Discover more from The UnPopulist
Josh Hawley Is Good at Neither Preaching Nor Practicing “Masculine” Virtues
The Republican senator’s book is as uncourageous as his flight from the Jan. 6 mob
Wikipedia, Creative Commons. Gage Skidmore.
Josh Hawley is a U.S. senator who previously served as attorney general of Missouri and is thought to have ambitions for higher office. But readers who pick up his recently released book Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, expecting a political tract will be surprised to find they have been lured into church, where Rev. Hawley sermonizes confidently from the pulpit. American men are in crisis, he declares, and his search for solutions appears to have begun and ended with Christian scripture. “The Bible story is an epic that speaks directly to the purpose of men,” he writes in his opening chapter. “The Bible’s epic has forged my sense of meaning and purpose and reality, so much so that when it comes to life’s guides, it is nearly the only guide I can think to offer.” You can’t say you weren’t warned.
There is not much dispute about the existence of a serious problem. While American women have made huge gains in education, employment and leadership, American men have fallen back. They do worse in high school than girls, and they now make up just 40 percent of college students. Well-paid blue-collar jobs have grown scarcer, and an alarming number of young and middle-aged men are neither employed nor looking for work. Suicides among men have climbed, and males account for 70 percent of deaths in the opioid overdose plague. The men of 2023 are less likely to marry than men of previous generations, and their children are more likely to be growing up in single-parent homes. They struggle, one journalist reported, with “a gnawing sense of purposelessness.”
There is a good book to be written about the troubles of modern American males—and one has been written, by Brookings Institution scholar Richard V. Reeves. But while Reeves ranges widely in search of solutions, Hawley had found the answers even before the questions occurred to him. At age 17, he recalls, he happened upon an essay by Martin Luther: “And as I read there about God’s purposes for mankind and how Jesus had given his life for mine, I suddenly felt, with a force and clarity I had not known before, that God knew me, personally.” It also eventually led him to the conclusion that everything we need to know about the plight of men, we will find in the Bible.
Hawley argues that American men are adrift because of the left’s “disdain for masculinity.” He says they have been taught that “to be a man is to be an oppressor; that to display the masculine traits of assertiveness, independence and risk-taking is to make society unjust; that to work hard at a blue-collar job is a loser’s game for those who can’t learn to code.” The solution lies in becoming servants of the Christian God. “At the center of his creation God placed a garden, and in the garden a man,” he writes. “And he instructed the man to cultivate that garden, to protect it, and to build it outward–to expand it into all the world. That was the man’s calling, his sacred duty, and his purpose in life.”
So, we get passages like this: “The battle with evil is the proving ground of a man’s character. Genesis is direct about this. To build the world into a temple, he must stand in evil’s way, starting in his soul. That is the truth today’s men need to hear.” He rattles interminably about the tasks the Almighty assigned to Adam and how Adam handled his responsibilities. Hawley’s references to the “first man” give no indication that he sees the Bible account as anything but a literal factual record. Maybe Hawley accepts the theory of evolution, but you wouldn’t know it from his book.
His relentless focus on what God has in mind for us founders on the oldest of logical errors: a false premise. For those who don’t believe in the Christian deity (a group that includes me, a former elder of the Presbyterian Church) much of his counsel is about as relevant as the daily horoscope. For a growing number of Americans, the concept of an almighty creator who answers prayers, demands ceaseless worship, and banishes doubters to eternal agony ranges from an unconfirmable hypothesis to a preposterous absurdity. Nor is secular humanism a reliable ticket to societal ruin. Western Europeans are far less likely than Americans to attend church or believe in God, but the United States has far higher rates of murder and poverty. Christianity has never made much of an inroad in Japan, but its crime and divorce rates are well below ours.
Much of Hawley’s advice to men is reasonable, if unoriginal: Get a job. Make commitments and keep them. Be brave. Cultivate humility. Don’t make a god of money. Serve something greater than yourself. These choices, he neglects to note, are equally useful for women. But you don’t need to be a disciple of Christianity or any other religion to see the practical and emotional value of such precepts. Even Democrats are known to abide by them.
This last fact is something else you would not know from Manhood, which blames every social and moral ill on liberalism. However many hours Hawley has logged studying the Bible, the learned pastor seems to have spent none trying to understand what liberals and progressives actually believe and why – despite his lengthy immersion in the “super-woke” swamps of Stanford and Yale, schools that he attended. To call his portrayal of liberals’ views a caricature is unfair to caricaturists, whose creations have to be recognizable.
