Kristine Haglund, respected essayist and editor of Dialogue, has written a 1500-word article in which she, ambitiously, examines the link between the Mormon cultural phenomenon known as “Church Ball,” the tightly-knit LDS male community and Mormon men’s vehement opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage. In “Why Mormon Men Love ‘Church Ball’ and Are Scared of Homosexuality,” Haglund sheds light on what I believe are underemphasized aspects, or implications, of LDS teachings, namely what manliness means within the context of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
I part ways from Haglund in my understand of this manliness — my term, Haglund employs the less threatening and certainly less manly “masculinity” — but I applaud her for showing that Mormonism requires men to walk the line between the brute and the overly soft or effeminate. Haglund is writing about more than Church Ball and the post-game sweaty hugs that accompany them (at least in Belmont, Massachusetts). She is arguing that the complex nature of Mormonism’s “fraught masculinity” is torn by two poles (or pulls). On one hand, Mormon men exhibit an aggression and ferociousness on the court that has made some joke that this Saturday exhibition is the brawl that begins with a prayer, or, as she notes, “the restoration of blood sacrifice.” (In my experience across several western states, Church Ball is no more violent than a pickup game at any gym; often, it is far less aggressive than these games.) On the other hand, Haglund says, Mormon men are criers. They cry about their children and how much they love their wife. They cry about Jesus and they cry about their country. Mormon manliness is then torn by its natural care for the familial and spiritual and the need to be aggressive and assertive.
In this response, it is not my intention to address each of Haglund’s points. Rather, I hope to use her article to chart what I believe is the beginning of a fuller and more solid understanding of manliness, both in and outside the LDS Church.
Crying and the Heart of Manliness
It is my contention that Haglund misses the core of manliness (of the secular AND Mormon variety) and therefore misunderstands Mormon men’s relationship to it. She embraces inaccurate stereotypes of secular manliness in the United States (though she claims to speak for Mormon men generally) and then juxtaposes these with a caricature of manliness in Mormon culture. As an example, she seems to believe that manly men outside the church do not cry, and that such men view those who do cry about their wives, children and church as either being gay or effeminate. This fear of being seen as gay or effeminate, or allowing even the thought of homosexuality to pervert their bonds with other men, Haglund says, then contributes to Mormon men “vehemently” opposing “gay marriage and any other overt expression of homosexuality and gay marriage.” In short, “many Mormon men are nervous about permitting even the idea that there might be more than a Platonic ‘bromance’ in the post-Church Ball sweaty hug.”
I note that Haglund embraces inaccurate stereotypes not because I believe all stereotypes are wrong, but because my experience tells me that few in or outside the church actually believe such tears are unmanly. Sure, many may think that it is unbecoming of men to cry in particular situations or to cry too frequently or intensely, but most understand that a man who never cries is cold and inhuman, without anything beautiful or noble to fight for. Further, Haglund misses the traditional core of manliness, which has long been thought to be courage. The Greek word for manliness, andreia, is also the word for courage and the two have always been inseparable. The bedrock of Mormon manliness then is, more than anything, strength and courage in the defense and promotion of the gospel’s truths, whether in public or private. Christianity takes manliness, bridles it, and employs it in the gospel’s cause. To be manly is to stand up in the face of danger for oneself, one’s own and one’s ideals — the things and people one loves. To be a Christian man is to stand for Christ at all times and in all places, regardless of the costs. In reality, the things that make men cry are the very things for which they fight. For the Book of Mormon’s Captain Moroni, it was God, freedom, women and children. (Alma 46:12) It would seem not much has changed today.
