I had already noted a few weeks back, in my analysis of the excellent and important book Jesus and John Wayne, that I wanted to write an entire piece on white Evangelical rhetoric around “God-given testosterone” causing aggression and domination as natural side effects of “men being men.” Well, after this week’s violent set of shootings at massage parlors in Georgia by an ardent white male member of a Southern Baptist church, I thought it was time to look more closely at this toxic theology ironically based in faulty and outdated understandings of biology and evolutionary theory. By the end, it should be clear just how important it is that we (continue to) assertively stand up against the rotten fruit of these kinds of militantly masculine theologies.
Not That Kind of PhD, But Still Have a Contribution to the Dialogue
Let’s be clear: I’m not a biologist. I am, however, as you should know if you’ve been following me, a preacher’s kid and communication scholar who focuses on the links between stress, trauma, and conflict communication.
Especially since I’ve finished reading Jesus and John Wayne, but also increasingly before, I’ve been greatly disturbed by the way these “theologies of white male aggression” have been excusing white supremacy and violence, especially in conservative male churches, over recent decades. In fact, as January 6 and the racist and sexist massage parlor murders in Georgia this past week have shown, it fosters it. In the remainder of this article I’ll unwrap how that works.
In the process I’ll be building, as I did last time, on the important work historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez did in Jesus and John Wayne. I’ll also be looking at it based on some biological research about stress and testosterone and aggression along with, as usual, my own lens of communication and conflict studies.
I Know This Much Is True Biologically and Social Scientifically
And from that standpoint, and based in all the biological research I know about, I want to make this extremely clear: all humans and many animals have a “God-given” fight-or-flight (or freeze or tend and befriend) stress response, including people of all sex identities. All humans and many animals also have testosterone, and it varies more day to day and minute to minute among all populations.
So yeah, high testosterone isn’t necessary to have a fight response–and a fight response doesn’t have to come out as aggression–though it can for all people. It can also come out assertively for all people–as in choosing to turn our fight energies to fixing a problem in a way that helps everyone involved as much as possible without anyone necessarily dominating. (In fact, this approach is usually the most effective for problem-solving and decision-making.)
Also, scientific studies seem to show that the linkage between testosterone and aggression is there, but fairly weak relatively speaking. Hormones are complicated, and sex-based ones only go so far to determine behavior.
Not That Cut and Dried
On the other hand, there is interesting research that shows that a rise in testosterone tends to increase decisions that cause harm to people in moral decision-making situations.
Other fascinating research shows that testosterone is more strongly linked to behavior that tries to defend status, but not always aggressively—the form that behavior is likely to take can vary widely on the behavior expected in a particular culture or subculture, and needs not be aggressive at all. In fact, it can be altruistic.
Okay, so that should make it clear that the biology is way more complicated than this “God given testosterone” rhetoric makes it seem.
But Wait, If This Is an Innate Thing, Why the Anxiety about Nurturing It Up Right?
In fact, even based on a short Google search, it seems to be clear in recent scientific research that the link between testosterone and aggression is strongly affected by environmental characteristics, which is absolutely key to understand when we’re thinking about the toxicity in this kind of theology.
See, as Jesus and John Wayne reports, the anxiety around “God-given testosterone” comes in books and other media that focus on “making men more manly”—in short, focusing on nurturing men by giving them an environment that encourages this “God-given aggression.”
An Implicit Awareness of Gender Variation
In short, these arguments are ironically deeply based in an awareness that God does not only give men (or women) only testosterone (which in this theology means aggression)—and that, in fact, it needs to be nurtured if you want men to be aggressive.
In fact, I would argue that these arguments in books literally titled things like Bringing Up Boys (a book by James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame–goodness I’m not giving you a link–sheesh) are showing an extreme anxiety about the truth that testosterone does vary and is environmental, leaving men with an anxiety that there might be a way of raising boys to be “too feminine” (which in turn might be leaving them to feel “less masculine”).
A Theology of Making Men More Aggressive?
Let me say that again: these arguments about masculinity being inherently based on testosterone levels being a part of biological nature of all men are delivered in packages that tell you how to nurture yourself and other men to create more of that hormone and the aggression that these arguments somehow see as inherent to all men.
SUCH Gaslighting of Biological Facts
In other words, these arguments show their own flaws if you look at them for two seconds, honestly. (I’m not exaggerating much—all I needed to do to look up the biological research above was to run a couple of Google searches with basic search terms and glance through a few journalistic and scientific articles presenting the research on this stuff, just to make sure I had a fuller picture of things.)
Really About Keeping White Men as at the Top of the Chain
And, indeed, why should only high testosterone levels in men be seen as “God-given”? Why not low testosterone levels?
Might, just possibly, it connect to what I mentioned above about the biological finding being about men with higher testosterone being concerned about maintaining their status?
Might it be that white men who are anxious about their own masculinities, about not being aggressive enough, are ironically aggressively defending their own place of status at the top of the heap by putting down other humans that have different variations of testosterone in them, such as women and LGBTQ+ folx (not to mention anyone with darker skin tones)?
