Newsletter #1: The Trouble With Men
Men and boys are too often dysfunctional and failing in our society.
Seven million prime working-age men between 25-54 are unemployed and not even looking for work. Labor force participation has especially plummeted among young men with less than a college degree. And the time spent not working isn’t being filled with school or training; it is being replaced on a nearly one-to-one basis with video games (though one presumes pornography also looms large). These are the so-called “NEETs” – Neither Employed nor in Education or Training. This is part of a pattern of delayed adulthood; fully 35% of men ages 18-34 live with their parents compared with only 28% who live with a “spouse”. NPR calls this an “economic mystery.”
This isn’t just at the low end of the economic spectrum. My former colleague Kay Hymowitz wrote the book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. Along with similar works such as Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, we see a pattern of male failure at the higher end too. Men are now only receiving around 40% of both bachelor’s and master’s degrees as women dominate higher education. Though men retain a large majority of top posts, most corporate managers are actually now women. 13 out of 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the future are predominantly female.
This isn’t just an educational or economic problem. It’s a physical and health problem too.
Only 26% of adult men are of normal weight, with the rest overweight or obese. Diabetes diagnoses are up. Only a quarter of men meet government standards for aerobic exercise and strength training. Grip strength among young men, one of the key indicators of overall strength and even health, has declined significantly.
In the last 30 years, the grip strength of college-age men has declined from 117 pounds to 98 pounds and is now about the same as 30-year-old women. Men are even chemically less masculine today; testosterone levels are in decline, falling by as much as 22% in recent years.
Besides college or work, another thing men are too often not doing much of is spending much time in church, something I’ll explore in more detail in the future. But to set the stage, David Morrow in his book titled, in a direct and masculine manner, Why Men Hate Going to Church, surveyed the contemporary scene. He notes that the typical church congregation is 60% or more female, and that “the men who do show up for services often seem passive, bored, or uneasy.” Among married female churchgoers, about 20% have a husband who does not come to church. This 60/40 ratio may have improved a bit recently, but only because of an accelerating abandonment of church by women.
None of this is to suggest that everything is great for women. They have their own critical problems with obesity, diabetes, etc. Despite vast social changes that favored women in the wake of the 1960s second-wave feminism, they are actually less happy than before. One study concludes, “Measures of women’s subjective well-being have fallen both absolutely and relatively to that of men [over the last 35 years]. While the expansion in women’s opportunities has been extensively studied, the concurrent decline in subjective well-being has largely gone unnoted.” A recent study in Great Britain found a “sharp rise in unhappiness” among young girls. A stunning one-quarter of women take psychotropic medications. So women have problems too, even if in some ways they are outperforming men.
Unsurprisingly, this has also fed into family indicators, including a rise in the single and never married population, the rise in the number of childless women, and especially very high growth in out-of-wedlock births. 41% of all children are now born out of wedlock, including a stunning 72% of black children. The out-of-wedlock birth rate was less than 5% in 1950. This rate is critical because the consequences for life outcomes of being born out of wedlock are dire. The church is hardly immune to these trends, as church rates of premarital sex and divorce are not much lower than those in secular society – 38% divorce even among Evangelicals who attend church weekly.
Beyond the objective problems, men (and women and the family) are suffering, the very idea of masculinity itself is increasingly being questioned and redefined by society. Jack Urwin has argued that the proverbial “stiff upper lip” is killing British men. He wrote a book called Man Up about “toxic masculinity” and says that “We don’t need to be the men our grandfathers were.” A New York Times op-ed titled “Men’s Lib!” claimed that traditional masculinity was past its sell-by date, “The old economy and the old model of masculinity are obsolete. Women have learned to become more like men. Now men need to learn to become more like women.” The Washington Post took it to the next level, saying, “Your manliness could be killing the planet.”
The rise of transgenderism has even called into question what it means to be a man at all. A recent Time magazine profile of a bearded trans-man named Evan who had and is nursing a baby lays it out, “Pregnancies like Evan’s—and the many that are likely to follow—will stretch our cultural perceptions of gender norms even further. Americans are just starting to open up to the idea that you may be born into a female body, but believe that you are really a man. But what if you are born into a female body, know you are a man, and still want to participate in the traditionally exclusive rite of womanhood? What kind of man are you then?”