Hawley proudly recalls questioning University of California Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges, who in testifying before the Judiciary Committee referred to “people with the capacity for pregnancy,” prompting him to demand, “Do you believe men can get pregnant?” The witness, replied, accurately, that some transgender men can indeed get pregnant. From this exchange, Hawley deduces, “To leftists, manhood is fake. Womanhood, too. Both are merely social confections that society made up and can remake at will.” The number of liberals who believe these propositions is probably not zero, but I’d wager that it’s smaller than the number of Republicans who think John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive.
The Judiciary Committee encounter is one of those instances where Hawley’s faith-based certitude collides with immovable facts. Sex and gender are real, but they are not infallibly correlated. Some people suffer from gender dysphoria, feeling desperately uncomfortable with their biological sex as it was perceived at birth. Another reality is the existence of individuals who are intersex, which the Cleveland Clinic defines as having “genitals, chromosomes or reproductive organs that don’t fit into a male/female sex binary. Their genitals might not match their reproductive organs, or they may have traits of both.” In Hawley’s world, people like this don’t exist.
No passage in this book allows for the possibility that those who disagree with him act upon any good motives. Hawley condemns “the modern liberal disdain for ordinary people, the everyday Joe. Modern liberals think little of these men . . . They certainly don’t think most men—you—can be trusted to run the country.” This will come as a surprise to the 48 percent of voters without a college degree who voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Also to voters making less than $50,000 a year, 55 percent of whom voted for Biden, and those making between $50,000 and $99,999 a year, 57 percent of whom voted for him. Liberals seem to have a higher opinion of ordinary people than, for example, Fox News stars have of the ordinary people in their audience.
Hawley has a strange obsession with the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whom he blames for the grim fact that “today’s popular culture instructs us to prioritize self-fulfillment over duty, pleasure over sacrifice. It tells you to find ‘your truth’ and choose your own values.” But the celebration of individualism in America goes much further back than Ralph Waldo Emerson or modern libertarianism.. The signers of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right of every person not only to life and liberty but to “the pursuit of happiness.” A book about American values that gives more attention to Epicurus than to Thomas Jefferson is guilty of literary malpractice.
Nearly every Biblical passage that Hawley refers to comes from the Hebrew Bible, where he finds that every man is called on to be a father, husband, warrior, builder, priest and king. Among those figures he cites for warrior virtues is Joshua – failing to mention that after capturing Jericho and acting at the command of Jehovah, his army, in the Bible’s account “utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and asses, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:20, Revised Standard Version) Is someone who butchered babies a model of what a man should be?
Oddly, Hawley barely mentions a somewhat more important Bibilical figure: Jesus Christ, who is quoted only twice in 211 pages – and who showed little use for many of the roles extolled by Hawley. Father and husband? “I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother,” said Jesus, “and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34) Builder? “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin.” (Matthew 6:28) Warrior? “Blessed are the meek,” (Matthew 5:5) he said, and “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). If Hawley could find statements by his savior to support his case, no doubt he would. But the Nazarene apparently didn’t care about promoting “masculine” virtues.
Someone else is conspicuously absent from these pages, namely Donald Trump – with whom Hawley has slavishly aligned himself, even going so far as to vote against certifying Joe Biden’s election victory. The senator often describes the sort of behavior a man should avoid. “Some men, of course, desperately want authority for all the wrong reasons,” he writes. “They preen, they abuse, they dominate. They see others as a means to their own ends.” “The Bible rebukes men who would use their power in life to dominate, demean or belittle.” “There is a kind of death in lying, in blaming, in living in resentment.” You could hardly find a fuller embodiment of these descriptions than the “Bad Orange Man.” Not once, however, does Hawley mention Trump. His refusal to address or even admit this clanging contradiction makes mincemeat of his claim to moral leadership.
But then, self-awareness is not one of his distinguishing traits. Hawley is best known for two images of him from Jan. 6 – the first when he raised a fist to show his support for a crowd of Trump supporters, and the second when he literally ran to escape the mob as it invaded the Capitol. These moments come vividly to mind during the chapter titled “Warrior,” where he writes, “A man needs strength and courage. He needs the character of a warrior.” And: “There is a kind of strength that comes only from the battle.” And: “If your cause is just, if it is true, you must defend it. If you stand on holy ground, fight for it.” There are many words you could use to describe Hawley’s flight from danger that day: sensible, prudent, cowardly. But courageous is not one of them. Whatever character he displayed, it was not that of a warrior prepared to risk death for a just cause.
Unlike many troubled American men, Hawley clearly does not lack a sense of purpose—whether building God’s supposed kingdom on earth or advancing his political ambitions. But what stands out in his public conduct are his flair for demagoguery, his supine fealty to Trump, his intellectual dishonesty, and his distrust of individual freedom—not his virtues, that is, but his vices. “When we choose evil rather than confront it, when we coddle and side with it, we bring ourselves and those we love closer to death,” he writes.
To that, I can only say: Amen.
© The UnPopulist 2023