Could you briefly describe your project?
My project focuses on the history of muscular Christianity in twentieth-century America. I analyze how liberal Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, fundamentalists, and evangelicals used muscular Christianity to navigate the cultural waters from religious outsiders into the mainstream by redefining the proper form of Christian manhood. More specifically, I examine religious institutions (Episcopalian private schools, Notre Dame, Brigham Young University, Wheaton College, Kanakuk Kamps, and Promise Keepers) use of sports, primarily football, as a medium to shape the bodies, minds, and souls of men. I selected football because from its creation to the present it remains the only sport targeted almost exclusively to men compared to basketball, baseball/softball, hockey, soccer, golf, etc. Certainly, some women do play football, but there are no women’s high school or collegiate football leagues as there are in the other sports. Ultimately, my project shows how muscular Christianity reformed each group’s definition of Christian manhood to fit cultural demands and how it solidified their distinct religious identity.
What led you to this topic?
When I was getting my masters at Fuller Seminary, I took a 10-week historiography class. The professors told us the first day of class that the goal was to find our dissertation topic. I thought this was a pretty lofty goal for a 10-week course, but it actually worked. Initially, I wanted my dissertation to focus on religion in the American West. I grew up in Texas watching a lot of Westerns with John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and the like. So I decided to focus on religion in a town that already had some name recognition, and one of my favorite movies growing up was Tombstone. After a little digging, I found a published journal of an Episcopal preacher named Endicott Peabody who went to Tombstone a few months after the gunfight outside the OK Corral. The thing I found most interesting about Peabody was his use of baseball as a tool for evangelizing the miners around Tombstone. In my first semester at Mizzou, I took a writings class with my adviser, John Wigger. Like most first year Ph.D. students, I thought my topic was brilliant, life changing, and interesting to everyone. But as I worked on my seminar paper, John kept asking me, “Why should I care about this one pastor in this one town?” He wasn’t being rude, I don’t think he even knows how to be rude, but he just kept pushing me to find something more than just an interesting story. Through many sleepless nights and lots of reading, I realized that Peabody was one of the foundational figures in transporting muscular Christianity from England to the United States in the late nineteenth century. From there, I continued to grow and refine my project.
What were the questions you sought to answer as you began your study?
The primary question I set out to answer was, “what happened to muscular Christianity after the Progressive Era?” I also wanted to see how and why different religious communities used muscular Christianity. And in answering both of those questions, I began to see that as much as they were seeking to solidify their community’s religious identity, they changed the proper definitions of Christian manhood and reshaped American culture.
What particular sources proved the most useful in your work?
The most useful sources for my project have been the student papers from Notre Dame, BYU, and Wheaton. One struggle in studying religion is seeing how people on the ground apply the message they hear from a church, evangelist, preacher, etc. The student papers provided this grassroots perspective. If students were anything, they were passionate about their football team. When their team won, the paper praised the team’s toughness, manliness, and character. When their team lost, the paper questioned the team’s commitment to training, the school, and the faith. So by analyzing the student papers, I was able to see how students at the different colleges adapted and applied the religious messages dispensed by the faculty and administration of their college.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Yoni Applebaum suggested that Donald Trump may be participating in the tradition of muscular Christianity. What do you think of this claim?
With all respect to Yoni Applebaum, I don’t think Donald Trump has anything to do with twenty-first century muscular Christianity. The problem is that Applebaum looks to Progressive Era for his definition of muscular Christianity by citing Clifford Putney’s Muscular Christianity and Bruce Barton. I don’t think Bruce Barton’s depictions of Jesus as a great business man or the ideal dinner party guest would resonate at all with Christians today with or the ever-elusive evangelical voter. The prospering of therapeutic culture through the self-help movement of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s reshaped muscular Christianity today. I believe twenty-first century muscular Christians looks more like Tony Dungy, Tim Tebow, or Steve Young. They are tough and manly, but they are also reserved, sensitive, and comfortable crying. So while I see where Applebaum is going with Trump touting a brave and courageous Jesus, I don’t see that as the reason his message might resonate with religious voters.
What might someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?
Someone from outside my field will take away a fresh understanding why American Christians seem perpetually concerned with Christian manhood. When they see churches advertising Bible studies after a weekly basketball game, figures like Tim Tebow taking American culture by storm, or professional baseball teams having “Christian Day,” readers will understand these things are not something to just laugh at (though they can be funny) or written off as regressive (though they have elements of that). Instead, I hope a reader sees them as lenses into American Christianity and how Christians situate their faith with or against American culture.