Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Feminization (And Decline) Of Religion

Nick Kristof is excited by women taking over Christianity. Big mistake

Nicholas Kristof is happy this Easter and Passover:

Over the centuries, it was fine for women to be martyred (or, at times, to be burned as witches), but they were denied the right to become priests, rabbis or ministers.

Yet a revolution is unfolding across America and the world, and countless women will be presiding this weekend over Easter and Passover celebrations. In just a few decades, women have come to dominate many seminaries and rabbinical schools and are increasingly taking over the pulpit at congregations across the country.

“What we’re seeing before our very eyes is a dramatic shift; in my mind it’s as big as the Protestant Reformation,” says the Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York City’s Union Theological Seminary — where almost 60 percent of the students are now female.

“We’re seeing a new day of understanding of who God is,” Dr. Jones added. “When the people who are representing God, making God present, have female bodies, that inevitably changes the way you think about how God is.”

Dr. Jones argues that over time women will come to dominate religious leadership and that this will powerfully reshape Americans’ understanding of God from stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer. “It changes the way you think geopolitically about the greatest truth,” she says.

Well, she’s right about that — that if females lead congregations, it changes the way you think about God. This is one (but not the only) reason why traditional Christian churches opposes female clergy. God is revealed to us in the Bible as a Father. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is a man. Mary, the mother of the Messiah, plays an important symbolic role too. You lose the male and female aspects of the story, you lose sight of why these things matter theologically.

What’s all too predictable is that a clergywoman like Dr. Jones is happy to claim that the sex of the clerical class makes a significant difference in how the Christian religion is perceived, and indeed how we see God. Elsewhere, I would not be surprised if she were to claim that it does not matter if the cleric in charge is a man or a woman, because God has no gender, etc. Whichever argument works to undermine the tradition and advance women’s power is the one progressives will use.

Here’s the thing: is there a connection between the feminization of Christianity and its decline? Does Nick Kristof really believe that what ails American Christianity is its view of God as a “stern father”? Has he really not read anything about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Even as far back as the mid-1960s, sociologist Philip Rieff observed that American Christianity was fast changing into a more feminine, therapeutic model, mirroring what was happening in the broader American culture.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the sociological and psychological effect of the feminization of Christianity. From a theologically orthodox point of view, within the sacramental, liturgical churches, there are insurmountable problems with female ordination. I find it harder to grasp these as theological problems within Protestantism, but I freely admit that this could be because I lack knowledge of Protestantism.

What I’m putting into this post is not strictly, or even mostly, a theological matter. I want to establish that point clearly. I don’t believe that women priests are possible within Orthodoxy and Catholicism, because women cannot do what priests do within the sacramental system of those forms of Christianity. If proclaiming and explaining the Word is the point of the worship service though (and not the Eucharist, or if the Eucharist is nothing more than a memorial meal), then I don’t see why men have any advantage over women.

In terms of the psychology and sociology of Christian sacerdotal leadership, well, that’s something different. And that’s what I want to talk about here.

I encourage you to read Leon J. Podles’ 1999 book The Feminization of Christianity, which is now available for free at the author’s website. In the introduction, Podles, a Catholic, writes about how he got interested in trying to figure out why Christianity in practice is primarily a female thing. Excerpt:

In reading about war, I realized that here was something that men took with deadly (both literally and metaphorically) earnestness. War, and the vicarious experience of war in literature and reenactments, as well as the analogues and substitutes for war in dangerous sports and avocations, provide the real center of the emotional, and I would even say the spiritual, life of most men in the modern world. The ideology of masculinity has replaced Christianity as the true religion of men. We live in a society with a female religion and a male religion: Christianity, of various sorts, for women and non-masculine men; and masculinity, especially in the forms of competition and violence that culminate in war, for men.

Podles’s research turned up that the feminization of Christianity (in the West) started in the pre-industrial period. You can’t blame feminism. More Podles:

Poles, on the other hand, indicate that Poland seems to follow the Eastern pattern: men and women attend church equally, and there is no sense that religion is somehow proper to women. Factory workers in Solidarity were not embarrassed to display their piety publicly. The fusion of religion and national feeling is connected with this high male participation in church life, but it is unclear whether it is a cause or a consequence.

