The Rev. Reverend Rob Keithan of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice began his address at the Healthy Masculinity Summit in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 19, with a quote from musician Butch Hancock: “Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: one is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.” The quote brought raucous laughter to the room of 200 students and professionals, but it also reflected a view held by many progressive people and organizations that faith and organized religion are antagonistic of a forward-moving society.
I’m sure many in the room were wondering how a movement based on rejecting traditional notions of masculinity for a healthier masculinity based on nonviolence, respect for all people, and social-emotional intelligence could be reconciled with religions that seem to hold onto traditional masculinity with all their energy.
The summit, co-hosted by Men Can Stop Rape and the Verizon Foundation, was the kick-off of the Healthy Masculinity Action Project (HMAP), a two-year initiative to mobilize men and women around the country to spread the value of healthy, nonviolent masculinity. Organizers reached out to faith-based organizations to act as allies, including Jewish Women International, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, and K-Life Ministries, groups that work toward economic and social justice for historically underrepresented populations with little fanfare and very little mainstream media attention.
The work of those groups better represent my own experiences with faith and religion than the faith groups that dominate mainstream conversation. This might seem strange since my hometown, Farmington, N.M., has much in common with Lubbock. It’s a conservative, oil and gas town where the Planned Parenthood doesn’t even perform abortions but is still plagued by picketers and where even wedding ceremonies aren’t immune to pastoral lectures on the evils of evolution.
So you’d think I would be your prototypical progressive who grew up under the yoke of religious conservatism, moved to the big city, and now posts antireligious screeds on my Facebook page to anger my high school classmates. But my earliest memory of questioning unhealthy, violent masculinity has everything to do with my childhood faith. I was one of those kids that loved church. I attended every week, always paid attention, and even memorized the names of the books of the Bible. The moment came on a trip to the dollar store in the mall with my three brothers during the height of one of my fervors where my mother told us to pick something out. My brothers went straight to the GI Joe knockoffs and toy guns while I was entranced by a cross necklace. Picking jewelry instead of something manlier automatically made me the object of derision from my brothers. That was when I realized that there was something different about me, when I realized that desiring a cross necklace over a gun, somehow made me less of a boy.
My church became a place for solace, a place where a boy who cried much too often could read John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”), where a boy who rejected toy soldiers could comfort himself in the Sermon on the Mount, where a boy could see grown men talk about their feelings, volunteer at homeless shelters, and strive for forgiveness over vengeance. That’s exactly what HMAP is all about: giving boys and men spaces to be their more authentic selves, to be the kind and caring men they want to be rather than the angry and solitary men they are told to be. Though they might not call it Healthy Masculinity, communities of faith have been teaching boys and men the value of being forces for good in the world for centuries. For many boys and men, Healthy Masculinity is not in a university, a conference, or on a sports team, but in their churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship.
Faith organizations are vital spaces for developing Healthy Masculinity and HMAP will continue to engage religious leaders with concrete actions they can take to spread Healthy Masculinity. People of faith are vital leaders in the movement for Healthy Masculinity, because, like the little boy in the dollar store, they know there are greater things in life than toy guns.
Jared Watkins is development coordinator for Men Can Stop Rape, an organization committed to promoting cultures free of violence especially men’s violence against women.