What is Muscular Christianity?:
Because churches had become so associated with women and feminization, in the late 19th century Christian men began seeking changes in the nature of Christianity and Christian churches which reflected "masculine" values. In America, this early form of Muscular Christianity used sport as a conveyor or moral values, like manliness and discipline. Today sport is used mostly as a vehicle for evangelization, but the basic principle that Christianity must be "manly" survives in other contexts.
Christianized Germans & Warrior Christianity:
War and the warrior life were central to the Germanic tribes which assumed control of the Roman Empire. In order for Christianity to survive, Christian leaders had to adapt their religion to the Germanic warrior ethos. The Germans were Christianized, but Christianity was militarized in the process. Jesus became a young warrior, Heaven became Valhalla, and the disciples became a war band. This was the earliest effort to transform Christianity from something soft or feminine into something manly.
Muscular Christianity in Nazi Germany:
Traditional masculine qualities played a very important role in Nazi rhetoric, so of course Nazi Christians preferred a masculine Christianity over a feminine one. True Christianity, they claimed, was manly and hard, not feminine and weak. Adolf Hitler
described Jesus, "my Lord and Savior," as "a fighter." His Jesus, and the Jesus of German Christians generally, was a militant warrior fighting for God, not a suffering servant accepting punishment for the sins of the world.
Muscular Chrisitianity & American Fundamentalism:
An important aspect of early American fundamentalism was reclaiming the Christian church for men. This meant first reducing women's power in churches by questioning the legitimacy of their authority, and second, injecting the language of virility, heroism, and militarism into Christian doctrine. Contemporary clergy was derided as too weak and feminine; a call went up for manly ministers like the early American pioneers. They wanted a militant, aggressive Christian church.
Muscular Christianity with a Muscular Jesus:
Successfully transforming Christianity into a more militant and muscular ideology required a role model, a muscular and militant Jesus. Stories of Jesus' aggressiveness, like cleansing the temple, received new emphasis. Even iconography of Jesus was transformed, with Jesus becoming portrayed literally with large muscles and in fighting stances. American Christians developed a muscular Jesus to lead a new, muscular Christianity in conquering modernity and disbelief.
Muscular Christianity & Sports:
Given how men have historically dominated sports, it's only natural that they would become a locus of Muscular Christianity. In the late 19th century, Christian men joined fraternal groups which emphasized exercise. With the growth of professional sports during the 20th century, Christian athletes argued that the body is a temple to God, making athletes quasi-priests. Of particular importance for evangelical Christians has been the use of high school and college sports to promote Christianity.
Muscular Christianity & Christian Women:
Because Muscular Christianity focuses on replacing feminine qualities with masculine virtues
, it necessarily involves attacks on women in the church. The attacks may be subtle, but there is an inevitable denigration of everything associated with women. By insisting that Jesus, God, and the Christian church are masculine and specifically not feminine, the message is sent that feminine qualities are inferior to everything masculine. Women are also blamed for problems in the church.
Muscular Christianity and the Promise Keepers:
Perhaps the latest and most prominent example of a public push for a more Muscular Christianity is the rise of the Promise Keepers movement. Founded by Bill McCartney, a football coach, it was deigned to provide a forum for men to explore their Christianity in the exclusive company of other men. The Promise Keepers was created to promote masculine values, manly virtues, and ultimately a transformed Christian church in America where men can feel more at home and (of course) in charge.
Women, Men, and Gender Demographics in Christianity:
An important assumption used in the promotion of Muscular Christianity was the idea that women had taken over the Christian church - that at one time in the past, Christianity had been a masculine religion but something had been lost. Evidence indicates, however, that Christian demographics have always trended primarily female. Women have always held important leadership roles in the churches, but men have resented this and kept them as far in the background as possible.
Muscular Christianity as an Assault on Liberalism, Modernity:
Muscular Christianity was founded upon a radical, as well as theological, distinction between supposedly masculine and feminine values. Becaue of this, it was possible for fundamentalists opposed to modernity to transfer what they disliked about modernity to the "feminine" category. Thus women became bearers of all that was hated about the modern world while men were invested with everything good and positive.
A significant impetus behind the assault on women and modernity was the feeling that women had encroached upon traditional male spheres like the workplace and colleges. Furthermore, women's leadership in the churches had harmed Christianity by creating an effeminate clergy and a weak sense of self. All of this was associated with liberalism, feminism, women, and modernity.
Although examples of something like muscular Christianity can be found in ancient Christianity and in Europe, it is primarily an American phenomenon and an American fundamentalist reaction against the modern era of equality and liberty. Muscular Christianity pushes masculinity in part by pushing traditional hierarchies and traditional structures of authority - structures which, naturally, are run and controlled by men. Fighting against the "feminization" of church or society is, thus, a fight against the loss of traditional privileges and power.
Indeed, the development of fundamentalism and later the Christian Right can be described, at least in part, as a reaction against equality and an attempt to defend or restore traditional privileges. Because so many privileges are bound up with traditions which themselves are tied closely with religion, it's natural that assaults on traditional privileges will be seen as assaults on religion.
In a way, they are an assault on religion - religion is partially to blame for the persistence of unjust privileges in society. Just because inequality and privilege have religious backing doesn't make them exempt from rational evaluation and criticism.