The church, like the world, is often ambivalent at best about masculinity, and pastors frequently express frustration over the men in their pews. Megachurch pastor Matt Chandler calls them “boys who can shave.” He writes in his book The Mingling of Souls that, “There is a growing crisis about the meaning of masculinity itself, a crisis that points to the betrayal of men by the very hypermasculine ideals that they are meant to embody.” In their book, The Meaning of Marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller write, “Dominant, swaggering (and sinful) male behavior is assumed to be the default mode if one wishes to get ahead or be taken seriously in the world.” Focus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton says, “Our most pressing social problem today is a man deficit.”
Yet despite this vast outpouring of statistics, hand-wringing, re-evaluations of masculinity, sermons, and books, nothing has changed the basic trajectory we are on. This suggests fundamental errors by the church in the diagnosis of these problems and in the development of proposed solutions.
Society at large has decisively rejected God and His word about how we should live our lives. So while I will look at this problem generally, my focus will primarily be on men and the church.
Looking specifically at the church, any honest accounting must start by having the courage to face the unpleasant truth: when it comes to attracting men and building godly, successful men and families, the church has failed. There may be many individual cases of success, but in aggregate, whatever the church is doing, it hasn’t worked, despite having the truth of God’s word and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is especially true once you account for socioeconomic status. (Family stability is pretty good for the secular top echelons generally in America, as scholars as diverse as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam have pointed out. Contrary to popular belief, church attendance is higher among higher SES groups and low among lower SES ones). Fundamentally, if the church hasn’t been failing, why are all these pastors so worked up about the topic?
Because this problem is indeed so critical and change has proven so elusive, I have decided to take it on.
Who Am I?
Who am I, and why do I think I can contribute to this discussion? I am Aaron M. Renn. I will tell more of my story over time. When I originally published this newsletter, I was a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank typically described as conservative, where my focus was urban policy and culture.
I started with no professional or educational background in urban policy, yet developed into a nationally recognized expert in the issue. Similarly, I have no seminary or professional background here. But after spending years and many hundreds of hours studying this area, and personally seeing my life transformed through the power of God and by applying what I’ve learned, I am confident that I have unique and compelling insights and practical solutions to offer here.
My goal is to change the future trajectory for men (and by extension their families) in the church for the better. I want to start out by changing the way you think about the problem, hopefully at a minimum giving you new perspectives on it that you have not considered before. If you know my work you know I’ll make it worth your while to read and will not hesitate to follow the evidence wherever it leads – even if it’s not popular. So beware! This is not a safe space.
So that you know where I’m coming from religiously, I grew up in rural Southern Indiana where I was raised in a rural, fundamentalist, Pentecostal (Assemblies of God) church. I was not always a Christian and became one later as an adult. I currently attend a Presbyterian church and hold to largely traditional theology and a complementarian view on marriage.
I plan to take an ecumenical approach here, though obviously, I have my own perspectives, hence I want there to be full disclosure on my origin point. I’m delighted to have Catholics and others from outside my tradition on the list.
Again, I would ask everyone to forward this to others of interest, because it’s a critical topic area and I need your help. My target is Christian men and pastors.
Live Not By Lies
There’s a set of principles I plan to follow for this site.
The first principle is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous dictum: live not by lies. He wrote his essay of that name in 1974, just as he was about to be arrested and sent into exile in the West.
We face far less dire circumstances than Soviet dissidents, yet too often we lack the courage to say things that might cause us just to lose standing in the world or the church. But more importantly, we too often lack the courage to seriously examine our own beliefs to ask whether or not we have come to genuinely believe things that are simply not true.
As the faith shrinks ever further in the West, as men fall into decline in society, as men reject Christ or otherwise fail to live up to Christian standards, we must have the courage to consider that we may be fundamentally mistaken – and in many and serious ways. Because the most fundamental question of all is, “What is true?”
I don’t claim to have all of the answers myself. I believe that we are all out to sea as a church in a lot of areas, even if we don’t recognize it. I include myself in that. But a quest for truth, regardless of whether pleasant, will be our North Star, with the ultimate arbiter of truth being God’s word.