For Mormon men who feel self-conscious or unmanly for occasionally wiping away a few tears, as Haglund thinks those outside the LDS Church may judge, I offer some examples to show that crying is not only seen as compatible with (though not required by) manliness inside the church but also outside of it. In Homer’s Odyssey, the great warrior Odysseus returns home after the Trojan War and kills the suitors he finds seducing his wife; within but a few moments of this, we see this same man breaking down in tears when he learns that his wife has been faithful to him during his absence. If some men think it unmanly to be sentimental about their children, I offer Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Rugged Individualism himself, who said
There are many kinds of success in life worth having. It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be … a president, or a ranchman, or the colonel of a fighting regiment, or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”
For more recent examples, I give the American cultural archetype of a sometimes untamed manliness, John Wayne, the Duke, who in Hondo waxes poetic for more than a minute about the simple beauty of his deceased wife’s name or who, in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, tears up when his calvary troop presents him a silver watch before his retirement.
Mormon men have additional cause to reject the idea that grown men don’t cry. The LDS scriptural canon speaks of a loving and passable God who mourns with our sorrows and rejoices in our triumphs — a God who “has a heart that beats in sympathy with ours.” Christ establishes himself as the model for manhood (and the good life in general), asking his Nephite disciples, “What manner of men ought ye to be?” and shortly thereafter answering “Even as I am.” (3 Nephi 27:27) The Bible reveals a Jesus who weeps with Mary Magdalene over Lazarus’ passing before ultimately bringing him back to life. (John 11: 32-35) The Restoration provides even more potent evidence for this aspect of divine nature in Enoch’s vision where the God of heaven weeps, to Enoch’s wonder, because of His children’s hatred for one another. (Moses 7: 28-33) It would appear then that though there is no heavenly edict mandating men’s crying, such tears are naturally tied to the divine sort of love God gives to and asks from all His children, men and women. Crying is tied to love and love to the virtuous and beautiful. To embrace and love the beautiful is to risk tears, those of joy as well as those of pain.
Homosexuality and the Brotherhood of the Gospel
Crying aside, Haglund argues that Mormon men’s vehemence toward gay marriage and homosexual acts is rooted in their own community’s “homosociality.” Because the LDS Church is governed by patriarchal privilege, Mormon men work together in intimate settings that are rarely recreated outside the church. These men serve the poor together, visit widows together, and together they mourn with the afflicted and give priesthood blessings to heal and comfort the sick or otherwise in need. Their closeness in these deeply nurturing activities that could be called effeminate increases their need to distinguish themselves from the truly homosexual.
What Haglund characterizes as an impassioned non-rational opposition (vehement) to gay marriage and homosexuality, I root in a deeply philosophical argument. Homosexuality threatens the friendship that exists in homosocial circles by replacing friendship with sexual competition and jealousy. The distinguished political theorist and ethicist Harry Jaffa says,
The marriage bond [between a man and a woman] is not only in the interest of marriage. It emancipates human friendship and love for their proper manifestations in the many other spheres of life. Where sexual love is so confined, or bounded, there is no confinement or boundary to the love of parents and children nor, indeed, to the lifelong attachments of relatives and friends or professional or political colleagues in all the walks of life, and throughout life.”
This being the case, Mormon men’s hypothetical concern that a post-game sweaty hug might mean a little more than friendship (I doubt the thought ever crosses their mind) would not simply be homophobic but would rather be based on the completely reasonable realization that sexual feelings in these circles would hinder their ministry in the church.
The Natural Man and Man’s Noble Nature: Understanding Manliness
Haglund’s final paradox of Mormons’ “fraught masculinity” is characterized by the fact that “The very maleness that bestows [the priesthood] power and privilege is also frequently characterized as spiritually dangerous.” Mormon men receive the priesthood by virtue of their maleness but are also taught that their nature as a man is set in direct opposition to God. How can it be that being a man both merits the power of the priesthood and also makes a person “an enemy to God”? (Mosiah 3:19)
This “paradox,” I believe, is founded in a misunderstanding of both the priesthood and the scriptural meaning of the “natural man.” While only men hold the power of the priesthood, it is important to remember that it is not their being born male that determines whether they will receive this power. It bears repeating that the priesthood is defined as the divine power and authority of God delegated to man to advance the Lord’s work on earth through serving His children. The priesthood is given to worthy males and is only maintained by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness and love unfeigned. (Doctrine and Covenants 121: 41) As far as I know, there is no doctrinal reason rooted in the nature of the genders that has caused the LDS Church to only give the priesthood to worthy males; as such, it is entirely possible that the priesthood helps soften men’s souls and incline them to service in ways that are not necessary for women, who are more naturally disposed toward such things.
