Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Eikon.
Nancy Pearcey, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes. Ada, MI: Baker, 2023.
Nancy Pearcey’s new book defends true masculinity from its most recent critics. The toxicity, as she sees it, is not masculinity itself, but rather the war on masculinity. Pearcey attempts to clear conservative Christians, including evangelicals, from accusations that their theology leads to abuse. She sets forth a compelling counter-narrative, showing that those conservative evangelicals who regularly attend church actually have the lowest rates of domestic abuse or divorce and report the most happiness and relational satisfaction. Pearcey also identifies what she sees as unhelpful distortions of masculinity. Various culprits like the Industrial Revolution, Victorian sentimentality, and Feminism are held out as creating conditions or ideas which undermined true biblical masculinity. As a corrective to these, Pearcey points to what she calls “the Good Man” and calls both men and women to appreciate his virtue.
The Toxic War on Masculinity defends the natural goodness of the distinctions between the sexes and maintains that God has given headship to the man. Pearcey argues from a biblical perspective, and she seeks to defend what she understands to be the best part of the historic Christian tradition and even the recent evangelical legacy. At the same time, The Toxic War on Masculinity does also criticize “traditional” gender arguments, especially the notion that men are more naturally wild or inclined towards sin and that women should play the role of reformer. More than this, though, there are pronounced egalitarian elements in Pearcey’s argument, and it is not clear that her own views are entirely settled or consistent. As such, The Toxic War on Masculinity occupies a sort of middle position in current debates over gender roles. While there is much to applaud about the book, it has some notable weaknesses. Some of the book’s inconsistencies might in fact highlight larger tensions among complementarian evangelicals today. Because of this, Pearcey’s work deserves a close look, both for what it gets right and for what it gets wrong.
The Toxic War on Masculinity is divided into three main sections, with an introduction and epilogue serving as bookends. The introduction lays out what Pearcey sees as our big contemporary problem, a distorted and abusive masculinity which has then created antagonism against masculinity itself. As a corrective, she believes we ought to rediscover “a healthy, biblical concept of masculinity . . . the god-given pattern for manhood” (14). This is the book’s primary thesis: there is a good original form of masculinity, the true essence of masculinity, and there is a masculinity distorted by sin that leads to abuse. Pearcey calls the first of these the “Good Man,” a true masculinity characterized by virtues like “honor, duty, integrity, [and] sacrifice,” and duties like “stand[ing] up for the little guy” and being “responsible” and “generous” (19). The distorted masculinity is referred to as the “‘Real’ Man” (notice that “real” is being used rhetorically). This “Real” Man is tough, strong, competitive, stoic, and strives for dominance (19). Pearcey argues that we ought to reject the “Real” Man ideal, but that we should do so without rejecting masculinity. In fact, she believes the answer to the “Real” Man is the Good Man. By embracing and promoting the Good Man, we will overcome both toxic masculinity and the war on masculinity.
From here, Pearcey moves into her first main section, the positive portrayal of Christian men. In what is perhaps the most important part of the book, she counters recent criticisms of conservative evangelical views on sex and marriage with statistical analysis. Commenting on the work of researcher Brad Wilcox, Pearcey writes, “Research has found that evangelical Protestant men who attend church regularly are the least likely of any group in America to commit domestic violence” (37). Later, she quotes Wilcox directly, “It turns out that the happiest of all wives in America are religious conservatives . . . . Fully 73 percent of wives who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their husbands have high-quality marriages” (39). These striking observations will likely surprise most readers.
Pearcey follows this chapter up with another attempt to bolster her presentation of the Good Man, arguing that most conservative Christian marriages do not have a patriarchal arrangement but rather exhibit high degrees of respect and mutuality. This section is marked by various complementarian spokesmen explaining how headship does not mean domination, that true leadership is service, and that husband and wife exist in an “equal partnership” (51). This too is presented as surprising good news. But Pearcey also begins to work egalitarian arguments into this chapter. One is a direct quote from Carrie Miles: “In the New Testament, no one is ever directed to actively ‘subject’ (rule) anyone else” (54). For Pearcey, “headship” means that the man should “take the lead,” by which she means that he should take responsibility for his wife and family (56). She rejects any notion of superiority in headship and even argues that its true meaning is “source” (57). This will be a familiar argument to longtime participants in complementarian debates, but it has historically been the argument made by critics of complementarianism. Pearcey calls this category of men “soft patriarchs” who “use progressive means (‘encouraging men to be more engaged and affectionate with their families’) in the service of traditional ends (‘to shore up the family as an institution’)” (59). That line also serves as a succinct summary of Pearcey’s larger concept of the Good Man, the version of masculinity which she sees as the solution. He ought to use progressive means to achieve traditional ends.
