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History: Muscular Christians and Flabby Fundies?

Wed 24 May 2006 In: Comment

Why is it that fundamentalist Christians are so anxious about wanting to look butch? The answer lies in the nineteenth century, and a philosophy known as "Muscular Christianity." "Muscular Christianity" was a Victorian Anglican invention, which appeared in the 1850s. There was a moral panic about the rise of 'sensual stimulation' within Anglo-Catholic Anglican worship services, along with some rather queeny Anglo-Catholic ministers, Catholic and Jewish immigration, urbanisation, office jobs, sentimental hymns and saccharin Jesii imagery. As a consequence, Charles Kingsley and other male advocates of 'muscular Christianity' tried to emphasis competitive team sports and healthy moderate masculine aggression, which segued into militarism, blind nationalist self-sacrifice and the deaths of far too many young men in the trenches of the First World War. Thereafter, muscular Christianity went into a tailspin, as mainline Protestants moved away from it, toward endeavours of the mind. As with so many other archaic cultural remnants, fundamentalist Protestants moved in and adopted it afterward, with the result that there are now fundamentalist athletes groups in the United States and elsewhere. However, it has not been a straightforward process, as there are elements within fundamentalism that discourage sporting and athletic professionalism. While nineteenth century fundamentalist icon Billy Sunday was once a professional baseball player, he gave that up for religion in 1893. He did so because he disliked competitive resentment of the achievement of others, professional careerism and selfishness, as well as a life without further ultimate goals once one's professional athletic career was over. He also had puritanical views about the relationship between sport and the liquor industries, and was concerned that sports might overwhelm residual religious attendance. Thus, elements of fundamentalism preached mediocrity and opposed Sunday sports on the basis of that day's Christian holy status. Happily, athleticism and gym culture diverged from religion some time ago, leading to new forms of gay masculinity as we lost our fear of becoming isolated in a homophobic environment if we became professional sportspeople or athletes. Olympic, rugby league, rugby union and soccer players came out of their closets, gay body builders entered competitions, and the homoerotic aspects of athletics re-emerged. As well, lesbians might have been at a comparative advantage when it came to women's sports, given their possible lack of heterosexual female encumbrances that might have enabled them to pursue lucrative female professional careers, particularly in areas like professional women's tennis and golf in the United States. In New Zealand, we have Louisa Wall as our own example of female lesbian athletic prowess, as a Black Fern women's rugby player. So, what about fundie sportsmen in New Zealand? Ex-AB Michael Jones aside, I hate to say this, but the legacy of Billy Sunday is still alive and well. Granted, one does encounter amusing little episodes like the fundamentalist US male bodybuilders who toured New Zealand in the early nineties, oblivious to the homoerotic spectacle that this form of athleticism provokes. However, there is a more usual response from fundamentalists, as evidenced by Australia's DIY reality series, The Block, and its first season. Gaz and Warrick, two speedo-clad gayboys, provoked screeches of outrage from Sydney fundies. Dare I suggest that all that homophobic panic was based on envy? Why exactly is it thatelderly fundamentalist men get all panicky about us lot, given that their manbreasts, pot bellies, limb wattles and multiple chins don't exactly render them homoerotic? Believe me, they literally have nothing to panic about... "Muscular Christians?" Wrong, on both counts. Recommended: Donald Hall: Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1994. Henry Harrington: Muscular Christianity: A Study of the Development of A Victorian Idea: Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1972. Tony Ladd: Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sports: Grand Rapids: Baker Books: 1999. Cliff Putney: Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America: 1880-1920: Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 2001. Norman Vance: Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1985. "Muscular Christianity" Craig Young - 24th May 2006    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 24th May 2006 - 12:00pm

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