The exceptions to the general pattern of feminization of religious life are worth noting: the Eastern Orthodox (perhaps), the Jews (definitely) and non-Christian religions. In America, in comparison even to the Jews, “Muslims, adherents of Eastern religions, agnostics and religious ‘Nones’ have even more unbalanced sex ratios: almost two males for every female in each group. In contrast to the sex ratio among black Christians, only 36 percent of black Muslim and 40 percent of black religious ‘Nones’ are women.” The pattern is found in England as well. In contrast to the feminized congregations among all major Christian denominations documented by the census taken early this century, the ratio of men to women in synagogues was over three to one. There is something about Christianity, especially Western Christianity, that drives a wedge between the church and men who want to be masculine.

You would do well to read Podles’s Chapter 5, which talks about masculinity within Christianity. Check this passage out:

After the age of the martyrs, the monks became the new athletes of Christ, the successors to the martyrs.The Teaching to Monks {Doctrina ad monachos) ascribed to Athanasius even claims that the monk is more of a soldier than the martyr: “The martyrs were often consummated in a battle lasting for only a moment; but the monastic institute obtains a martyrdom by means of a daily struggle.” The Irish monks saw both the ascetic life and the life of the pilgrim as a form of martyrdom.

Anthony battled demons in the desert in a “contest,” in “many wrestlings” against “destructive demons.” Benedict finds warfare a natural metaphor for monasticism, and recurs to it frequently in his Rule. He addresses the one who by his own will, abrenuntians propriis voluntatibus, will be in the army, militaturus, with fortissima et praeclara arma.

Hearts and minds must be prepared for militanda in obedience. Cenobites are monks who are in monasteriale militans; anchorites are those who have learned how to fight, pugnare, against the devil and can leave the column, acie, to engage in solo combat,
singularem pugnam, to fight, pugnare, against the vices of mind and flesh. Both slave and freeman are in the same rank, aequalem servitutis militiam. The battle is fought against the devil.

Later monks continued to think of themselves as soldiers. The Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert refers to God’s soldier, militis. Bede speaks of Cuthbert as an athlete and of his life as a warfare. Cuthbert seeks out waste places as a scene of battle. His withdrawal is not to seek peace but battle, the contest that is the way of life of a hermit. Monks were “the champions of the Church who carry on the battle with evil spirits, and with the spirit of evil in the world. They are forever engaged in a wrestling match with their own passions; they are running a race for which they expect an incorruptible crown; the world is the arena in which they engage in a spirited contest with all that is opposed to the will of God.” The monastic life was an agonic life, one of conflict. The monk did not flee from human society to find safety in solitude, but like the hero went out into the wilderness to confront the forces of evil and fought them to rid himself and the world of all traces of evil.

This is really interesting to me as a convert to Orthodox Christianity. This is the language, both conceptual and literal, of our spirituality. I have heard it said that in our time and place, men are especially attracted to Orthodoxy, because it appeals to their natural masculine inclinations to struggle and conquer. The ethos within standard Orthodoxy is very masculine (which is not the same thing as macho) — masculine in the sense Podles is talking about in this passage.

Podles ends Chapter 5 with this:

Before the year 1200, men and women played an equal role in the life of the church (of which the clergy was a minuscule part). Christianity had indeed found a place for femininity and given it a high value, but men perceived the religion itself as sufficiently masculine that they felt no need to distance themselves from it to attain a masculine identity. Indeed, the life of the monk was honored as a way to attain a masculine identity. The relationship of the sexes in the church showed no signs of imbalance. Although it is possible to gather misogynic statements from the Fathers, we should not take these too seriously. Many of the Fathers had difficult personalities, and were highly critical of everyone, both men and women. Even Tertullian and Jerome, although they could lambaste women for their worldliness, could also speak with reverence of female devotion. The Anglo-Saxon Church especially shows a harmony of men and women working together, both in the internal life of the church and in the monastic mission to their Germanic cousins on the Continent. Not until the High Middle Ages did something happen to the gender balance of the Church. Since then, men have disproportionately abandoned Christianity. Between the patristic and monastic eras and the modern era something happened to the Church to make it a world of women.

That thing was the rise of “bridal mysticism” in the Western church. One more thing, from a later chapter:

The affective spirituality of the Middle Ages, we noted, had two dimensions. The first of these was, as we have seen, bridal mysticism and its variations, but the second was the militancy of the Crusades and chivalric devotion to Mary. When bridal mysticism came to dominate the life of the Christian church, the feminization of Christianity set the ideology of masculinity free from the faith.

