by Richard Flory
Evangelical Christians have a long history of co-opting popular cultural forms, giving them a nice (and wholesome) Christian gloss and turning them into tools to help convert the masses—or at least to get them into the pews at the local megachurch. For example, in the early 20th century Billy Sunday parlayed his past as a debauched professional baseball player into a career as a barnstorming evangelist, drawing thousands to his revival meetings. I've read that he would run out onto stage, slide into position as though he were stealing second base and then stand up and start preaching.
There are many other examples of this phenomenon over the past 100 years or so, ranging from popular Christian music to Christian-themed movies, some of better quality than others (remember that atrocious film adaptation of the Left Behind book series?).
More recently a sort of “X-Games” Christianity has emerged in which young evangelical Christians — some of whom happen to be very good at skateboarding, BMX or stadium motocross — are using their prowess in edgy sports to promote the Gospel. Now, as if to raise the bar on extreme Christian outreach, several evangelical churches have launched ministries that use mixed martial arts (MMA) to attract followers and to spread the message that, contrary to what one might think, Jesus liked to kick a little ass. This latest attempt at combining popular cultural forms and muscular Christianity — dubbed “Fight Church” — is the subject of a new documentary.
MMA is a particularly violent, brutal and often bloody “sport” in which contestants seek to pummel their opponents until they “tap out” or give up. The New York Times described the “fight church” as a part of efforts to attract younger males back into evangelical churches; it's also meant to introduce a little testosterone into what some Christian conservatives see as a “feminized” Christianity that promotes “kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.”
The “fight church,” however, is only one way that macho Christianity is being promoted by evangelical ministries. Traditionally, evangelicals have focused on male Christian athletes such as Billy Sunday in the early 20th century and, more recently, media phenoms like Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow. Others have pushed the emphasis further, depicting an aggressive, even violent Jesus and decrying the “feminization” of Christianity, including, of all things, its “effeminate and queer” music.
Like its sibling fundamentalism, evangelicalism has from its beginnings been an authoritarian, patriarchal movement. These various efforts to restore Christianity's purported masculine essence serve to illustrate the point. The “fight church” approach is just a natural, although incredibly violent, progression in promoting this ideology. Yet beyond simply reporting the titillating and sometimes baffling aspects of these ministries, journalists might ask why evangelicals remain so keenly focused on masculinity and male dominance in church and society? How does this core gender ideology, in turn, shape evangelical views on relations between the sexes, LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage and the like? Finally, given that there is an apparent shift among younger evangelicals on issues related to sexual ethics, is the hyper-muscular Christianity represented by MMA ministries the first inkling of a backlash? Or is it, instead, the last gasp of patriarchal evangelicalism?
Richard Flory is associate research professor of sociology and Director of Research in the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. He is the co-author of Growing Up in America: The Power of Race in the Lives of Teens (Stanford, 2010) and Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation (Rutgers, 2008).