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The Failure of Macho Christianity

In an era of things coming undone—families from their traditional bonds, populations from their places of origin, genders from their longtime roles—the impulse to retreat into the lifestyles of steadier times is detectable in discourse and media, from our fascination with costume dramas to our encounters with ever more reactionary conservatisms. It’s within this tendency that Pastor Mark Driscoll has become something of a parable. A man of extreme aspirations, Driscoll set out to revive Christianity and the American family with good old-fashioned machismo. But for all his charisma and virility, something went badly wrong.

On January 1, 2015, the Seattle-based network of Evangelical church campuses known as Mars Hill dissolved into a series of independent churches. Boasting an average weekly attendance of some 12,329 souls at its height in 2013, Mars Hill now struggles to bring in 9,000 on any given Sunday. With revenues in precipitous decline, the worship syndicate has closed several locations and laid off numerous employees. But it was the mid-2014 resignation of controversial founder and lead pastor Mark Driscoll that sounded Mars Hill’s death knell.

At only 25 years old, the freshly graduated seminarian Driscoll, along with friends Lief Moi and Mike Gunn, founded Mars Hill in 1996 with the hope of reaching out to a “postmodern” generation blighted by divorce, abortion, and dissolute sexuality. A 1998 Mother Jones profile of Driscoll presented the pastor as a pop culture savvy quasi-rockstar with the “purest of intentions,” but even in his nascent days the pathologies that would later define his ministry were detectable: "I'm very confrontational," Driscoll remarked, "not some pansy-ass therapist." Driscoll’s rhetoric, with its robust tolerance for the fleshly but never for the pansy-assed, instantly appealed to his target audience of “young, urban men whom he [sought] to reach with his message of the masculinity of Jesus and the need for strong, godly men to lead families and the church.” During its formative years Mars Hill grew steadily—from 160 congregants in 1996 to 350 in 1999—but once Driscoll settled upon his gender-focused approach and began to use emerging technology to blog and livestream his sermons, attendance jumped. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, Mars Hill’s size and growth rate each soared from 43rd to 3rd place in Outreach Magazine’s church ranking.

A plain but thickly built man, Driscoll hailed from North Dakota, where he was raised Catholic. His broad shoulders and stocky build gave him the physical presence to command the masculine mission and persona of Mars Hill, which he evidently equated with himself, informing Church elders in a 2012 meeting that the brand of Mars Hill was “me in the pulpit holding a Bible.” As an emblem of his mission Driscoll was convincing: he wore jeans and hoodies and leather accessories, and hit his stride when he thundered on stage, frequently deploying a seething-and-shouting style of delivery that echoed the intensity of men’s motivational speakers. And by all accounts, a men’s motivational speaker is precisely what Driscoll was. Though Mars Hill never released demographic data about its congregations, Professor Jim Wellman of the University of Washington concluded based on his research that Mars Hill’s rapid expansion was due in large part to its appeal to a typically church-averse cohort of young men, especially those “who are trying to figure out who they are in terms of their purpose in life." Driscoll’s sermons had a touch of the fiery bombast of spirit-filled churches and always pressed the need to spread the message, which eventually led to the expansion of Mars Hill’s original campus to a network of fifteen locations in four states.

Mars Hill’s self-enumerated four pillars: reformed theology, spirit-empowerment, and a missional purpose are listed alongside gender complementarianism as the church’s core beliefs. True to form, Though professedly Calvinist, matters of justification and salvation always seemed only secondarily important to Driscoll, who focused instead on the notion that contemporary American men are sissified, Jesus has been misconstrued as a “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” and good Christian wives need to “serve [their husbands] and love them well” by performing frequent acts of oral sex, especially to wake sleepy husbands in the stead of an alarm clock. To refuse such kindness, Driscoll averred, is a sin.  