Pearcey’s second main section turns towards history. Having explained and illustrated the Good Man, she wants to show how he got lost. The earliest periods of American history, she argues, retained the positive virtues of following God’s call to take care of others. In Puritan America, men assumed the lead in piety and religion. They did so with a notion of “the common good,” which meant that they were responsible for the protection and development of others (76). Their home life and work life were largely integrated, and so “when colonists called on husbands and fathers to exercise authority in the family, what they meant was that men were to deny their personal ambition and pursue the common good of the family as a whole” (77).
This arrangement began to change with the Industrial Revolution. Pearcey places a significant amount of explanatory power on the Industrial Revolution’s effect on the home. It separated one’s work from the rest of his living, severing the relationship between production and the family. As a result, men’s energies were largely focused upon their work, which was away from the family. They were not “at home” but rather “at their job.” Women, by contrast, experienced a change in what “working at home” meant. No longer was home the center of a joint hub of production. Instead, it became largely private, mostly concerned with cooking, cleaning, and some childcare. Pearcey even finds the origins of secularism here, arguing that men began to see this new professional and “public” realm as “objective” and “neutral,” whereas the home continued to operate on “biblical standards” (96). For masculinity as a concept, a similar division arose. The public man operated according to the laws of the workplace, whereas biblical guidance was relegated to the home.
Pearcey’s next historical section deals with the various reactions to the new modern industrialized arrangement. Ideologies associated with romanticism and then Victorianism began to identify the home as a sort of “haven” away from the largely harsh and dehumanizing modern world. The home was characterized by more traditional morality, but it was also seen as a female domain. Thus, women began to be seen as moral guardians and even social reformers. Instead of the older chauvinism, which portrayed women as particularly depraved and in need of taming (111), the woman was now cast as morally superior (109). She was the one who needed to reform and civilize the man. Pearcey writes, “In the nineteenth century, society began accepting the idea that men are naturally prone to sin and self-centeredness, while at the same time giving women the responsibility to hold them in check” (113).
This “woman as Reformer” model has endured and often today appears as an articulation of what might seem to be traditionalism. Pearcey points to George Gilder as one contemporary example:
In Gilder’s view, “the woman’s morality is the ultimate basis for all morality” — and men must learn it from women: “The success or failure of civilized society depends on how well the women can transmit these values to the men…The community is largely what she is and what she demands in men” (168).
Gilder’s work has recently been republished by the ultra-conservative Canon Press of Moscow, Idaho, and so many understandably interpret him as criticizing the slide away from traditional masculinity. But as Pearcey shows, Gilder’s view is itself anti-masculine and substantially the same as one of the views that played an historical part in masculinity’s decline. This line of argument is also one of The Toxic War on Masculinity’s most insightful.
The historical narrative next moves through both Romantic and Darwinian concepts of nature. The Romantics sought to return to nature, whereas the Darwinians understand nature to be a constant state of conflict and evolution. But both used a common sort of “primitivism” in their understanding of nature. And with their understanding of nature came a similar understanding of humanity. The Romantics often wanted to find a new way of masculine life in the sort of noble savage myth, usually an individual man getting “back to nature,” by living off the land, in the wilderness, or on the frontier. The Darwinians, by contrast, focused on the less-than-noble savage, the sort of man who conquered nature by means of power and domination. For its part, the church responded to both movements in both affirmative and critical ways. Movements like muscular Christianity and the Social Gospel exhibit appreciation for the natural world and a godly form of stewardship. But they also exalt strength, competition, and even martial dominance.
