The Gender Politics of Masculinity vs. Manhood

This post is a continuation of a series on different understandings of Christian Masculinities, and the implications they create in sexual education reform and youth advocacy. It originally appeared at The last post concerned Gender Hierarchies in Creation. Today’s post deals with “complementation” relationship views, which believe that the man should be the “leader” in any relationship, and that the woman is a biblically designed “helper” who finds her fulfillment in submission to that male leadership. This post deals with the implications of conservative christian language on gender politics. 

Whenever I’m searching for sources about different Christian masculinities, I generally use the term “masculinity”. Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed is that the viewpoints I’m trying to find don’t use that term about themselves. They talk about Christian manliness or (Protestants) biblical manhood. It is a telling distinction that is telling about the nature of the group, and speaks to the power of language influencing ideas.

According to Google Keyword search, Biblical Manhood is searched 6,600 times a month on average. Biblical Masculinity? 390. If you include other relevant keywords such as Recovering Biblical Manhood, Biblical manhood and womanhood, Biblical foundations for Manhood, etc., you find that ‘manhood’ is searched 19,700+ times. Terms relevant to “Christian masculinity” are searched an average of 710 times a month.

This is a conversation that many conservative Christians are having. Harvey Mansfield, author of “Manliness” and professor of government at Harvard, wrote:

“We are in the process of making the English language gender-neutral, and manliness, the quality of one gender, or rather, of one sex, seems to describe the essence of the enemy we are attacking, the evil we are eradicating.”

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Bapist Convention’s flagship seminary, wrote an article titled “Masculinity without Manhood?” about how “our evolving language betrays more substantial shifts in the culture” and that, quite simply:

Men should not expect to be comfortable with an understanding of masculinity that is not based in these roles and responsibilities… We lie to ourselves if we believe that we can hold onto a healthy masculinity without honoring true manhood.

By tying masculinity to the male body, they deny any social construct of gender roles.  Manhood becomes a physical attribute instead of a social quality.  They argue masculinity cannot be embodied by a woman, but finds it’s basis in biology.  This includes more than differences regarding bone densities or secondary sexual characteristics, but includes “cognitive function, abilities, outlooks, and relations.” (Werner Neuer, Man & Woman (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991))

By reaffirming the biological basis of “manhood”, which negates the “socially constructed masculinity”, and the authority the word “biblical” mandates in conservative evangelical Christians, this phrase takes on the gravity of Natural Law.  This allows Mohler and company to deny the historical changes in masculinity and the roles of men (or “the function of manhood”) because natural law is, by definition, immutable.

A short criticism of Mohler’s capitalist-inspired idea that manhood is a “functional reality, demonstrated in a man’s fulfillment of responsibility and leadership. ” The worth of people is not found in their “functional reality.” In terms of masculinity, this does not mean that an elderly man or a disabled man is less of a man than the physically strong. One is not less of a man if he does not have a wife he can lead in “male headship.” A person’s dignity is not found in what she/he does, but by virtue of her/his being.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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