Christian Men and the Pro-Life Movement: Uneasy Masculinity and Violence

I have a confession. I made the mistake of reading Matt Walsh’s blog. I know, I know, I’ll eventually give myself a brain aneurysm from trying to parse logic out of something that contains none. I find Walsh to be an extremely lazy writer who relies on pomposity and bluster to hide the fact that he does little to no actual research.

But something he said in a recent post on feminism stuck with me. The article – full of deliberate ignorance about feminist theory and the history of gendered struggle in the United States and around the world – posits that feminism started out well but has staled and become toxic because it has allied itself with the cause of reproductive rights (namely, abortion). In railing against the feminist movement for reproductive rights (a movement which cannot be extricated from our battles against poverty, classism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia), Walsh writes: 

Here’s an interesting question: if, in order to erase abortion, we had to erase all of the other things that feminism accomplished, would you erase it? Would you flip that switch? In this outlandish hypothetical, would you obliterate feminism to end abortion, if it meant obliterating whatever else feminism has achieved?

I hope that you would. I would if I was you. If all the works of feminism had to be turned back just to undo what it’s done in the last 40 years, I’d do it.

It’s easy to just laugh this off as a privileged man pledging to undo something that does not, cannot, and will never affect him on a personal level. But, shockingly, I think there’s something deeper here – a tension between Christian masculinity and the perceived femininity of nurturing.

It was with great interest that I read Andrea Grimes’ recent long form story about anti-abortion “abolitionist” Jered Ragon over at RH Reality Check (a site, you’ll note, I also contribute to). Ragon, a Christian, believes abortion is the greatest threat facing society today, and that his crusade to end it is a holy one. He seeks to change the minds of young people by “showing them the reality” of abortion – doing so by standing outside high schools in Texas with large, graphic images of supposedly aborted fetuses (such images are of specious veracity). For him, this is his calling.

Similarly, during major Supreme Court hearings on questions of reproductive justice, you will find a curious group of people standing on the steps with red tape over their mouths, praying and bobbing and weaving like one of those weird desktop bird figurines. This group is Bound4Life, a group started by two straight men who have made ridding the world of abortion their crusade. 

This is a trend you may start noticing. The heads in charge of major anti-abortion organizations in the United States are usually white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian men. They dominate the discourse, and often do so in rhetorically blunt and unwavering ways.

It is no small thing, either, that much violence has historically been associated with the anti-abortion movement, with clinic bombings, shootings, fires, vandalism, and assaults plaguing clinics across the nation. When the Planned Parenthood in my hometown of Sioux Falls was built, it was designed so no windows were facing the street and the parking lot was not easily accessible. It has a security door and specific procedures in place in the event of a threat.

I spoke to Hännah Ettinger, blogger at Wine and Marble and co-founder of Swan Children, an creative magazine with a new issue out May 1st. Ettinger told me of her experience with a man who was heavily involved in the pro-life movement – her ex-husband. They were married on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision – something they didn’t realize until a year into the marriage. Her husband became enmeshed in the pro-life movement in their area, attending vigils at a local clinic in their neighborhood and talking fiercely about the issue to anyone who would listen. Ettinger says,

My ex, and some Catholics he had befriended, attended [anti-abortion] vigils every Monday morning (Mondays were his days off, since he worked at a church) most of that spring. We shared a car--he'd drop me off at work, go to the protest, and then meet up with me for coffee or lunch in the afternoon. He'd want to talk about it, and every time I felt more and more uncomfortable with it. I'd ask him why he cared so much--it was a woman's issue, not his--and he'd revisit that World magazine logic: the babies. The dead, mutilated, murdered babies. 

 So where does this passion come from on the part of Christian, cisgender, heterosexual men? Many of those protesting abortion will never be faced with the decision themselves, and I find, most consistently, that it is men who are far removed from the actual situations who will weep openly in church over the “murdered babies.”

It would be easy to write off such passion on the part of Christian men as mere removal from the issue – it’s the easy justice issue for the conservative church, the thing that frequently acts as a litmus test for whether or not you’re a real Christian. (If I had a dollar for every time I’d been told I wasn’t a real Christian because I’m pro-choice, I wouldn’t have a need for a donate button on this blog.) 

But I think it’s something more than that. I think the Christian man’s attraction and ferocity on the issue of abortion runs deeper than merely proving their commitment to the faith. The fervor, instead, evinces something far uglier – a tension and discomfort over the proper ways men can express their masculinity and the sanctioned manners in which they can perform “womanly” duties like nurturing. 

Men in conservative Christianity find themselves in an interesting bind, due to the patriarchal strictures of their religious teachings. They must be providers, they must be the bulwark of strength, they must protect their families, they must be spiritual leaders. To be a stay at home dad, to be a nurturer as opposed to a disciplinarian and strong role model, is to violate one’s inherent, godly masculinity. From Mark Driscoll to John Piper to Owen Strachan to Albert Mohler, Christian masculinity invests itself in strength, in taking stands, and in being the protector and defender of their families.

Christian masculinity is explicitly not about being a nurturing being – that is the woman’s role, and that is why complementarianism is so vital to their worldview. A woman’s naturally compassionate and nurturing nature can rein in the unbridled manliness of her husband – they play off each other and become two parts of the whole. But any blending of the two roles and men risk having their masculinity impugned, their ability as provider called into question, and their conception of themselves challenged.

But people aren’t built to function as carbon copies of some other person’s rules for gender. We have varying degrees of compassion and strength that must be nurtured and grown – ideally in equal grace. Men can be nurturing, and women can defend their families. Gender does not determine behavior, as you well know if you read my blog with any regularity.

But, in conservative Christianity, this is not allowed. Men do not have healthy ways to express their full personalities, having instead to conform to a set of biblical rules. This conformity naturally creates tension – it puts men in the position of frustrating any nurturing desires they may have had and sublimate them into their masculine strength.

And thus, the anti-abortion warrior is born. Caring about the babies is one of the only sanctioned ways in which conservative Christianity allows men to express a nurturing desire. The abstract nature of the abortion politics for them – they never have to actually meet the babies they are “saving” – allows them to maintain a steady remove from the implication that they are being to feminine. At the same time, taking extreme stands on abortion politics allows Christian men to flex their muscles – sometimes literally – in an ultra-masculine form of protection.

How better to settle your unease with masculinity than to display inordinate strength in the defense of the unprotected unborn? How else to assuage your personal discomfort with being unable to nurture than to nurture abstract fetuses by speaking against their possible “murder”?

The violence of the anti-abortion movement, I propose, is a natural extension of this discomfort with the patriarchal masculine role. It is the ultimate way to take a stand both for one’s faith and for one’s masculine identity. The masculine-feminine tension that expresses itself in violence against abortion providers seems to be saying, “This is the best way to protect the family and make sure that babies – ordinarily the woman’s sphere – survive. I am doing my part, both to display my masculinity and to wrestle with the tension such a role places upon me.”

American Christianity has a masculinity crisis that runs deep into its core. It will take ages to root out, and in the meantime, I fear, we will see more abortion providers forced to wear bulletproof vests to work, to take evasive actions so they cannot be found at home. We will see more men standing for Christianity by traumatizing high school students and by putting bullets into their enemies. Freeing ourselves from gendered roles not only aids us and our churches on an individual level, but it may free the discussion of reproductive rights from the rampant extremism that comes from men trying to prove themselves.