassertion of traditional masculinity that functions as the main commonality between men’s ministries and populist masculinity. The assumption that men should be warrior-like is promoted in Roosh’s online publication Return of Kings, the title and logo of which would serve well as a men’s ministry. Some of the articles on Return of Kings, such as 10 Places Where You Can Find Sluts, would certainly not be looked upon favorably in Christian circles; however, there is a whole section of articles filed under religion that would. Further still, there is a particular interest in race and the cultural clash between the West and Islam that would find sympathetic readers in the darkest corners of the Christian Right. Roosh’s evolution from pick-up artist to conservative commentator with an increasing interest in patriarchal religion comes at a crucial time when such values are in the ascendancy.

Elsewhere, populist masculinity has taken on a protectionist role that resonates with men’s ministries, as well as that of defending Christian values. Mike Cernovich has taken up the cause of battling pedophilia and previously joined in the hysteria claiming that Hillary Clinton was involved with a Satanic sex cult. Cernovich has also supported Based Stick Man who was arrested at a pro-Trump rally for hitting a protester with a large stick. The internet is calling this character the “alt knight,” which has clear references to Christian warriors. Indeed, Based Stick Man is seeking to establish the Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights, which again sounds very much like a men’s ministry.

A Prediction

The streams of the Christian Right, men’s ministries and populist masculinity, coupled with their support for Trump, intersect in various ways. However, it would be a mistake to assume these synergies are cozy, or even always conscious. Just as often as these groups come into alignment, they also diverge. Indeed, the mix between these groups does not feel particularly sustainable, and herein lies a clue about how this may evolve.

One of the most obvious predictions that can be made about Trump is that he will disappoint his supporters at both the individual and organizational level. At some point, it is likely that there will be a rift between Trump and the Christian Right. Trump will make one too many lewd remarks or some new revelation will surface that just cannot be reconciled with Christian values that will result in the Christian Right at best distancing themselves from Trump or at worst outright rejecting him.

This will result in a moral vacuum in the Trump machine (inasmuch as the Christian Right currently provides morals) that will need to be filled. The obvious group to fill this vacuum will be those members of the populist masculinity pyramid that have been increasingly aligning themselves with Christian (or at least “spiritual”) values. In short, it would be very easy to imagine Return of Kings, or something very similar, morph from the neo-masculinity community it currently is to a populist men’s ministry. All it would need is for some of its prominent members to seek online ordination and to get together with some ministers who have gone rogue from the Christian Right and you have yourself a new religious movement. You have been warned.