the shape of leadership

Real Good Men

Review of ‘The Toxic War on Masculinity’ by Nancy R. Pearcey

For years, sociologist Michael Kimmel has asked interviewees two questions: What is a good man? And what is a real man? Answers have been consistent.

A good man is virtuous. A group of West Point cadets cited moral characteristics, such as honor, duty, integrity and sacrifice.

By contrast, the cadets listed these characteristics for a real man: toughness, strength, never showing weakness, winning at all costs, playing through pain, getting rich, and making sexual conquests.

According to Nancy R. Pearcey’s The Toxic War on Masculinity, these answers reveal two scripts for what it means to be a man today. In contemporary culture, the scripts are sharply at odds, with disastrous results.

“When separated from a moral vision of the Good Man, [men] can easily degenerate into sexism, dominance, entitlement, and contempt for those perceived as weak — traits we all can agree are toxic,” she writes.

What is needed is a revival of real good men, and Christians can play an important role in leading it.

To that end, Pearcey makes three arguments:

First, she cites sociological evidence that devout Christian men are good men. “They are more loving to their wives and more emotionally engaged with their children than any other group in America. They are the least likely to divorce, and they have the lowest levels of domestic abuse and violence,” Pearcey writes (emphasis in original).

This sociological evidence may surprise progressives who believe the biblical concepts of “headship” and “submission” are inherently oppressive. Some traditional interpretations of those may be. Studies indicate, however, that devout Christian couples tend to employ those concepts in pragmatic, functionally egalitarian ways.

What is needed is a revival of real good men, and Christians can play an important role in leading it.

Second, Pearcey mines history to show how industrialization and secularization combined to displace the good-man script with the real-man script in the American imagination.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, families worked together in farming or a trade. Men were intimately involved with raising children, and women were actively engaged in productive labor. The household and economic activity were shared, integrated responsibilities.

The Book of Proverbs reflects a similar dynamic. Fathers instructed their children (1:819), and women worked various trades (31:10–31).

The Industrial Revolution moved men out of the household and into factories and offices. “This apparently simple change … had enormous social ramifications,” Pearcey writes. It separated men from familial intimacy and women from economic activity.

As industrialization separated men and women into spheres — public and private — secularization changed the way people thought about those spheres. The public sphere was secular, founded on science and administered by governments, corporations, and academia. It was masculine.

By contrast, the private sphere was spiritual, founded on religion and administered by family, church, and personal relationships. It was feminine.

As men spent less time with families, they began acting in family-unfriendly ways. A new type of “bad boy” literature came into publication that celebrated male freedom from domesticity. (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are some of the better-known examples.) Men did not want to be tied to women’s apron strings.

This increased pressure on women to hold the family together. Placed on a pedestal in what scholars call “the cult of domesticity,” women were increasingly thought to be inherently spiritual and moral, while men were considered barbarians who needed to be tamed.

The cult of domesticity exaggerated the goodness of women (who are sinners, after all) and the badness of men (who can be saints, after all). In some ways, it lifted the burden of moral reform off men’s shoulders and placed the entire weight on women’s. These double standards did much to poison male-female relationships.

Pearcey believes the antidote is a return to the traditional family.

“When people talk about the ‘traditional’ family … they are thinking back to the 1950s. But they should think back to the pre-industrial age … a time when both fathers and mothers combined childbearing with economically productive work [emphasis added]. Restoring stronger family ties is not some sentimental fantasy but a pressing imperative for addressing the problem of toxic behavior in men.”

Third, Pearcey deals with the problem of men who are Christian in name only. She states the problem this way: “Research has found that nominal Christian men have the highest rates of divorce and domestic violence — even higher than secular men” (emphasis in original).

To use Paul’s words, nominal Christian men have “a form of godliness” but deny its “power” (2 Timothy 3:5). Some rationalize abuse by citing concepts such as male “headship” and female “submission.” Paul was right when he warned Christians, “Have nothing to do with such people.”

On the whole, I believe Pearcey makes a reasonable case for a certain type of Christian masculinity — what I earlier called the “real good man.” She astutely avoids rigid stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, noting, “There is greater difference within the categories of men and women than there is between men and women as groups” (emphasis in original). The issue is moral virtue, not stereotyped gender roles.

The book’s most valuable point is that men and women should participate in both family formation and economic activity. Pearcey’s traditionalism is not the stereotype of male breadwinners versus female homemakers. Family and economy are shared, integrated responsibilities.

Even so, I have several reservations about the book. The title suggests it is responding to wholesale feminist critiques of masculinity. Pearcey mentions those critiques near the beginning, but that’s not her focus. A more accurate title would be How Masculinity Became Toxic and How to Detoxify It.

My biggest reservation is that the book idealizes the pre-industrial age. Family and economy may have been shared and integrated then, but men still behaved badly and women still fared poorly. It was not a golden age to which we should return. Instead, we should take its genuine insight about sharing and integration and use it to shape a better future.

Finally, the book does not address the institutional dynamics that produce abuse. Making real men good is a starting point, not to mention including more women at all levels of institutional leadership. But at some point, we must address why so many social institutions — including churches — find it difficult to rein in toxic male leaders.

We need real good men, but we also need real good institutions. Perhaps Pearcey could address that in a future book.


Book Reviewed

Nancy R. Pearcey, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2023).

This review first appeared in the summer 2023 issue of Called to Serve, the official Assemblies of God ministers letter and is republished here by permission.

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