Shuttlesworth has denigrated “loser” pastors who canceled services and suggested the use of hand sanitizer betrayed a lack of manliness. “If you’re putting out pamphlets and telling everybody to use Purell before they come into the sanctuary … you should just turn in your ministry credentials and burn your church down,” he said. “You’re a loser. Bunch of pansies. No balls. Got neutered somewhere along the line and don’t even realize it.” Shuttlesworth then announced his own plans to host a Woodstock-like “Easter blowout service.”
This braggadocious approach to the coronavirus is not an aberration for a certain type of white evangelicalism. It’s rooted in a conception of Christian manhood that has wielded enormous influence within conservative American evangelicalism for half a century.
The push for a muscular Christianity took hold in the 1970s. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, lashed out at feminists, accusing them of denigrating masculine leadership as “macho” and leaving men in confusion and the nation in peril. He issued a “call to arms,” a return to “traditional,” God-given masculinity; “if this be macho, sexist, chauvinist,” then he happily admitted he was “guilty as charged.” Jerry Falwell Sr. then turned the personal political. Falwell’s savior was a muscular Christ, “a he-man,” and followers of that Christ fought wars — real wars and culture wars. As founder of the Moral Majority, Falwell situated this militant Christian masculinity at the center of the emerging religious right. The reassertion of white Christian patriarchy would restore “Christian America” and function as the linchpin of conservative evangelicals’ religious and political identity.
After a brief interlude after the end of the Cold War when American evangelicals explored the virtues of a “soft patriarchy,” a more militant Christian masculinity returned with a vengeance after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. From hundreds of books that collectively sold millions of copies, evangelicals were told that men were called to be warriors and that masculine aggression was God’s gift to humanity.
As John Eldredge explained in his best-selling “Wild at Heart,” real men needed “a battle to fight.” Testosterone made men dangerous, but it also made them heroes. To be a man was to take risks, to eschew political correctness, to be, according to author and chaplain John McDougall, a “spiritual badass.” Crassness, recklessness, bravado — these were signs of a God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity. Jesus was more like William Wallace than Mother Teresa or Mister Rogers.
It was this conception of militant masculinity that drew many evangelicals to Donald Trump. While some were dubious of his Christian bona fides, Jerry Falwell Jr. saw Trump as the ultimate fighting champion to lead them to victory. Already in 2012, Falwell Jr. had defended Trump as representative “of the ‘tough’ side of Christian doctrine and the ministry of Christ,” and Falwell became one of Trump’s earliest and most stalwart evangelical supporters. He was joined by the Rev. Robert Jeffress, who eloquently explained Trump’s evangelical appeal: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”
Jeffress was right. Evangelical support for Trump was never merely transactional; Trump, with his brashness and bravado, was in many ways the fulfillment of the masculine ideal held by many. Earlier this month, a survey from the Pew Research Center revealed the majority of white evangelicals consider Trump to be “honest” and “morally upstanding.” For a president whose falsehoods and moral indiscretions are widely known, this makes sense only if truth and morality have been thoroughly redefined. In transforming Christian masculinity, evangelicals transformed the faith itself.
Not one to cower before a pandemic, the younger Falwell has refused to shutter the campus of Liberty University, which his father founded. After initially dismissing shutdown calls as an “overreaction,” he then reluctantly agreed to cancel residential classes but decided to keep dorms open and require professors “without a valid health exemption” to report to campus for in-person office hours. This was too much for one faculty member, who wrote an op-ed chastising Falwell for his “bravado” and “callousness in the extreme.”
To be sure, many evangelical churches have dutifully closed their doors. Jeffress announced he would hold services online, saying, “I don’t believe that God wants us to be paralyzed by fear over this coronavirus,” before adding, “but he does want us to use common sense.” After initially implying that fear of coronavirus was a “demonic spirit,” Guillermo Maldonado, a pastor who has prayed for Trump, announced he would follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and postpone events until July. Last week, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, urged Christians to comply with social distancing measures to protect the vulnerable. But Moore found it necessary to make this case because of the recklessness and surprising callousness toward the lives of others exhibited by the very evangelicals who have long identified as “pro-life.”
More fundamentally, evangelical militancy requires enemies, actual or imagined. Instead of a faith oriented around loving one’s neighbors, many have come to embrace a faith that perceives neighbors as outsiders, if not enemies. Abandoning a broader sense of the common good, theirs is a faith that pits “us against them,” and God is always on their side.
At a moment when the nation is facing an unprecedented threat to public health, the limits of this faith are evident. Even as the president has come under withering criticism for downplaying the seriousness of the threat and for his inconsistent and often bungled response, a full 77 percent of white evangelicals have expressed confidence in his handling of the outbreak. Evangelical support for the president’s insufficient response contributes to a deep partisan divide; by maintaining that the threat has been “blown out of proportion,” many conservatives continue to hamstring the unified response critical to stemming the exponential spread of the virus.
Downplaying the threat and refusing to comply with social distancing measures require an indifference toward the common good, a certainty that the ends will justify the means and a brash confidence that God will be on one’s own side. All these attitudes are deeply entrenched within the “macho” conservative evangelicalism that Dobson envisioned.
But the virus does not care about “us vs. them” divisions among humans. Callousness toward the lives of others will imperil the lives of those within the fold, too. In time, this will become clear. By then, however, it will be too late to change course. For all their talk of defending “Christian America,” some white evangelicals may end up hurting it grievously.