This large historical section concludes with a look at fatherhood. The separation of home and work, combined with the notion of men as brutes in need of civilization, has now led to our contemporary notion of men as the problem. Because of their frequent absence from their children’s lives, fathers came to be seen as unnecessary (191). Worse still, they eventually came to be seen as incompetent and embarrassing (192). This is especially unfortunate, Pearcey argues, because it creates a debilitating generational cycle: “The key to developing a positive masculinity is a boy’s close, loving relationship with his father” (192). She concludes this section with a call for men to become fathers and to assert a godly masculinity in the life of their family. This can best be achieved by reintegrating work and home, and Pearcey suggests creating “more flexible hours through telecommuting, videoconferencing, job sharing, staggered hours, time shifting (recording a meeting to be viewed later), and proportional benefits for part-time work, such as health insurance and pension contributions” (215).
The third section of the book focuses on the role of abuse. Pearcey included a confession of her own history with an abusive father in the very opening pages of the book. She is very aware of the destructive impact of abusive fathers. Here she gives the topic a closer look. Pearcey argues that domestic abuse is primarily a male problem. Interacting with the work of John Gottman, she writes, “The health of a marriage depends primarily on the husband” (231). She states that Gottman’s research “concludes that husbands’ disrespect for their wives is the major cause of marital instability” (231). She then moves on to a more detailed look at physical abuse and the disproportionate way that fear and pain affect women. “Females are biologically programmed to experience fear more than males,” she writes, and “women suffer quite a bit more physical pain than males” (235). With men’s greater strength, aggression, and endurance comes the potential for greater abuse. This then also implies their greater responsibility for the harmony and wellbeing of their family.
This section concludes with a discussion of how Christians should respond to domestic abuse. Pearcey cautions against defaulting to a supposed even-handed approach that would place culpability on both parties. The abuser, most often the man (in this chapter), bears the brunt. She argues for a broader understanding of abuse, including both verbal and physical abuse (250). And she suggests that wives should not submit to abusive husbands (257). Pearcey makes the very perceptive observation that abusers will often also cast themselves as victims (253). Pastors and elders, then, must be careful not to accept justifications which are based on perceived victimhood. She argues that hard consequences must be put into place to correct abuse. Wives are not to remain passive but should find ways to confront abusive husbands. Unfortunately, some sorts of people might not ever change, and Pearcey believes that, in such cases, the abused party must seek healing for themselves, reclaim their own mission, and create important boundaries (267). Though she does not explicitly offer counsel for when and how to divorce, its permissibility is assumed and a somewhat broad perspective is suggested (259).
There’s much to like about The Toxic War on Masculinity. It defends traditional notions of gender and sexuality. Men and women are different and their differences are good. Pearcey argues from a biblical perspective and seeks to defend what she understands as the best part of the historic Christian and even recent evangelical legacy. The strongest parts of the book are the righting of errant assumptions about abuse among conservative and evangelical men and husbands, the case for better integration of work and home, and the criticism of the “woman as reformist” view which portrays men as naturally more depraved than women and in need of taming or civilizing by them. Each of these are extremely important contributions and could easily be made into stand alone book projects.
Regrettably, the book’s weaknesses really are significant. Pearcey’s treatment of history is broad, often engaging in a sort of “big idea” summary of long and complex passages of time. The Industrial Revolution was certainly disruptive, but its boundaries are not made clear and its causal links are never truly demonstrated. In one place, Pearcey points to Rip Van Winkle as an example of the trope of the henpecked husband who must escape from the home (146). This appears several sections after the Industrial Revolution is discussed, and the natural assumption would be that this shows a masculine reaction to the various social and psychological disruptions it caused. But Rip Van Winkle was published in 1819, and it is set in a pre-industrial New York village. It seems more likely that Rip is a fairly timeless symbol. Pearcey’s treatment of “the Victorians” is similarly sloppy. She describes the Victorian religious aesthetic as “soft and sentimentalized” (115). But later in the book, when she describes “muscular Christianity,” the three military-themed hymns she gives as examples (179) are all written by Victorians!