Driscoll’s sexual fixation was sprawling and vaguely macabre, twining together an eager sexual permissiveness with a strident focus on female servitude and sexual submission. “The problem with the church today,” he asserted in a 2006 interview, “it’s just a bunch of nice, soft, tender, chick-ified church boys,” then noted with dismay that “sixty percent of Christians are chicks and the forty percent that are dudes are still chicks.” The troubles of numerically determining emasculation aside, Driscoll’s core concern was that innovation, leadership, and discipline do not come naturally to women, and therefore lack in churches where women dominate. Citing a commitment to complementarian theology, Mars Hill allowed no women in “elder roles,” meaning that women could not “preach, enforce formal church discipline, and set doctrinal standards for the church.” In domestic matters, Driscoll’s theology of gender was even more particular. Women wanting cosmetic surgery, opined Driscoll, should do so only if their desire is purely to please their husbands with their new bodies. A wife who “lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband … is not responsible for her husband’s sin,” Driscoll remarked in the wake of Evangelical superstar Ted Haggard’s public disgrace involving meth and a male prostitute, “but she may not be helping him either.” Blaming Haggard’s wife was a low not even Haggard himself had stooped to.

In content and delivery, Driscoll’s ministry mirrored facets of the "pick-up artist" movement, a self-improvement industry generated, according to Katie J.M. Baker, out of “neuro-linguistic programming 'speed seduction' theories in the early 1990s,” which promises to get frustrated men into bed with the women of their dreams. With books like Neil Strauss’ 2005 The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists and Erik Von Markovik’s 2007 The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed forming its core narratives, the PUA world now convenes largely online, in designated forums and discussion boards.

Its books, talks, seminars and videos all presuppose those seeking its wisdom are losers of one sort or another, though the source of male short-coming is often chalked up to institutionalized anti-masculinity in homes, schools, and society at large. There is as much disdain for women as desire for them, and the techniques developed by PUAs tend to focus on fulfilling both urges at once.

For both PUAs and the hyper-masculine ministry of Mars Hill and its like-minded flankers, the story goes something like this: feminism and its attendant ideological shifts have undermined traditionally male sources of power and dignity; nevertheless, certain anthropological realities (divinely ordained gender differences for the Christians, evolutionary psychology for the PUAs) resist this newly imposed order, and men have much to gain from taking advantage of these deeply inscribed truths.

Mars Hill maintained much of the essentializing and misogynist ideology of the PUA world without adopting its technical guidance. Nonetheless, twin how-to and sexual self-improvement themes run through both streams of products and promotional materials. Manuals and live presentations on seduction techniques are the hot selling items in the PUA world, with famed pick-up artist Julien Blanc’s recent abruptly cancelled Australian tour being a fine exemplar of the craft. (Blanc’s jaunt down under ended when he was de-facto banished after the Australian government revoked his visa in response to activists who pointed out Blanc is an ersatz advocate of rape; prior to his exile, Blanc’s tour had been sold out.) For Christians who traffic in this vein, sales come from how-to books (Driscoll’s splashy sex manual Real Marriage turned out to be a factor in his downfall), seminars, speaking events, and good ol’ fashioned passes of the collection plate.

In style and rhetoric, Driscoll also resembled other preacher-gurus of the 1990s, who inherited an introspective self-help focus from the televangelists of the Reagan years. As Kate Bowler notes in Blessed, her careful history of the Prosperity Gospel movement of the 1980s, the legacy of the explosively successful celebrity pastor moment comes in the form of guru-preachers who both make appearances on "Oprah" and share in her vocabulary of self-invention. Houston’s Joel Osteen, with his gleamy smile and buoyant optimism, is perhaps the heir apparent to the you-can-do-it style of preaching that made Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker millionaires, but his is not the only brand of self-help on the market, nor is it much appealing to those who have as many grudges as grievances.

