Last week I had my first experience at a “Hell House,” put on by an Assemblies of God pentecostal church in Temple, Texas. It was sort of like a Haunted House, except the point of the scares was to win people for Jesus. Scenes of “demons” luring people into various “sins,” with tragic and often grisly consequences, were followed by a final act in “Hell” - a place where “demons” violated our personal space (I had to tell at least two not to touch me) and children possibly as young as 8 played the role of screaming, tormented souls.
What was most interesting about the Temple Hell House was how it centered conservative gender politics in its cautionary tales. The central character was “Lindsey,” a white teenage girl portrayed as causing her family’s downfall and eternal damnation by being sexually active, and having a (coerced!) abortion. The violent deaths suffered by her entire family - including a murder and two suicides - are explicitly described as “Lindsey’s fault” for making bad choices.
This narrative brought to mind the surprisingly similar gender ideology promoted in a very different setting: the recent Values Voters Summit (VVS) in Washington, D.C. As with the Hell House, several speakers at VVS presented the well-being or ruin of families as dependent on conformity to conservative Christian gender norms - to the point of arguing for an all encompassing ideology of gender roles.
In the “Future of Marriage” VVS panel, Ryan Anderson - a “Religion and Free Society” fellow with The Heritage Foundation - claimed “biological…[and] social reality” as the basis for reserving marriage for heterosexual couples. Echoing a March 2013 report for Heritage (where Anderson asserted as “anthropological truth” that “men and women are different and complementary”), he made the striking statement that “There is no such thing as ‘parenting.’ There’s mothering and fathering.” Defining same gender unions as legally equal to heterosexual ones, he continued, is the same as “saying that you don’t need to have a mother and a father as an ideal for a child.” When “absentee fathers” are the “most urgent social problem in America,” Anderson concluded, “How will the law teach that fathers are essential, when it’s redefined marriage to make fathers optional?”
Anderson’s comments stood out for putting an ostensibly secular, sociological spin on the well worn argument of “gender complementarity” as an objection to women’s and LGBTQ rights. Like Anderson, others on the Religious Right are adopting messaging that emphasizes secular support for arguments they once made primarily from scripture. A new “issue analysis” on “Complementarity in Marriage” released by the Family Research Council this month highlights several substantial quotes from “secular scientific sources” as proof that “men and women have very different ways of thinking…[and] complement one another.” As they have done with the repackaging of “religious liberty” arguments, the Christian Right seems poised to reframe longheld religious teachings on gender complementarity as conclusions from common sense that’s basic and universal - the FRC report begins, simply, “Men and women and different” - and “born out [sic]” by “hard science.”
This repackaged gender theology resurfaced in a VVS breakout session on “The War on Football” presented by Dan Flynn, author of a book by the same name. Flynn forcefully dismissed scientific studies and media coverage of the NFL’s “concussion crisis” was forcefully dismissed as sensationalist “BS,” part of a broader effort by an ill-defined cabal of football haters to undermine the sport.
Tim Murphy’s excellent write-up for Mother Jones details Flynn’s bizarre claims and rightly diagnoses Flynn’s defense of football as a product of gender anxiety (Flynn: “It’s not that football has grown especially hard, it’s that society has grown soft”). It’s also the product of gender complementarian theology; here too, Flynn claims science as support. Flynn argued that boys need football as an outlet for testosterone and to learn to “become…[men]” - at one point saying, “I have 20 times more testosterone in my body than the women in this room,” and that testosterone needs to be “channeled” somewhere. Flynn also praised football for teaching an important “life lesson”: getting knocked down and taking hits is part of the game, and life. Boys playing football have a choice between crawling to the sidelines and crying over their wounds, or getting back up to “fight.” The difference between “winners and losers” in life is that the former “get up” when they face setbacks, while losers “stay down.”
From the Hell House, to the “Future of Marriage,” to the “War on Football,” conforming to the binary gendered expectations of the Religious Right is marks the difference between individual and society success and failure. The consistency of these messages across such different topics and venues are an indication of just how robust and widespread these gender ideologies are in conservative Christian culture.
Warning, some language in the following video may not be work-appropriate.