More significantly, despite its title, the book does not really engage with the most recent controversies concerning sex and gender roles in evangelical churches. There is a moderate discussion of MeToo, but there are no references to Kristin Du Mez. Amazingly, neither John Piper nor Mark Driscoll show up. Sheila Ray Gregorie is footnoted once, as a secondary witness affirming the work of John Gottman. The so-called “manosphere” or “red pill” outlook is treated very briefly and without any serious discussion of its main points of contention. Jordan Peterson is discussed once and briefly. Aaron Renn is footnoted once, but not for his discussions of complementarianism or patriarchy. No mention is made of names like Joe Rogan, Jocko Willink, or even Andrew Tate. Thinkers who have contributed more academic accounts of masculinity, such as Harvey Mansfield (Manliness), Steven Goldberg (Why Men Rule), and Anthony Esolen (No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men) are likewise absent. Huge parts of the current cultural conversation are simply absent from Pearcey’s work.
Finally, it is not actually clear whether Pearcey is a complementarian or an egalitarian. An initial reading would suggest that her thesis is complementarian. She argues that men and women are different and their differences are good. She is clear that “the two sexes need each other to fulfill their mission” (30). She acknowledges that there are biological and psychological differences between men and women, and she even maintains that women have a stronger tendency towards caretaking and domestic life (31). So far, so complementarian. But Pearcey also employs many egalitarian scholars and Bible commentators, and she makes several classic egalitarian arguments [her definitions of head (57) and helper (81-82) and her rejection that the husband should “rule” over his wife (54)]. She denies any notion of sexual hierarchy, instead emphasizing equality (54). And yet, when it comes time to discuss matters like abuse, the male’s possession of greater strength and aggression and the woman’s greater sensitivity towards pain and fear all become very relevant. This is a tension worth thinking more about.
Pearcey affirms that men have “greater power” (84) and that women have “less power” (83). She even states that this “power differential . . . is rooted in biology” (84). Is this different from it being rooted in creation? If not, then isn’t this an admission of a sort of biblical patriarchy? If a man’s greater strength and greater ability to resist fear can serve as reasons for him to bear greater responsibility, and if these are things that need “moral and ethical constraints” (84), then is this not a sort of sexual hierarchy, only viewed from the negative point of view? Could we not look at the inverse and suggest that male superiority in these areas is relevant to his headship? His greater power and strength and the fact that he experiences less fear (235) could be understood to have positive uses. His disparity in these areas might be by design, precisely so that he can be an effective godly leader.
In Pearcey’s telling, the reality of a power hierarchy between the sexes only comes up in the areas where men are instructed to take more responsibility, to exercise greater self-discipline, and to understand the viewpoints of others. When positive descriptions and duties are in view, then equality is always what is extolled. This is a blind spot in Pearcey’s argument, and it’s a point made by a few of those writers and thinkers with whom she did not consult. At the end of the day, this is still largely a message that emphasizes the need for men to restrain themselves and limit their potential. It is not so fundamentally different from those earlier presentations of the wild man needing reform. He is still domesticated without any adequate description of how this is a perfection of his nature.
At the beginning of The Toxic War on Masculinity, Pearcey offered two “scripts” for masculinity, the Good Man and the “Real” Man. Instead of suggesting that the cure for “Real” Man is his becoming the Good Man, it would be better to demonstrate that the vices of the “Real” Man could all become virtues if pointed in the right direction. Pearcey admits as much, “It’s not that every trait listed as the ‘Real’ Man is necessarily bad. In a crisis, for example, we need men (and women) who can stand tough and not collapse in tears” (19). But she needed to devote time to demonstrating the potential virtue of masculine strength and even competitiveness. “Rule” should not be considered a bad thing. After all, God rules over us. Even the quest for glory is essentially good. Young men find glory in their strength, and old men find it in the gray hair of wisdom (Prov. 20:29). Kings find glory in the searching out of secret things (Prov. 25:2). Husbands find glory in their wives (1 Cor. 11:7). And Christ finds glory in his church. Yes, he finds glory in sacrificing for the church. But he also finds glory in presenting the church to himself (Eph. 5:27).
The Toxic War on Masculinity fights a good fight, but it only goes about halfway. Its strong points are important, and complementarians should take notice. But its weaknesses must also be noticed. And they should be noticed as weaknesses that have occasionally been present within the common complementarian discourse itself. In overcoming these weaknesses, we can, by God’s grace, help to form “Real” Good Men.
Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church (Anglican) in South Bend, Indiana. He has previously written for Eikon, Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, and Public Discourse. He is a founding member of the Davenant Institute, with whom he continues to write. Steven also has a new essay in a forthcoming multi-author book to be published by Crossway.
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