Three things need to be said immediately about Rod Dreher’s recent article in The American Conservative on “The Feminization (and Decline) of Religion.” One, it is half-plagiarized. Two, it is stupidly sexist. Three, it is wrong. After a brief summary of the article, I will address each point in turn.
Dreher states that he is not trying to make a theological point but a psychological one. He asserts rather matter of factly, and without explanation, that women in eucharistic traditions lack some sort of “something” to qualify them as priests. After this assertion, the remainder of the article is an extended block quote from a book called The Feminization of Christianity, interspersed with commentary from Dreher himself. The point of all this seems to be that the Latin Christian tradition gradually marginalized masculinity, and this is a major factor in the church’s decline. The author concludes by recommending Orthodox Christianity, which has resisted this trend in part by emphasizing things like ascetic struggle and spiritual combat: manly things.
A Half-Plagiarized Thesis
Dreher’s article is nearly identical in thesis and format to one Frederica Matthewes-Green wrote several years ago on “Why Orthodox Men Love Church.” She said men like Orthodoxy because it emphasizes struggle; he said men like Orthodoxy because it emphasizes struggle. Her article was mostly quotes interspersed with commentary; his article was mostly quotes interspersed with commentary. The key difference is that Matthewes-Green quotes Orthodox males responding to a survey, while Dreher quotes a book of historical theology written by a man with a PhD in Old English and Icelandic. Dreher does say, “I have heard it said that…men are especially attracted to Orthodoxy, because it appeals to their natural masculine inclinations to struggle and conquer.” Likely, the person he “heard” it from was Frederica Matthewes-Green. He needs to give her credit. (Read my response to Matthewes-Green here.)
A Sexist Perspective
Dreher sees struggle and conquest as “natural masculine inclinations,” but he fails to recognize that he is viewing struggle and conquest through a masculine lens. He is not sexist in the sense that he believes men are superior to women, but he is sexist in the sense that he misses how systemic patriarchy positions the conclusions he draws from empirical phenomena. Society sets him up to beg the question. It does all of us. While testosterone almost certainly makes little boys more physically aggressive than little girls, I would argue that girls end up being more psychologically aggressive than boys. Women compete and try to conquer, and they do it in ways that are often more damaging. I am not saying either inclination is “natural.” I am saying that Dreher is only seeing half the picture.
A Misguided History
A few historical mistakes need to be addressed. The first relates to the role of religion in society, the second to the role of women in the church, and the third to the role of gender in ascetic struggle.
Religion in Society
Christianity is not in decline. It is in flux. Graeme Smith has written a book called A Short History of Secularism that makes a compelling case that levels of religious engagement have been mostly stable throughout Western Europe. The idea that there is a “decline” is a fiction going back to the Victorians. In truth, people are probably about as engaged as they ever were. The marginalization of theological explanation for natural phenomena is not necessarily the marginalization of religion itself.
Women in the Church
In terms of active participation, Christianity has always been a rather feminine religion. In the days before Constantine, women converted more than men. Roman society was steeped in pagan cult, and so the paterfamilias found it most convenient to be pagan. The same held for Christianity after the empire became Christian. But the women were the most pious. They were the ones who taught their children, enforced the fasts, kept the festivals, and dragged their families to service against their will.
Not being a theologian, Dreher is probably unaware of the role of gender in the monastic spirituality that informs the ascetic practices of his (Orthodox) faith. Key ascetic thinkers were shaped by the theology of Origen, who viewed sex and gender as being “accidents” of nature (i.e. not essential). Monastics sought to transcend gender. If anything, males became more “feminine” by pursuing silence, obedience, and humility. To cast the ascetic struggles of the saints as “masculine” pursuits is to dishonor their memory.
Ultimately, Dreher may be right in his overall point that the church needs to balance “masculine” and “feminine” traits, but I would argue that this balance should involve moving away from such gendered categories. Women do not have a monopoly on humility, nor do men own struggle and conquest. Now that I think about it, there is something deeply wrong about going to a church because what we think it values is like what we value in ourselves. That seems backward. It seems like the sin of Adam, as if through my own innate characteristics and natural inclinations, I could become like God.