Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920, by Clifford Putney
Thesis: Muscular Christianity is based on fear: fears of effeminacy, fears, of non-Christians, fears of nonwhites, and fears of female leadership.
Argument: Putney argues that white men’s fears of women, immigrants, blacks, and other minorities drove them to create their own understandings of exactly what it meant to be a man and to display masculinity, and they grounded it in their Protestant religion.
Analysis: In chapters 1 and 3, Putney contend that muscular Christianity was in part a male reaction against women’s religious leadership. The strength of that leadership undoubtedly irritated a number of men, and it probably helped to retard the spread of muscular Christianity. Putney builds on academics like Bederman and Kimmel in his discussion of over-civilization and a return to the strenuous life of the past to combat over-civilization and neurasthenia. In Chapter 2, Putney argues that men used athletics and combative sports like boxing and football to promote a return to the strenuous life. Young men’s groups like the YMCA and Boy Scouts were created to help young boys and teenagers grow up in the strenuous life in nature so that they would not suffer from neurasthenia and over-civilization. Chapter 4 focused on creating leaders from young men, leaders in society as well in the church. It turned character-building programs into leadership programs, from groups like the YMCA. Chapter 5 is about the lack of men in the Christian missionary fields. They argued that men should go to missions because it was the ultimate strenuous life activity, but they continued to argue that it did not provide substantial financial incentive for young men to be able to support a family. Chapter 6 is called Muscular Women, showing that masculinity is merely a set of characteristics that can be displayed by many different people on an individual basis and was not merely something that boys hoped to attain. His last chapter shows that muscular Christian groups, of both genders, were stark supporters of WWI until about halfway through when they became pacifists, and disenchanted with the ultra-militant muscular Christianity. They condemned themselves for their support of the war and repented for their disillusionment and servility of the US government. His book argues that men used their religion to create areas where they could display their masculinity to mask their insecurities.