Conservative Christian publications have noted the obvious similarities between Driscoll’s brand of ministry and the PUA pitch. A writer at Faith and Heritage mused, “I think this largely explains the success of Mark Driscoll, who, besides offering a more meaty theology than 95% of evangelical churches, also provides a positive masculine example. He’s a tough guy, almost a caricature who enjoys watching cage fighting, not a sweater-wearing low-testosterone Ned Flanders type.” The affinity was mutual: a 2011 thread on Roosh V Forum, the online discussion venue of pick-up artist Roosh V (author of a series of books on how to "bang" women in various global locations) displays an interest in Driscoll. “They clearly understand female psychology,” one poster noted of Mars Hill, adding that the church likely owed its popularity to the fact that “they emphasise female submissiveness and traditional gender roles.” Another applauds: “Anything that makes church less appealing to women is great by me.”

For some time, Christians have complained of a feminized Christianity that is driving young men away from church, with David Murrow’s 2011 Why Men Hate Going to Church being something of an exemplar of the form, listing chapters from “Check Your Testosterone at the Door” to “How Churches Feminize Over Time.” Murrow’s spiritual predecessor was Leon Podle’s 1999 The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, which in turn borrowed from Victorian men who found “The whole atmosphere of Anglo-Catholicism, its preciosity, its fussiness, its concern for laces and cassocks and candles…unmanly.” Driscoll was only the latest, most extreme iteration of this old anxiety. A related point of angst for Christians has been the decline of male interest in marriage and fatherhood, with many socially conservative Christian columnists devoting ink to the problem. In January of 2014, The New York Times’ Ross Douthat worried in a column titled “More Imperfect Unions” that legalized abortion and no-fault divorce have created “fewer ensuing marriages, fewer involved fathers, more unstable homes.” In a 2011 piece for The American Conservative, Orthodox Christian columnist Rod Dreher mourned the decline of marital restraint among men: “so much for marriage and traditional morality civilizing men by compelling them to channel their natural urge toward sexual promiscuity into socially beneficial ends.”

But who are these cohorts of men who have drifted away from church, marriage, and family en masse?

It is worth singling out particular populations. After all, churches have not lost attendance at equal rates among all social classes. A 2011 study from University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins researchers found that monthly church participation among the least educated whites, those who dropped out of high school, has fallen from thirty-eight percent to twenty-three percent over the last four decades. Meanwhile, attendance among higher-class whites had barely budged at all, slipping only from fifty percent to forty-six. The same study found that people who have been unemployed in the last 10 years are also less likely to attend church services than their employed counterparts.

As for the male retreat from traditional breadwinning roles and marriage, that too has been concentrated among the working class. While fifty-six percent of professional, technical, and managerial employed men between ages twenty and forty-nine were married in 2013, only thirty-one percent of their service worker counterparts were.

Despite declines in divorce rates among people with college degrees, those without still divorce at numbers near the peak rates of the 1970s and 80s that gave us the haunting "fifty percent" adage. With few resources, high stress, and limited means with which to maintain the provider roles of the recent past, it seems working class men are the unspoken targets of so much conservative concern about empty pews and broken homes.

With so many countervailing circumstances factoring into the decline of marriage and male headship in the home, Driscoll’s proposed corrective of a more macho Christianity seems ill-fated. And it seems now that it did not portend well even for Driscoll, whose demise had much to do with his bullyish and coercive style of administration and with the leak of a disgustingly vitriolic rant against women, feminism, gay men, and others. Accusations of Driscoll’s abuses of power and bullying levied by twenty-one former Mars Hill pastors pursuant to an internal investigation include several distinctly gendered infractions. In 2013, Driscoll responded to an elder who asked him to consider sharing the pulpit more that sharing the pulpit was tantamount to sharing his wife, Grace Driscoll, retorting “no one else sleeps with Grace.” Driscoll forced an elder to use swear words during a meeting in 2012, then made unspecified disparaging comments about another elder’s sex life. He repeatedly referred to Mars Hill churches as his "daughters," and their pastors as his "sons-in-law," comparing pastors’ departure to divorce, and forbidding it on those grounds. The same committee of former pastors also reported they had been lied to repeatedly about the use of church funds, including an episode in 2012 in which Driscoll paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars of church money to ResultSource, a book marketing firm that strategically purchased copies of Driscoll’s Real Marriage in order to fraudulently boost it onto bestseller lists. As patriarch of Mars Hill, it seems, Driscoll seriously strained the bonds of filial piety.