Haglund establishes the second pillar of this paradox in a misreading of Mosiah 3:19, which says “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ.” Haglund focuses on the beginning of this verse, but I believe this fuller excerpt begins to show that the author of this passage, King Benjamin, is using “natural man” in a universal sense that applies equally to men and women — the same way the Declaration of Independence says that all “men are created equally” and today we (some, anyway) speak of the “the rights of man.” Further evidence for this reading can be seen in a following verse (21) where Benjamin says that “none” can return to God without faith and repentance.
Haglund is correct, however, that males’ nature comes with particularly intense temptations that the gospel must bridle. Mormon men must learn to place their sexual desires within the proper sphere God appoints. Necessarily, they will not take part in the sexual discovery of their peers, but, if they are raised well, they will not understand this as a preclusion from manhood, but a rite of passage to a higher and more noble manhood. “For a Mormon boy,” Haglund writes, “becoming a Mormon man means not becoming a man, at least not the ‘natural man’ engendered by the adolescent onslaught of testosterone.” (Emphasis in original) But the space between “becoming a man” and becoming a “natural man” is so large, I question why Haglund even places them together. Even outside the gospel context, the difference between the two is the difference between becoming a man in the mold of George Washington and becoming a barbarian in the model of Charlie Sheen. Perhaps this strikes at the heart of Haglund’s and many others’ confusion about manliness. Let me suggest that if we look to the characters of the TV shows “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” to understand what it means to be a man, we have done a disservice to all men by defining manliness down and stripping it of its once ennobling features. These men are not men in any traditionally recognizable sense. They may have spiritedness in seeking out their next sexual conquest, but they lack courage and any rational (or spiritual) control over their passions. If Mormon men feel left out among their peers or somehow torn by not becoming this kind of man, this, sadly, would seem to be rooted in a deep and problematic misunderstanding of manhood more than anything else.
Traditionally, even outside the church, manliness was not properly characterized by sexual exploits. Becoming a man was one and same with boys’ becoming virtuous. Indeed, the root of the Latin word for virtue, virtus, is derivative of the word for man, vir. This does not mean that women cannot and are not expected to become virtuous. Rather it means that every person has a telos or something they are supposed to grow into, and the telos for young boys is to become virtuous men.
This virtuous manhood is found at the golden mean between being a wimp and a barbarian — being prone to cowardice (the ability to talk yourself out of anything difficult or risky) and the inability to set one’s thumos (spiritedness) within the proper reasonable limits. Thus, being a man does not mean the eradication of natural spiritedness but successfully bridling it and employing it in the service of one’s own happiness. In the gospel sense, it means placing it within the Lord’s boundaries. The manly man’s courage is seen not only on the battlefield but also in defending the gospel and one’s family. Courage is seen just as much in the apostle Paul’s testimony before King Agrippa as it is in David’s charge toward Goliath.
What is most troubling about Haglund’s essay is that she finds manliness so mysterious that she must engage in a meandering psychoanalysis of Mormon men in an attempt to get at the heart of Mormonism’s “fraught masculinity.” Manliness has become so misunderstood among the general population that its once straight-forward characteristics that even the most uneducated (at a university, anyway) easily grasped are now baffling to some of the most intellectually gifted. Perhaps Mormon men are strong in their opposition to same-sex marriage precisely because they are manly, and they employ their manliness in defense of the gospel and truth in general. Maybe Mormon men care for and even cry about their wives and children because they belong to them and they recognize that their happiness is unequivocally bound up in their goodness.
Brandon Dabling is the Managing Editor for the John Adams Center and a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at Claremont Graduate University. He is also a veteran of church basketball in several western states.