Can male brutishness be cured by a virile religion? Many could hope as much. Muscular Christianity is a recurrent theme in U.S. history, and its defenders have regularly touted the social and domestic benefits of manly restraint and virtuous body control. As we saw in the media flurry devoted to the Promise Keepers a decade ago, men who repent for their sins against women and children get noticed. And rightly so.It's hard to say how many of those televised tear-stained promises were kept, but with any luck there are fewer cases of outright abusiveness in the homes of onetime participants. Then again, the submissive wives who gave such vocal support to that movement may have gotten more than they bargained for. What attracted and repelled American audiences about Promise Keepers, you will recall, was the group's rich mix of self-sacrifice and self-aggrandizement, in which men confronted their sins, apologized to God and to the women whom they had victimized, and then sought to make amends by taking back their authoritative role as family head to whom wives and children must submit. This was to be a humble headship, following a durable Christian model with scriptural support, but it was a formulation that observers from secular feminists to liberal Christians found regressive and dangerous. We haven't heard much from PK in a while, but now it seems that e5 men are replaying that mix in a slightly new key. I had never heard of e5 men or founder Steve Habisohn until last month, but the claims emanating from Habisohn's writings on the group's website are familiar ones: men have been bad to women - violent, unloving, exploitative, immature - and now they need to atone for their misdeeds. To do so is not wimpy, but in fact, "There is something quintessentially masculine about guarding, protecting and healing of one's bride." Since men cause so many of women's problems ("How many women have been screwed up by the selfish bodily acts of men?" he asks), men should take charge in solving them through a conscious recommitment to women's well being.
The answer is a simple monthly fast, an act that Habisohn describes as a "powerful yet non-time consuming act" that despite its ease "allows a man to make a pure selfless bodily gift of himself." Since it brings results without necessarily requiring earthly reparation (one can, for instance, fast for abused ex-girlfriends), fasting provides the ideal quick-fix remedy for emasculating guilt.The monthly 24-hour fast to which e5 men commit themselves distinguishes them from the Promise Keepers, whose official writings had rather more to say about concrete behavioral change in everyday life. Like Promise Keepers, however, e5 men endure self-sacrifice for the sake of recapturing their rightful role within the home. Make no mistake: Habisohn's language - "protecting women," "taking a leading role in ending the war of the sexes," "ratcheting up the pray power by adding fasting," "making a heroic act of prayer" - is a language of power. A promotional piece on e5 men by Habisohn's friend Bud Macfarlane, director of the deeply traditionalist Mary Foundation and CatholiCity.com, is just as plain: "Our culture has embraced the Big Lie that men and women are exactly the same. It lies by telling men that you are not the head of your family." Fasting will create a "fortress of flesh that protects the woman you love" - presumably from the evil cultural influences that lurk outside the gates. This stress on bodily discipline as an instrument of power and control is a clue to what turns out to be the ecumenical Catholic-Protestant rightist Christian agenda underlying this movement: Habisohn, it turns out, is also founder and president of the GIFT Foundation, a conservative Catholic apostolate that is anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and pro-chastity (and whose vice-president, until recently, was Eric Scheidler, son of Pro-Life Action League director Joseph Scheidler). I wonder if some women might not trade the lifelong sacrificial demands placed on them in this context for - what pales in comparison as sacrifice - a mere monthly fast.
The recent resurgence of fasting as a devotional practice, public as well as private, has been prominently featured in the media, as evangelicals and fundamentalists from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to Bill Bright and James Dobson have promoted fasted for repentance and revival on a scale not visible since the eighteenth century. Books leap off the presses from conservative Christian authors who commend fasting as instrumental for deepening their spirituality, gaining God's favor, and strengthening prayer. Websites such as www.fastforbush.com urge cyberaudiences to pray for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, the Presidential Cabinet, and all the policies promoted by the Bush administration. Fasting purifies and refines the soul, we are told. It cleanses the whole self of physical, mental, and spiritual toxins. It produces selflessness no less than bodily health, and as an aid to prayer it has true miracle-working power. Abstinence has, in other words, once again acquired merit as a tool for getting precisely what the praying faster wants, and it is no secret that those who promote its power today are those who believe in a God created in the image of conservative Christian, Republican men.
Insofar as e5 men seek to undo the damage once done to women by boorish or destructive male behavior, one can only commend their aims. But there are other ways of helping women than binding them ever more tightly into relationships of submission to male rule. Hiding a comprehensive masculinist political program behind a chivalrous veneer is, in any case, a strategy we have seen before.