And might they be doing so in a way that is pretty utilitarian and immoral (definitely not “love your neighbor as yourself,” that!), but bathing it, just for an added layer of spiritual abuse, with presumed holiness?
How Complementarian Theology Fits In
As Du Mez points out in Jesus and John Wayne, this claim of militant masculinity is the base root of the “traditional gender roles” theology put forth by conservative male groups of theologians such as the “Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.”
That argument, and that of other complementarian theologies, argues for a status hierarchy among the genders, with men necessarily being the ones that “came first” and “were tempted into sin” by the woman.
How This Affects the Spirituality of Conflict Styles
I’m not a theologian, as I’ve said, but I am a scholar of stress and conflict, and what fascinates me about all of this (in a deeply disturbing way) is how this theology creates a toxic authoritarian culture around conflict styles.
This creates a theology in which (white) men are meant to only “dominate” in conflict and women and LGBTQ+ folks, and anyone else who dares present alternative perspectives, are only meant to “submit” or be ostracized. (And of course, because this theology comes neatly packaged in a wrapper of underlying racism and white supremacy with a side of culture wars, other races and anyone outside of the conservative Christian bubble are also seen as needing to submit—or else.)
Why Assertiveness Is a Threat to This System
In this white male conservative theology, the type of win-win solutions that surround the idea of assertiveness–and especially that stand up for a right to a voice for vulnerable groups to be seen as equals to white men–are seen to be a threat because they mess with the false sex-based dichotomies that these theologians are insisting are foundational to the way “God wants things to be inherently.”
Dependent on Gaslighting of All Sorts of Things
Indeed, it’s clear that people believing these arguments hinges on the practice of conservative authoritarianism within white Evangelical structures.
In short, this kind of theology isn’t “natural” to anyone or anything except for toxic masculinity and patriarchal systems. In fact, it relies on people ignoring a lot of reality—for example, the biological facts listed above. And historical contexts. And communication and conflict studies. And so on, and so on, and so on…
No wonder white Evangelical Christianity tends to frame science and “secular education” as so much of an enemy to be fought at all costs (in other words, what rhetorical scholars call a devil term—I have a series on that starting here).
White Men Aggressively Worried about Maintaining Their Status as God Term?
Yup, I agree with Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s conclusions wholeheartedly. The entire white Evangelical argument around testosterone being “natural to (white) man” and that as being “God-given” that she covers in Jesus and John Wayne boils down to seeing white male aggression and domination as the thing to be defended at all costs at the expense of others—in short, what rhetorical scholars call a “god term.”
No wonder purity culture essentially boils down to telling women that they are inherently less moral than men, and basically theologizes rape culture in assuming that women must submit to men.
In short, these militant masculinity-based theologies argue that men are inherently moral because they have a hormone that leads them to be aggressive and to dominate. They argue that that aggressiveness and will to dominate needs to be turned against any alternative viewpoints.
Extremely Rotten, Violent, Anti-Life Fruit
No f*cking wonder January 6 happened with white supremacists (mostly male and white) praying in the Senate chamber in the midst of the violence.
No f*cking wonder this series of murders of Asian women at massage parlors, perpetrated by an ardent Southern Baptist churchgoing white male, happened this past week.
Aggression Not a Bug But a Feature
One thing’s for sure—when white men start to spread this kind of aggression-glorifying rhetoric and tying it to morality, these kind of events are not a bug, but a feature of that kind of theology.
The white man who performed these murders wasn’t “having a bad day.” He was perfectly acting out the theology with which he was raised.
What a Truckload of Toxicity
What a load of toxic sh*t this all is—so spiritually abusive, and so incredibly far from loving our neighbor as ourselves and WWJD. All I can say is that I’m thankful there are so many out there that can see how ridiculously rotten the fruit of this theology is (pro-life my ass).
I could go on, but I’m seriously sick to my stomach by how unhealthy all of this is, and how the type of “Christian nice” I grew up in taught me that confronting it in the public square was an unhealthy action.
Now That We Know Better, May We Do Better
I am thankful that my studies combined with the horrific events of the last few years and the work of other fabulous scholars have eventually gotten me and others to seeing this more clearly. May we stand up and demand better theologies, systems, and outcomes. (And if you’re not quite there yet on this, please do run out and read Jesus and John Wayne! Then come join us. Thanks!)
Time to Keep Speaking Up Assertively
I hope that all of us will continue to assertively rise up to require accountability and a huge shift away from these kind of unhealthy theologies AND the unhealthy actions in the world they enable, both in the extreme versions and in their soft insidious forms, including what I’ve discussed previously as toxic “Christian Nice” (look at more of my analysis of that bully-enabling phenomenon starting here). May we all continue to seek systemic change that holds aggressive anti-life white males accountable for their actions. And may we shift our theologies and spiritualities when they’re shown to bear such rotten fruit.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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