Watching U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) skedaddle as fast as he could out of the U.S. Capitol — as the insurrectionists he had previously inspired with his famous raised fist (displayed while safe behind the lines of protection that Capitol police provided him) began destroying anyone and anything in their way — was to witness an iconic moment.
It surely represented all those radical right-wing politicians who regularly send others into battles but as so-called “Chicken Hawks” are the first to flee any chance of personal or career harm by claiming, let’s say, “bone spurs.”
But it also symbolized the type of heroes that the current radical right wing listens to in their renewed call to return to a hyper-masculinity, a toxic patriarchal mix that they’ve latched onto again as the crucial cause of everything that’s wrong with our planet.
Refusing to admit that their own policies are the root of the problem, they’ve calculated that preaching everywhere they can that masculinity itself is under siege and in crisis will work. They blame the same groups that they’ve picked on for generations, of course — those who want equal rights for women, LGBTQ+ people, “socialists,” and anyone else who disagrees with them.
Hawley, the skedaddler, portrays himself as some sort of expert on the subject — though he’s far from alone in this crowd — and he even has a forthcoming book published by a right-wing press titled Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs. Those who actually study masculinity find his claims to be an unspecific, data-less polemic that appeals to white Christian nationalism.
There’s a long history of right-wing Christian attempts to solve American problems by returning to patriarchal masculinity, as I’ve written before when discussing the six elements crucial to many Evangelicals’ obsession with the former president:
As American culture began to accept equality for women through women’s suffrage and various waves of feminism, these Evangelicals became convinced that they must protect patriarchy and male privilege.
Even conservative churches that had women ministers were criticized. Before the latest waves of feminism scared them even further, a leading Evangelical leader in 1941, John R. Rice, for example, wrote of threats to Biblical Christianity in his Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers: Significant Questions for Honest Christian Women Settled by the Word of God
Again and again, Evangelists and leading right-wing preachers shamed churches for being effeminate. “Muscular Christianity” came to the United States as a movement pushed by popular evangelist Dwight L. Moody as early as the end of the nineteenth century to masculinize the church.
The idea of a “biblical chain of command” with the man of the house just below God and in charge of everyone below him swept up Evangelicals in the 1960s with home-school advocate Bill Gothard touring the country. In 1991 the “Promise Keepers” emerged to pack football stadiums by advising Evangelical men to take back the authority they were losing in their own homes.
In fact, the threat of LGBTQ equality and the Evangelical fight against marriage equality were premised on how this would destroy the traditional patriarchal (“straight”) gender roles. And “traditional family values” rhetoric was built on the man being in charge of his very White Evangelical family.
It’s always been the case in the U.S. that the male gender role central to its national identity has defined real men as what they aren’t — as not “feminine” and not “gay.” That’s still the essence of calls for any “Straight Pride” event.
Putting down women as not having by nature the preferred “masculine” characteristics, oppressing men for not being stuck in every aspect of their masculine straightjacket with gay slurs, and disparaging women who exhibit so-called masculine characteristics, interests, and abilities with lesbian slurs is as traditionally American as apple pie.
Today, so much of that same prejudice central to right-wing culture wars is focused on stifling the visibility of transgender people. Because of the gains of lesbians and gay men, they’ve tweaked their playbook on gender politics to scare the country about those who defy rigid gender binaries.
But even more curious are the heroes they’ve chosen to embody their new-wave masculine ideal in the calls to return to masculinity. They’re not just the tried and true muscle-bound warriors, the he-men that were considered “men’s men,” and men who’d be willing to beat, defeat, or kill other men if needed that they idealized in past unrealistic stereotypes — the Rambos, James Bonds, John Waynes, and steroidal bodybuilders. It’s not those who show courage, self-sacrifice, plain-speaking honesty, and a strong sense of righteousness.
This new wave of right-wing masculine role-models embraces the new politics of our era. It’s the right-wing politics of lying, cheating, self-protection, sacrifice of others, never taking responsibility, and stepping on anyone to climb up the ladders of power.
The news has been littered with these models even though the mainstream media fears calling them out. That’s why Josh Hawley’s activities parody it all.
But think of the others who epitomize this return to masculinity:
- A former president who exhibited cowardice throughout his life, actually saying for example after claiming bone spurs to duck out of the Vietnam War that not getting an STD was his equivalent and who cowers from anything or anyone he’s scared of?
- A political party full of people whose recorded condemnations of the president for encouraging the attack on the U.S. Capitol later in fear of him and losing publicly lie saying that they never said it?
- A gaggle of preachers who shout straight masculine tomes from their pulpits but live the totally different sex lives they condemn regularly?
- A gang of gun-toters hiding behind their openly-displayed weapons in fear of others?
Who, then, are those who actually show these old so-called masculine virtues today?
- A female Republican U.S. Representative on the January 6th committee who speaks plainly and knows she’s thereby sacrificing her political position.
- A Black female prosecutor in Atlanta who courageously and doggedly fights to bring down those at the top who attempted to subvert citizens’ votes.
- A female Georgia election official who’s still fighting to ensure election integrity in spite of the former president’s gang threatening her and her family.
- Every woman who stands up now against the Supreme Court’s decision to make them second class citizens when it comes to reproductive decisions.
- The LGBTQ+ people who attend their Pride Fests when the gun-toting haters threaten them.
The performance of those so-called masculine virtues among those who weren’t supposed to have them contradicts the lie that these are characteristics confined to a single gender. It also exposes again all the lies about these matters that the right wing is regurgitating as if in today’s world courage, honesty, and strength against the odds aren’t characteristics found elsewhere rather than among their bloviating “masculinity” posers.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.