When I was growing up, my father was my primary model of what a man should be. He was always ready to roughhouse with me and my brothers, but he also taught us that a man’s strength is measured by his gentleness. I remember him flipping pancakes on Saturday morning, or regaling us with corny puns, or patiently coaching me through endless circuits of the parking lot as I learned to drive. My dad kept his cool in the midst of stressful circumstances (like those early driving lessons), but he was never a man of stone. Seeing him moved to tears by admiration of virtue or by grief at injustice was an important part of my moral education—and he made it abundantly clear that feeling and showing deep emotion was not to be despised.
My other main male role model was the priest of my Anglican church. I remember gathering in the sacristy with the other acolytes and deacons before each service, where we prayed the Confiteor together to prepare for the liturgy. After we prayed, “I confess to Almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, father, that I have sinned,” he turned to us and recited the same litany, ending with, “and to you, my brothers….” The ritual of this prayer set up a human hierarchy, underlining my priest’s fatherly authority, but his deference made clear that he also shared in the common human lot of having sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. And thus we were brothers, relying on God’s grace so as to serve Him and each other worthily.
Being an altar server was the closest I came to being on a sports team as a youth, so I think of that sacristy, where we donned our robes and charged our thuribles, as the locker room before a sporting event, and of the preparatory prayers as the pre-game huddle. And so my priest was both the coach exhorting us on and a fellow player in the liturgical scrum.
The strength of both these fathers, physical and spiritual, was a humble one, in that they had no need to boast or domineer. They had the character to suffer wrongs patiently and trust in God rather than crave the accolades of men. I am grateful that my image of masculinity was formed by these men of faith and integrity. They modeled love and respect in their marriages and their friendships, building up the people God had placed in their lives with care, devotion, and joy. This unpretentious constancy is what men should strive for. When I ask my friends for their formative, positive male role models, the answers (real and fictional) were often men of quiet confidence and steadfast service, like St. Maximilian Kolbe or Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird.
G. K. Chesterton suggests that Christian manliness is well illustrated by the medieval Christians’ creative re-reading of the Trojan War, a reading that treats Hector as the protagonist. The great loser of Homer’s story becomes the model of chivalry—valiant in defense of hearth and home, gracious in victory, self-sacrificial in defeat. The “tamer of horses” serves as a classical forebear for the Christian chevalier or knight. As Hector used his strength not for earning renown but for protecting the innocent, so our valor is not for inflicting violence but for safeguarding and providing for those who depend on us. Fittingly, Hector’s name comes from the Greek word meaning “to have” or “to hold.”
This knightly example is an ideal to strive towards. Often, we fall short of it. But let us not confuse a stumbling search for chivalry with the different and dingier paradigm of manliness we see too many public figures pursuing.
Donald Trump, for example, presents himself as a paragon of masculinity. But his idea of what a man should be is small and mean and dangerous. We saw again his true colors in the recently published video of him boasting about infidelity and about forcing himself on married women. We cannot honestly dismiss this talk as mere “boorishness,” or with a “Billionaire boys will be boys.” The entitlement to women’s bodies and the preening self-worship on display in the video are not aberrations—they have colored the whole of Trump’s campaign. Witness his knee-jerk attacks on any woman who annoys him. Conservatives must call wickedness by its name. When Trump tries to brush off his immorality as “locker room talk” he is not offering a valid excuse, but rather indicting his wicked model of male culture. If this characterization of locker rooms is correct, it’s time to burn down the locker rooms.
There are other impoverished ideas of masculinity floating around our popular culture. Not every failure is as dramatic as the man who builds up his fragile ego by treating women like trophies or prey. Witness the sitcom dad, a whole archetype of superfluous male best exemplified by Phil Dunphy of the long-running show Modern Family. He is affable, but pretty dumb and self-involved. He’s less a pater familias than an overgrown child, more interested in reliving his past as a college cheerleader than in exercising moral or spiritual leadership in his household. Or see the triptych of bad fathers in Netflix’s smash hit Stranger Things, one an exploitative scientist, one an absentee deadbeat, and one a nonentity in his own home. This last father is the most pathetic character in the show, a man whose highest domestic ambition is to nap on his recliner in peace, even as his children are caught up in a dangerous adventure. All these men, from politics and popular culture, are men without chests, driven by base desires for dominance or quiescence. The virtuous man, by contrast, demonstrates both self-control and self-respect.
This campaign season has elevated one of the worst examples of masculinity to one of the largest platforms in our country. Men have a particular duty now to find better role models—and to be better role models ourselves.
Alexi Sargeant is assistant editor at First Things.