You may have seen this over the weekend, either on Twitter or this blog. It’s a male caller talking to Rush Limbaugh, and almost in tears over how everybody has betrayed people like him, except for Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, for whom he would die. Listen at least to the last 45 seconds of the 2m30 clip:
I thought this was bonkers and childish. A reader just sent me this letter (and gives me permission to quote it), which offers a more sympathetic view. He’s not defending the Rush caller on the facts, but trying to help me understand how someone could get to that position in life. Check it out:
I saw your retweet yesterday (and subsequent column today) about the guy who called in to Rush and said he’d die for Trump. The tweet said something to the extent of “if you don’t like conservatives now, wait until they lose their religious faith.” I’d like to take that from the opposite direction, though. I don’t know that man’s story, but I know my own, and I think it’s more likely that religious faith left him.
I don’t know where to start here; I’ve been thinking about this all day and it’s honestly made me a bit depressed the more I think about it. I don’t want to read into the situation things that aren’t there, but I heard desperation in that man’s voice. In all likelihood he wouldn’t actually take a bullet for Trump, but he would die for the things that Trump represents. Trump stands up for men like him in a way that nobody (not just politicians; I’ll get to the church as well) has done in at least a generation. Men can be fiercely loyal when someone has earned it; it’s one of our best qualities. I don’t want to comment on whether Trump earned that loyalty, but I will say that he has to the caller.
Now with that out of the way, let’s not focus on that person in particular, but from the experiences of an Evangelical white male (me) that may drive men in general out of the church and into politics. In short, there’s a shrinking-to-nonexistent place for men in Evangelical churches, especially middle aged men. I’ll use a few examples to hopefully make my point. These all are my experiences in Evangelical churches over the past decade or so:
My father taught Sunday School. In fact, this is where academically-minded men (I would count myself among that group) usually ended up as a way to contribute. He would study and prepare lessons on topics of his choosing, adding his interpretation and exegesis while leading the discussion. That path doesn’t exist anymore. Sunday School is gone, replaced by “small groups.” The only qualifications for being a small group leader are having a semi-clean house and reading the prewritten questions that the pastoral team sends out every week. In an effort to make it easy and accessible, it’s not a role to aspire to. It’s not leadership, and it flexes no spiritual muscles beside showing up.
When I was growing up, our church elected deacons and elders who would, alongside the pastoral staff, make decisions for the church and serve the more corporeal needs of the church. Those roles are largely gone now (speaking from the Evangelical perspective), replaced by committees and the Board of Trustees. If a man isn’t fond of the corporate world, he doesn’t have this avenue open to him anymore either.
I remember growing up, the men of the church made up half of the choir and a good number of the orchestra. I went to a moderately sized Methodist church in Alabama, maybe 300 on a Sunday. I had wanted to play the trumpet in the orchestra in church since elementary school. I have only attended one church with a choir since college; none with an orchestra. I played guitar in the “praise band.” Women outnumbered men 2:1 in the choir, at least.
Churches largely market to and chase after the elusive “young family” demographic, and secondarily women. I looked for men’s groups at a church my wife and I began attending. 70% of the groups are labeled “young family” or “singles.” There are two ladies’ Bible studies. Men’s breakfast meets once a month at the Cracker Barrel. They encourage you to bring an unsaved friend as there will be a short Gospel message. We joined a young families group. I don’t know where we’ll go when we cease to be in the “young families” before we hit “golden years.”
I once emailed the pastor of a church I used to attend with a theological question. I got his assistant. His assistant referred me to another staff member who could meet with me for an hour. He recommended a few books to read on the topic. I never bothered asking a question again. For more therapeutic needs, the “congregational care” team could assist, composed mostly of 20 something psych students trying to get their hours in.
I have more stories, but I’ll stop here for now. The last one I think is telling. For Evangelicals in larger churches especially, the pastor is a manager who teaches. He wouldn’t go to bat for me. If I lost my job; I’d get passed off to the trainees for therapy. I, on a visceral level, understand Trump guy. There but by the grace of God go I. I’ve had enough experiences in the church to get the message “you’re not needed here,” so I get how a person can find the MAGA movement and find belonging. You fight for that sense of belonging, and you get defensive when others try to marginalize you by not sticking up for those you see as fighting for you.
After all, if he was in the Evangelical church, he’s been down that road before.
I think Trump is no real defender of men like the caller, but that they are projecting their very real pain onto him, wanting to see in Trump someone they need. I’m not making fun of that. I did something similar with Pope John Paul II when I was in my older teens and twenties. I think this is common in human experience.
We have to find some way to channel this valid emotional need by men — a need to feel wanted, and purposeful — into something constructive, or it will express itself as something destructive.