Masculinity is a natural religion, and in many ways resembles the Christianity of which it is a foretaste. Can men worship a savior unless they know what it is to be a savior? A man wants to become a god. He wants to be a savior, protecting all those in his care, giving his own life to save theirs. In other words, he wants to transcend the limits of mere humanity, but that transcendence is dangerous. When he faces death a man can die the death of the body; but he can also die the death of the soul, the second death. All too easily he may be fascinated by darkness and become a partisan and emissary of death—a demon. The further masculinity consciously distances itself from Christianity, the greater the danger that it will make men agents of death—nihilists—because in nothingness they see the ultimate self-transcendence.

In the final chapter, Podles suggests what churches should do if they want to appeal to men. He says that to be masculine means to embrace struggle:

A truly masculine spirituality must include struggle. Jesus struggled throughout his life, struggles that culminated in the agony, that is, in the struggle in the garden. In another garden sinful man had fled from the holiness of God and refused to struggle with the mystery of outraged holiness and love. In this garden, the Son confronted the Father and wrestled with his will. He ultimately submitted, as Mary did, but he submitted after a question, a plea: Let this cup pass from me. … Insofar as men are Christian, they must be agonic, that is, they must participate in the struggle against evil.

Podles points out that it is very, very easy for this struggle to “end in disaster,” e.g., the Crusades. But you cannot banish the idea of struggle from Christianity any more than you can banish it from life. He goes on:

For all human beings, life is a struggle, but men know that it is their duty in a special way to be in the thick of that struggle, to confront the hard places in life and strive to know, in the fullest sense, what the mysteries of life and death are all about. Protestant Christianity in the historic churches has largely forgotten this. The tone of contemporary Catholicism, especially in America, too often is an irritating official optimism, in which administrative triumphs are trumpeted as if they were the Second Coming.

In a recent celebration of Rome’s honoring of a major ecclesiastic, the secular reporter was somewhat bemused by the self-congratulatory tone of the proceedings. The tone was hardly based on reality: the local church entrusted to this ecclesiastic had suffered a massive decline in church attendance, confirmation, and general infidelity to Catholic teaching, as well as more than the usual share of scandals. Narcissism is a major vice of the Church and is even held up as an ideal: the community comes together to worship itself. Venus’s sign is a mirror. There has been little honest confrontation with the mystery of evil, and this lack of confrontation has led to a trivialization of Christianity that makes it especially unappealing to men who want to spend their lives not on verbal games and pleasant rituals, but on the serious matters that can yield an insight into the meaning of existence.

The work of God in the world is the most serious business that a man can devote himself to, because eternal matters of salvation and damnation hang upon it. But sin and damnation have disappeared in an ecclesiastical atmosphere of universalism and self-fulfillment. Churches that can preach the Gospel without the modifications that make it easy and bourgeois have a great advantage in reaching men. The rawer fundamentalist churches and the more traditional revivalist churches reach more men than liberal or latitudinarian churches. Unless the Church takes its own message seriously, as indeed a matter of the uttermost importance, it cannot expect men to take it seriously either.

Podles concludes:

There is no modern, accessible model of saintly lay masculinity in Western culture. A man can be holy, or he can be masculine, but he cannot be both.

Let me be clear: Lee Podles is a believing, practicing Roman Catholic. He wants the Church to succeed. But he has taken accurate measure of the ethos of modern Christianity. Most men are bored to death by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Meeting this challenge isn’t going to be easy, but as Podles says, the first thing we can do is to stop making it worse. Kristof sees progress in feminizing of church leadership, but I can’t see that will do anything but accelerate their decline, and make it much harder for the Christian religion to stop masculinity untethered from a sacrificial sense from becoming an agent of death and destruction.

Read all of Podles’s book for free here. 

If you are a man who thinks Christianity is not for you, and who (quite rightly!) wants to avoid the Mark Driscoll style of cheesy churchy machismo, you would do well to investigate Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where struggle against the passions is at the center of the spiritual life, as it was in the early church — and indeed, in the first millennium of Christianity everywhere. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. You only have to rediscover what is already there.

Finally, I strongly encourage readers of Kristof’s column to check out Ross Douthat’s piece that appeared in the same newspaper on the same day. It’s about the appeal of Jordan B. Peterson to young men. And here is a very long but very good analysis of Peterson and his appeal by the Evangelical theologian Alastair Roberts. I may do a separate piece on this later. Tl;dr: Jordan Peterson is not a Christian, nor claims to be, but he is speaking in a language that young men can relate to — a language that is to a great extent part of the church’s treasury, but that has been forgotten by the church in modern times. It has to do with the struggle of order against chaos. Note: the struggle.