In late 2014, Driscoll copped to having pseudonymously posted a stream of baleful forum comments around 2000, saying, among other things, “we live in a completely pussified nation” rife with the twin evils of homosexuality and feminism, and that “women should not speak on this matter.” His repeated harassment of other members of the discussion group reflected little Christian charity, and more malice than pastoral concern. Though Driscoll had made some minor concessions over the years when called on questionable statements—usually noting that he was, as all Christians are, imperfect and in need of grace—this was the first time he had been publicly unmasked for remarks made under another name. Acts 29, the church-planting network Driscoll had founded to spread ministries like Mars Hill, formally disassociated itself from Driscoll in August of 2014, and asked the pastor to step down and “seek help.” By the end of October, Driscoll had resigned citing concerns for his health and safety, and plans to dissolve the last threads of his empire were publicly announced.

Driscoll-esque churches are still cropping up despite Mars Hill’s ugly public dissolution. In Joplin, Missouri, Pastor Heath Mooneyham preaches that he wants to “kick you in the nuts” with the message of Jesus, among other testicular conceits. A lengthy September Vocativ essay on Mooneyham’s church, Ignite, declared the pastor the “second coming of Mark Driscoll,” and not without good reason: Mooneyham seems just as sexually obsessed as his recent predecessor, encouraging punctuality on Sunday with slurs like, “You’re a big boy. You got big balls between your legs. You’re a dad, right? Get up, set your alarm, don’t be a wuss.” If anything, Mooneyham is a distilled Driscoll, getting right to the anatomy and worrying about the theology later, if at all. Mooneyham appears to have improved on Driscoll’s winning formula with the inclusion of cultural products from the working class, raffling off assault rifles and singing the praises of big trucks.

In the few months since Vocativ ran its profile on Mooneyham, he too has stepped down, pursuant to an arrest for drunk driving. He has since chalked his alcohol use up to an attempt to “self medicate”, explaining that he drank “to sleep, to calm frayed nerves after a difficult day, and sometimes just simply to escape pain and reality.” As a result, Mooneyham submitted, he had been “leading from a place of very real weakness, hurt and vulnerability.” One wonders if a code of strict machismo contributed to Mooneyham’s request for help coming only after his fall.

The ego-inflation and aggressive tendencies that these hyper-masculine ministries encourage seem to be the very pathologies that undermine their churches, leaving their congregations vulnerable to upheaval and public spectacle. With an interpretation of Christian gospel that so thoroughly entrenches themes of masculine dominance and control, pastors like Driscoll and Mooneyham occupy a position that is at once enviable and immensely precarious. Though Driscoll’s power was nearly absolute so long as it appeared to cohere with his narrative about the beneficial aspects of male headship and paternal control, the coincidence of so many embarrassing crack-ups quickly fractured not only his public image, but the very foundation of his authority. The most damning incidents had to do with losses of control: an exposure of fund mishandling by World Magazine in the case of Real Marriage’s bought bestseller spot, the release of private conversations in the letter from Mars Hill elders, and an online unmasking in the linking of Driscoll to his anonymous internet posts. Driscoll’s sudden resignation could portend more worrying scandals yet untold—one critic, Anderson University professor James Duncan, has accused him of clever tax maneuvering to misdirect church funds—but it seems just as likely that Driscoll’s spell, heavily reliant upon a particular story about divinely ordained male leadership, simply broke when beefed up masculinity proved more harmful to the church than helpful. Speaking to the Seattle Times after Driscoll’s resignation, a female former member said:

“[Driscoll’s] preaching had really done a number on my head. It permeated our marriage, affected how I looked at myself as a woman, how I viewed my husband. I wasn’t able to view it for what it was while I was inside that environment, but within a matter of days since deciding we weren’t going back, it was like a cloud was lifted. All of a sudden I could breathe again.”

This piece has been updated.